Kevin Flores plays Mozart's Violin Concerto in D Major during a Feb. 22 Zoom lesson with teacher Sigrun Oprea through the Salem Music Lessons Project (Screenshot from Zoom)

Kevin Flores held his violin at his side after running through a section of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D Major over Zoom.

The 16-year-old McKay High School junior paused as his teacher, Sigrun Oprea, pushed him to bring out the piece’s breezy, springtime feel.

“It’s not allowed to sound like you’re going hiking on some really big cliff face. You should be skipping through the grass!” Oprea told her student.

The pair connected four years ago when Flores was in eighth grade.

His orchestra teacher at the time recommended he pursue private lessons, something Flores said his parents would have struggled to pay for. But his teacher connected him with Oprea through the Salem Music Lessons Project, a nonprofit organization that pays for lessons for local students who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

“I just felt really nervous, but then I felt pretty proud of myself and grateful to have somebody teach me one-on-one,” Flores said.

The project started in 2013 as a pilot program at McKay High School, board president and founding member Sandy Wiscarson said.

Wiscarson grew up in Salem in a musical family. Her father is the former band and orchestra director at North Salem High School, and she said the district has long been known for its high-quality music programs. Students involved in a music ensemble are more likely to graduate, and music has other academic benefits.

But the ensembles winning the most awards weren’t spread evenly around the district.

“You don’t see all six high schools mentioned,” Wiscarson recalled thinking. “There are talented kids everywhere - what’s the differential?” She talked to music teachers at McKay, who told her lessons would make all the difference for their students. After several years of lessons there, the organization expanded to other schools with high shares of lower-income students, and incorporated in 2018.

Last school year, the organization paid for individual and small group lessons for 368 students in seven middle and high schools, covering band, orchestra and choir students. The organization is volunteer-run and operates off donations which cover the cost of music teachers, as well as supplies and administrative costs like insurance.

Music directors at each school recommend students who would benefit from private lessons, Wiscarson said.

They’ve persisted even during the pandemic, migrating students and teachers to Zoom, though only nine of the 21 music programs they normally serve are offering lessons currently.

Flores said during a year when orchestra rehearsals have been difficult to replicate, having his lessons is a constant he appreciates.

“Ever since I saw my sister play in third grade, it just hooked me into playing the violin. It’s kind of like the getaway from the real world,” he said.

He plans to major in music in college, though he’s also interested in a medical career.

The two know each other well and each appreciates the other’s dedication. Oprea said she’s been able to introduce Flores to a Bach sonata she’d normally reserve for high school seniors or college students because he puts in the time to learn it at home.

In a recent lesson, she pushed Flores to play the opening several times, urging him to avoid rushing and drilling him on the rhythm.

“The opening was excellent - that’s the opening that we want!” she told him after several tries.

“Kevin’s really hardworking. He’s motivated. Whatever I give him, he does it, even if he doesn’t like it. And I know he doesn’t like everything,” she said, referring to the scales that took up much of their lesson.

“Sigrun pushes me to be the best I can be,” Flores said. “I like her enthusiastic way, even though she wakes me up at 9:30 in the morning to do this.”

He grinned as Oprea teased him by pointing out that 9:30 a.m. wasn’t exactly the crack of dawn.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got two in my own house,” she said, referring to her own teenagers. “I do sympathize with you.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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