Chris Dunn called the class to order with a simple instruction:
"One, two, ready, strum."
A torrent of E minor chords — or close enough — from nearly a dozen guitars filled the room at the Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School near Patterson Park.
The smallest kids could barely get their right arms around the body of the instrument, but they found a way to strum as energetically as the others.
For the next 90 minutes, Dunn darted from student to student, making sure they had their fingers on the correct fret, offering words of encouragement.
Things turned a little chaotic at times as the class proceeded; it can be a challenge to hold the attention of 8- to 12-year-olds for that long at the end of a full school day. But a sense of purpose, as well as fun, prevailed.
The Baltimore-based Dunn, 36, who earned two degrees and a graduate performance diploma in classical guitar from the Peabody Institute, is on a mission with his after-school project.
"The guitar is not represented in the schools," he said. "I'm trying to change that."
Emphasis in pre-high school music programs is more likely to be on orchestra or marching band instruments and, perhaps, keyboards. But there is plenty of reason to add the guitar, too, considering how popular it has long been in mainstream music. Recent industry figures compiled by industry publication Musical Merchandise Review show more guitars are sold than any other instrument in this country.
Detecting a need, and still as passionate about the guitar as when he started playing it while growing up in Howard County, Dunn decided to act.
First, he created Face to Face Guitar last year — an interactive online community that allows students of all ages across the globe to take cyber lessons from highly qualified teachers.
Then he added an educational outreach to the program, involving in-person instruction, a component created specifically for Baltimore, where Dunn has lived since he was 17. He devised an online element to the outreach, too: Students can test themselves on their progress using laptops in the school library.
Dunn now spends several hours each week at Commodore Rodgers and several other city public schools, including Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle and Hampstead Hill Academy (a couple of other guitarists share the teaching load at some of the schools).
"Fifty percent of the students take the class just for fun," Dunn said. "They know the guitar from pop songs, and they have a great sense of syncopation. In every class there are at least two people who really want to study. ... It's fun to see their eyes light up."
Dunn brings to the project an entrepreneurial background. He launched his first venture a decade ago, around the time he was working on his master's degree at Peabody. Dunn is president, owner and featured artist of Classical Guitar Ceremonies Inc., which supplies guitarists and ensembles for hundreds of weddings and other occasions each year up and down the East Coast and as far away as Los Angeles.
"I've made my bread and butter from that for 10 years," he said.
Enough to risk bankrolling Face to Face Guitar himself.
The main online project (facetofaceguitar.com) is still in its early stages, but already offers instruction in classical, jazz, rock, fusion, and R&B genres. Sign-up and several features are free; online lessons start at $35 for a half-hour.
Dunn added the Baltimore school project, which has now grown into a major focus. And another financial responsibility.