Guitar Class in the Old Line State
Number 37: The State of Maryland
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
Mt. Hebron High School in Howard County, Maryland, and is fortunate to have guitar educator Josh Rettenmayer on its faculty. He received a B.A. in music from UMBC in Baltimore, Maryland, and studied jazz performance at Towson University in Towson, Maryland. The Mt. Hebron guitar program also holds the distinction of having a famous alumna who is recognized in the music industry.
Snail Mail is the indie rock solo project of guitarist and singer-songwriter and recent grad Lindsey Jordan. Snail Mail’s debut album Lush received three and a half stars from Rolling Stone magazine, which called Lindsey Jordan’s music “the work of an indie-rock prodigy.” So, you never know what kind of influence you can have on a student in your guitar class.
The NAfME Council for Guitar Education would like to thank Mr. Rettenmayer for sharing his guitar experience with the NAfME membership.
Please tell us about your school and overall music program.
The music program at Mt. Hebron High School in Howard County, Maryland, is one of the best I have ever experienced. We are a tight unit, and our classes cover most (if not all) styles of Western music between the four full-time music staff. It is a blessing to work there each day.
Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.
I grew up in Howard County Schools and was very fortunate to have the teachers I had. I learned many different instruments as a child/teenager. I am also very blessed to have had a father who was in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band who introduced me to so many styles of classical and jazz music. I also have a mother who raised me on folk music and a brother who introduced me to rock, reggae, and R & B. My college years were filled with recording studio experience, playing in duos, studying music theory, and singing in doo-wop groups, barbershop groups, and playing jazz.
How do the guitar family of instruments fit into your teaching?
Guitar is my primary instrument and I play professionally outside of my teaching job as well. I am very fortunate that Howard County hired me specifically to teach guitar and gave me the “green light” to build a program. We now have 120+ students in the guitar program at Mt. Hebron High School. We put on a big guitar show at the end of each year, and the students perform for many functions throughout the school year, such as the holiday concerts, coffee house nights, and functions for the German program.
What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school? Now?
The biggest obstacle I faced when I was first hired at Mt. Hebron was adjusting to teaching larger groups of students at one time. I have been a private teacher for the last 20 years and was used to teaching one-on-one, but teaching 25 students at a time is a whole different “ball of wax.” I also had to learn how to encourage discipline in the classroom without being too rigid.
Now the biggest obstacle is getting funding for all the instruments we need to accommodate the growing number of students we have. Also, keeping up-to-date on all the music that is out there so I can so I can incorporate it into my lesson plans and concerts poses a challenge.
What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?
I am very fortunate that I get to teach five guitar classes per day. This year I will teach two upper-level guitar classes and three beginning guitar level classes. All of them are at capacity.
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?
I would like to say that guitar is one of the most (if not the most) versatile instruments in the world. There are few styles of music that you can’t play on it. I have also heard that it is the most popular instrument in the world according to many polls that have been done. It is such a “bonding” instrument with regard to the number of people who just want to pick it up and sing around a campfire or play in a band.
People of all walks of life are brought together through music in general and specifically through the guitar. It is extremely portable and there are so many different textures and sounds one can achieve on a guitar because of the different types of woods for acoustic guitars and amplifiers for electric guitars. It is so much fun to play, and I guarantee if you practice for a little while, you will come to love it.
Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students?
There are so many success stories each year with regard to how many students I get to see fall in love with music and the guitar. I feel so blessed to be a part of these students’ lives. If I had to pick one success story, it would be the story of Lindsey Jordan. I was fortunate enough to have Lindsey in my class for three years. She was a star of our program. She formed a band in her sophomore year, “Snail Mail,” and by her senior year they were playing in Baltimore, Washington, DC, and up and down the East Coast. She even had to take off a few weeks of school to go on tour. By the end of that school year, she had record companies knocking at her door.
I was with her at graduation, we got a picture together, and 14 hours later she was on a flight to Los Angeles to sign a record deal. They have been on tour and in the recording studio for the last two years. They played the “Coachella” festival in 2018 and have toured in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the United States. She made Rolling Stone magazine, was recently sponsored by Fender Guitars, and one of her songs was used in the movie “I Feel Pretty” in 2017.
Lindsey writes, arranges, sings, and plays the guitar parts for all the songs. She is an unbelievable talent, and I feel very blessed to have known her and to have had her in my class for three years. She made my job easy, fun, and exciting. The sky is the limit for her, and we are so proud of her here at Mt. Hebron.
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?
I tell them many things, but one of the most important things I can say is to “always follow your heart.” That is where music comes from. We love and play music because of how it makes us feel and how it enables us to understand ourselves and the experiences we go through. I put a quote on my school website that reads, “Music is the greatest non-living healer.” I truly believe this.
Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?
As far as networking goes, just getting the students out there playing anytime they are able. Other students see how much fun they are having, and they want to be a part of it too. Also make students aware that in guitar class, they will play many, many different styles of music so even if they are not avid classical music fans, that is just a piece of the puzzle. Usually, they end up loving the vast majority of it because the concepts I teach can be incorporated into all of the styles. I also put links to great players such as Frank Vignola and Tommy Emmanuel on my school website. The students love seeing these guitar greats interpret so many different styles of music.
“Always follow your heart. That is where music comes from.”
What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in the Maryland school system?
I see a very bright future for guitar. The programs are growing for the most part, and guitar encourages individuality, creativity, and group collaboration. Also, fretboard theory as well as music theory in general has been proven to improve math skills, and I know the Board of Education loves that.
What type of lesson plans have you done for your classes that may be unique?
Most of my lesson plans are based on styles, concepts, and theoretical ideas that can be used in all kinds of songs and musical styles. For example, I have a unit based on the flat picking style of Johnny Cash. When the students hear that, they immediately become interested because so many of them love Johnny Cash. That particular picking style however was not unique to Johnny Cash. So many of the great country and blues artists have used it. The students discover this as the unit goes on, and they are able to recognize it when they hear it in songs they listen to and love in their own time.
I also do a unit on swing guitar or guitar styles from the great jazz eras of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In this unit I break down chord structures and show students that they don’t necessarily need to play “big chords” (chords that use five or six strings) all the time. Sometimes three- or even two-note chords sound the best. I have been very fortunate to have studied extensively in this style so it is very fun to teach. The students seem to love the sound of three-note chords on non-consecutive strings with the addition of muted strings. It also enables me to educate them on different chord voicings as well as voice-leading. The jazz of that era is such an exciting style of music to play also. Many of the students have never heard music like that, and most of them come to love it by the end of the unit.
Do you participate in any musical performances or activities outside of your public school teaching duties?
Yes. I play in a professional jazz guitar duo called Stolen Moments. We play the jazz brunch each Sunday at the Dandelion Bistro in Glenelg, Maryland. I have also played in swing bands, rock bands, and occasionally do singer/songwriter gigs.
Any last thoughts to conclude our interview?
I feel so blessed to be able to teach guitar/music every day. Howard County is one of the very best, if not the best, county to teach in. The people of the county truly love the arts and support them more than most counties in the United States. Teaching these terrific students the instrument that has inspired my life in so many ways is so spiritually fulfilling. I have made so many wonderful friends and worked with so many amazing colleagues. I truly love coming to work each day.
Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:
- 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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Catherina Hurlburt, Marketing Communications Manager. December 12, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)