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Musical Empowerment bridges technological divide to teach local students

Marissa Cranford teaches piano to Taniya Rogers at the University United Methodist Church on Franklin Street in March of 2017 through the Musical Empowerment program.

Students in the organization Musical Empowerment seek to mentor underserved children in music. But in practice, the mentors learn just as much as the mentees. 

The group boasts about 160 student teachers who mentor children in instruments like guitar, piano, violin, brass, saxophone and even voice — and have continued to do so despite the technological and internet disparities heightened by the pandemic. 

Abigale Hawkins, a junior business administration major and co-president of Musical Empowerment, said the organization focuses on both music and mentorship. 

“The benefits conferred to young people by having a relationship with music are numerous,” Hawkins said. “It helps students understand the way they think, and they learn. It also helps them cultivate self-discipline.”

Mentors are paired with students based on instrument interest and personal compatibility to enhance the teaching dynamic better, co-president Mikey Mueller, a senior computer science and statistics and analytics major, said.

In many cases, these mentor-mentee relationships can span the entirety of an instructor's academic career at UNC. Mueller, for instance, has been teaching guitar to his student for the past four years. 

Hawkins said lessons are not just a learning experience for students. 

“I feel like I am growing as a person along with my students,” Hawkins said, reflecting upon her student's resilience in the face of COVID-19. "She is always really in the moment and can still be happy despite the fact that COVID is going on." 

Under normal circumstances, Mueller said lessons would usually be held in the churches on Franklin Street. But the COVID-19 era has disallowed in-person instruction. 

"We pretty quickly decided we needed to go virtual,” Mueller said. “That was already a daunting task because we didn't know what our kids had in terms of computers or internet access.”

Technological insecurity was partially solved through local government initiatives to enable kids to attend online schooling, Hawkins said. But even these efforts left holes that needed patching. 

Sam White, a senior biostatistics major and community building chairperson, said the national organization is sponsored by Google Fiber, allowing the organization to give laptops to students in need.

Mollie Pepper, a senior majoring in economics and global studies and marketing chairperson, also obtained a MacDonald Community Fellowship grant through the Carolina Center for Public Service for computer hardware, instruments and instrument technology. She said these donations were then given to students who cited their need in a survey sent out by the executive team. 

But grant proposals were only part of the solution, along with the efforts of the organization's executive board — a group of 20 UNC students working to teach about 160 children amid the coronavirus pandemic, Mueller said. 

White said many different considerations have to be taken into account, including language, since a majority of the students are from Spanish-speaking homes. Musical Empowerment has sought to recruit Spanish-speaking UNC students to facilitate digital correspondence between instructors and student families where needed, Mueller said. 

Mueller also said the efforts needed for recruiting and training — as well as accounting for about 160 UNC student instructors who are also full-time students, undergoing the stresses of COVID-19 themselves — are immense.

Luke Cain, a junior political science and economics major, serves as the teacher relations chairperson. He said in a message that his committee leads teacher recruitment, including outreach efforts, interview and training, along with continued teacher education. 

"Some teachers did not feel comfortable or qualified teaching online music lessons,” he said. “Like most things, it's a little more difficult and certainly a transition to work with a student over Zoom." 

Cain said the group lost about 35 teachers this semester, in addition to those who graduated. But this loss was offset by the group's ability to recruit 35 new teachers, after spreading word through UNC listservs. 

“We've essentially broken even this semester, which we're counting as a win considering the difficulties," he said. 

Mueller said online lessons have actually worked for both students and teachers this semester. 

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"I always saw a limitation with the churches that we were doing the lessons in,” he said. “We have found that the online lessons have actually worked. For many parents, their lives were busy enough, and the Zoom has helped that a little bit. We maybe could do a hybrid model." 

Mueller said the group also serves as a means to connect UNC students to the local community. He said that too often, students live in the many neighborhoods of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but fail to become members of the community. 

"It makes us feel like we are not separated by this UNC bubble," he said.