Original Published 19:23 Jun 07, 2022

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Three years after Arabella Hrabarchuk graduated from Dakota Collegiate’s guitar program, she returned to her alma mater to strum alongside current students at their year-end recital last week.

The 21-year-old said she enjoyed Ric Schulz’s guitar course so much she happily came back to play a set list including Save Your Tears by The Weeknd, The Killers’ Somebody Told Me and Wonderwall by Oasis — a recital cliché cementing the welcome return of school concerts after repeated COVID-19 disruptions.

“Learning guitar in high school is kind of like learning to drive a car because it is a skill that will actually take you places… both literally and metaphorically,” she said.

Hrabarchuk said the ability to play guitar, which she started learning in public school in Grade 6, has brought on many opportunities, including invites to perform at venues in the community. In her view, every school should offer guitar lessons.

Over the last 25 years, the number of classroom guitar programs in the province has more than quadrupled — a trend local music educators attribute to the widespread appeal of the string instrument, pop songs on lesson plans, and their passionate colleagues.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which overhauled choir and band instruction due to public health concerns about transmission via aerosol production and prompted music teachers to get creative, has also made room for more guitar education.

“We have a very rich history of band and choral programming in Manitoba, and these courses do a wonderful job of meeting the needs of many students in schools, but there’s a large demographic of students who don’t participate in music,” said Randy Haley, a teacher who has been researching the growing popularity of guitar education.

Guitar courses are a great way to serve a student population that has long been underserved so more learners can reap the benefits of music education, he said.

Haley said his guitar students at J.H. Bruns Collegiate appreciate how easy it is to get started because “a couple chords open the door to so much music.”

“If you give kids the opportunity to do fun things, they usually take you up on it,” said Lindsey Collins, president of the Manitoba Classroom Guitar Association, who noted passionate and qualified guitar teachers are behind the surge in successful programs.

The professional association started tracking the total number of schools offering guitar in 1995. At the time, there were 23 programs in the directory. By 2007, that figure had risen to 45. It’s approximately 100 in 2021-22.

“It’s a good solo instrument and it can be played in an ensemble. You don’t need to have 30 other friends to make music,” Collins said.

The longtime music teacher said the instrument’s ubiquity, transportability and affordability are also appealing factors that have drawn schools to provide specialized music classes and hooked students to sign up for them. It costs around $4,000 to purchase 20 guitars to start a program, he said, noting that price tag is not enough to purchase one quality tuba.

Grade 12 student Denzel Bird said school guitar lessons, as well as encouragement from his teacher and mother, have given him the confidence to start busking at parks in Winnipeg.

“(Guitar class) is a safe zone. It’s somewhere where I can be myself and do what I love. I have a huge passion for music — and having others hear me and saying they like it, it’s really awesome,” said the 17-year-old, who performed his first concert solo under a spotlight June 2 at Dakota.

Following his acoustic and bass performances, during which proud family members cheered from the crowd, Denzel was beaming.

There was a single guitar section at the St. Vital high school in 2010. Now, there are seven of them.

The high school’s longtime guitar teacher, also known as “godfather guitar,” Schulz said his course sells itself. “It is so versatile. You can take it anywhere. It fits in perfectly with the church group, around the Christmas tree or around the campfire, or on a Friday night with your friends.”

Schulz is a proponent of music literacy and uses classical songs to teach pedagogy, but he defers to music charts to engage students with modern compositions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced his view on the value of public guitar education, he said, noting making music is good for mental health.

This item reprinted with permission from Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba