It is coming up on four years ago that Tom Ulichny, who had been sterning for several seasons for a Matinicus lobsterman, came off the island and began looking for work on the mainland. By then he and his girlfriend (now wife), Anne Bardaglio, had bought an old fixer-upper house on Long Cove Road and she had shifted from working as an Island Institute education fellow on Matinicus to working on another Island Institute project out of its Rockland office. Before his brief time lobstering, Ulichny had been a professional musician specializing in guitar, drums and world percussion, “bouncing around,” as he says, performing, doing some teaching and developing an African drumming program for inner-city youth in Baltimore. That January Ulichny was open to just about any job, but he also had a dream in his pocket: a 12-page business plan for a music academy that he had put together over the course of one long sleepless night a couple of years earlier.
“It was winter and I was looking for work and not finding anything,” Ulichny recalls. “And I had this idea for a contemporary music school—still, how do you start a big endeavor like that without capital to get things going? But there just weren’t many options.”
At the time, Moran Insurance was advertising a 300-square-foot rental space on Main Street in Rockland. “When I saw it I thought, ‘I can definitely see some music lessons happening here,’” Ulichny says. “So I cut a check for the rent and then sat there in this empty room and thought, ‘What did I just do? This is crazy!’”
It may have seemed crazy at the time, but Ulichny’s Midcoast Music Academy now enrolls 90 students, maintains a small part-time teaching staff, and boasts three sound-proofed studio rooms that are fully booked from 2:30pm to 7pm each week. In addition to the private instruction and group work that takes place at the Academy’s Main Street location, the Academy collaborates with local schools and other organizations to provide workshops on such topics as songwriting and after-school programs such as the “Rock and Pop” ensemble at RSU 13. Ulichny and Bardaglio are particularly proud of the Academy’s scholarship program. “We’ve never ever turned a student away because of finances,” Ulichny stresses. “Accessibility for all is critical.”
Commitment to community, in fact, seems to be a Midcoast Music Academy touchstone. “I could go on and on about how music plays a role in building community,” Ulichny says with clear passion. “There are just so many stories to watch. We work with a lot of special needs students and with seniors—and we work with some teens who have had emotional issues. Music is the best way to break down any barriers, to feel like there’s some camaraderie. And the community that’s developed at Midcoast Music Academy is fantastic to watch, with parents coming in and meeting each other, their kids jamming together and all of a sudden in a band together.”
Ulichny pauses to reflect for a moment and then adds, “And not only that, during that one hour a week, or even that half hour a week, you can see how the face lights up and the students are having a blast, and all the stress of life can be gone in just that short period of time. We have an adult guitar group—they strum and laugh and walk out saying this was like therapy! Music is the best in that sense. So offering a really positive, creative and safe space for students to come and enjoy—whether it’s kids or adults—is so important.”
For Bardaglio, a writer who became an educator after working on a story for the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies about a one-room school teacher, so much of what the Academy provides involves its teaching staff. “They are part time, but given what they bring to the school and to their students, we are always brainstorming ways to support them and make sure that their hourly rate is really competitive,” she says. “To me it is so much about teacher retention and creating a strong teacher team.”
Ulichny and Bardaglio admit that, despite the enthusiasm among community members for what they are doing and the success of the venture so far, the Academy is still a very low-profit entity. So there is a strong need to grow, not only to meet the demand they’ve been experiencing for more classes and programs, but also to become financially more sustainable as a business with the possibility of adding teachers, a staff music therapist and a paid office manager to do the things that Bardaglio currently does on her off hours from other jobs and contract work.
So it seems like another stroke of crazy good fortune that the opportunity to make that growth happen came recently when the Academy was awarded a $50,000 Microenterprise Assistance grant from the City of Rockland. “The grant is organized around job creation by small businesses doing community work,” Ulichny explains. “We will use it to double the size of our facility, to bring on more instructors, more students, more programming. We are taking a leap to make the business viable, but we want to stay focused on this midcoast community. I want this small music academy to offer a wealth of resources for everyone in the area.”
For Ulichny, it seems, pursuing a dream has been the best job he could ever hope to have found.—JW
Since 2012, Tom Ulichny has focused virtually all of his energy on making his dream of establishing a music academy to serve the midcoast area a reality. In the process, his work as a song writer and performer using guitar, drums and traditional world percussion was sidelined. “The focus on the school meant that I hadn’t been writing and performing music as much as I’d like, which was a problem because it fills the well for me,” he says. So over the past year or so he started making more room for his own musical project, a CD titled “Lately,” which was released on October 1. “This has been my goal for many, many years. My interest is in de-gentrifying music. I’ve been experimenting with pulling these beautiful traditional percussion instruments from all over the world into a context with which we might be familiar such as blues, fingerpicking, Americana and folk. Doing this, I think, begins to break down barriers and borders.” To purchase the CD go to tomulichny.com and click on the banner.
PHOTO, top: Tim Sullivan, bottom, Julie Wortman