Notre Dame’s Guitar and Jazz Program

Award-winning program hits the right chords

Philip Hemmo plays an acoustic guitar on August 23.  John Byrne, The Seraphim

Philip Hemmo plays an acoustic guitar on August 23. John Byrne, The Seraphim

By John Byrne, Staff Writer

“In Guitar 1, we learned ‘Crazy Train’ and ‘Island in the Sun’ by Weezer, and it only took two weeks,” exclaimed Natalie Zarasian. Someone with literally no previous musical exposure can play “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne on the electric guitar. It’s amazing to think that this can happen in an unconventional, outdated classroom built on a basketball court.    

At Notre Dame Preparatory High School, there is no marching band, baton twirler, or color guard. Incoming students seldom have classical music or marching band backgrounds in comparison to other local high schools. Notre Dame compensates with a music program that focuses nearly exclusively on the guitar. Among the five music classes, three of them are solely dedicated to the guitar. The guitar program, unique and known statewide for its incredible reputation, started from humble beginnings.

“I started working here in 2012 … at first, I taught guitar in a cloistered hallway outside of the school gym,” said Bob Powers. Mr. Powers currently teaches three music classes: Guitar 1, Advanced Guitar, and Jazz Ensemble. He studied jazz music at Arizona State University and taught at Phoenix College. To this day, he performs professionally at local restaurants and other venues.

“We eventually doubled or tripled the size of the guitar program to the point where they had to hire another teacher to help me,” he explained. “I think it just gets better and better.”   

Mr. Powers plays an electric guitar on August 21. John Byrne, The Seraphim

Philip Hemmo, the teacher who came in to help Mr. Powers in 2014, also highly regards the program. Unlike Mr. Powers, who has a focus in Jazz and Rock music, Mr. Hemmo focuses on classical guitar. Mr. Hemmo has recorded and released several albums and gone on tour.

“We’ve extended what we’re doing since I started here,” he stated. Specifically, many of the guitar classes have become dual enrollment classes. Students can receive college credit, through Scottsdale Community College, for taking a guitar or other music class. Besides offering exclusive guitar classes, NDPHS provides two other key classes: Jazz Ensemble and Guitar Orchestra.

In Jazz Ensemble, the class rehearses and performs at the end of the semester. In the last two years, they’ve performed everything from “Uptown Funk” to “The Chicken.” Jazz Ensemble consists of many instruments, such as bass, vocals, trumpet, drums, keyboards, and of course, guitar. Mr. Powers weighed in on what Jazz Ensemble looked like in 2012.

“There was a Jazz Ensemble,” said Mr. Powers, “it was really small, though. I don’t think they were doing anything, and the literacy rate was almost zero … To me it resembled more of a quasi-club.” Before the arrival of Mr. Powers, there certainly were not any major school concerts and performances like there are now.

As for Guitar Orchestra, it is essentially a group of guitarists playing classical music behind a lead vocalist.

“Last year was the first year,” Mr. Hemmo said of Guitar Orchestra. “It was a way to add another ensemble to the curriculum because of the huge amount of guitar players.” In addition to performing at school and for the local Notre Dame community, Guitar Orchestra also participates in competitions.

“Guitar Orchestra placed and performed in the Arizona Music Educators competition last year,” Mr. Hemmo stated proudly. The Arizona Music Educators competition is the main competition available to high school ensembles in Arizona. 

Many students in the Notre Dame’s guitar program have extremely positive reviews about their experiences. Amelie Young, one of Mr. Hemmo’s students in Guitar 2, tells her story.

“I went in to Mr. Hemmo’s class with no previous experience, and I recommend doing that to anyone who doesn’t have any guitar experience … Mr. Hemmo’s a great teacher, and it’s such a fun class,” she exclaimed.

Natalie Zarasian, an NDPHS senior who took Guitar 1 with Mr. Powers, stated, “I’d definitely recommend learning the guitar for anyone who does not play an instrument. It’s a really fun instrument … And just have fun with Mr. Powers. He’s a really great teacher.”

What should this program look like in the future? Well, Bob Powers and Philip Hemmo, its two instructors, have hopes and ideas. Specifically, Mr. Powers vented about the struggle of teaching a few students who are completely disinterested in music. In his ideal utopia, everyone in the program would view his class as an incredible learning opportunity, rather than just an elective credit. He also wants to see the completion of a fine arts building on campus that would ideally expedite the teaching and learning process.

Mr. Hemmo said, “I’d like to see our program have a place for strings instruments. Basically, I think our program should just keep giving kids interested in music more options.”

What this program will look like in the future is unknown. However, at the current moment, NDPHS’s guitar program is both well-regarded and unique. It continues to introduce students to the universe and language of the guitar and music in general.

In a famous statement, comedian Robin Williams once said, “Music is God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, every where, even the stars.”