Good press, signed guitars, and student buy-in

If someone walked up to you and offered your guitar program good press, autographed guitars, and insured that your students would buy-in to your teaching, would you spend your precious budget dollars to buy it?  How much would it be worth?  What would be the selling point?  This is starting to sound like one of those phone calls that informs you that you’ve won a “free” Caribbean cruise, or a TV infomercial that guarantees that the Sham-Wow will make me say, “wow!”

Twice now, my students have purchased the above mentioned items.  Not with budget dollars – but with their talent!

How?!  Contests put on by rock bands.

My South Middle School guitar classes recently won one such contest put on by the alternative rock band, Collective Soul.  This contest encouraged entrants to cover a song off their new album, and then upload it to YouTube.  The contest (outlined here), chooses a new winner every week granting the winner an autographed Breedlove acoustic guitar from the band.  An incredible prize, but what is even more valuable is the exposure for our guitar program.  Guitar programs (as you well know if you are a teacher of one) are pretty cool!  I constantly get comments of, “I wish I had that class when I was in school!” and “That is so cool, that kids get to learn how to play guitar in school!”  Yeah, it’s pretty special!  The more the public knows, the more support we gain.  Not just the guitar class in Salina, KS but guitar classes across the country!  This past win got us exposure on Collective Soul’s twitter and Facebook pages.  It also landed a very nice article in our local newspaper.  So while it seems like the contest is just netting an acoustic guitar that gets put on the classroom wall, it actually is giving us much more.

The most valuable prize from a teacher’s perspective is an increase in student engagement and buy-in.  After a win on a national stage, the students gain a swagger of sorts. They learn that what they are learning in guitar class can be translated to more than a informal concert in front of their relatives at the end of the semester.  In 2010, my guitar students won a similar contest put on by the alternative rock group Weezer (I realize that I need to start finding contests from bands that are not from my high school “glory days” playlist).  Students from that class are now high school seniors and freshman in college.  Nearly all of them that I remain in contact with still play guitar, and still look back with fond memories of middle school guitar class.  I’ve had students make pilgrimages back to the classroom to see their autographed Weezer guitar still hanging on the wall.  As a teacher, what more can you want than to make a lasting impact on your students?!

So the morale of the story, keep those eyes peeled for ways to get your guitarists involved in some contests.  The prizes are always worth WAY more than any price you could ever put on them!

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“Broken Arm, Broken Arm”

James Taylor’s blues classic, “Steamroller” includes an ad lib section at the end where James has been know to say some pretty crazy things.  In one particular version he yells, “broken arm, broken arm ….got those Steamroller … ba – lues!”  Love that song!  I don’t however love when my guitar students come through the classroom door with a cast on their fretting hand rending their guitar unplayable for a month or more! How can a beginning guitar player still continue to learn and be a part of class?!?

Believe it or not, this situation has presented itself numerous times in my classroom; Usually as a result of a football or bicycle injury.  Solution – technology!

Tablet and cellphone guitar apps have proven to be very useful for my injured guitarists. For you apple users – garageband is an excellent app that has a virtual guitar that can allow your guitarists to continue to play while their arm heals.  Android tablets/phones have access to a free app called RealGuitar.  Both apps allow students to play single notes, and even strum chords all with a fingertip.

So fret not.  That broken arm doesn’t have to mean that the process of  attaining musical literacy has to stop when a broken arm happens.


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Chord it Out! (Charting New Territory)

As a guitar class instructor, I think the most important thing I can do is make the learning meaningful for my students.  While method books are great, if I taught from page 1 to the back cover as my sole instructional method, I truly feel like I would be committing instructional suicide!  Yes, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” does an excellent job teaching the G chord …BUT is that what my students want to be playing?

When I am picking out songs to supplement the method book in my class, I try not to necessarily pick songs I  like…but ones my students enjoy that also teach skills we are focusing on in class.  My life would be just peachy if I didn’t have to hear Taylor Swift telling me to “Shake it Off” one more time … BUT how can you pass up a song that repeats a Am, C, G chord pattern 100+ times in a way that makes your students smile!  It’s perfect!

With chord songs, I’ve discovered that presentation is of the utmost importance. I use a lot in my teaching, but just pulling chords or tabs straight off the site just does not work in my class.   EXAMPLE….

If I pulled Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” right off the site, it would look something like this.


This has been the standard way of writing out chord charts for years.  Does it work, sure it does if you know what you’re doing … but it’s lacking.  Mainly, it lacks in duration.  How long do I strum this G chord?  When there are two chords in the same measure, the only way I know that is if I have heard the song enough to be able to sing along with the track.

I started using a method that my worship pastor helped develop, and it has shown fantastic results.

Let me run down the basics of it.

