Mathematics

Striking a Chord

By Lisa Capone — August 12, 2005 8 min read
Aynor Elementary School music teacher Connie Christy learned to play guitar through a program offered by the nonprofit organization Guitars in the Classroom, then taught 23 of her coworkers how to use the instrument as a classroom tool.

It’s an April afternoon in Gretchen Kauffman’s 2nd grade class, and it’s time for math. Fourteen students gather beneath cardboard palm trees as the petite 24-year-old grabs her newest tool for teaching fractions: a maple Seagull acoustic guitar.

“I think this song might help us learn a couple of things that will be on our test,” says Kauffman, who’s finishing up her first year at Aynor Elementary School, about 30 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “I need to hear your good singing voices, your clear singing voices.”

Kauffman strums a three-chord progression while 2nd graders Joanne Pinsky and John Delbert Floyd hold up soccer-ball-size paper replicas of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. The class sings:

I found a quarter on the ground, 25 cents in my pocket. Four quarters in a buck. Yee-haw! What good luck! Four quarters in a buck, and here’s what else I found.

The melody is the children’s standard “Bingo,” but the lyrics are Kauffman’s—penned after she took an eight-week music class sponsored by a California nonprofit that trains teachers to play guitar and sing.

After the song, Kauffman quizzes her pupils. “Joanne, how many nickels in a dollar?”

“Twenty!” Joanne instantly responds.

“It’s in our heads now!” another child shouts from the rug.

Kauffman isn’t the only guitar-playing educator at Aynor Elementary. Many others are using the instrument to reinforce spelling, rhyming patterns, vocabulary words, history lessons, and math and science facts. Since 2003, 24 of the school’s 30-odd teachers have learned to play well enough to accompany their students through Guitars in the Classroom, a program founded by Santa Cruz, California, educator Jessica Baron Turner to help stanch the ongoing decline of music education in schools.

What sets GITC apart from other school-based guitar programs are the teachers it trains. More than half “have never picked up a guitar, or they have and gave it up fast,” Turner says. Most others are “start-againers,” former players who abandoned their guitars years before.

Kauffman, whose interest in the program was sparked by a flier in Aynor Elementary’s lobby, falls into the first category. “It just sounded fun,” says Kauffman, who practices at home on an instrument on loan from GITC after taking a winter workshop at nearby Coastal Carolina University. Planning to get a guitar of her own, Kauffman credits her newfound skill with helping students pay attention and retain lessons. “Every single one of them gets involved,” she says. “You hear them humming in the halls.”

The program, in fact, does more than get kids humming. In communities like Aynor, it’s helped spark a renaissance in music education.

Clutching her blue guitar and sporting rolled-up jeans, Michelle Richardson would look at home on a country music stage. Today’s arena, though, is a swath of space in front of her Aynor Elementary classroom whiteboard, where 20 preschoolers sit, many of their minds on the day’s field trip to the zoo.

“You ready?” the 33-year-old teacher asks the class. “One, two, three ... ”

In some communities, teacher interest in guitars has led to new music classes for students, like this one at Aynor Middle School in South Carolina.

Children and teacher launch into “We are Going to the Zoo,” sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” Then, on Richardson’s cue, they switch to “Old MacDonald.” Between verses, she stops playing and calls on students to add new barnyard denizens to the song. After kids suggest animals, they’re asked to sound out the names.

“Your brain is smokin’! It’s working overtime,” Richardson tells a beaming 4-year-old who has just spelled “duck.” As the teacher strums a simple G chord, it’s apparent that this morning’s activity has segued into a spelling lesson disguised as a sing-along.

GITC founder Turner points out that such creative approaches often work wonders with “unconventional learners, anxious children, kids with disabilities, and kids who are not fluent in English”— the same students, she says, who are marginalized by the current focus on standardization. The 46-year-old educator, who has a bachelor’s degree in child development and a master’s in clinical psychology, started the program in 1998, largely in response to frustrations voiced by teachers in the California schools where she worked as a music specialist.

Turner, who began teaching guitar at age 12 and grew up to marry a guitarmaker, saw the problem this way: Regular classroom teachers wanted to add music to the school day, but most lacked the training to do so. Meanwhile, money for classes provided by music educators was—and still is—tight. While there are pockets of growth in some places, there’s been a “downward trend” in such programs nationwide, says Sue Rarus, director of research for the National Association for Music Education. About 30 million public school students in the United States receive no music ed, according to International Foundation for Music Research executive director Mary Luehrsen.

GITC was built around guitars because they are portable and relatively inexpensive and—perhaps most important—“carry social currency.” “They immediately transform teachers to the status of rock star,” Turner explains.

