Guitar Class in 50 States


If you’re like me, you’ve joined a number of professional organizations because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now your inbox is flooded with NAfME updates which you don’t have the time to sift through in order to find what’s relevant for the guitar instructor.

One place to start is their “Guitar Class in 50 States” project which features short interviews from teachers around the US who have built programs and offer advice and observations.

It’s interesting to see how much of their advice rings true, and how much of it is echoed by other contributors. Here is some advice worth passing on, with my added comments in blue.


(Dr. Ricardo Paz, guitar program Director at Phoenix Elementary School District #1 and founder of the Herrera Panther Guitar Ensemble)

Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?

“The best way to promote your guitar program is with your own guitar students. They need to play constantly in many venues, so people know them and can spread the word among their friends and community. Having a professional website for the guitar program is a great tool—and Facebook as well.”

DR: I’ve had my ensemble play incidental music at school theatre productions, graduations, and other school events. Be sure to scope out the proposed venues for ambience and noise issues. Depending on the size of your group, a classical guitar ensemble can easily get lost or drowned out in a social setting like a public reception.

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 let my students know which high schools and universities have the best guitar programs, not only in the States, but around the world as well. I have helped them prepare for their auditions, find scholarships, interact with renowned guitarists through guitar festivals, and write letters of recommendation as part of the school’s admission requirements.”

DR: If possible, bring in a representative from a post-secondary guitar program to speak to your advanced class about pursuing a professional life on the guitar – whether an admissions rep, faculty member, or practicing student. But students should know there is more than one way to pursue guitar as profession. Introduce them to the world of the luthier, with a field trip if possible or bringing someone in to talk about the craft and demonstrate.


(Steve Eckels, guitar instructor at both Flathead High School and Glacier High School in Kalispell, Montana.

Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?

“My classes have an open house every three weeks during which the students perform new songs for their friends who receive passes to visit our class.”

DR: I love this idea. For the beginner classes it’s a great way to introduce the audience experience. Make sure your administrators are also invited. It’s a bit of a risk, but I’d also encourage options for students and other teachers to observe a rehearsal. Audiences love seeing the product. They should also get a chance to see the process.

How do the guitar family of instruments fit into your teaching?

“I am a guitar specialist, so guitar is the primary focus. I have recently added a component of guitar history to my classes. We are not a performance class, but we do offer two concerts a year in which the students choose their own music.”

DR: Kudos to Mr. Eckels for eschewing the performance class model so prevalent in American high schools. Adding a guitar history component is a brilliant idea, and it’s a form of learning that adapts well to distance learning. I recently created a lesson on Carter style technique in Google classroom. Students were asked to view a video of the Carters performing “Wildwood Flower” and describe in detail what they observed (i.e. instrumentation, form, technique, etc.) They then read an article about the song and the family and were asked to reflect on what they found most interesting and why. They were then shown step-by-step notation examples, and the full transcription of “Wildwood Flower”, as well as video demonstrations, and asked to submit video of their own attempts at it.


(NAfME Council for Guitar Education Southern Division Representative Christopher Perez is a leader in the field and one of the reasons why Florida remains strong in the guitar education movement)

Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)?

“If my students graduate and have developed a deep appreciation for the arts, support the arts, and become good citizens and lifelong learners, then I consider my being their teacher a success. Professionally, they have become everything in-between; a tattoo artist, teachers, doctors, engineers, military service, and much more. I keep in touch with them after they graduate high school. All of them are doing well and leading successful lives, I’m happy to say.”

DR: The best reward of being a music teacher of any kind is not the feedback from an administrator. It’s the student who finds you out after one of you has moved on with a desire to say “thank you.” My teaching at the International School of Minnesota years ago included a unit on pop music history. A one-off lesson on the development of punk inspired one young boy to insist his parents take him to Barnes & Noble to pick up a CD of the Clash. Four years later (I was now teaching in Switzerland), my inbox included an email from this boy who randomly listened to “London Calling” and felt compelled to track me down and tell me how much my class meant to him. Stories like that don’t appear on a CV, but they validate your passion.

Also this

More general advice comes from this March 2015 post by Glen McCarthy, who spent 30 years as the director of the guitar program at Robinson Secondary School, Fairfax, Virginia. Under his direction, the Robinson Guitar Ensemble was consistently awarded superior ratings at adjudicated festivals. In 1981 Robinson was the first recipient of the Guitar & Accessories Manufacturers Association’s award to recognize innovative guitar programming in the United States. In the 2003-2004 school year, he was nominated for Fairfax County Teacher of the Year.

