Guitar Class in the Empire State
Number 38: The State of New York
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 New York and the Harlem School of Arts with guitar instructor Bob Dee (Dellureficio). In 1964, internationally acclaimed concert soprano Dorothy Maynor, brought a gift to Harlem: her fervent belief that world-class training in the arts stimulates the child, strengthens the family, and gives pride of ownership to a community. She opened Harlem School of the Arts in the basement of the St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem at a time when the community suffered severe physical blight, high levels of poverty, and few cultural resources for its young people. From toddlers to adults, the students who came through its doors developed an invaluable sense of purpose and focus, whether or not they pursued professional careers in the arts. The school received rave reviews and was featured in the May 1966 issue of Ebony magazine.
In 2019 the school continues to enrich the lives of many school-aged children. Thank you to Bob for sharing your story with the NAfME membership.
Please tell us about your school and overall music program.
Located in Harlem, New York, Harlem School of the Arts (HSA), was founded by Dorothy Maynor in 1964. The school was initially located a few doors down from where it is now, in the St. James Presbyterian Church basement. Our current location was built in 1979. The school has a rich history of providing high-quality studies in the arts in a neighborhood that was in need of such facilities.
The school provides studies in a number of different disciplines, including art and scuplture, graphic arts, photography, dance and theatre, and music. HSA provides private and group lessons for strings, woodwinds, horns and reeds, piano, percussion, drumming, and of course guitar—my discipline.
Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.
My grammar school provided music lessons, but only in singing. However, our teacher taught solfège and it turned out to be great for my ears later on in life. We also had a piano in our house, and when I was around 7 years old, I used to invent compositions by ear. I had no idea, theoretically, what I was doing, but this was my first experience as a composer and improviser. Later in my teens I began studying with a private lesson guitar teacher, and I learned very quickly.
Despite starting late in my teens, I was able to get into college. I studied one year at Wichita State University and then transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I finished my studies. I realized when I reached Berklee that I needed to work extra hard if I was going to be successful, so I studied day and night; practiced my instrument regularly about 8 hours a day; and was able to make the Dean’s List nearly every term. I loved being challenged. However, college was just the beginning of a long life of learning.
“Your teachers teach you how to learn, but the learning never stops.”
I also was blessed to study with jazz greats such as Pat Martino, Mike Stern, and Ralph Bowen. College and my great tutors were just steppingstones to a greater learning, and I have not stopped practicing and studying since. This I still encourage all my students to understand: Your teachers teach you how to learn, but the learning never stops even after you’ve finished college and stopped private lessons.
How do the guitar family of instruments fit into your teaching?
I primarily use the six-string guitar to teach students, as that is what they seek me out for. But I use piano often in the process—all the time, as a matter of fact. I find that the piano is the easiest instrument on which to “see” fundamental music theory as well as the best instrument to use for ear training, which are integral parts of my lessons. I do explain the difference in ranges of guitars, such as that of the bass guitar and its accompanying bass clef notation, and the difference in tunings of other stringed instruments such as violin, cello, mandolin, etc.
What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school? Now?
Before being hired at HSA, I had been teaching at other schools in New York City as well as privately. So when I arrived at HAS, I understood my role as a private instructor within the protocol of the after-school program. But some of the early issues that were difficult to deal with had to do with getting financing for programs and scholarships at HSA. That was an issue early on that I think hurt the school. Since then, however, HSA has become a much better run institution in regard to keeping the school afloat and sufficiently supplied with materials and finances to conduct our work as teachers in an efficient manner.
The main issue I see right now is that the school is not attracting the talent I think it could. So the clientele has dropped off not only in numbers, but in quality as well. I also think the fact that many middle and junior/senior high schools do not have music studies has greatly hurt the quality of private students. Fundamental music is not being taught, and I’m stunned when I get later-aged and college prep students who do not understand the basic fundamentals of music.
What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?
Solely at HSA I have been teaching private guitar lessons. However, I have taken on bass students as well though I do refer them to a bass teacher eventually when I feel I’ve reached my technical limits on the instrument. I have also taught music theory, ear-training, and group classes in guitar at the school.
