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Lessons in Music and Life

Guitars Not Guns prepares to graduate its first group of students this month.

From the hallway of the Essex House Boys and Girls Club in Alexandria, the shaky notes fill the air, eager little hands trying their best to prove they’ve become rock stars.

After eight weeks of one-hour lessons, participants in the first session of Guitars Not Guns classes are preparing for their final exam, a test which will determine if they get to keep their guitars and head to the second semester.

“These are kids who’ve never held a guitar before,” said Jeff Brown, a class monitor, his brown eyes twinkling watching the youngsters. “Some kids are obviously very enthusiastic about it.”

The Virginia chapter of Guitars Not Guns is a cause near to Brown’s heart: It was created eight months ago to honor his son, Aaron Brown, a 19-year-old Springfield resident who was shot and killed by an off-duty Alexandria City police officer at an IHOP just a few miles from where the classes were taught.

Brown said he remembers when Aaron was learning to play guitar, at about 10 years old.

“We fooled around with it a little, and when he thought he’d figured out part of a song he was so eager to show his teacher,” Brown said. “Of course, he’d never get it exactly right and he’d have to learn it again.”

The children in this first class, one of three in the area, are young, Brown said, most of them younger than 10. That hasn’t stopped them from trying their hardest to stretch small fingers across guitar strings, reaching for chords and the notes to their favorite songs.

AT THE END of the first session of classes, the students are reviewing different hand positions and the names of various parts of the guitar with their teacher, Stephen Curtin, and his two assistants, Kevin Pons and Marian McLaughlin.

Curtin asks the students to show him how to play chords and recites the anagram used to recall the names of the strings: Elephants And Dinosaurs Grow Big Ears.

“Hopefully, this is something that will give you a lot of pleasure over the years,” Curtin tells the students, encouraging them to practice for a few minutes before their test.

Guitars Not Guns was started in California as a way to discourage gang violence by taking at-risk children and giving them something more productive to do in their free time after school. Skip Chaples, Aaron’s Boy Scout leader for many years, took it upon himself to start the Virginia chapter, which includes classes in Herndon and another location in the Mount Vernon District and may soon be expanding to Fredericksburg and Front Royal.

“After Aaron was killed, we were getting a lot of people who wanted to donate to Guitars Not Guns at the national level,” Brown said. “Skip decided to start a local chapter, and we’ve been selling T-shirts and playing different concerts to raise money to keep this going.”

After eight weeks, Brown said he’s impressed with the amount most of the students have learned.

“Considering they’ve come from nothing, it’s hard to envision how all this would turn out,” he said. “It seems to be working.”

Plans are already in the works to continue with the children already enrolled in the classes in January for the second semester, and more students have expressed interest in joining.

“Music is something that can last their whole lives,” Brown said, watching the students. “If you learn to play and instrument, you can entertain yourself, your friends and your family.”

Brown said he still occasionally plays around with the six guitars in Aaron’s room, but as a left handed player, it’s hard to play on a guitar for his right-handed son.

“Aaron’s focus was heavy metal, but he didn’t limit himself,” Brown said. “He liked bluegrass and jazz and some classical … it made him a well-rounded musician.”

THE STUDENTS may be mastering their basic chords now, but many of them dream of becoming stars, bridging the gap between hip hop and rock. According to a Youth Protection Policy mandated by Guitars Not Guns, the children can only be referenced by their first names.

“I’ve made friends from all over the place,” said Sheldon, 8, from Alexandria. “I didn’t play an instrument before but I like playing guitar. I want to have a band and I think I could be the guitarist. I want my cousin to play the drums.”

Sheldon said playing guitar wasn’t too hard.

“You just have to listen and follow directions and have a good time,” he said.

One of the assistant teachers, Kevin, said he first heard about the program by reading about it in a newspaper.

“I love guitar and wanted to bring it forth to everyone and maybe influence people to learn,” he said. “I thought this was a perfect opportunity to learn to teach.”

Kevin said he had some problems keeping the students’ focus on learning how to play, but he was impressed by the skills they’d acquired in two months.

“I hope the kids learned a little and want to learn more,” Kevin said. “This is my passion and I hope to make it a passion for someone else.”

Marian’s story is a little different.

“I’ve known the Browns for a long time and I knew they were looking for people to volunteer to teach,” she said.

Marian went to school with Aaron at Annandale High School and started playing guitar in ninth grade.

“When the kids have a good time they want to play and make music,” she said. “Right now they more a little more about guitars, even if they don’t remember it all right away.”

ON THE FIRST DAY of classes, Marian said most of the students weren’t interested in learning how to play as much as taking home a guitar. That changed as time went on, as students began to get more excited about learning to play.

“I really hope they all stay with the program,” she said. “I hope they tell their friends about it.”

Mike, a 9-year old from Alexandria is preparing to come back in January.

“Since I was a baby, I’ve been really interested in playing guitar,” he said.

His interest has kept him practicing his guitar, one time playing for two hours.

“I think the hardest chord to play is C,” Mike said, demonstrating the chord with his fingers. “It’s in a different place and it’s the hardest to move your fingers for.”

Like Sheldon, Mike wants to start his own band one day with his cousin, who will play keyboard and sing.

“I want to learn to play hip hop music,” Mike said. “Eminem plays guitar but he’s the only (hip hop artist) I know that does.”

Davon, an 8-year old from Alexandria, said he’s enjoyed learning how to play from his teachers, who have a lot of experience playing.

“Everybody came together to learn different things about guitars,” he said. “We had fun while we were learning.”

Davon said his band will be called “The Great Singers,” but he’s not sure who will be in the band with him when it starts.

A tall, shy girl with dark brown hair and eyes, Brenee was the only girl in the class and also, at 12, the oldest student.

“This is something better to do than be in trouble,” said Brenee, who added that if it weren’t for the class, she’d be at home watching TV.

“I want to learn how to play ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and ‘Down by the Station’,” she said, two of the songs in her first lesson book.

Brenee said most of the students who started the class with her stayed through the end.

“No one gave up,” she said. “I want to come back in January so I can learn to play different songs.”

THE PAST EIGHT weeks have been challenging for Curtin, he admitted, trying to teach students who may not have any musical background.

“I think this all worked out really well,” he said as the students went home from their final class. “I love to watch them grown and learn their instrument and get some satisfaction from it. People often forget the real value of music and its ability to transform the spirit.”

Most importantly, the students in his class have all shown a real desire to learn how to play, which encourages him to stay patient and keep teaching, Curtin said.

“In the school systems, it seems they’ve gone away from instrumental music classes,” he said. “In this situation, it’s important for the kids to learn another relatively structured activity that gives them some goals.”

The students in Alexandria were the youngest ones in the first session of classes, Chaples said, but he doesn’t doubt their interest in continuing their lessons in January.

“What they learned in this class is a building block to learning to play songs,” he said. “When that thought started to sink in, that’s when they took it a little more seriously.”

In recent months, Chaples said he’s been contacted by youth groups like Boys and Girls Clubs across Virginal, asking him to start chapters in various areas.

“What we need right now aren’t teachers so much as volunteers that will go to stores or businesses to get sponsors and supporters,” Chaples said. “It’s the same in all our classes. We want to expand, we just need more people who want to help.”

The second semester of classes will begin in January, he said, but the students from the first session are looking forward to their graduation ceremony first.