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Baltimore guitarist brings lessons into school classrooms

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 ( 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.

"My interest is to get as many guitar people in the country in one space as possible, a communal, info-sharing combination of Wikipedia meets Facebook and YouTube," Dunn said.

Dunn added the Baltimore school project, which has now grown into a major focus. And another financial responsibility.

"I borrowed money on credit cards and looked for those offers that let you pay it back at zero percent interest," Dunn said. "I bought about 60 acoustic guitars for the schools. They're good, entry-level models that hold their pitch and cost only $45 each. They're probably going to look like they've been through a war shortly, but that's OK."

Some schools and organizations which provide after school programs have chipped in money for the project; some parents have as well. In the future, Dunn may file for nonprofit status, which could open up funding sources.

For now, he seems to be managing — and making his mark. School officials give his project high grades.

"Students were thrilled to have this program here," said Geraldine Swann, director of community outreach at Hampstead Hill Academy. "And parent feedback has been positive. They all say the same thing: 'My child loves Mr. Chris.'"

Parents who cannot afford private guitar lessons for their children have expressed particular appreciation for Face to Face, Swann added.

Similar stories can be heard at Commodore Rodgers, which offers Face to Face in association with Elev8 Baltimore, an organization that partners with city schools to support enhanced learning opportunities.

Nikiea Redmond, Elev8 Baltimore's coordinator of out-of-school-time programs for Commodore Rodgers, reports that "parents are excited that the guitar has given their children a chance to learn something that will stick with them throughout their lives."

One of those children is Pria Crooms, 12. She had studied violin before trying out the class and took to the guitar. "The most difficult thing is probably reading music, but I'm getting used to it," Pria said. "My parents got me a guitar for Christmas after I started taking the class."

It's too soon to tell how far any of the students will go with the instrument. One of them sounds at least open to the possibility of a musical future. Jawon Burch, 12, got his first experience playing guitar through Dunn's class at Commodore Rodgers.

Jawon showed promise from the start, enough that Dunn gave him a guitar so he could practice at home (the instruments are usually stored at the school for safer keeping). Asked if he was thinking about a musical career, Jawon hesitated.

"I'm thinking of being a basketball player," he said. He thought a few more seconds, then added: "Can you be rich and play the guitar? Like a million dollars?"

Students spend some time during each class gathered around the chalkboard, as Dunn tests their abilities to read music notation and, through clapping drills, get familiar with rhythms.

But most of the class time is spent with hands on guitars, learning chords and playing through short pieces, including the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

"It's a simple approach, but it lets them play a song, teaches them some chords and lets them improvise," Dunn said of his teaching method. "The challenge is to keep them mentally here for 90 minutes."

Whenever he demonstrates a passage for the class, Dunn's own credentials are on display. His teachers at Peabody included Manuel Barrueco, one of world's foremost classical guitarists, and that top-level training is reflected in Dunn's refined technique and vibrant expression.

He tries to instill some basic professional concepts along with the rudiments, including the value of silence before and after playing a piece. That lesson doesn't always hit home (various conversations are apt to break out around the room as attention drifts), but Dunn's amiable manner and evident enthusiasm help get the kids to focus.

"I've taught privately, and that's ideal for learning," he said. "But some good things can come out of class guitar. Kids can get inspired by others."

To stoke that inspiration, Dunn, using his iPhone, regularly records students playing a song and makes CDs of the results to give them. They also get a goal to work toward — a mini-concert for the whole school. And Dunn whips up certificates for everyone who competes the class.

During the after-school sessions, Dunn frequently tries to bolster the students' confidence.

"If you make a mistake, keep going," he told a recent class at Commodore Rodgers. "No one will notice. Let it go behind you."

When he senses a dip in their interest level, Dunn has a surefire enticement for the students — a chance to solo using a guitar he sets up with a reverb amp.

That can bring out the inner, would-be heavy-metal rocker in the quietest of them, if only in gestures and facial expressions — the kids' repertoire is pretty tame at this point. A few, though, are apt to try their hand at improvising when prompted, while the rest of the class lays down a chord and a beat.

Dunn followed a pretty strong beat in his youth.

"For me, joining a rock band in Columbia at 11 was amazing," he said. "I was so excited about 'Purple Haze,' but I ended up choosing Bach."

Now that he's also chosen an extra profession as after-school teacher, Dunn has lots of ideas about developing Face to Face Guitar. He envisions teaming his class up with students studying the recorder, for example.

He'd also like to showcase talent, creating a guitar quartet from the four best in a class and, eventually, a city-wide guitar orchestra.

"If I can pull together a few more schools and get more parental support, I can do a lot more with this," Dunn said. "And if someone from a Baltimore school becomes a great musician because of the class, that would be icing on the cake."

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