Guitar Class in the Sunflower State
Number 21: The State of Kansas
By Thomas Amoriello Jr
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
In this edition of “50 States of Guitar Class,” we visit Matt Gerry, who is a guitar teacher at Salina South Middle School in Salina, Kansas. In his 14 years at the school, he has built a guitar program that has become very well respected in the area. His students were selected as the grand prize winners in the “Makin’ Wishes with Weezer” contest, and were fortunate enough to meet the rock band via webchat and also received new classroom equipment for being the winners of the contest. Mr. Gerry was named the Salina Teacher of the Year and was a semi-finalist for the state of Kansas’s Teacher of the Year in 2012. He holds a music education degree from Wichita State University, and a master’s degree from Kansas State University in educational leadership.
Please tell us about your school and overall music program.
I teach at Salina South Middle School which is a grade 6-8 building in a city with a population of nearly 50,000. Along with our guitar program, our school has vocal music, band, and orchestra classes, as well as general music classes for all grade levels.
Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.
I grew up playing baritone in band class and singing in vocal. When I went to college at Wichita State University, I double majored for a while on both instruments and then decided to focus more on the vocal music side. I am a self-taught guitarist.
How do the guitar family of instruments fit into your teaching?
I was very involved in theatre in high school and was cast as Doody in “Grease” when I was a junior. Doody, of course, is the guitar-playing character, and I was determined to pull my dad’s acoustic guitar out of the closet (which happened to be a Gibson! – my dad grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which manufactured Gibson guitars in the ’60s) and teach myself how to play while on stage. I caught the guitar fever that many of us know so well. The director of the musical got on me several times for playing guitar while offstage a little too much. From there I started finding chords to my favorite songs back on OLGA (remember OLGA?) and would play for hours every day learning songs by my favorite artists. When I started teaching (2003), I was determined that I was going to try to work guitar into my teaching somehow. Around here, in the middle of Kansas, that was unheard of! No guitar programs in the entire state that I knew of at that time.
What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school?
When I was first hired in 2003, I was hired as the sixth grade general music teacher. I taught nearly 300 sixth graders every other day for a year. It was a great job to start with, and sixth graders will always be one of my favorite grade levels to teach. I call it the end of the innocence. Not too cool for school yet, but still capable of doing some really cool things!
That year I started researching how I could get guitar incorporated into my classes. I found an organization called Teaching Guitar Workshops (TGW) offered through NAfME, NAMM, and GAMA. I signed up to take their training that summer and used that as a springboard for writing some grants. I wrote a grant to my local educational foundation for a set of 25 acoustic guitars and was surprised and elated that they granted my $3000 request. The following year (as a second year teacher with my training from TGW) I started incorporating guitar into my 6th grade general music classes. The kids LOVED it so much! In fact, I had students and parents begging me to start a strictly guitar program so they could continue learning guitar. That was my biggest obstacle—convincing my administration to add a guitar class. In fact, that was a five-year battle that I never gave up on. I’m sure it was just a squeaky wheel situation that they finally just gave into.
What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?
When I started teaching a guitar class in 2010, I had one class with 25 students. Very humble beginnings—but it has grown exponentially! I now have seven sections of guitar classes that I teach to 7th and 8th graders in our middle school. That’s nearly 200 students over the course of a school year learning to play guitar. I have five level-one classes and two advanced guitar classes (students who completed level one with an exemplary grade in that class). Parents again were clamoring for more guitar and a guitar class was added at our high school last year.
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?
Pursuing teaching guitar was the best decision I’ve ever made in my educational career. I could easily teach a traditional music class, but I saw so many kids who were not traditional music class kind of kids. That makes some of my colleagues who teach those classes upset, but you cannot deny that there are many students who are not interested in that form of music education. If we believe that music is important for EVERY kid (which I believe wholeheartedly), we have to be willing to reach those kids by other means.
“Pursuing teaching guitar was the best decision I’ve ever made in my educational career.”
I am not suggesting that we teach guitar devoid of musicianship. My students read notes just as well as students in band and orchestra. Is it easy? No. It’s a struggle, just as it is for those teachers. We play Mozart in guitar class alongside of the Beatles. Traditional, no—but it has been highly successful in reaching kids who otherwise would have NO form of music education in their educational experience from middle school throughout high school. If you are considering teaching guitar, I look back and see what got me into teaching guitar was a passion. I love playing guitar. I caught the guitar fever when I started playing, and I knew that some of my students would too. Seeing kids catch that fever is what keeps me going! That passion is key to teaching ANYTHING. If you don’t love it—don’t teach it.
Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)?
There are many, but generally I would say I’ve seen the guitar be magical for so many kids who are struggling to find themselves. As a middle school teacher—that’s where I live: kids finding their identities. And I’ve seen so many kids blossom while learning to play guitar. That’s special to see.
What do you tell your talented students who are planning to pursue music or guitar studies in high school, college after they finish with you?
I tell all my students that my number one goal is that they continue to play once they leave my class. In fact, when I see former students, I ask them that question, “Are you still playing?” That’s what I love about guitar! It’s a lifelong instrument. I can play it alone or with others. I can play beautiful melodies, or I can accompany someone or myself. It’s relevant and practical through so many genres.
Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?
What has helped my program more than anything is entering contests. I’m not talking about a music contest where you receive a superior rating, but nationwide contests. They have all just kind of fallen in our lap. The first year I started guitar class we entered a contest by the rock band Weezer. We played a Weezer song, I videotaped the class and submitted it, and we won! We won a similar contest from the band Collective Soul.
And just two years ago we won a contest from the Give a Note Foundation and Radio Disney that landed us a commercial spot on the Disney Channel. These contests have earned us lots of grant money and new instruments, but more importantly it gains us publicity and respect throughout our community. Anytime I see a contest—we enter.
What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in the Kansas school system?
We’re still in our infancy stages as far as guitar in Kansas is concerned. My classes were invited to play at the Kansas Music Educators Conference last year, and I believe we were the first group of our kind to play there. It’s still a foreign idea here. I look at states like Florida and Virginia that have guitar all-state programs and hope we can get Kansas there.
What type of arrangements and/or transcribing have you done for your school performances?
I write out nearly 80% of the music we play. Some of that is writing out roadmaps of rock songs, and some of it transcribing 3- and 4-part traditional music. There are lots of great guitar arrangements out there, but it takes lots of digging.
I also have been doing some consulting work with Quaver Music in Nashville helping them develop a guitar curriculum for their online based music program.
Do you do any musical performances or activities outside of your public school teaching duties?
I play and sing on my church’s worship team. I also will do a busking or coffeehouse solo performance every now and then.
Any last thoughts to conclude our interview?
Thanks so much for asking me for an interview! I’m humbled and honored. I love teaching guitar so much. Here is our guitar Instagram: @gerrysguitars.
You can check out a rendition of a Hendrix classic here:
Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:
- 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.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.