Guitar (and Ukulele) Class in The Last Frontier State
Number 14: The State of Alaska
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
Kiel Schweizer is currently teaching the East High School Guitar Program for the Anchorage School District and recently created and implemented a new high school ukulele curriculum. His high school ukulele ensemble has been featured several times in local news, and they continue to spread the Aloha spirit wherever they perform. Mr. Schweizer has a BA in Music as well as a MA in Teaching from University of Alaska at Anchorage (UAA). Since 2005 he has worked as adjunct instructor for UAA teaching Fingerstyle Guitar classes, Guitar Chord Theory, Practical Theory, Beginning/Intermediate Ukulele classes, and Private Guitar Instruction. He has also been called upon to adjudicate state and local guitar competitions. In addition to teaching, Kiel often performs as a solo artist and as part of the Borealis Guitar Quartet.
Please tell us about your school and overall music program.
I teach guitar and ukulele classes at East High School in Anchorage, Alaska. We have a very diverse population, and a few years ago our school was determined to be the most diverse school in the nation. This year our school has also been designated Title 1.
We have an amazing Fine Arts department at East High. In addition to Band/Orchestra/Choir, we also have phenomenal teachers running our Art/Drama/Dance classes. Each of these programs boasts significant accomplishments. Our music program has been chosen for a Grammy Signature Schools Grant several times.
I am fortunate enough to have a full-time position at East teaching only guitar and ukulele. We offer Beginning/Intermediate/Advanced levels of instruction for both instruments.
Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.
I have lived in Alaska most of my life and attended school here in Anchorage. When I was 13, my sister bought a classical guitar and took a few lessons. She soon gave up—but I would sneak into her room while she was gone, pull out the guitar from under her bed, and secretly teach myself how to play using the old Mel Bay method book she had. In high school, I took a few classical guitar lessons, joined a rock band, and even signed up for the guitar class the band teacher was offering. After graduation, I was determined to go walk the earth like Caine in Fung Fu. For 10 years, I brought my trusty Alvarez Guitar in its soft-shell case through jungles, deserts, and Canadian winterlands. I busked in Prague, played music on fishing boats, and strapped that guitar to the back of my motorcycle as I toured the West Coast.
Eventually I returned to Alaska and began college at UAA to get my Bachelors and Masters degrees.
How do the guitar family instruments fit into your teaching?
It is important to me that kids get a sense of how the guitar, bass guitar, and ukulele are all related. Once a year I have all my guitar students try ukulele for a few weeks, and I make my ukulele kids transition to guitar (there are a lot more complaints about “hurt fingers” in my uke classes). And I often put together group projects involving the bass guitar, percussion, and vocals so the kids can get a real-world experience of how the guitar/uke fits in with most music today.
What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school? Now?
I was first hired as a classroom music teacher. It was there where I discovered my love for the ukulele. There were a dozen ukuleles in dusty chipboard cases hiding on the closet of my music room, and I found that kids lit up at the opportunity to take turns playing them. I used them in classes K-6 and found them to be the most effective instrument for teaching basic rhythm, accompanying songs, and even demonstrating simple chord theory.
A guitar class opened up at East High the year after I was hired, and I jumped at the opportunity to teach it. A few years later I was offered two more guitar classes, and soon I finally had a full schedule teaching guitar at East. But the next year I was horrified to see my enrollment numbers drop, so I turned my attention to the ukulele. When I brought over those ukuleles from my old elementary school, the high school guitar kids went nuts. I applied for a grant to buy a set of tenor Makala ukes and started a lunch-time ukulele club. Ukulele had not been taught in high schools in Anchorage, so I put together a ukulele curriculum, sat through meetings, and convinced our principal to offer a beginning ukulele class. The next year I added an intermediate and advanced curriculum.
What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?
I try to base much of what I do in my ukulele classes on what I’ve learned works for teaching guitar. I have a similar set of warm-ups, and a basic “cheat sheet” of notes/chords I’d like them to learn each semester. I often use flashcards to help kids learn to read notes, play rhythms, and memorize chords and chord shapes. It takes a long time for me to listen to every kid play a song, so I often present the kids with a rubric and have them grade each other’s performances. And at the end of the year we always put on a joint concert for the kids in the guitar and ukulele classes to come together.
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?
Go for it! Besides knowing how to teach the class, the biggest fear about starting a guitar/uke class I’ve heard from music teachers is that they could steal from the kids already in their other music classes. But my experience is just the opposite. The vast majority of the kids who sign up for my classes would have no interest in our music department if it weren’t for my classes. These are the kids who didn’t take music classes in junior high. Learning to play the guitar or ukulele acts like bait to get them through the door, and they often go on to try other music classes once they’re here.
“The vast majority of the kids who sign up for my classes would have no interest in our music department if it wasn’t for my classes. These are the kids who didn’t take music classes in junior high. Learning to play the guitar or ukulele acts like bait to get them through the door, and they often go on to try other music classes once they’re here.”
Building a curriculum begins with finding a good method book. For guitar, I highly recommend the two-volume set from Alfred called Sound Innovations for Guitar. It’s got great online instructional material and has an innovative way of learning notes starting on string 6, which I find helps beginners learn a better left-hand technique. For my uke classes I use both volumes of the Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book. It covers the basics of reading notes/tablature/chords and has good overviews of some basic scales.
