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Talking By Guitar

Perry Smith talks by guitar with one of his bandmates from the New West Guitar Group Thursday afternoon during a workshop at Northland Preparatory Academy. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Jake Bacon

The low chatter of restless teenagers gave way to bluesy guitar chords and improvisational picking Thursday as Northland Preparatory Academy students got a musical lesson about the history of jazz.

“It’s America’s art form,” said Perry Smith, one of the three jazz guitar players who make up the New West Guitar Group. “It’s a cultural connection to the history of America. Classical music was more developed in Europe, while jazz is a truly American art form. The spirit of jazz is this idea of working together and of improvisation, doing things on the spot. It’s a very American thing.”

The New West Guitar Group is a jazz guitar trio based in Los Angeles and New York that travels the country mentoring students. NPA guitar teacher and local guitar studio owner Thomas Byers received a $1,400 grant from the Flagstaff Cultural Partners to bring the group to Flagstaff last week. 

More than 700 students at NPA, Flagstaff Leadership Academy and Pine Forest Charter School were invited to two-hour workshops, where the trio performed hits from ragtime through modern jazz, all the while explaining how the techniques that define jazz music evolved during the 1900s. 

“It opens your mind to music that you sometimes forget about,” said NPA junior Caleb Ring.

Good way to connect

Ring is one of more than 80 students in the guitar program at NPA. The visit from New West Guitar Group gave his fellow guitar students the chance to talk to musicians who make a living playing the musical styles they are learning in school.

“We were working on most of what they said in class, so it’s nice to get a really good handle on it, to see it in the real world,” said NPA freshman Cece Barrera.

Giving young people that “real-world” look at jazz guitar performance is one of the main reasons New West Guitar Group holds clinics for middle and high school students.

“A good way for us to get connected to the community is to go into the schools and connect with the young people in the community,” said trio member John Storie. “Oftentimes, we connect with a lot of young students interested in music and even interested in pursuing music as a career.”

NOT ALL SCHOOL

One of those students is Michael Haran. The NPA sophomore took a lesson with Storie at Thomas Byers Guitar Studio on Saturday. He hopes to study music at University of California-Berkeley after he graduates from high school.

“I know I want to play guitar,” Haran said.

NPA Principal Toni Keberlein said meeting professional musicians helps students like Haran feel good about how hard they are working to become successful after high school. She also said there are other benefits to exposing kids to music.

“Besides the fact that music helps the mathematical brain, kids finding ways to balance their lives so it’s not all school — things that they can do for the rest of their lives — that’s really important,” Keberlein said. “That’s what makes them good, rounded citizens.”

Smith, Storie and bandmate Jeff Stein met when the three of them were studying studio/jazz guitar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Since 2007, the trio has performed around 500 shows in four countries. Stein said they include school visits in their touring schedule because jazz has had such a profound influence on their lives.

“We all heard jazz music early on. For most of us, it was sometime around the end of elementary school or the beginning of middle school, around the same age many of these students are,” Stein said. “That’s a big reason why we do these clinics. We’re reaching kids at the same time that we heard the music originally, ourselves.”

RIGHT NOTES AT NPA

Keberlein said jazz music can help students perform better in school because it teaches them a new way to think.

“One of the beauties of jazz is, it’s improv,” Keberlein said. “They have to be thinking about it all the time. It’s not something that they memorize and play. It’s critical thinking.”

Keberlein holds up the NPA guitar program as one of the shining examples of how a charter school can be flexible enough to meet the needs of individual students. And she credits Byers with making it all possible. 

When Byers took over the NPA guitar program four years ago, there were only a handful of students taking guitar. Now, it is a robust, four-tiered program serving nearly a fifth of the NPA student body. 

Byers said he wants his students to get a strong music education and so much more.

“I hope they get camaraderie out of it,” Byers said. “I hope they get discipline out of it. I hope they get a sense of creativity and how to express themselves out of it. I hope it gives them great memories when they’re older, for sure. When they look back, no matter what they’re doing, I want them to be like, ‘That added so much to my life.’”

His next goal is to get the rest of the city to embrace guitar as a way to enrich students’ lives.

“My aspiration is to try to get guitar programs like this program rolling in all Flagstaff schools,” Byers said.

Michelle McManimon can be reached at 556-2261 or MMcManimon@azdailysun.com.

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