Guitar Class in the Bluegrass State
Number 18: The Commonwealth of Kentucky
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
Today the NAfME Council for Guitar Education visits NAfME member Don Hicks who has taught for more than 25 years in public school music education and since 2007 as the Guitar coordinator/instructor at Bryan Station High School in Lexington, Kentucky. He has served two terms on the National Association for Music Education Council for Guitar Education, and is a clinician for Teaching Guitar Workshops. He is a regular performer as an electric guitarist and vocalist.
He holds a Bachelors in Music Education from Western Kentucky University, and a Masters from Georgetown College. Under his direction, the BSHS Guitar Ensembles have earned numerous honors: Exemplary Performance Status with the KMEA since 2014, the first Guitar Ensemble to perform at the Kentucky Music Educators Conference, and a performance at the 2013 Guitar Foundation of America Symposium.
Thank you, Don, for all you do for guitar education in the United States.
Please tell us about your school and overall music program.
Bryan Station High School is located in Lexington Kentucky, second largest city in the commonwealth, and is one of six high schools in the Fayette County Public Schools. Our school population includes more than 55% free/reduced lunch. Our school is on a block schedule on the Academy model featuring: Information Technology, Medical, Leadership, and Engineering Academies. Within those we offer the Station Arts program which allows students to essentially “double major” in the Arts as well as their Academy choice.
The school music program features band, orchestra, choir, keyboarding, and guitar as well as jazz band and AP Music Theory. I’m very lucky to have a great, supportive relationship with all of the music instructors at our school—none of us are “threatened” by the success of any of our groups. Our guitar program began in 2007 with one class of 16 students (I was an assistant band director at the time), and within three years had grown to more than 120 students with myself as the full-time guitar teacher. Guitar students have the opportunity to take guitar all four years of high school.
We were the first school in Kentucky to have guitar students participate in the KMEA District & State level solo & ensemble assessments, as well as the first guitar program to participate in the District level large ensemble string assessments where we’ve received straight Distinguished ratings and qualified for the State festival each year. In 2013 we were the first guitar program to perform as a large ensemble at the KMEA Conference, and later that year we performed for the Guitar Foundation of America conference.
Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.
I received my first guitar and started band on trumpet in 5th grade. The two instruments were very separate but parallel paths for me until I was given the opportunity to be the guitarist for the high school jazz band in 12th grade. I received a Bachelors in Music Education from Western Kentucky University as a trumpet principal but participated in lessons and ensembles on guitar as well. I was a band and choir director in the public schools beginning in 1994, but always wanted to find a way to combine my passions for music education and guitar. In 2005 I attended a Teaching Guitar Workshop sponsored by NAMM/NAfME/GAMA and was inspired to begin guitar instruction in the classroom.
In 2006, I moved to Bryan Station High as an assistant band director. Our principal at the time asked if anyone wanted to submit ideas for more elective courses, and I found my opportunity. I have been blessed with three very supportive principals, but especially Dr. Gladys Peoples as she kept allowing me to expand our offerings as the interest grew. After three years, we’d expanded to three levels of guitar, and she lobbied for me to become a full-time guitar instructor—at the time, I believe, the only one in Kentucky. I’ve been lucky to have administrators here since then who believe in the program and what it can do for kids, and that makes my job a little easier.
How do the guitar family instruments fit into your teaching?
Well, I’m truly blessed that guitar is all I teach so it’s a pretty good fit! In addition to the four-year guitar program, I’m getting a lot of interest from students about ukulele, and sponsor an after school Uke Club. I can foresee it turning in to a class soon, based on the interest. I’m lucky in that I get to work with the jazz band from time to time, helping to develop their rhythm section (guitar and bass), so that’s another facet outside of my specific classes.
What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school?
Designing a well-rounded curriculum, from scratch, that I felt met the needs of how guitar is perceived in our culture as well as meeting the standards of other music groups in terms of reading, technique, repertoire, etc. I’m still working on it! Also, the basic struggle of finding instruments and materials for class. Our school is a pretty low SES, and most of my kids don’t have the ability to run out and buy a new guitar for class. We found a horde of random classical guitars from the late ’70s in another school’s storage, and I brought them home, paid for strings, and did repairs myself. But I felt that putting a classical guitar in every student’s hands was the best way to teach technique and expose them to facets of guitar they wouldn’t normally find on the radio or MTV.
