By Jenny Neyman
The high school students jamming at Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Soldotna on March 3 might not be rock stars quite yet. But they do play gigs out in public to show off their guitar skills, and the name is halfway there.
“Well, thank you, this was the Soldotna Stars Guitars,” said Kent Peterson, who teaches guitar class at Soldotna High School.
The Stars, then, refers to the school mascot, rather than rock icon status. But who knows? Everybody starts somewhere. Maybe one of the students strumming through a cover of the Decembrists or picking a solo to an Eric Clapton song will be on a bigger stage someday, playing to thousands of screaming fans, having started out entertaining a handful of late-afternoon coffee shop patrons.
And even if not, the students are still getting something from the class — musical experience, confidence in performing and a skill they can enjoy to whatever extent they choose to pursue it.
“Probably part of it is the idea that they’re going to be a rock star. Everyone thinks they’re going to be great, but even if they don’t go to that level, when you sit around and you bring out a guitar, everybody joins in. It’s kind of a little bit of that folk instrument where it just brings people together,” Peterson said.
That’s already been happening at SoHi, now in its first year having consolidated with Skyview High School. Peterson taught at Skyview, and brought guitar class with him to SoHi. His numbers grew this year, to two classes with about 30 students overall.
“I think with it being new at Soldotna High School this year we got a lot of new kids,” he said. “And also I think some of the kids have been playing in the hall during lunch, and other kids have been hearing that. So, if they play a little bit of guitar, they’re like, ‘Awesome, I want to play with other people, too.’”
The classes have been performing for a couple years now. That started when Peterson attended a summer guitar camp and realized that performance needs to be practiced, too. He started having students perform in class, then in the school commons and now in the community.
“Kaladi Brothers has been awesome to let us come in and play. This is our third time, and we’ll try and keep doing it,” Peterson said.
Anna Marie Saymen, a senior, is in her second semester of guitar class. She said that performing is her favorite part.
“I didn’t know any instruments and I like to sing so I was like, ‘Well, I’d probably like to learn to play and sing at the same time,” she said.
Peterson starts with teaching chords, how to solo and some music theory. From there, students can get more technical into reading music. It’s a way to get students playing immediately who might never have even held a guitar before.
“Someone approached it as saying we don’t learn to speak by studying grammar, we learn to speak by doing it. So we learn to play the guitar by doing it,” he said.
Band and choir focuses more on reading music, and has a more formal structure. And that’s great. But Peterson recognized that guitar class draws a wider variety of students.
“Every group has a certain kind of person that it attracts. And guitar class, the kids who take it are very hands on. Sometimes it’s great for kids who may not come to school for any other reason, they will come to school for guitar class,” he said.
“Like me,” said Wade VonHeeder. He’s a senior and has been taking guitar since freshmen year.
“(I) sort of got drawn to all this rock and roll music and it sort of took off from there. It’s got a really cool teacher and a lot of my friends are in the class, and I just like spending an hour of my day out at school playing guitar. It seems like a good way to spend my time,” VonHeeder said.
VonHeeder and a buddy, senior Ryan Reid, also in guitar class since freshman year, are already chasing rock star dreams. Their band, Magnum Opus, is currently recording its first album.
Whether or not Peterson sees them ascend to stardom someday, he expects at the very least to see them in class, and at graduation this spring, and hopefully still playing in the future. Even if just drowning out the squelch of a cappuccino machine at a coffee shop somewhere.
“It gets them there and they love it and they get to do something that is going to be lifelong, because I think even more than band and choir, you can always pick up a guitar and play,” he said. “I think that’s really awesome.”