Largely by word of mouth, GITC has fanned out from its California base, spawning programs in nearly a dozen states. Regional coordinators and instructors, usually music teachers or local guitarists, trained about 400 classroom teachers in 2004, says Turner, who expects that number to double during this school year. “When I heard about this, a little light went off in my head,” says Judy Ginsburgh of Alexandria, Louisiana. A professional singer who offers school-based musician-in-residence programs, she started a local GITC program earlier this year.

Teachers who take the free lessons use Turner’s SmartStart guitar books to learn songs using open G, a simple chord that allows novices to concentrate on strumming. Those who don’t own guitars can usually borrow one; about 200 GITC guitars are currently on loan across the country. By the end of an eight-week course, teachers master two more chords, C and D, enabling them to play a repertoire of simple tunes. Instructors employ a variety of techniques to help teachers shed stage fright. In Rutland, Vermont, for example, GITC instructor Linda MacFarlane has them practice strumming and singing while lying on their backs, an exercise that produces laughter along with music.

From the start, GITC has been the beneficiary of philanthropic music companies such as Godin Guitar and J. D’Addario. This year, the program’s budget ballooned after receiving grants from the Guitar and Accessories Marketing Association and the International Music Products Association. “Jessica has nailed it, in my opinion,” says John Maher, vice president of marketing for Canvas Guitars in Walnut, California, which donated 150 Dreadnought guitars to GITC. “She is taking the right approach by teaching the teachers.”

A Caribbean-themed mural outside Connie Christy’s classroom declares “Music Is the Spice of Life.” Inside, 14 3rd graders are cradling guitars as Christy, Aynor Elementary’s only official music teacher, tilts her left shoulder up, then down, prompting chord changes.

“When you see me lean down, it’s time for a D, and when I come back up, it’s time for a G,” she explains.

Some children lean with her while they play and sing “The Barnyard Song.”

“Make sure you don’t hit any other strings. Keep your fingers up like little spider legs,” she says, demonstrating with her “peace sign” fingers.

Christy’s room—replete with keyboards, tambourines, xylophones, and African drums—is a testament to the support for music in the small town of Aynor and outlying Horry County. Through school PTO fundraisers, discounts offered by a nearby music shop, and Christy’s own initiative, the classroom boasts 24 half- and three-quarter-size guitars, which means all 500 1st through 5th graders learn to play during music class each week.

But like most of the teachers she trains, the 44-year-old was a guitar rookie two years ago when David Bankston, an associate professor of music at Coastal Carolina University, read about GITC in a guitar magazine and suggested Christy introduce the program at Aynor. Already skilled on saxophone, clarinet, flute, tuba, xylophone, and steel and conventional drums, Christy eagerly tackled the new instrument. She enrolled in private lessons over the summer, “so when school started,” she says, “I knew enough to be dangerous.”

Christy is dangerous enough, in fact, to have already influenced how music is taught two miles away, at Aynor Middle School, where, one April morning, 19 acoustic guitars—most of them brown, tan, or black—lean against a wall in music teacher Leanne Altman’s classroom. “Can I use the blue guitar?” asks Dallas Stepp, pointing to a sapphire-color six-string supported by its own stand.

“You can use the blue one, Dallas,” his teacher says. “You got here first.”

GITC backers argue that music-based lessons can help kids marginalized by the focus on standards.

Not long ago, the 6-foot-2-inch football player wasn’t eager for music class. But he and the 16 other 7th graders filing into the room—many of whom learned to play guitar with Christy at Aynor Elementary—are now part of the middle school’s first-ever guitar class.

“Go ahead and work on G, C, D,” says Altman as the teenagers arrange themselves on the floor.

After four weeks playing in open G, the group has progressed to standard tuning. Keeping a roomful of adolescents on task isn’t easy, but the guitars seem to do the trick. Students stick with it, some struggling and others switching with ease from G to C and back to G as Altman patrols the carpet.

“New chord,” she announces. “Find your second fret, E minor. It gives you an eerie sound. This is something that is used in ... rock songs.”

The prospect of learning to play something hip resonates with the class. Students lean into their guitars, eyes riveted on fingers and strings as they try out the chord.

“I find [music class] more difficult now,” Dallas says. But, he adds, before the guitars arrived, “it just wasn’t as fun. A lot of my favorite singers—like Slash from Guns & Roses—are guitar players.”

At other schools, the effects of GITC have gone straight to the top. In Vermont, Rutland Intermediate School principal Charles Knisley is one of 45 educators who’ve participated in local workshops since 2002. He now takes his used Taylor guitar—a Christmas present from his wife, which he says was owned briefly by Gregg Allman—to school each day, sometimes “performing” announcements over the public-address system or strumming chords as he fills in for a 3rd grade teacher. Plans are in the works to add guitar classes for 5th and 6th graders who’ve found the school’s traditional band program uninspiring.

“If we can’t get a grant [for instruments], we’ll pay for it,” Knisley says. “Music makes kids come alive, but in a very nice way.”

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