As a teenager in Milbridge three decades ago, Jeff Shaw yearned for a school of rock.

He had moved from Rhode Island to the town in far eastern Maine when he was 13 and learned to play electric guitar as a way of surviving the long winter. He didn’t play in the school bands, marching or otherwise, because he mostly wanted to play rock.

Now, at 42, Shaw runs the Maine Academy of Modern Music, helping kids learn to play rock and other kinds of music they love. Based in Portland, the school serves about 1,600 students statewide, with workshops, classes and events around Maine. Programs include lessons, rock ensembles, summer camps, school partnerships, outreach to nonprofit groups and events like the Kids Are Alright children’s concerts and the MAMM Slam teen band competition.

“You get to play what you’ve been listening to, and you get the experience of playing gigs after working hard on all your songs,” said Topher Kavookjian, 14, of Portland, who plays in MAMM rock ensembles and the MAMMOTH Brass Band. “What I like most is the opportunity to be connected with other musicians who have similar interests.”

Shaw likens MAMM to Little League for musical youth. MAMM helps teach rock and modern music to kids, organizes them into groups and ensembles, and hosts events for them. Little League, likewise, teaches baseball, organizes teams and hosts tournaments.

The need for a sort of youth league for modern music is something Shaw has thought about for much of his life.


“I didn’t do music in school, because I wasn’t interested. I don’t think teachers in my school would have seen me as a music student,” said Shaw, who played the tunes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd as a teen rocker. “When I show parents around our rehearsal spaces, they often say, ‘Where was this place when I was a kid?’ ”


As a teen in Washington County, Shaw took some private guitar lessons for a while. Then he was lucky enough to meet a local guitar player, an adult named Tim Moorhouse, who took him and some of his friends under his wing. Together, teens and adult, they formed a band and played classic rock together.

After graduating from high school, Shaw went to the University of Maine at Machias, where he majored in behavioral science and fine arts with a music concentration. During summers, he worked as music director for the Maine Summer Theatre Institute in Machias. He put together pit bands to play along with works by Shakespeare but set in modern time periods. Along the way, he also formed bands among the students and helped them to learn and play rock songs.

Shaw moved to Portland in 2004 and got job as a music teacher for Spurwink, a company that provides behavioral health and education services for children, adults and families across Maine. In Portland, he also began working as a music instructor at the Portland Conservatory of Music. While at the conservatory in 2005, he remembered his summer camp experience in college, teaching rock to kids, and suggested to conservatory staff that they put on a summer rock camp. Shaw expected maybe six or eight kids to sign up but got 30 that first summer, then 60 the next.

In 2007, he decided to take the school of rock concept year-round and started the Maine Academy of Modern Music in Portland, with an office on Forest Avenue. MAMM started with three or four music instructors and now employs about 14. There were maybe five students taking private lessons and three or four bands getting help and instruction that first year, compared to more than 120 private lessons and 28 to 30 bands today.


In the band program, MAMM matches like-minded youngsters to play in a band together. Then, during rehearsal sessions, a MAMM instructor helps them learn how to take their individual music skills and work together as a musical group.

MAMM has annual events like the MAMM Slam band competition, and also provides programs and events at schools, nonprofits and other locations all over the state. (For a more complete detailing of MAMM’s offerings, see sidebar.)

Dave Gutter talks with students in a songwriting camp at the Maine Academy of Modern Music in Portland on July 20.

“I think it’s important for kids to be able to play music with each other, and that’s something you can’t learn in one-one-one lessons,” said Dave Gutter, 43, a Portland musician and singer for the band Rustic Overtones, whose 11-year-old daughter Kani attends MAMM programs. “I think it was a huge void, with kids having no place where they could just play with other musicians anytime. The kids in MAMM get to form groups with others from lots of other schools. When I was in high school, it wasn’t easy to do that.”

Kani, who plays cello in the MAMMOTH Strings and has attended MAMM camp, says she likes playing contemporary music with kids from all over southern Maine. She recently performed at camp, playing songs by contemporary pop singer Ed Sheeran and legendary pop singer Michael Jackson.

MAMM programs were held at various places during the first seven years or so, including Breakwater School and the Boys & Girls Club in Portland, among others.

Shaw said awareness of MAMM increased dramatically in 2012 after the school and local musicians made a video for Playing for Change Day, which has now been viewed more than a million times.


In 2015, after years of growing demand for its programs, MAMM moved into a permanent home, leasing a 4,000-square-foot brick building on Presumpscot Street in Portland, with plenty of rehearsal and practice space. This summer, MAMM also began leasing a 1,500-square foot space in downtown Portland on Casco Street, in the same building as The Studio Portland, a recording studio. MAMM also has programs in Machias.

MAMM’s board has used fundraising and grants to help pay for programs, along with revenue from tuition for lessons and other programs. The tuitions make up about 60 percent of MAMM’s revenue, Shaw said. Weekly lessons are $125 a month for 30-minute sessions, $205 a month for 60-minute sessions. The monthly tuition for joining a rock ensemble is $105. Day camps are $300 to $400 a week. Shaw was the school’s director while working for Spurwink full-time until last year, when he became MAMM’s director full-time. His wife, Aviva, works part-time as operations manager.

Jeff Shaw works with Miles Vettese, 9, of Cape Elizabeth, as Miles tries the drums.

Tora Johnson, a board member who lives in Machias, said that having MAMM programs in her area fills a void left by school music programs, where one teacher is sometimes shared by several schools. When her son, Wolf Mullen, became interested in music, she brought him to MAMM camps in Portland and Bar Harbor. Then he took lessons, including bass, from MAMM instructors at the MAMM branch in Machias. Johnson’s son has autism and is high-functioning, but MAMM programs helped him find self-confidence, she said. Mullen went on to study music at the University of Maine, though he’s not sure if he’ll continue.

“They were the only ones willing to teach me music, and I found I had a passion for it,” said Mullen, 21, who plays bass, piano, guitar and drums and is partial to jazz music.

Shaw’s own children are benefiting from their father’s vision of a school of rock. Brayden, 13, plays guitar, bass and drums, sings and is in both the MAMMOTH Brass Band and a teen MAMM band called Without Logic. Piper, 10, plays piano, drums and bass, sings and is in three MAMM bands, including an all-girl pre-teen group called the Pegacorns. Three-year-old Silas, his father says, is an aspiring drummer.

Jeff Shaw, standing center left, with kids at MAMM’s summer junior rock camp at Williston-Immanuel United Church in Portland.

Alisan Kavookjian of Portland is another parent with children in MAMM programs, four of them, ages 5 to 14, including Topher, taking lessons and participating in groups. She said her children had taken private lessons before MAMM, but weren’t getting the sense of community they are now.


“My kids are really into music and not that into sport,” said Kavookjian. “With MAMM, they get that team dynamic. They have to all work through challenges and work together.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @RayRouthier

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