Robert Hay has an easy-to-remember shorthand for remembering the most basic of guitar chords.
The system consists of terms related to the shapes and figures that the fingers make on the guitar fretboard – because of the diagonal aesthetic of the fingers, the C major chord is the "Stairstep Chord"; due to its blocky, squarish shape, the E minor is the "Quiet Coyote"; the D major's layout of the first and third fingers and their representation of animal ears is the root of the nickname "The Mickey Mouse Chord."
These nicknames have a special kind of approachability for the students in Coyote Hills Elementary School's Guitar Club, a group of kids who meet after school on a weekly basis to learn the basics of the instrument. The terms are simple and memorable, and they lack the stuffy rigidity music theory that might drive away young students looking for a mode of creative expression.
That sense of fun and informality has been at the heart of the Guitar Club since Hay, Coyote Hills' art teacher, kicked off the meetings shortly after the school opened in 2005. The free, after-school club has always been about helping interested students to find an enjoyable, pressure-free way to tackle a new instrument.
"I'm here to have fun with them and to teach them. It helps encourage the students who are passionate to play," Hay said, explaining that the group dynamic of the club adds another element to the instruction. "They can collaborate with one another and talk to each other about the guitar – that's what I like about it."
It's an approach that mirrors Hay's own experience to learning and playing the guitar. Hay took part in a similarly structured guitar group in seventh grade and didn't pick up the instrument again until college. It was his turn playing in the Coyote Hills Band, a group of teacher musicians who played at assemblies during the school's first year of operation that ultimately led to the creation of the after-school club.
"A parent saw me playing guitar and asked if I give private lessons," Hay said. "People caught wind of it. They'd poke their heads into the art room and ask if I taught. It spiraled into me starting a club. I figured if there were that many kids interested in guitar, I could offer instruction to a group."
Since its inception, Hay has drawn on input from the school's music teachers for tips on lesson structures and pedagogy. Financial support for the class came from the school's extra-curricular activities fund, and Coyote Hills community members also came through to support the foundling music class. From the outset, parents, teachers and other benefactors donated old, unused guitars so that any student looking to start learning had access to an instrument.
Eventually, the Guitar Club supplanted the faculty band at school events; now, the Guitar Club classes culminate in student performances at assemblies. They play old rock and roll tunes and beloved pop staples – students have a chance to play individually and in an ensemble.
"The kids take over the role of musicians," Hay said. "They learn a song, and at the end of the assembly, the guitar kids get up and play songs for the rest of the school. That's the grand finale."
On a recent Thursday afternoon, a group of almost a dozen fourth- and fifth-graders reported to the art room to review chords, practice their strumming patterns and learn about the technical terms for the different parts of the instrument. Some students who didn't have guitars of their own found instruments waiting for them, while others came prepared with their own guitars from home. Before he kicked off the formal instruction, Hay circled the room, tuning up strings and fielding basic questions about the instruments.
William Pettigrew, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, worked out chords and melodies on an acoustic Yamaha. He told his fellow Guitar Club members about his favorite chords – G major and A major – and he picked out the opening riff from an old AC/DC tune. Pettigrew found inspiration to learn guitar from hearing his mother play, and from seeing the school's Guitar Club perform at school assemblies.
"My mom used to play a lot of old guitar songs, and I just thought to myself, 'I'd really like to be able to play those, too,'" Pettigrew said. "I like playing. I like getting into the rhythm and just jamming.
"I want to get really good at it so that I can impress all my friends and family," he added with a wry smile.