Later that first year, we were blessed with a donation from the estate of a local musician that paid for the purchase of 16 simple electric guitars. This gave me the opportunity to cover a lot of ground in terms of balancing classical technique and reading skills with basic practical skills on electric guitar. I feel that both are essential if a student finishes a guitar class at Bryan Station.
Now that the program is 10+ years on, we still face obstacles in scheduling—particularly the upper levels. Maintaining a large inventory of instruments is a bit of a struggle. I’m always trying to find new literature. And I’m still working on my curriculum and staying as current as possible.
What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?
I am blessed in that I only teach guitar. I tell everyone that I have the best job on the planet because I get paid to help kids discover music, and I get to play guitar all day long!
“I tell everyone that I have the best job on the planet because I get paid to help kids discover music, and I get to play guitar all day long!”
We have four sections of Guitar 1, two sections of Guitar 2, and a section that is combined Guitar 3 & 4. On a typical year, I start with 80-90 Guitar 1 students and have 4-10 students who complete Guitar 4.
We have a set of classical guitars for class use, and I teach basic classical technique as well as chord techniques, pick playing, and solo/small ensemble/large ensemble as well. Our schedule allows for one day per week that the schedule is slightly altered, so on that day we have “Electric Wednesday.” We use a “Top 40 curriculum”—students learn riffs or short sections of famous electric guitar pieces, the kind that drive the music store clerks crazy! My goal is that when a student tells someone that they play guitar, they can demonstrate things that are extremely recognizable, and maybe those tunes will inspire kids to go home and learn more music that inspires them. My goal is to foster well-rounded, self-guided guitarists.
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?
Be genuine, have a passion for guitar, and work to get better just like you expect your students to do. Kids see through the smoke very quickly. You don’t have to be an amazing technician on the guitar, but if kids see that you have a PASSION for music and that you are working to be a better guitarist, it goes a long way. No matter how great your skills are, there will be kids who can play circles around you. If you’re not amazing on the instrument, get some help. Find a local guitarist who will demonstrate for your students and help you as well. Attend workshops—Teaching Guitar Workshop is an EXCELLENT resource for learning skills, techniques, method books, etc.
“Be genuine, have a passion for guitar, and work to get better just like you expect your students to do.”
The other thing I would say is to enjoy the experience. With guitar, students go from not knowing how to play or even hold the instrument to making great music VERY quickly. It’s a privilege that we get to be a part of that experience for them.
Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students?
I have a former student, Jamie Monck, who is currently doing his graduate work with Eliot Fisk. That’s pretty cool. He was a talented student when I met him, and he passed me very quickly. He’s gone from being a student to being a colleague and friend, and I’m amazed at the things he’s still accomplishing.
I regularly hear from students who tell me they’re still playing, writing music, performing, etc. One student was recently doing mission work in Africa and using her guitar there. It’s really great to know that I had a tiny influence on something that still gives them joy and satisfaction years after they leave high school.
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?
That’s a tough one. I never want to discourage a student, but being a guitarist isn’t the easiest way to make a living. I encourage them to get a music education degree, even if they are going to college to be a performance major. It will eventually pay off and make you a better player. In our commonwealth, guitar educators are typically a “side job” for a band, orchestra, or choir teacher, so I emphasize that if you want to go into education, you should take those not-guitar classes very seriously. I encourage them to get some basic piano experience early before they get to college. And I encourage them to study music theory, particularly the AP Music Theory class offered at our school. I tell them to choose a college program based on the guitar professor not the school, since they’ll be spending a LOT of hours in a practice room working for that person. It’s easier to do the work if you have a good rapport with teacher. And I encourage them to take business classes, since as a freelance guitarist they’ll essentially be a small business owner.
The biggest thing that I hope for all my students is that they will just keep playing, at any level. Even when life gets busy, to carve out a little time to play for their own enjoyment. Whether that means they’ll play for themselves or friends, play in local bands, play in the college ensemble, or whatever . . . I just hope they keep playing.
Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?
I have to admit I’m terrible at self-promotion, and all the social media is just not in my skillset. It’s a lot to keep up with. We’ve been able to grow the program by playing a lot of public events. My administrators are good at asking us to play for events that are important to our community or school, which gets us “out there.” Playing for KMEA & GFA conferences were a big boost. I’ve been very vocal in the KMEA about guitar, and that has drawn attention to our program.
