By Elisa Crouch
ST. LOUIS • Larry Burnett, a second-grader, watched intently as his music teacher began distributing the guitars, stored in a second-floor closet at Adams Elementary School.
This is the part of Larry’s day that he enjoys most — the two hours after school three times a week when he has his left foot on a foot stand, a guitar on his knee and his fingers on the strings.
And now it’s time.
Larry held the guitar and plucked a tune. His favorite song, he said, is “Saw Dodge Blues.” Music teacher Larissa Young stood at the front of the room, signaling the start of group practice.
“I like to perform,” Larry said. “It makes me smile.”
For two years, students at this elementary school in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood have been learning classical guitar in an after-school club that’s part of a growing trend. Guitar instruction is flourishing in more than a dozen schools in the St. Louis, Jennings, Ferguson-Florissant and Normandy districts — in schools that are predominantly high-poverty and African-American.
Numerous studies point to the benefits of music training for young children. It helps build fine-motor skills and physically develops the side of the brain that processes language. It helps improve attention span, bolsters the ability to manage anxiety and improves emotional control.
Music teacher Larissa Young leads classical guitar students through the notes, watched by Adarah Sanders (left) and Larry Burnett, during after school rehearsal at Adams Elementary onTuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. The program serves students in kindergarten through sixth grades. Photo by Robert Cohen, firstname.lastname@example.org
“It’s taught them discipline,” Young said. “I have some children in there — you wouldn’t know they have emotional problems.”
But most often, music instruction is one of the first things cut in underfunded, high-poverty schools.
Almost three years ago, a guitar duo performed at Adams Elementary at an assembly. Principal Cameron Coleman watched a young boy, who normally struggles with behavior, transformed as he listened to the music.
“As I watched him, he watched with so much intent,” Coleman said. “I watched this student sort of lean in and try to assess how to make the tune he was hearing. I thought to myself, ‘We have to have this.’ ”
Young agreed. She began taking lessons on Saturdays to learn how to play and teach classical guitar. Donations to the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society and from a teacher bought the guitars. An educator from the guitar society often co-teaches alongside Young.
More than 100 students were on a waiting list last spring to join the club. The school is contemplating adding a second one.
During most practices, Cierra Geigers, a fifth-grader, directs the students, moving her right hand up, down and side to side. She reminds the guitarists to pay attention to the tempo. They sit on the edge of their plastic chairs, backs straight, with guitars on knees. One recent afternoon, they practiced reading and playing quarter notes posted on an overhead screen.
Some in the group are as young as preschool age.
“It’s helped me become a better leader,” Cierra said. “I like working with the younger ones.”
Kelcy Henderson is in first grade. Benjamin Berry is in third. Aniala Kamkwalala is one of the kindergartners.
First grader Kelcy Henderson, 6, joins members of the Adams Elementary School's classical guitar program as they perform before the St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education meeting, on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Photo by Robert Cohen, email@example.com
“It’s going to open many opportunities for all of the children,” said Aniala’s mother, Alaina Kamkwalala. “It’s not the most popular instrument, but it seems to have grabbed their attention.”
The after-school guitar club is among a number of programs at Adams Elementary that are funded not by the school district but through private support.
An auxiliary organization called Friends of Adams has directed thousands of dollars toward providing programs and enrichment opportunities designed to bolster academic achievement and personal growth for the 300 or so students at the school.
The support has allowed the school to offer Saturday school, where about 80 children get extra help in reading, math and technology. It financed a garden outside. It has also increased student exposure to the arts, and science, technology, engineering and math education.
The music plays into the school’s effort to eliminate suspensions, integrate restorative justice in discipline practices, and help teachers better understand how to address behavior and responses caused by trauma.
For some children, music training is therapy. The school’s data show that most of the students involved in guitar club have shown significant academic gains in the time they’ve been playing.
“It’s a part of a larger picture,” Coleman said of the guitar club. “It is one of several things we’re doing with intent.”
Two hours a day, three days a week, the 15 children in the guitar club listen to the sounds their instruments make. They play “Spy Tune,” “Sleeptime,” “Floating in the Cosmos.” Their faces are fixed in concentration as they focus on the notes, their fingers and their timing.
“It makes me feel happy,” said Adarah Sanders, a first-grader. “I like learning how to play.”