What would you say to the non-guitarist music educator who is about to or interested in incorporating the guitar into their program?
Get a qualified teacher! Now, this is assuming their “program” is one based on using the guitar as a primary instrument. I’ve seen it time and time again where schools hire a general music instructor and start using that teacher as an expert instrumental teacher in areas in which they are only cursorily familiar. I also do outreach programs for the NYC Department of Education (the NYC DOE) and teach guitar-specific classes in middle schools (5th and 6th grades).
There have been times when I’ve been hired to teach a guitar class of about ten students whom a previous general music instructor has been teaching, and the children have been grossly misinformed about technique. Undoing that sort of problem is not only extremely challenging for the teacher, but it is also very frustrating and discouraging to the students. And at that age it can really negatively affect their relationship with music going forward.
Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)?
Yes! I have had a number of outstanding successes. I’ve helped many students go on to score high enough in entrance exams that have led them to earn full or partial scholarships in college. I know of two specific guitar students who have gone on to earn master’s degrees in music: one in ethnomusicology and a more recent student in composition. Both have grown to be impressive guitarists and composers. I have been blessed with many very talented students whom I was able to help along the way who have gone on to music studies (vocals, bass, violin, harp, etc., including “The Voice” TV show contestant Brandon Brown—he was a violinist in an ensemble I led), as well as students in other disciplines in college.
But some of my biggest successes have been working with children with learning difficulties, including kids on the autism spectrum. My most recent student at HSA just did his spring recital. In a year he’s gone from knowing nothing on the instrument to playing “Autumn Leaves” and singing and playing with a bass and alternate style to accompany himself. This is a style that even some of my more advanced students didn’t learn ’til years down the road. Amazingly, he’s done it in these two semesters at HSA.
Words really cannot express how proud of all my students I am. And when you have students who transcend such difficulties, it is all the more gratifying. It makes me feel as if I have really done what needed to be done to help someone change their life.
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?
Part of being a good teacher, in my opinion, is not mincing words about the reality of a career in the music field. As I just told one student prior to going off to Berklee College of Music, it is imperative that you keep an open mind. If you think you’re going to go to a high-profile school, come out with a degree (even a master’s or more), and just step into a great gig, you may be sorely mistaken. The more one is able to diversify the more they will be able to adapt to anything. Examples:
1) You must be a good reader of music. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten gigs that a better player may have gotten because I could read, and they couldn’t—like pit orchestral gigs.
2) Do not limit yourself to any specific genre alone. You could be the best jazz player around, but cannot get enough work because you won’t relent and play music that you may feel is below you—that’s a big mistake and can hurt not only financially, but musically as well. Bach played church music to support his career as many other musicians in the day have.
3) Say “yes” to every opportunity. Not unlike number 2 above, keeping an open mind and sometimes taking gigs that are not what you want may lead you to what you do want, or to people with like interests as you.
4) Seek out the best teachers. This was sage advice I got from jazz trumpeter Wallace Roney when I met him at Berklee in 1980. If you feel a teacher is not on par with what you need, then ask the older students who they studied with and feel is best.
5) There’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money. And if this is what you really want, then being a great composer/arranger may lead you there most directly. Some of the best money gigs, besides from being famous, comes from those behind the scenes who do the writing. Find a good composition teacher and study hard! It really can pay off. Just tap your heels together three times and say, “There’s nothing like residuals, there’s nothing like residuals, there’s nothing like residuals . . . ”
6) Lastly, be a nice person! Really. I know some people who just don’t get the call because they are simply too difficult to work with. This has been a hard lesson for some and one to take to heart. People love happy performers—it’s what audiences notice first and foremost.
Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?
I’ve had a lot of success with a program I started at a school in the Bronx. I’d like to expand my program as I am now a licensed vendor for the NYC DOE. As for networking, there are a number of avenues to pursue. The NYC DOE has a database for vendors in New York City. Your city may have something similar where you can find information on services provided to the school district and prerequisites required as well as program descriptions and learning standards for the arts. Also, working through an established education vendor in your city can be a great steppingstone to meeting other like-minded educators. This can lead to good connections and may help you to find more people who would like to develop programs on par with what you have goals for.