Bear in mind that kids progress much more quickly on the ukulele. If the only material you have is a method book, you could easily cover both volumes in one semester of a high school ukulele class. So, I think it’s important to supplement the method books. Of course, there are a ton of resources online. I make a point of showing the kids how to use sites like www.ultimateguitar.com to find their favorite songs. But I’d also recommend finding some good fingerstyle solos for kids to explore. Fred Sokolow writes great books for both guitar and ukulele.
Another important point is how teachers choose to handle different skill levels. Are you teaching semester- or year-long classes? What do you do with kids who’ve already had the beginning curriculum but want to continue? Right now several of my classes are stacked with both Beginning and Intermediate students, and it is challenging to present different curricula at the same time in a way that doesn’t bore some of the kids or leave others in the dust. Without a plan in place, it’s easy for a mixed-level guitar class to turn into a kind of “lab” where kids are just on their own to check off a list of requirements.
In essence, my curriculum for both guitar and uke boils down to: notes, rhythm, and chords. When I am teaching 1st position notes and scales to beginners, I’m also teaching the intermediates the same thing in 5th position. When I’m teaching beginning kids quarter notes, the intermediates get dotted quarter notes. When beginners learn basic chord shapes, the intermediates re-learn those chords in a different voicing. I try to find ways to make subtle changes to the warmups to make them more difficult for the intermediates. And when it comes time for playing tests, I make sure the same concept is being taught to all levels even though I’m asking the more experienced players to play something harder.
Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)?
Perhaps every high school teacher has shaken the hand of a kid at graduation who might not have made it if not for their class. But on a larger scale, I’d have to say my biggest success is with my Advanced Ukulele class. I have developed it into a distinctive ukulele orchestra, kind of like a jazz band. We have percussion and every kind of ukulele you can imagine: Concert, Tenor, Electric, Low G, Baritone, Bari-Bass, and uBass. We perform original arrangements of pop songs and travel to a variety of venues. We’ve even been to perform at the Waikoloa Ukulele Festival in Hawaii several times. You can check us out at on our Facebook page.
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?
With those kids I try to have an honest discussion about what they stand to gain by pursuing music in college. The overwhelming majority of jobs in Alaska for people with music degrees involve teaching. If they are more interested in studio work or playing guitar professionally, it often entails leaving the state.
For me, playing guitar/uke is primarily a social activity. I’m not usually trying to get kids to “make it big” by playing music on the world stage. It’s more important to me that they always find a way to continue playing music for their friends and family.
Do you have any networking or advocacy tool that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?
I use our Thunderbird Ukulele Facebook page and YouTube channel mostly to promote our concerts and generate excitement for the program. I first started a YouTube channel for the guitar program and for a time I posted assignments and uploaded examples of playing tests to our classroom website. But the traffic was so low I found it hard to justify the effort.
I’ve always tried to share the teaching material I generate with my colleagues who teach guitar in the ASD. Over the last few years I’ve been revamping the curriculum for all my classes and I’m in the process of gathering all the materials I’ve generated into a Google Drive account for other guitar teachers.
What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in the Alaska school system?
I think both guitar and ukulele programs will continue to expand. Art is continually evolving, and interest in different musical genres has dramatically shifted over the last fifty years. Today, kids are more interested in these instruments than ever before—especially in a diverse school like East High. In the time I’ve been teaching guitar, I’ve seen the decline in the number of kids wanting to shred on electric guitars and an increase in kids just wanting to play chords on a uke or play root-strum on a guitar. I try to take that initial spark and push students to go even further.
What type of lesson plans have you done for your classes that may be unique?
I really value the ability of playing together with a group. As a guitarist, you really don’t have a lot of opportunity to play in a section of a large group like band or orchestra. So, I start the year with a simple three-part arrangement of something like “Low Rider” or Wipeout.” Then we move on to dividing the class into smaller groups where they are challenged to play an arrangement of a Beatles song where everyone in their group is doing different parts. I even have one kid play bass guitar and one kid try the drums. At the end of the year, the kids pick their own songs, choose their own groups, and I help them research the parts on the internet. Some just do instrumentals, and some end up breaking out the electric guitars and include keyboards, vocals, percussion, and whatever it takes to do the song justice. And the ones who sound good enough get a spot in our concert at the end of the year along with all the large group songs.
For most of the kids in my classes, that end-of-the-year concert is the highlight of the year, and I make sure everyone participates. Remember, these are the kids who didn’t take music classes in junior high. So, a big part of what I try to do with them is just break the stigma of how “scared” they are to perform. That’s why in our performances and every day in class I try to stay positive, and I’m not afraid of goofing off with them once in a while.
Do you do any musical performance or activities outside of your public school teaching duties?
Until recently I was performing with a group called Borealis Guitar Quartet. I actually played Low-G ukulele, but one of the guys had an 8-string guitar so the math still checked out for a “guitar quartet.” Since one of the members moved away, I’ve been more focused on learning some new solo jazz ukulele arrangements. I’m still a guitar player, but the ukulele has my heart. Recently I taught a ukulele workshop for the Anchorage Folk Festival, and I hope to be doing more solo work and adding to my own YouTube channel this summer.
Any last thoughts to conclude our interview?
Thanks for the opportunity to gush on and on about all my own accomplishments! Seriously, though, it’s been nice to look back at all the different things being a music teacher brings to my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:
- 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 Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Educators 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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