Guitar Class in the Palmetto State

Number 30: The State of South Carolina

By Thomas Amoriello, Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair


In this edition of “50 States of Guitar Class,” we visit Columbia, South Carolina, and the guitar program led by Chris Essig who is guitar educationthe Academic Dean of Fine Arts and teaches Guitar 1, 2, and 3, Bluegrass Band, Worship Arts. Upon graduation from Ben Lippen School and due to their involvement in the Ben Lippen Fine Arts Department, Ben Lippen students will have developed the beginnings of a lifelong appreciation for the arts, an understanding of the power of communication conveyed via artistic means, a confidence and desire to participate in the creative process within the arts, and specific skills and abilities within at least one fine art.

Mr. Essig joined the Ben Lippen faculty in Fall 2011 as director of the guitar and worship arts program. Under Mr. Essig’s leadership, the guitar curriculum expanded to four sections in just two years. Mr. Essig has been teaching guitar for more than ten years and enjoys teaching and performing in the Columbia area. Mr. Essig has given recitals at the University of South Carolina, the Columbia Guitar Society, Geneva College, Columbia International University, and has given performances at various weddings and events. Mr. Essig specializes in classical guitar and contemporary worship styles. His teaching philosophy consists of helping students experience the power and creativity of God through an in-depth understanding of music. Mr. Essig emphasizes the importance of technique, music theory, interpretation, repertoire, and musicianship in order to inspire and prepare students for creativity and excellence. Mr. Essig received his Masters of Music in guitar performance from the University of South Carolina under the instruction of Christopher Berg and a B.A. in Guitar Performance from Geneva College. As an instructor, Mr. Essig has given lessons and masterclasses at many venues in the Columbia area including the Carolina Music Academy, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, New Kirk Presbyterian Church, Columbia Crossroads Northeast, and Columbia International University.

Thank you, Chris, for sharing your story with the NAfME membership.

Please tell us about your school and overall music program.

Ben Lippen School is a K4-12th grade private school. It is has a rich 79-year history. It started in Asheville, North Carolina, and moved to Columbia (South Carolina) in 1988. Over the years the music program has flourished off and on with traditional programs like band and choir, but also has a unique history offering non-traditional classes like contemporary worship band and guitar.

There were two other guitar teachers before me—one in Asheville and two in Columbia 1990-94. I have been teaching guitar at Ben Lippen since 2011. I teach three levels: Guitar I, Guitar II, and Guitar III honors.

three male students playing guitar

Photo courtesy of Chris Essig


Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience. 

I grew up being fond of music but never knew that I had any sort of knack for it until later. I never took piano (until my mother realized I was serious about music—then she attempted to get me some lessons—thanks mom!). I took to the guitar when I was 15, bought an electric on Craigslist, and really just wanted to be a rocker. I took some lessons from a rocker, played in bands and really loved it.

Just before college, my very short-term piano teacher mentioned to me that I could major in guitar. At the time I didn’t even know anyone could do this, especially at a small college. I looked right into it and decided after a time, to take the plunge and major in guitar. I was taking classical lessons from the teacher at the college. His advice to me was, “If you can’t live without it, go for it. If you can, go sell insurance.” Not sure if this was the best advice to give a young eager guitar player, but it worked. I knew that music was my calling. I also took lessons from a jazz guy and played in rock bands and bluegrass jam sessions. This rounded me out as a guitarist and prepared me to have a rich appreciation for classical and non-classical styles.

I majored in classical guitar performance. I realized that I liked teaching and decided to pursue grad school. I got a master’s degree in Classical Guitar Performance and the University of South Carolina in 2008. I initially wanted to teach at the collegiate level but quickly came to the conclusion that it was too competitive for me to find a good job, and I would need more schooling. It was at this time a few friends of mine told me that you could teach guitar classes in secondary schools, and the pay was lucrative. I was teaching plenty of high school aged kids privately at the time and realized that this was a great option provided I get an alternative state certification.


How do the guitar family instruments fit into your teaching?

I mostly teach classical guitar, but I’ve “fiddled” around with mandolin and banjo. I brought these instruments to school about six years ago, and some of my students were asking questions about them and wanting to try them. Before I knew it, I had bluegrass band on my hands and lots of pressure from everyone to keep the tradition going. There is now an official bluegrass class which incorporates acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, double bass, and fiddle.

guitar and other string players on stage in church

Photo courtesy of Chris Essig


I double as a worship leader, so I also teach a worship band class which has acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, keys, vocals, and drums. This class is super fun! My classical guitar classes (usually beginner students) are feeders for both the bluegrass and worship band. With a foundation in technique and reading, students are usually able to pick up on the stylistic nuances of modern rock band (worship band), traditional music, folk, country, and bluegrass techniques. Teaching these classes helps me keep me and my students with a foot in both worlds of classical and popular music. I highly recommend this to guitar teachers since the guitar has a strong presence in both. Students need to know about both worlds of classical and popular and have enough facility to thrive in the one of their choosing.


What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school? Now?

One obstacle for me personally was getting adjusted to the classroom environment. Teaching guitar in the classroom was an adjustment to teaching individuals. It required good planning, pacing, curriculum, assessment, discipline, and everything else. These were not areas that I was trained in, and I had to learn a lot from others and trial and error.

