Forming the Future: Mother Caroline Academy encounter benefits of music through ukulele

DORCHESTER -- Kevin A. Virgilio may teach sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls at Dorchester's Mother Caroline Academy how to play the ukulele, but he is actually a lifelong trombonist.

"As cool as that instrument can be," Virgilio told the Pilot, "it was not a hit at parties."

He is currently studying to earn his doctorate in trombone music at Boston University.

When he first went to college, he took up the ukulele to break the ice with women. It worked: When he first met his future wife, he played her a Beatles song.

Was it love at first sight?

"That's a question you can ask her," he joked. "The long game worked."

The Pilot visited Mother Caroline Academy on Sept. 20, the first day that seventh graders at school got to hold and play the ukuleles. Virgilio, a teaching artist from the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, was eager to share his love of the instrument with his "C minor cherubs."

"Beautiful music will happen," he told them.

"Oohs" and "aahs" erupted from the 12 seventh graders as they unboxed their ukuleles for the first time.

Mother Caroline Academy, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, offers free education to girls from grades three to eight who live in historically disadvantaged Boston neighborhoods.

The ukuleles are a new addition to the school's music program, funded by donations from parishioners at the Sacred Heart and Our Lady's Collaborative in Newton. While middle schoolers play the ukulele, younger students will receive drums later in the school year.

"Having the music program allows our students to be on par with other students when they reach high school," Mother Caroline Academy Director of Development Marie Louise Greenidge told the Pilot. "We have a robust art and music program. That is a very key component to giving them that extra edge."

Sept. 20's class started with the basics. Virgilio described the different parts of the ukulele, how to hold one, and how to strum a few notes. The students will not be graded on their musical talent, but on their attitude. Virgilio said that a student who doesn't know which way to hold a ukulele but is willing to participate will receive a better grade than a student who can play classical masterpieces but destroys the ukulele afterward.

"This particular class allows for social-emotional growth through music," he said, "which is a very important part of being a middle school student."

Both Greenidge and Virgilio said that the ukulele is the perfect instrument for introducing children to music. It is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to learn, with the four strings corresponding to the four fingers on a hand. The technique can be transferred to other string instruments. Also, Virgilio added, it's just plain fun to listen to.

"I think that light strings are a good way to capture a joyful mood," he said.

Greenidge said that Mother Caroline Academy's music curriculum is integrated into other subjects as well. Music, she explained, is also a way to teach history and world cultures.

During class, Virgilio noticed that his students were pretending to perform live, in front of a nonexistent audience. He loved seeing their desire to grow as musicians.

"You saw the enthusiasm with which they took it up," he said. "Some of the students were already daydreaming. They're already imagining themselves as something."