Guitar Class in the Buckeye State
Number 23: The State of Ohio
By Thomas Amoriello, Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
In this edition of “50 States of Guitar Class,” the NAfME Council for Guitar Education visits Canal Winchester, Ohio, with educator Todd Phillips. Throughout his teaching career, Mr. Phillips has emphasized the daily classroom work and finding new ways to engage students beyond the traditional vocal and instrumental ensembles. He has taught beginning and advanced guitar at the high school, which has led to guitar being taught starting at the 5th grade level. Every year, an average of 50 students are enrolled in these high school classes. More than 75% of them are non-traditional students who are neither enrolled in Canal Winchester’s instrumental nor vocal programs. With the help of a highly supportive administration, dedicated parents and an understanding family, Canal Winchester High School’s music department has grown into a program that offers a unique, creative, and vital approach to music education for traditional and non-traditional students and the Canal Winchester community.
Todd Phillips received his Bachelor of Music Education from Miami University as a voice major and percussion minor. He holds a Master of Music in Music Performance, Choral Conducting from the Ohio State University. Now in his 34th year of teaching, the last 31 years at Canal Winchester Schools, he has taught everything from elementary general music and beginning band, to high school percussion, and middle school and high school vocal music. Mr. Phillips is an active member of Ohio Music Education Association and Ohio Choral Directors Association. Thank you, Mr. Phillips, for sharing your insight with the NAfME membership.
Please tell us about your school and overall music program.
Canal Winchester High School is a mid-size school, about 1,200 students, on the southeast side of Columbus, Ohio. We’re surrounded by larger schools with more students, bigger facilities, and larger budgets, but it’s always been our goal to give our students music and other performing arts opportunities that these larger districts do not provide. Like most schools, we have the traditional programs, three choirs, marching band, two concert bands, jazz band, pep band—each with healthy numbers for a school our size.
We take pride in our non-traditional programs. Beyond the beginning and advanced guitar classes and guitar ensemble, we also have first- and second-year music theory, beginning and advanced steel bands, and a handbell ensemble. The performing arts department also offers Theater One and Theater Two.
Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.
I have a Bachelor of Music Education degree, Voice Major and Percussion Minor, from Miami University. My Masters Degree is in Music Performance, Choral Conducting, from the Ohio State University. I grew up in Southern Ohio and attended a smaller rural school. Future music majors were a fairly rare thing in my small hometown. I got my first guitar for my 16th birthday, and growing up in the early 1970s, I was mostly influenced by the singer/songwriter genre. I was self-taught until I attended college where I had my first formal lessons, though these were more of a functional guitar level rather than classical training. Miami University required Functional Guitar for all Music Education Majors.
How do the guitar family of instruments fit into your teaching?
Our classes use primarily the nylon string acoustic guitars. I will lightly touch on bass guitar in the advanced program. I will also bring in my personal instruments for lessons. These include hollow-body jazz electric, solid-body rock electric, 12-string, mandolin, and banjo.
What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school? Now?
I’ve been at Canal Winchester for 31 years. I was hired to teach part-time band and part-time choir. Our district was exceedingly small for a public school right outside of Columbus, Ohio. The graduating class was only 65 students for my first year.
The administration encouraged the staff to find creative and unique ways to engage the students, while following curriculum standards. That has been the chief reason we have so many diverse classes and ensembles. The biggest challenge was having enough students available to take a chance on some of these alternative approaches to music education. Our guitar program has been around for about 20 years and has consistently grown in enrollment and quality.
Canal Winchester is not a full STEM school, but it is a major focus in our district’s curriculum. The only problem that creates is that students can’t always be involved in any of our performing arts programs as much as I and the other staff members would prefer. We will have eight to ten graduating students each year considering a career in the performing arts, but the vast majority of the students we work with are not. We try to shape our program to create life-long lovers and consumers of the performing arts rather than produce dozens of future music majors.
What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?
We have Beginning Guitar, Advanced Guitar, and Guitar Ensemble. Beginning Guitar has two sections, each with about 20 students. Advanced Guitar has one section of about 20 students. Guitar Ensemble has around a dozen players.
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! Even if you are insecure on your own guitar skills, at least a beginning guitar program will reach a whole new segment of the student population. Approximately 75% of the students I work with in our guitar program would not normally be involved in the traditional choir or band programs. After working with me in the guitar program, a significant number of them will join the choir or music theory class in the future.
Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)?
Over the years, I have often heard a student tell me that guitar was the only reason they came to school. Many of these students can be less motivated in their core academics, but in guitar they can be the class stars. We all realize the music education can make a difference in our students’ lives, and it can be most evident in a non-traditional program like this. Take the time to teach good technique and create a diverse approach that will draw your students in, and then the program will take off.
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?
The vast majority of future music majors from Canal Winchester will not be focusing on guitar. Regardless of their prospective major, as soon as I know of their interest, I will refer them to a private instructor at one of our local universities to help them prepare for that career choice. I also share my philosophy that a music career is not a job. It’s a lifestyle. You’re always working to improve your craft, but if it’s in your DNA, you’ll love every moment.
Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you in promoting your program that would help other educators?
I advertise my class daily. My room is off a main hallway, and I’ll stand at the doorway and strum along as students pass. I encourage my students to play around the community as much as possible, in formal and informal situations. I’ve created backing tracks for all the tunes we learn in our beginning and advanced classes, so they get the sensation of playing with a full band environment. These tracks are posted on our department website.
What type of lesson plans have you done for your classes that may be unique?
My beginning class starts off just learning changes that can be used in a variety of popular songs. We always focus on learning good technique. We introduce tablature at the end of the first nine weeks and note reading a few weeks after that. By that point, I’ve found the students are hooked on guitar enough that introducing the more formal reading skills can move smoothly.
Do you participate in any musical performances or activities outside of your public school teaching duties?
Yes. My three major areas of training are voice, percussion, and guitar. I am frequently out in the community with one or more of these disciplines.
What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in Ohio school system?
Unfortunately, I’m not aware of other high school programs that officially have a formal guitar class, though the Ohio Music Education Association does now recognize guitar in Solo and Ensemble contest. Most teachers feel overwhelmed with their daily schedule, but I really feel they are missing out on a great opportunity to work with students and to build their own life-long skills. Of our local universities, about half of them have a formal Guitar Major, though primarily a jazz guitar focus. I don’t think our students see enough formal guitar performances. I think that limits their opinion of what guitar can do. In our area, I doubt that guitar will ever rival the traditional band, choir, or orchestra programs, but I would love to see it play a healthy “second fiddle.”
Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:
- Number 22: The Yellowhammer State (Alabama)
- Number 21: The Sunflower State (Kansas)
- Number 20: The Great Lakes State (Michigan)
- Number 19: The Lone Star State (Texas)
- Number 18: The Bluegrass State (Kentucky)
- 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 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 thomasamoriello.com for more information.
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