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Helmut Schmidt, Published December 06 2010

West Fargo guitar class attracts broader group of students to music

It’s 8:39 a.m., and for West Fargo High School’s guitar class, it’s “Play and Tell” time.

“They play something they figured out on their own. And hopefully amaze us,” teacher Mark Berntson said. “I think that will be pretty cool.”

Of the 16 students in the class, junior William Swenson is the bravest, setting himself up as the first to strum in front of the group.

It’s when he gets to the opening bars of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” that Berntson comes alive.

“Ay, ay, ay!” Berntson chimes in as Swenson plays. “Ay, ay, ay!”

The Ozzy imitation draws laughs from his students, breaking some of the performance tension.

When Swenson’s done, Berntson gives him a verbal high-five.

“Yeah, cool. Very cool.”

Then he probes to get Swenson to share where he learned the chords and fingerings for the songs. Was it a website? A video? A friend?

It’s a process repeated with each student who plays.

At times, Berntson offers tips on how to play a jazz riff or improve fingerpicking. His goal for the semester-long class is to teach each student to be an independent musician, able to read music, play alone or in a group, and play some favorite songs.

“To be able to play any instrument is a huge gift. To be able to play an instrument as socially acceptable as guitar is even bigger. This is the next 70 years of their lives. What a great thing to be able to do!” Berntson said.

Pilot project

Berntson, the school’s band teacher, said the idea for the class came several years ago, but he finally got the OK for a pilot project this year.

He read how guitar classes were good for students not focused on band or choir but attracted to music. They’re also seen as a way to keep students from dropping out.

The response so far is encouraging.

Registration was limited to juniors and seniors and closed to band or orchestra members because they play an instrument, Berntson said. Still, 106 students applied for the 16 slots this semester and 18 slots second semester.

Several students are glad they made the cut.

Tilar Britt, a junior, said his father used to play bass in a band.

“I think it would be pretty cool to play with my dad,” he said. “It’s the most enjoyable class of the day. … It helps relieve a lot of stress.”

Seniors Abbey Immer and Jon DuShane want to earn money as musicians.

Immer wants to play and sing in coffee shops and other venues. She likes that the class provides all the resources to learn the instrument. But classes for more advanced players are needed, she said.

“It’s a good class to invest in,” she said.

DuShane plays drums in a band, but wanted to learn the guitar to better relate to guitarists’ problems.

“I think it’s going to be nice down the road. It’s not something you’re going to forget,” DuShane said.

Teacher learns, too

Berntson, who plays trumpet, French horn and piano, is learning the guitar, too. He takes lessons from Minnesota State University Moorhead assistant professor Nick Fryer, who is also a consultant for the class.

Between lessons, learning on his own, and a couple hours of practice a night, “I sort of know what I’m doing, Berntson said.

As crazy as it sounds, it’s not unusual for a band teacher to guide a student without being a master of the instrument he’s teaching, he said.

“Many students are better at their instruments. … I have to be a better musician,” he said.

The 20 school-supplied acoustic guitars and music books cost about $2,000. Another $800 will be spent on lessons and consulting fees, he said.

Berntson said he’s proposing a guitar II class to the curriculum committee. That class would be aimed at students “who are getting it” or who are familiar with the instrument.

While Berntson loves teaching, he said years in front of bands damaged his hearing and he must wear hearing aids.

He’d eventually like the school district to offer a full slate of guitar courses, perhaps giving him the opportunity to teach guitar full time and preserve his hearing.

Assistant Superintendent Louise Dardis has been very supportive, he said, as has Principal Gary Clark.

“It’s been exciting to watch this unfold,” Clark said. “To see their enthusiasm about the class has been very fun.”

Clark said he’d support adding a class next year, pending an evaluation of this year’s classes.

Berntson said he’s seeing students gain confidence and poise. Others have a reason to stay in school.

“We all need at least one class” that makes getting to school worthwhile, he said.

And it’s a great stress reliever, too, Berntson said.

“Sometimes, when I think life stinks, I think, ‘Yeah, but I can play guitar!’ ” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583