“The students deserve for guitar to be a true option for music education….you don’t have to have a ton of skills to get started, but you have to be willing to seriously learn the instrument, or the kids will see right through you pretty quickly.”
Don Hicks, Bryan Station High School, Lexington, KY
Subjects Taught: Guitar Ensemble, I, II, & III; Guitar Students p/Yr: 120; Years Teaching: 17; Grades Taught: 9-12
GAMA: Tell us a little about what made you decide to teach guitar?
Don Hicks: I was a Guitarist and Trumpet player growing up. I took a guitar class at my high school, but it was mostly a study hall/jam. I got my Music Ed degree in trumpet but played as much in the guitar studio as the trumpet studio, started as a band director…. I always wondered why more schools didn’t have guitar programs, why there wasn’t much of a public school outlet for guitar like there was for band/orchestra/choir. After about 10 years as a band director, I read an article in a professional journal about a guitar program in Virginia…started researching other guitar programs in public schools…which lead to attending the Teaching Guitar Workshop at Reston, VA. As a result of TGW, I started my first guitar class, and attended the Level II Teaching Guitar Workshop in St Louis in 2010.
GAMA: What did your school’s administration say when you they learned you were starting a guitar program?
Don Hicks: Administration was extremely supportive. The third year of the program, we had more kids signed up than we had room for in the two classes I was teaching. My principal extended my schedule to 4 classes, and the following year allowed me to move to a full-time Guitar position, giving up the Assistant Band position. The administrations (here and at the district level) are proud of the fact that we are able to offer performance music to such a large portion of the school population that would not get it in the traditional band/orchestra/chorus format. The Guitar program enrollment exploded here. We went from one class of 16 students to 6 classes (block schedule) and a full-time position. We currently have more students than the band or orchestra at our high school.
GAMA: Describe a typical guitar class.
Don Hicks: There is no typical guitar class! We have everything: complete beginners to shredders, and everything in between. We have a good mix of gender/SES/ethnicity in the guitar classes. The kids get a lot of basic skills in the beginning, then chords, reading, single note technique, solo classical, small & large ensemble.
GAMA: What is the most fun or rewarding element of teaching classroom guitar?
Don Hicks: I love being a part of kids going from absolutely no exposure to a musical instrument, to becoming proficient performers in such a short span of time. When kids come in with a piece of music they want to learn and I can help them get to an acceptable level of performance on that piece. And on a personal level, just getting paid to play guitar every day!
GAMA: What is the most challenging element of teaching classroom guitar?
Don Hicks: Sometimes, getting kids to believe in themselves enough to ‘see it through’, can be difficult. Also, trying to keep everyone challenged when there are so many different ability levels in every class can be a big challenge.
GAMA: What products or services would help you to teach classroom guitar?
Don Hicks: My Band colleagues use SmartMusic to great success. I would love to have access to computer tutorial type programs. I still haven’t found the ‘perfect’ guitar method book. We have classroom sets of several different method books; each one seems to be strong in some areas and weaker in others. So we rotate through different books for different techniques. I would LOVE to see more Ensemble music, especially collections that have more than 3 or 4 parts. We typically perform with 35 or more guitarists at once. I’d like to have more ‘orchestral’ type guitar music available.
GAMA: Any other thoughts or insights for teachers (currently teaching guitar or considering it)?
Don Hicks: I think that like any other music discipline, teachers should have a passion about teaching the guitar. The students deserve for guitar to be a true option for music education and not just a class that you teach to fill out your schedule. You don’t have to have a ton of skills to get started, but you have to be willing to seriously learn the instrument, or the kids will see right through you pretty quickly.
GAMA: What do you think would help you teach guitar in the future?
Don Hicks: If we had better funding for guitar programs in our district, and if our district would be willing to take a bit of a gamble on expanding guitar to the other schools within. Also, for guitar education….finding our ‘niche’ in the KMEA: organizing for curriculum standards, assessment opportunities, and generally being able to promote guitar through KMEA.
GAMA: Any other thoughts for manufacturers of guitar products?