1.  Chords are written out in measures using that key right below backspace on your keyboard.  If I have two chords in one measure…no problem.  Below shows a measure with two beats for G and two beats for Em.

| C | C | G / Em /|

2.  Ring the chord!  When we get to a spot where I’d like the class to all ring out the chord we put a greater than and less than symbol in front AND behind it.  Perfect for teaching those Pete Townsend windmills!

| <C> |

3.  Stop it!  What if I don’t want to ring it out…but I want my class to stop and mute the strings instead?  Use brackets.

| [C] |

4.  Syncopation?!  I’ve got this syncopated beat…how do I write that out?  We just use a less than symbol that shows that we’re jumping the beat instead of playing it straight.

|D <D/F#|G <A|

This is just the language that we use.   You could make up your own for all I care. Whatever floats your boat!

NOW…compare the old lyrical way of chording out a chart to the new way and see what you think?


Is it easier to read?

Duration?  Does it take care of that problem?

How about patterns?  Are they easier to spot?

To me the answer to all those questions is yes.  How are you charting out your songs?  

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Reflecting on Success

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” comes streaming across our school’s PA system after the last student has exited the building for Christmas break.  That was a former principal of mine’s jolly way of not only wishing us “Merry Christmas”, but I think even more his way of saying “enjoy your time off” (especially since he played the same song over the PA in May!  HA!).

I am coming off one of the most successful semesters in my history of teaching guitar class.  Our winter concert was among the best I remember, student retention of important guitar skills and data were extremely high as evidenced by incredibly high scores on our guitar class finals, and the number of tears on our last day of class proved how important guitar class has been for so many (including me).

As teachers, we are trained about the importance of reflection in our teaching.  When we have lessons and situations that prove less than successful, it is crucial that we reflect on those situations so we can continue to improve upon our instruction.  I find I’m pretty good at reflecting on those kind of situations …even to the point of dwelling on them.  What I’m not as good at is reflecting on the successes and figuring out what I did right that could help me replicate those successes in semesters to come.

These are my reflections on this incredible semester.  I’m writing this for myself, but if any of my readers can glean anything from my thoughts – even better!

1.  Leadership – More than any other semester, I feel like I empowered my students to become leaders in class.  There were many of chances for me to allow my students to step up and really show others in class what our ensemble is all about.  Granted, I had some incredible students to fill these leadership roles.  There are some years where you don’t have students who really fill those positions the way you want them to, but this year my upperclassmen did a superb job.  I need to keep reminding myself, that the ensemble is not mine – it’s theirs.

On this concert nearly half of the songs were requested by students. Every single one turned out great!  Letting students have some control and take ownership really proved to be extremely valuable.

Example – in this clip from our concert, we played “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.  It was suggested by an 8th grade student who was trying to teach himself to play the solo.  As mentioned in a previous post, this student was a “high flyer” and by giving him a place to show off his skills – I gained a leader.  (see the video below at the 12:30 mark)

2.  Sequencing – A couple of semesters ago I started teaching things in a different order than most of the method books.  I started by teaching bass first.  I have found that teaching the bass first to some popular tunes, and THEN going into teaching the first string – that students were making the connection between the two strings better (since they are the same note in different octaves).  I am also completely sold on a change I made from a couple of years ago of teaching how the fretboard works on the first day of class.  If students see how the fretboard works like the alphabet both linearly and horizontally, they have a way to figure out any note they want with just a little bit of thinking.  With this knowledge I force my students to think critically.  When we start a new song, I’ll make them figure out where they could play the roots of those chords on the bass.  Take it a step farther…”what if you had a broken E string ….how could you play these roots on the bass.”  My classes answered these types of questions with 94% accuracy on our final this semester.  Those questions posed just a few years ago were ones I blogged about how poorly my students had answered.  Yay for improvement!

3.  Change in Venue – Our school has no auditorium.  Actually we had a nice one, until they decided to remodel and to save costs they turned the auditorium into classrooms (my room now is the former entrance into the auditorium).  Whoever had this bright idea…. I would love to have over for dinner to feed them some of my home-cooking (if you knew how poorly I cook you would get this joke).

In years past we have been forced to do our concerts in the gym.  After two valiant attempts at this I gave up.  We moved to our commons area, with slight improvements.  The problem was always that my acoustic guitars would get lost in the sound of the room.  Balance was impossible (especially with a drummer).

This year I moved the concert to our vocal music room.  This room has awesome acoustics.  I borrowed some condenser mics for the acoustics, got a drum machine (which I can control volume easily), and my custodians packed the room with nearly 200 chairs for the audience.  For the first time ever…I could hear every part clearly!  It was the room.

The only problem we have to improve upon for next semester was we were standing room only (that’s a great problem to have)…so I may have to give separate concerts for both groups to accommodate.

Here is video of my other class from this semester (they would get upset if I didn’t share their awesomeness with you too!)  Highlights include “All-Star” by Smashmouth at the beginning and “What Huts the Most” by Rascal Flats at 6:45 with an incredible 7th grade vocalist from my class.

In conclusion – it is great to look back on both our failures and also our successes.  I will miss this guitar class as much as miss all my other ones…but there are always classes and students that will stick with you forever.

What an incredible job I have!  I forget that from time to time…but I am teaching something I love and am passionate about to incredible groups of students, every single day!  If you are among the lucky teachers who teach a guitar class in your school – think about the impact you make through this incredible instrument.  I can think of nothing that has the power the guitar has in molding and shaping the lives of our youth.  This class truly is the “Most Wonderful Part of the School Day.”

