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Guitar Class Enhances Participation in School’s Music Program

By Dan O'Connell on December 20, 2016 hst Print

In an environment where enrollments in arts courses are declining due to pressures from Common Core, economic stress and other factors, Addison Trail High School has found a way to increase participation in the arts for students who are not traditionally engaged in music courses. In Addison, Illinois, the Music Department has had success by promoting and developing its Guitar Program.

Addison is a community of approximately 30,000 in west suburban Chicago. Addison Trail High School is a public high school serving roughly 2,000 students in grades 9-12 with the following characteristics (from the 2013 School Report Card Data): 55% Hispanic, 35% White, 5% Asian, 5% other, 58% low income, 14% reported disability, 10% chronic truancy and an 88% graduation rate. The Music Department consists of 480 students, three teachers and one aide. Courses are currently offered in Band, Choir, Orchestra, Guitar, Piano, Music Production and AP Music Theory.

Guitar classes are full-year courses that meet daily for 45 minutes. Students play school-owned nylon string classical guitars. Each student purchases a method book with DVD and pays a $25 fee, which is used to provide the class with clip-on electronic tuners, capos, footstools and replacement strings.

Guitars range from beginner classical models from Yamaha, Fender, Ibanez and Greg Bennett to acoustic/electric guitars with cutaways and built-in tuners and pickups. Hard-shell cases are provided for students to take the guitars home, and they sign a user agreement to protect inventory. Storage racks are used in classrooms to save time and wear on the guitars. Lockers are also provided for additional storage and security. Courses are scheduled during periods that have less conflicting courses to maximize student availability.

Both beginning and advanced classes begin with structured warm-up exercises for 5-12 minutes. Next, new material is presented for 10-20 minutes to students when their focus is strongest. Then, reviews of previous materials are done. The last five minutes of class can be devoted to closure of a previous concept or to a musical “moment.” Classes finish with this effective treatment to address Social and Emotional Learning Targets.

A student from one of our classes noted that “playing guitar lifts some weight off my shoulders during the day, allowing the music to flow through my fingers and help me relax.”

Daily warm-up exercises are key to building solid guitar fundamental skills while also establishing a work-centered classroom environment. Both right-hand and left-hand exercises are part of the daily routine. Simple PIMA patterns on open strings are used to develop right-hand skills. The patterns gradually become more complex including thumb movements. Patterns are practiced with both free and rest strokes.

Eventually, chord progressions are added to the PIMA patterns for richer harmonic content and to increase student engagement. For the left hand, daily hammer-on exercises are done with each finger on each fret (in first position) on each string. When students are ready, the Chromatic Scale, Two Octave Major Scale, Melodic Minor Scale and Pentatonic Scales are added to the daily warmup. This routine can be varied by inviting students to share a warmup they have learned from another teacher.

Another way to increase levels of student engagement is to vary the instructional format. Students are formed into groups of four or five and work together on a section of a piece or a specific skill. When each group has reached its target, one member teaches the technique or section to the rest of the class. When someone has a good idea, it is recognized in front of the class to encourage further contributions.

Technology can also enhance success of teaching guitar. Teachers project a webcam of their hands and use wireless guitar transmitters for leading class. These tools make it easy to serve large classes. Recordings of the warm-up routines are projected on the board so the teacher can move about the class and offer instant feedback to students during the learning process.

Teachers also use the software programs Guitar Pro and SmartMusic to provide adjustable tempo rehearsing of exercises or repertoire. Public domain files from Internet guitar sites are loaded into this software and the class plays along while the teacher moves about the room. Programming is invited by students. Guitar Ensemble materials are purchased from LesProductions D’Oz, www.Guitarensemblemusic.com, and Arobas Music Songbook.

SmartMusic is used in conjunction with Sound Innovations for Guitar. These tools can fortify the daily musical content for students. While routines are very important for establishing efficient classroom practices and good work habits, routines can also get dull. Once a week, teachers “close the book” and just “play the guitar” with students. They watch Internet instructional guitar videos of current pop music. Students are asked what songs they are learning on their own and this is shared. Students are allowed to have unstructured time to experiment with new chords or techniques. They also plug in electric guitars, basses, keyboards and drums and experience the “feel” of a band.

There are two guitar “fests” each year showcasing the accomplishments of students in the guitar classes. Informal “Informances” are given by the beginning classes, and polished performances are given by the Guitar Ensemble. Having the beginning students watch the advanced students creates the needed incentive for beginning students to choose to continue beyond beginning guitar. Eighth-grade students learn about the guitar program by either attending a live performance by the Guitar Ensemble or by watching an introductory video created by the music staff. For professional development, seek out local resources to increase proficiency in guitar playing and knowledge of guitar repertoire.

This approach to building fundamental skills has helped grow participation in guitar. Many of these students are non-BCO (Band, Choir, Orchestra) students who still love music but for various reason did not “join” the music program in grade school or middle school.

Research shows that one of the strongest indicators of student success in high school is to participate in a club or activity. While these are full-year courses with final exams and rigorous learning standards, they also provide the added bonus of “being part of something.” High school teachers tend to work with students who have already been trained how to act in a rehearsal setting. Remembering how to train new musicians takes extra patience and energy, but the rewards will follow.

Once developed, these new student leaders will do the same things for the guitar program that they do in other school organizations and clubs. School administrations and school boards recognize the importance of reaching a part of the population that may be under-served or has not been traditionally active in music. Reaching these students in high school is one way that Lowell Mason’s vision can be realized.