“Honestly, I thought guitar would be a little easier because there are a few more styles than say fiddle,” Anderson said. “I could tell with most of the students that we already had in band that if it wasn’t Lynyrd Skynyrd and ‘Cottoneye Joe’ or whatever, it was some kind of rock music. And those are guitar-centric styles of music.”
Anderson said there had been a guitar club the year before, so he already had a group of interested students. And although he was no expert on guitar, Anderson, a trombonist, credits former student Ed Baker, who had evidently grown up playing guitar, with assisting his teaching efforts that first year.
Initially Anderson allowed students to bring whatever kind of guitar they could find and they would get together and play. His class has evolved into solid curriculum-based guitar instruction that could help students transition to college as music majors specializing in guitar. The class has also produced performers in local bands and musicians with church worship groups. But Anderson said his original intent didn’t involve performance or college.
“I was more interested in reaching some students who might be at risk for dropping out of high school. At the time you could drop out at age 16, and we thought the kids who might sign up for guitar class were the kids we were afraid might drop out of school,” Anderson said. “I’ve had three or four kids who’ve come back and said, ‘You know I stayed in high school because I had guitar class to come to.’ I’m grateful that class meant something to them.”
Anderson is also a staunch advocate of music education, saying music exists for a variety of reasons.
“There’s the psychological, social, emotional benefits of music study. If we have happy, supported kids who have a good community of support around them, they’re going to do better in school - even without the volumes of research that clearly indicates that there are cognitive benefits, including mathematical skills, spatial awareness, pattern recognition, and more,” Anderson said. “By being a literate musician, one who can read notations and particularly those who read notations while physically manipulating an instrument, there are cerebral pathways between the left and right hemispheres of the brain created; pathways that those who don’t have the opportunity to study music don’t experience. Bilateral communication of the brain makes the connection stronger between the analytical and expressive sides of the brain.”
Currently the class works with acoustic guitars exclusively, having moved from the still string acoustics to the nylon string classical guitars. Although a few times a semester, Anderson will encourage his students to “bring in the electrics,” and they’ll plug in the amps and the sound system and get loud. The class accepts ability levels from “flat beginners” to students who will be featured performers in an all-state guitar orchestra in February.
“We have kids who came to class on Jan. 3 who didn’t know the E string from the A string, and here they are playing what I hope will be a well-polished performance one month later,” Anderson said. “So we have kids that do solo and ensemble festivals now and play standard repertoire. That has evolved for us having the larger ensemble. So we now have the beginnings of what they call a guitar orchestra.”
A long-time friend and fellow music educator brainstormed the idea to have an all-state guitar orchestra. The gathering in February will be the first annual Kentucky All-State Guitar Orchestra, at which Anderson will be sending two accomplished guitarists and HCHS students, Luke Hall and Zach Dowden. Henry County High School is one of five schools, including the Youth Performing Arts School in Louisville, that will send musicians to the conference and concert.
Hall and Dowden will be featured performers and then Anderson’s entire guitar class will be featured as an example of successful guitar education.
Dowden, a junior who has been playing guitar for about three years now, has taken guitar class every year of high school and intends to take the class his senior year as well. Influenced by cousin and local performer Robby Cox, Dowden was gifted with a hand-me-down guitar when he was about 14 and he hasn’t stopped playing since.
“I just love playing guitar. It’s pretty much all I do,” Dowden said. “I really like learning how to play different music – whether it’s something country or experimental, like Pink Floyd, some of that far-out stuff I really like to learn.”
Dowden credits class and countless hours of practice with leading to opportunities to perform with local musicians Don Edlin and Jamie Tingle, as well as a band in which Anderson plays.
And although right now Dowden doesn’t think he’ll pursue music as a full-time career, he plans to keep playing guitar – just as a hobby or maybe as a side gig to a “real job.”
But Anderson hopes the class equips each of his students with the skills they need to take the next step with guitar – either as a college or career pathway.
“I’ve communicated with college professors regarding the types of skills an incoming freshman music major, especially in guitar, should have, and I make sure that during the semester they get most of that instruction. They may not acquire all the skills, but at least they know what those skills are and can continue to work on them,” Anderson said. “It’s not like I’m trying to make music majors, but I want to make sure that the kids I have in class at least know it’s an option and what’s involved with pursuing that major.”