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Beginners and High Flyers

Are you struggling in teaching your guitar classes because you have beginners and students who have rocked out for a long time?  This has been a struggle that I have found myself in and one that I have been asked about by many other guitar instructors. I have 2 guitar classes composed of seventh and eighth graders.  50 students total for a semester and 100 in an entire school year.  In my classes over half the 8th graders in class took guitar class as a seventh grader, and loved it so much they wanted to take it again.  It makes it very difficult to teach beginners and kids who are wanting to soar in the same class.  I have tried for YEARS to get my administration to understand that I need a guitar level 1 and a guitar level 2 class….and I get the answer back that the schedule won’t allow such a change.  So I make it work.

So how do I make it work?  Honestly – it is never going to work perfectly…but here are a few things I have found that help.

  1. I do a lot of songs where I can differentiate…. Have my super talented student learn the solo to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” ….he gets excited to be challenged…the rest of the class gets to learn how to play the blues shuffle, while my high flyer is rocking a killer solo.  This helps A LOT!
  2. Bass Guitar – bass is my saving grace! If I have a student that is super struggling with note reading….sometimes just putting them on a simple bass line (just playing roots of chords) is all it takes for them to really see how incredible they can become with some practice.  I also use the bass in an opposite way.  I’ll find a song that has a killer bass part….put a high flyer on it.  I know I’m crazy…but I have two bass guitars that I run on every song in my concert.  Kids fight to play the basses….and they are a great way to differentiate.
  3. Capos – I use my capos a lot too.  For my beginners….I’ll capo things so they are in the key of G …and then I’ll leave my advanced kids in a key that forces them to play F’s or barre chords.

If I had my way…I would totally have two different levels of guitar…BUT having them together really does push the beginners to learn their material quickly.  That is one advantage.  When the beginners see the high flyers, they want to strive to meet their level and I have seen them really put in a lot of effort to do so.  My high flyers can tend to be excellent leaders as well…but I have to keep them engaged.  If they are bored….they are going lead my class in the opposite direction.  That’s why finding ways to differentiate your teaching is SO important.

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To play or to practice? (part 2)

While questioning my motives for using a practice sheet in class, I set out to see what other music teachers did when it came to requiring their students to practice at home.  I spoke with the band director who was also trying “something new” when it came to weekly practice sheets.  This template came from him (thanks Craig!).

practice 1

 Guitar Class Practice Sheet – WEEK 2

This idea was to combine some weekly objectives and the practice component into one weekly assignment.

1.  The top section is a worksheet that reinforced what we learned in class that week.  I found this to be really helpful for both the students and for me.  For the students, this helped some of my visual learners to be able to work out concepts on paper.  I really like this part for me, because it helped me keep a focus for the week.  As a teacher I was very cognizant in my teaching to make sure my students were learning what they needed to know to complete their weekly practice sheet.

2.  The bottom part of the practice sheet was different than what I had done in the past.  Previously, I asked students to write down how long they practiced each day, and then have their parents sign at the end of the week.  The new system didn’t focus on how long students practiced.  They would just put an “X” on any day that they practiced their guitar for 5 minutes or more and would then have their parents sign it.

SO – how did it go.  My turn in rate, was MUCH higher this semester… and because of the objective focus at the top of the paper, my student achievement I felt was much higher.

It was a lot of work putting together practice sheets and grading them each week, but the results have me wanting to try it at least one more semester.

What do you do with your practice sheets?  Suggestions?  Things you like about this system?  Things you don’t like?  I would love your feedback!

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To play or to practice? (PART 1)

practiceThe only way to get better on the guitar is to practice. One advantage to having students play guitar in school is that there is a set time built into their schedule for playing guitar every day. As their instructor though, I am wanting more. I want to take these students to places that will make them better than average guitar players, and the only way I can accomplish that is for my students to put in extra practice time outside of the school day.

So here is the music teacher debate. Do I have my students fill out practice sheets, or just trust that they will practice on their own?

DEBATE #1 “Playing” or “Practicing”
-I’ve heard many music teachers do not require their students to “practice” at all. They call it “playing”. Their argument is that guitar should never be something you feel like you have to practice, that it should instead be something you want to play. That sounds great to me, but I can tell you if I don’t practice my guitar riffs before I get up in front of my church to play in my church’s praise band, it’s not a pretty thing. I love to PLAY my guitar, but if I don’t PRACTICE that playing has no direction. Where do you stand? Sound off in the comments below – Play or Practice?

DEBATE #2 Signed Practice Sheets
-I have tried (and mostly failed) to require signed practice sheets weekly. I say failed because my “turn-in” rate is awful! So I am asking myself (and you other guitar teachers reading this), WHY am I asking for signed practice sheets? Let’s look at the pros and cons.


So where do you land on the signed practice sheet debate? What has worked for you, or have you given up?

Looking forward to seeing how your class practices …or should I say plays?

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