A Riverwatch Middle School science classroom was transformed into a jam session on a recent Friday morning.
“A ... E ... B ... D,” called out Steve Montoy, the school’s head custodian, over the strumming of one electric and six acoustic guitars.
With each letter, the students shifted their fingers on the strings, changing the tones coming from their instruments.
“This helps them learn the different scales,” Montoy said.
While the strumming took place in a classroom, it’s not part of a formal music program. Rather, it’s the weekly gathering of the school’s guitar club.
Seventh-grade teacher Tim Mack formed the group about four years ago to share his love of the instrument with students.
Mack said he studied music in college before deciding to go into education, and has played in various groups over the years.
When Montoy came on staff three years, Mack invited him to help lead the club after the two realized their shared enthusiasm.
“I was introducing myself to some of the teachers after I started working here and saw Mr. Mack walking down the hall carrying a guitar case,” Montoy said.
“I asked him if he needed someone to tune it and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Montoy also has a background in music. He played trumpet in band throughout high school and college, while also playing guitar some on the side.
Later in life, he found he loved guitar more.
While not working at Riverwatch, he plays in a metro-Atlanta area top 40 cover band, as well as a reggae and jazz group.
Both leaders enjoy sharing their love of music with the students, who range in skill and grade levels.
The club boasts about 10 members, all but one of whom is male. The lone girl, Claudia Pinou, is also the only sixth-grader.
Mack said he and Montoy typically only take seventh- and eighth-graders, but Pinou asked to be in the club and proved her skills were just as good.
“She really wanted to join and she’s taken home lessons for a while,” Mack said.
Pinou said she’s played guitar for about four years, and wanted to join the club after reading about it in the school’s newspaper.
“I thought it’d be a fun way to learn new stuff,” she said.
She doesn’t mind being the only girl in the club, but sometimes playing is easier for her male cohorts, she added, since “they have bigger hands.”
Fellow club member Kenneth Hyman, an eighth-grader, has also been playing about four years.
He said he’s learned a lot from his guitar club teachers.
“They’re both really fun and really talented,” he said of Mack and Montoy. “I’ve learned how to make my playing a lot smoother and they’ve taught me a lot of soloing techniques.”
Mack and Montoy said the club meetings, which are held at 8 a.m. every Friday prior to the start of the school day, often turn into “jam sessions.”
But they’re trying to add more structure.
Mack, who on this day sported a Bob Marley T-shirt, said he’s recently started creating profiles on various “guitar legends” such as Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Alex Lifeson of Rush.
“This way the kids can learn their different styles and trademark looks,” Mack said. “Sometimes, we’ll show them short videos of their playing and then have them try to copy their styles.
“So far, they’ve mostly been rock players, but we want to bring in some jazz and blues too, make it a real challenge.”
Montoy said the group held its first informal concert a couple weeks ago in the school’s front rotunda.
“We did a fundraiser to raise money to purchase some guitars for the club,” he said. “That way, if students want to participate but don’t have their own instruments, they still can.”
Montoy said the group hopes to soon hold a joint concert with the school’s band.
“We want to get them to the point of playing for people,” he said.
Regardless of whether formal concerts are on the horizon anytime soon, both men mostly just want the students to enjoy the club.
“We let them jam and pick up songs from each other,” Mack said. “Sometimes they even show us some songs.”
Added Montoy: “It’s a work in progress, but we always have fun.”