McCarthy’s advice is in bold. My two cents worth follows in blue.

10 Ideas for a Successful Guitar Class

Keep your expectations low and your compliments high!

Expect more from your students than they might expect from themselves. Many of them will have doubts about their ability to tackle the skills and literacy. Don’t wait for a raised hand. Initiate the one-on-one and say ‘show me what you can do and what you don’t yet understand.” Keep those compliments coming, but be creative. I call out students who have shown the most progress, or students who had the courage to advocate for themselves by asking for help outside class.

Do not push through materials too quickly!

I establish an outline for weekly goals, but let students work ahead as they’re able. This allows them more time to pursue independent extensions, and gives me more time with those who need it. My students are not on a factory line. They can make up any lesson until the last day of quarter. They all have to find their own initiative and momentum.

Create the Desire for Mastery as soon as possible and keep it alive!

I post names daily of students who have mastered weekly assessments – not to shame the others, but to give them incentive to see their name on the list with their friends and peers. Again, I’m quick to publicly acknowledge the dark horse who upped their game. Let’s face it, the rewards for success in a music class are more magical than getting the right result on a calculator. One of my high school boys, an 11th grade boy whose first language is Somali, plodded his way through “BINGO” – an 8th note lesson. Part way through, his eyes lit up as he said, “Hey! Just like the song!”

Create a realistic timeline. Know EXACTLY how many days of contact you have for the quarter, the semester and the year. Know EXACTLY how much material you will need to keep students engaged every minute of every class period.

I thought I was a lone organizational nerd. But he’s absolutely right. I’ve learned to tweak my pacing with experience for a better flow. My calendar planning takes note of interruptions such as holidays, conference days, and school events.  Know exactly how many days you have, take advantage of the full weeks, and be mindful of how even a four day weekend interrupts your flow.

Keep students engaged! The more they are playing, the better things will be!

I also include a theory workbook component to my course outline. So between the skill assessments, the workbook assignments, and the ensemble parts, there’s plenty to keep students occupied and learning. I also keep a library of style method books and solos that students can explore if they’ve exhausted other options. Or, if space allows, put those advanced students together on small ensemble material.

No free time!

There’s always what the IB calls the Development Workbook, or Portfolio. Students should be encouraged to reflect on their learning, and to constantly make revisions to goals, and identify strategies for improvement and next steps. And ‘No free time’ doesn’t have to mean ‘no independent time.’ If an ambitious student wants to explore some new riffs, an alternate tuning, or a tango passage, they only need to say so. Just make a note to follow up on their experience.

Classroom management – Caring for the instruments.

This is often overlooked, but students need to take ownership of what’s provided for them. In your first week, make time to demonstrate a guitar’s construction even on a simple level – addressing its vulnerable and moving parts. Demonstrate the best way to leave a guitar unattended, and how you expect instruments to be returned to storage. Assign rotating prefects to be sure this is done properly. If necessary, be specific. I’ve had to remind students that a guitar’s backside is not to be used as a writing desk.

Classroom management – Do not tolerate talking or playing while you are giving instruction!

On this, I usually just stop and look at the culprit until it’s obvious to the rest of the class who’s wasting everyone else’s time. If it persists, I’ve been fortunate to have other students intervene by calling out their peers.

Teach, reteach and teach again!

I’m not sure what is meant here. The old proverb tells us to measure twice and cut once. But through reflection and student assessment we sometimes need to rethink how we taught that last lesson. The take-away, then is not to repeat ourselves, but to find new ways to frame the content. Perhaps another option is to have a student “re-teach” the lesson, or to couch it in a series of questions like an oral group quiz, or a ‘test’ in which every student is required to formulate a question.

Do regular performance assessments and do them in a way that they do not appear to be a “playing test.”

This is a good idea, and one that I’ve experimented with. Start by asking everyone to play a simple exercise together (perhaps a few times in a row to establish familiarity). Then have them play again, but half the class at a time. Keep breaking it down into smaller groups so you can observe who’s struggling. As necessary, take a moment to make corrections, give personal guidance, etc. Once you’re satisfied that everyone has successfully performed the assessment in a group setting of any size, assign credit.

Thanks to NAfME for this content and allowing me to share it.