What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in the New York school system?
I think things are getting better here in New York City. I cannot speak for the rest of the state, because I simply don’t know. But here in the city, both in the charter schools and the public school system, there seems to be a little bit more funding for programs in arts education, and in my case, for guitar classes. I’ve been teaching for three years now in a school in the Bronx, and although they’re running on a shoestring budget, they’ve been able to continue the program. That gives me hope for the future.
The thing I’d like to see more of is at least a general music class with some sort of interactive participation—hands-on, like singing or recorder or piano. Something where kids can start to learn the fundamentals of music theory. At least programs like HSAs do provide this. But it is at a cost for parents. I’d like to see these programs implemented in the public and private schools like I had growing up.
What type of lesson plans have you done for your classes that may be unique?
For me concentration on fundamentals is first and foremost. Although I’m teaching the instrument of guitar, it’s paramount, in my opinion, to make sure my students know about every aspect of what it is they are doing. This includes all the math and physics that go along with music. When my students (or classes), conclude at the end of the year, I know when they walk out they know a lot more about the guitar and music than just “put your fingers here and you get this sound / chord.” I have also created a program that uses common core learning to bridge between math and the sciences, and music.
Do you participate in any musical performances or activities outside of your public school teaching duties?
I perform professionally all the time. I’ve just released my third critically acclaimed CD called “Help Yourself” by Bob Dee’s Cosmosis. I’ve never stopped performing and hope to continue as long as possible. What I teach I play. What I play I teach. One day it’s a jazz/bossa nova duo; another, a gospel gig, rock, blues, or a pit gig. This is why I urge my students to be as prolific as possible when learning genres.
“What I teach I play. What I play I teach.”
I probably do about 60 to 70 gigs a year and do tour occasionally. The fall and spring can be brutal work-wise. I’m always pretty happy at the end of the school year as that is when I push the envelope of practice and composition. I also compose and arrange professionally, and that helps to pay the bills, too.
Any last thoughts to conclude our interview?
I’m teaching less now than I used to. I’ve been teaching some aspect of music for more than 30 years. It’s been a long road, and I’m paring down whom I teach—being choosier. The great masters of so many years ago would audition students before accepting them. This is the way it was done for hundreds of years, and back then those teachers were called “Maestro,” or Master. That was the type of respect they got because many of them earned it. We could probably rattle off 100 names in a minute easily of great Maestros.
But the more I read about early music history the more I realize why many of those people taught less and less as they got older. Not unlike me, I think they had used up that facility and wanted to use time left to compose as much as possible. This is basically where I am now in my life. I have a huge backlog of music recorded and unrecorded, much of it not even charted out yet. So that’s pretty much where my focus is going these days.
I will continue to teach a few classes for the DOE and some private students at HSA, but that aspect of my career is winding down. However, that does not diminish for a minute all the fond memories of all the great students I have had the pleasure of teaching over the years. I just hope they “spread the wealth” intellectually, as I have tried to do. If you want to know more about my music or to read my blogs, please go to my website at: www.bobdee.com.
Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:
- Number 37: The Old Line State (Maryland)
- Number 36: The Centennial State (Colorado)
- Number 35: The Bay State (Massachusetts)
- Number 34: The Sooner State (Oklahoma)
- Number 33: The Prairie State (Illinois)
- Number 32: The Hawkeye State (Iowa)
- Number 31: The Volunteer State (Tennessee)
- Number 30: The Palmetto State (South Carolina)
- Number 29: The Natural State (Arkansas)
- Number 28: The Tar Heel State (North Carolina)
- Number 27: The Magnolia State (Mississippi)
- Number 26: The Peace Garden State (North Dakota)
- Number 25: The Treasure State (Montana)
- Number 24: The First State (Delaware)
- Number 23: The Buckeye State (Ohio)
- 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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