I’ve been blessed to be a part of a very passionate group of educators who have done so much to advance guitar education for students in our commonwealth. And I’m now an instructor for the Teaching Guitar Workshops which has allowed me to network with guitar programs from around the country.
What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in the Kentucky school system?
We are in a very exciting time for guitar education in Kentucky. There are more than 80 school guitar programs (only 120 counties in the commonwealth) and growing exponentially. There is a core group of educators who are really taking it seriously and advancing the genre. More programs are participating in District and State Level Solo & Ensemble, and I believe a few more will be jumping into Large Ensemble assessment this year. This February we will have the first Kentucky All-State Guitar Orchestra, which I will be co-conducting. We expect this will eventually lead to a guitar division within our KMEA, and that we will begin developing literature lists and standards for our commonwealth that mirror other state guitar programs.
Currently, the biggest drawback in Kentucky is that of all those programs, we don’t have any specific standards or curricular designs. Every program is run differently and emphasizes different aspects of guitar. I hope that aligning with the KMEA, we’ll be able to do more to get some standardization across the commwealth, so that if a kid moves from one part of the commonwealth to another, the guitar classes that are offered won’t be totally different.
What type of arrangements and/or transcribing have you done for your school performances?
I do a lot of arranging (or RE-arranging) and wish I could spend more time working on it. I’ve regularly re-arranged pieces just to fit the abilities of the kids who are playing them. I don’t really use a particular method book year-round, but I write and arrange music to fit when I can’t find what I’m looking for in a published piece or method. I did an arrangement of a piece called Tango Cumparsita a couple of years ago for the anniversary of the Spanish Immersion Program in our school, that was a great experience. I’ve developed my electric curriculum by transcribing simple riffs and basic parts to songs, and I’ve got a decent amount of that stuff saved up that we use each year. I think if I had to rely ONLY on published music, I wouldn’t have been able to keep kids as interested and keep moving the program forward.
Do you do any musical performances or activities outside of your public school teaching duties?
I have been a guitarist and singer in local bands for a long time, before I was even teaching guitar in schools. I’ve done original music and released one CD (it went “aluminum”—356 copies sold). I spent the past seven years or so playing in a locally successful country band, playing a lot and opening for national acts. I did an ’80s tribute band for a while. And I’m currently in a ’90s cover band . . . I think it gives a lot of credibility to my teaching that I can say, “in a gigging situation . . . ,” and kids know that it actually translates to the real world. And I think it drives my teaching, because I want students to have the ability to get out and play in front of audiences too. So we’re not just working toward the next concert or assessment in guitar class, but toward them having the skills to do whatever they want with guitar when they’re done with our program.
Any last thoughts to conclude our interview?
The great thing about guitar education is that there are so many facets of guitar styles, so many paths that kids can take that are meaningful to them. I can’t possibly teach everything there is to know about classical, jazz, rock, metal, bluegrass etc. But if I teach students how to continue learning, by themselves and FOR themselves, then they can go in any direction they want and they can make music that gives enjoyment to themselves, friends, family, or whatever. The probability is greater than some of the other areas of music education, I think, that any of my students will pull that guitar out from under the bed or out of the closet 10 years from now and play for their own enjoyment . . . Play a lullaby for their kids, or play at church, or get together with buddies and jam in the garage, or make a few extra bucks playing the local pub. It doesn’t matter if they can play Paganini or just strum simple tunes, as long as it’s attainable and enjoyable for them. That’s what I hope I can give my students.
Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:
- Number 17: The Golden State (California)
- Number 16: The Show-Me State (Missouri)
- Number 15: The Keystone State (Pennsylvania)
- Number 14: The Last Frontier State (Alaska)
- Number 13: The Beehive State (Utah)
- Number 12: The Peach State (Georgia)
- Number 11: The Cornhusker State (Nebraska)
- Number 10: The Gem State (Idaho)
- Number 9: The Old Dominion (Virginia)
- Number 8: The Aloha State (Hawaii)
- Number 7: The Land of Enchantment (New Mexico)
- Number 6: The Sunshine State (Florida)
- Number 5: The Grand Canyon State (Arizona)
- Number 4: The Ocean State (Rhode Island)
- Number 3: The North Star State (Minnesota)
- Number 2: The Silver State (Nevada)
- Number 1: The Garden State (New Jersey)
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello Jr. serves as the chair on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the 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 thomasamoriello.com for more information.
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