Don Hicks: Just remember that quality of the guitar, amp, or accessory is incredibly important to student that is just starting out. If we want them to maintain guitar playing as a life-long skill, make sure that the “starter” instruments and accessories are of the best quality and playability as possible. If a kid keeps playing, they’re going to buy more instruments and accessories. But if the first instrument isn’t good enough to keep them playing, then we all lose out in the long run.
GAMA: Aside from guitars, what other products do use during your class?
Don Hicks: Music stands, straps, picks, capos, guitar stands/hangers, electric guitars & mini- amps (roland microcube), footrests, BSHS Guitar Ensemble T-shirts
GAMA: What products do your students bring to your class (include Phones,mp3 players if they are used toward the end goal of making music)?
Don Hicks: We use all the electronic media, as well as sometimes using their own home guitars, amps, etc.
GAMA: Does the school supply the instruments?
Don Hicks: Yes- a classroom set of classical guitars as well as a set of electrics and amps that we use sparingly.
GAMA: If so how often do you buy guitars and guitar products?
Don Hicks: We are constantly upgrading our guitar ‘arsenal’, adding a few nicer acoustic/electric classical for advanced students, replacing guitars that just get worn out being played 6-7 hours every day. And this year we are trying to build an inventory of rental instruments for students to use at home.
GAMA: Do you supply any accessories in class? (picks, capos, etc.)
Don Hicks: Only if it is essential to a piece of music that we are performing. I have a class set of capos that can be used. We once bought PVC Pipe connectors for students to use as slides on a piece called Carpenter Ants…… Otherwise, I encourage students to visit local music stores for accessories.
GAMA: Approximately how much were the equipment costs for your program?
Don Hicks: Our budget is based on our income from Student Class fees, Free/Reduced Lunch & Fee Waiver reimbursements, and fundraising. We typically spend about $1500.oo per year on strings, replacing guitars, or adding to our inventory. We have begun renting guitars this year (our district has a band/orchestra instrument rental policy- we just tapped onto that) because so many of my students are low SES and don’t have access to a guitar at home. My gut feeling is that these kids will go on to purchase their own guitar at some point during the year (holiday/birthday/etc).
GAMA: Did (or do) you work with a particular music products dealer when making purchases for your classroom guitar program?
Don Hicks: We worked with Wilcutt Guitars when we got our electrics- they were donated by a local musician’s family- Wilcutt helped us to get enough for a classroom set. We do a lot of online purchases, simply because money in education is so tight.
GAMA: Do your students tend to play informally? – start bands, play guitar together outside of class, etc?
Don Hicks: Yes. We’ve had several “bands” crop up. The Guitar classes are an excellent opportunity for kids to meet up with other kids that play, that they might not otherwise associate with in school.
GAMA: What percentage of your students own smartphones (iPhones, Android) with apps?
Don Hicks: I don’t have exact figures, but the majority of my students use their smartphones for some guitar-related activities. When we’re working on individual projects, I’d say that over half are using a smartphone or computer device. I am also starting to see some students using the I-rig interface and software….
GAMA: What websites do your students talk about? (Not necessarily guitar related – eg. Facebook, Twitter, Ultimate Guitar.com)
Don Hicks: Yes to those listed…. They also talk about artist websites/facebooks, some TAB/Music oriented sites that I’m not that familiar with, and online retailers like Musicians Friend, Guitar Center Etc.
GAMA: What percentage of your students receive guitar products as presents during the holidays?
Don Hicks: I’m not sure. But at this age (HS), kids showing an interest in a new hobby gives parents something to buy for at birthday/holiday times. I get a lot of emails/calls from parents asking what to get for their teenager who has just started on guitar.
GAMA: What percentage of your students purchase guitar products online?
Don Hicks: I think the majority of purchases are done in local shops, although proximity to those shops is difficult for our particular school. Kids will mostly look at ‘gear’ online, then often come to me to ask where they can find those items especially larger ticket items. My biggest challenge here is getting them to go to a reputable music store that will put them into decent instruments, instead of pawn shops….