Another obstacle of which I am currently continuing to tackle, is the recruiting aspect. Usually guitar is pretty popular, and students want to take the class. However, every year seems to be different, whether it be changing requirements or competition with other popular electives, AP, or dual credit offerings that our school offers. The plus side of that is that I don’t have classes that are too big. Each year though it is important for me to recruit in order to have enough students in my classes to keep the program going.


What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?

As mentioned earlier, I teach a worship band class and a bluegrass class. Worship Band performs two to three times a semester for student chapel services and sometimes off campus. The Bluegrass Band also performs regularly each semester. Both classes are performance-based and are audition only.


What would you like to say to the non-guitarist music educator who is about to or interested in incorporating the guitar into their program?

Do it. This is a great way to train up more musicians and bring more students with musical potential into the fold. Get some private lessons with both a classical teacher and a jazz or rock teacher. Learn proper technique.

Consider these resources:

I can’t over emphasize learning the guitar yourself—enough at least to get your students started their first year on the right foot. I would continue with the mindset of learning right alongside them for the first couple of years. I would consider making your class an ensemble class much like strings or orchestra. There is a wealth of guitar ensemble music at that is more on the classical side of things but this approach will help keep much needed structure in your classes.


Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)? 

I mentioned earlier that I had some students form a bluegrass band. I couldn’t have predicted its success. It was totally student-driven. I came alongside, made students practice, and helped them set goals, but they were totally motivated. The community loved them, and they really thrived as musicians. All of them went through the classical curriculum, but after they proved themselves to me, I let go of the reigns and let them thrive. Three of those students pursued various bluegrass bands in college.

students sitting in guitar class in the Palmetto state with teacher Chris Essig

Photo courtesy of Chris Essig


What do you tell your talented students who are planning to pursue music or guitar studies in high school or college after they finish with you?

All of my students are in high school. I tell them that they have a gift, and from my perspective music seems to come naturally to them. I would tell them that if they have this gift, they should pursue it and consider it as a vocation. If they don’t have a real desire to do music as a vocation, I would tell them they should keep it up as a hobby; otherwise it would be a great waste.


Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?

Definitely, Austin Classical Guitar (ACG) and I’ve attended three of their trainings in Austin, Texas. It was the best thing I did for my program. Even if Classical Guitar is not your thing, it was helpful to glean ideas from other teachers. Every guitar teacher has to advocate for their programs. We need to have opportunities to learn from each other.

I’ve also began networking with other classroom teachers in my area and we recently have have become more organized. We are now a Division with in the SCMEA (South Carolina Music Educators Association – NAfME). This year we had our second All-State Auditions and Ensemble. After working together these two years, we have learned a great deal from each other.


What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in South Carolina schools?

I think there is a great deal of momentum and potential. We need to continue organizing, creating awareness, and opportunities for students. I think that school administrators will see that guitar programs are an innovative and exciting option for school music programs. They will see that they are both viable and capable of sustaining themselves with the right kind of support.

three female students playing guitar in class

Photo courtesy of Chris Essig


What type of lesson plans have you done for your classes that may be unique? 

We spend a lot of time warming up (code for teaching new techniques, sight reading, clapping rhythms, and rehearsing repertoire). Whenever I do something different, the response is usually relief. I need to do more different and creative things with my students.

Most of the time I see that there is a need for my students to improvise and compose more. They need to be able to improvise melody and rhythm. To improvise melody they have to hear it in their head first. So, to wake up their inner ear I taught my first-year guitar students a one octave scale fingering and encouraged them to play a familiar melody with no written music. The melody could be anything like “Twinkle Twinkle” or “Happy Birthday.” It gets them to hear intervals and tunes and producing it on the guitar by ear. It also builds chops. The students had a lot of fun with it and wouldn’t put down the guitar until they figured the out the whole song. I had them play the tune in different octaves and on different places on the guitar. I am currently thinking through the next layer for this assignment, but it seems to be scratching the surface for playing by ear and improvisation.


Do you do any musical performances or activities outside of your teaching duties?

Yes, I am a worship leader at my church and coordinate the music each week. I also perform sometimes at a bluegrass pickin’ parlor in town. I do the occasional wedding or party as well.


Any last thoughts to conclude our interview?

I am really passionate about helping guitar programs thrive—my own, in my state, and across the country. I have much to learn and share.

Thomas, thank you for initiating this interview and for reaching out to all the other amazing teachers who have so much to share. I feel like secondary school guitar programs are more common than they have ever been. Keep the buzz going!


Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:


About the author:

guitar educator Tom Amoriello with electric guitarThomas Amoriello Jr. serves as the chair on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the former Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association. Tom has taught guitar classes for the Flemington Raritan School District in Flemington, New Jersey, since 2005 and was also an adjunct guitar instructor at Cumberland County College, New Jersey, for five years. He has earned a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance from Shenandoah Conservatory and a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Rowan University. He is the author of the children’s picture books A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo and Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Dio that was released on H42 Records of Hamburg, Germany. The record released on 12-inch vinyl and digital platforms has received favorable reviews in many European rock magazines and appeared on the 2018 Top 15 Metal Albums list by Los Angeles KNAC Radio (Contributor Dr. Metal). Visit for more information.


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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Catherina Hurlburt, Marketing Communications Manager. October 18, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (

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