IU music school pairs with Templeton to teach first-graders to play guitar

Chris McConnell gives a class of first-graders some pointers as he leads a guitar lesson last week at Templeton Elementary School.

Chris McConnell gives a class of first-graders some pointers as he leads a guitar lesson last week at Templeton Elementary School.

By Mary Keck

First-graders at Templeton Elementary School are pickin’ and grinnin’ with the help of the IU Jacobs School of Music.

Their guitars are half-sized, yet the instruments look huge on the knees of the little learners. That doesn’t mean they can’t make a big sound, however.

“They’re good at loud,” Katy Strand said with a laugh. She is an associate professor of music at Indiana University. Twice a week, Strand, Chris McConnell, Petar Jankovic and assistants who are music education and performance majors at IU meet up with Kathy Nesbitt’s first-grade class.

During each lesson, 23 students can be heard down the halls as they sing and strum songs such as “Jingle Bells” under the guidance of McConnell, a graduate of IU’s music education program. The trick to teaching such a young group is “keeping activities short and moving from one to another,” McConnell said.

The students start with a chant as they take their instruments from their cases. “Left hand neck and right hand body. Turn it sideways very gently. On the left knee like a cradle. Rock the baby just a little,” they said in unison.

First-grader Alonzo Harvey practices his guitar-playing technique last week at Templeton Elementary School.

First-grader Alonzo Harvey practices his guitar-playing technique last week at Templeton Elementary School.

The chant helps the students learn not only how to hold a guitar, but also how to care for the instrument. The half-size guitars were donated to the program by Yamaha, and the C chord is marked with a small, orange sticker, while the G7 chord has a green sticker.

“Show me your best posture,” McConnell reminded them, and the first-graders sat up straight on their stools. When he announced they’d be playing “Jingle Bells,” the class erupted in cheers and wiggles. Once McConnell got them settled down again, the young musicians not only strummed the guitars, they also sang while they played and read notation.

“Jingle Bells” lyrics were displayed on a screen at the front of the room, and at the end of each line was a colored bell icon. One orange bell meant one strum on the C chord, while two green bells meant two strums with G7 held down. “Bite down on the orange chord,” McConnell instructed as they played, and the students pressed down on the string with their tiny fingers. Then, he guided them along, counting, “1, 2, 3, rest.”

The students watched McConnell and listened carefully, eager to brush their fingertips against the strings at just the right moment. If they needed help, one of the assistants walked over and helped them with their fingering or reminded them of how the guitar should be held. “Several assistants allows the lead teacher to keep class moving while kids get the individual attention they need,” Strand said.

While holiday tunes were popular with the little musicians, they also liked Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line.” When he chooses music for the first-graders, McConnell said, he tries to pick simple tunes, such as one- or two-chord folk songs.

Nevaeh Hicks, a first-grader at Templeton Elementary School, strums along last week as her class gets a lesson on playing the guitar.

Nevaeh Hicks, a first-grader at Templeton Elementary School, strums along last week as her class gets a lesson on playing the guitar.

According to Strand, plucking at the guitar strings to make music offers a variety of benefits. “They know how to hold an instrument properly and produce a sound,” she said. Although the experience may not cause a particular love of the guitar, integrating the instrument into music class will introduce the children to various types of musical learning. They use small digit technical skills, learn rhythms and chants and how to sing on pitch and perform expressively while reading notation.

It also instills confidence and opens up future possibilities. “At 6, they can say, ‘I know how,’” Strand said.

“It means so much that they can just say they played,” Jankovic said. He hopes the program will expand in the future. “We want to plant a seed that will be taken to other schools,” he said.

Even within Templeton, the program’s scope has grown. This is the third year for the students to play guitar, but it is the first time they’ve been able to access the instrument for the entire year. The increased exposure allows McConnell and the volunteers from IU to track the students’ progress. “Learning to play any instrument takes time,” Strand said. “We are very excited about the success that the kids are experiencing with the guitars!”

© Herald Times 2013

 

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