Guitar Class in the Peace Garden State
Number 26: The State of North Dakota
By Thomas Amoriello, Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education
In this edition of “50 States of Guitar Class,” we visit with guitar educator Mark Berntson, who teaches guitar on the high school level in North Dakota.
“A common criticism that several students have concerning core classes is that they do not teach skills that are used in future life. However, there is one specific course that can aid in creating a skill that can be used for life. This skill is found in the Guitar courses at Sheyenne High School taught by Mr. Mark Berntson.”—From the article, “Mustang Weekly: Spotlight on Mr. Berntson” by Dillon Lien, West Fargo Pioneer
Please tell us about your school and overall music program.
I teach at two large high schools in West Fargo, North Dakota. Both have strong band, choir, and orchestra programs. Our guitar program began eight years ago.
Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.
My parents were teachers, and my dad was my band and choir teacher in high school and was also a very fine guitar player and singer. I went to college at the University of North Dakota and was trained to teach high school band and choir. I then taught band in two North Dakota school systems for 20 years.
How do the guitar family of instruments fit into your teaching?
I now teach five sections of guitar classes each day, so I guess you could say the guitar family is my life! We do very little work with electric or bass guitars, but we do spend some time learning how they work.
What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school? Now?
Well, I’m an unusual case because I became a guitar teacher late in life. My biggest obstacle at that point was just learning to play (I didn’t know how before!) and learning how to teach the instrument. Luckily, I had a great private teacher who really gave me a solid foundation and lots of great principles to rely on.
What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?
I teach a Foundations of Guitar class for English Learners and special education students. I teach a Guitar 1 class for the general population of beginning or novice players, and I teach a Guitar Ensemble class for students who want to go above and beyond. Each class is one semester.
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 say that you really can do it! You definitely need to know how to play, but your music education chops that you already possess will take you far! A good musician can listen to any student and know if they sound good or not. Knowing how to fix it may be a step you’ll need to learn, but music is music and good is good!
Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)?
The biggest success is that students who normally would have had nothing to do with music are now having successful, meaningful artistic experiences in school and are gaining confidence and self-esteem along the way. So many students have told me that guitar helps them with their anxiety, calms them down, and gives them something to be proud of. It’s a beautiful thing!
“Students who normally would have had nothing to do with music are now having successful, meaningful artistic experiences in school and are gaining confidence and self-esteem along the way.”
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?
Not many of my students have expressed such a desire, but I do tell them about the schools they could attend and about opportunities that may present themselves. We don’t have a lot of college guitar programs in my area, but I definitely do encourage my students to keep learning in any way they can!
What type of lesson plans have you done for your classes that may be unique?
We don’t focus a lot on classical technique or on note reading. We definitely include musical literacy, but I focus more on helping kids learn to play songs that speak to them and maybe even help them cope with life. It’s worked well for me. I also include writing assignments each week with students responding to musical performances we watch on video. It helps them analyze and appreciate what they see and hear, and it also gives them a chance to communicate personal issues to me in a non-threatening way. I really like that connection.
Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?
Early on we played for our school board, and that really helped. I also maintain good relationships with my bosses, and that helps as well. Folks appreciate the fact that guitar is good for kids and good for our schools, and that goes a long way in receiving support.
What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in North Dakota schools?
More and more teachers are reaching out to me to find out what we do in West Fargo and to get ideas. Guitar is not a widespread option in our state, but it’s getting to be more accepted, and I really see a bright future! I love helping others get their programs going and look forward to seeing what they come up with.
Mark’s class in action:
Any last thoughts to conclude our interview?
When I first started learning to play guitar, I didn’t anticipate how good it would make me feel about myself to be able to play. It’s an amazing feeling, and I’m so glad to be able to share it with teenagers in my school. Guitar has changed my life and it changes theirs as well!
Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:
- 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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