As the drummer hit his cymbal at the start of “Walking on Sunshine,” Southwest High School student Shukri Ahmed began clapping her hands, her right foot tapping to the beat.
Ahmed let out a yell, and her classmates, sitting behind her on the stage, began strumming their guitars. The audience of Minneapolis Public Schools principals and instructional leaders clapped along, cheering when Ahmed yelled “How y’all doing?” midway through the song.
The performance, which came during an Aug. 14 back-to-school event, was one of the latest for 3 Strings Guitars, a class and band for Southwest students with disabilities.
Over the past few years, 3 Strings students have learned to play guitar and have performed pop songs like “Walking on Sunshine” and Lady Antebellum’s “Stars Tonight.” They meet at 8:50 a.m. each day in Ruth LeMay’s second-floor guitar room at Southwest.
On Nov. 8, they’ll perform during the keynote session of the 2019 National Association for Music Education National Conference in Orlando, Florida.
Students in 3 Strings said they’ve enjoyed playing guitar and being with their friends during the class. Their parents said the group is a highlight of their kids’ days and that their kids are being taken seriously as musicians.
“They’re part of the same things and the same events as the other guitar players,” said Sally Sexton, whose 10th-grade daughter, Brynn, takes the class. “That’s what I think is just so significant about 3 Strings. It’s not separate. It’s within the umbrella of the performing arts at Southwest High School.”
“It’s true inclusion,” her husband, Tony Sexton, said.
An ‘aha!’ moment
LeMay, a longtime music educator who founded Southwest’s guitar program, said her inspiration for the class came during an Army band performance at Southwest.
She said she was sitting behind a group of special education students during the performance and that she noticed how they were clapping along. Some were also singing along — and in tune.
“I really was engaged in watching the kids,” she said.
Southwest didn’t have any music education for special education students at the time, so LeMay asked then-principal Bill Smith if she could start her own class. He gave her a semester to get it up and running.
LeMay worked with special education assistant Artisha Knight-Milon to develop the class. They tried having the students play traditional six-string guitars, but it proved difficult, so they cut off three strings on the instruments.
Then they tuned the three-stringed guitars so they could be played by simply holding down the remaining three frets and strumming.
“That was the huge ‘aha!’ moment,” LeMay said.
In the past few years, 3 Strings has played alongside Southwest’s other music ensembles at various concerts, including the annual fundraiser for the school’s music department. Last spring it went on a tour of several of Southwest’s feeder schools, Sally Sexton said.
On a September morning, 3 Strings set out to learn the Motown hit “Do You Love Me,” which LeMay plans to play during the Orlando concert. She displayed color-coded notes for the song on an interactive board at the front of the room.
LeMay initially asked the students to play the song from beginning to end, but after it was apparent the group needed more practice, she worked on it in sections.
“We can get it,” she told the students at the end of class. “We just have to focus.”
Jackulin Cyrus has a 15-year-old son, D’Avian, who is starting his second year in 3 Strings. She said he’s been trying to find an activity he can do, given his disability, and that he has loved playing guitar.
“To see his smile every day when he comes home from there, it brings me so much joy to see him so happy,” she said.
Cyrus said D’Avian now wants to learn to play other instruments besides guitar. She said his first concert with 3 Strings brought tears to her eyes because she was so happy.
She said she thinks the Orlando performance will change the way other people see kids with disabilities.
Sexton said Brynn wanted to play guitar after seeing 3 Strings perform before she started high school.
She said she’s appreciated the professionalism with which the Southwest staff has approached the class and how they’ve helped kids of all abilities participate.
Tony Sexton said Brynn wants to make sure she can attend every rehearsal.
Brynn and D’Avian will be among the 16 students with disabilities who go to Orlando in November. Also going are parents, staff, eight “support” students and four students who will be part of national honor ensembles.
3 Strings student Michael Grace, who has been in the band for two years, said he’s very excited for the trip and that he’s looking forward to playing guitar and eating good food.
Grace graduated Southwest last year and now participates in the district’s Transition Plus program, which helps students with disabilities transition to adult life.
He said he likes to perform with the 3 Strings group and that his favorite song to play is “We’ve Got the Beat.”
His mom, Liz Hannan, said 3 Strings has made a big difference in his transition out of high school.
“I couldn’t have thought of a better way to set up the first year after high school,” she said.
3 Strings was one of two ensembles selected to perform during the keynote session of the National Association for Music Education conference. Denese Odegaard, past president of the organization, said the session will focus on inclusion.
Odegaard, who works in the Fargo, North Dakota, public schools, said her organization is not only impressed with how LeMay has reached students with disabilities. She said it’s also impressive how LeMay has gotten buy-in for the class from the Southwest administration.
“There are adapted music classes around,” she said, “but [LeMay] has just taken it to the next level.”
LeMay said she’s looking to teach her 3 Strings methodology, which she calls “UnLocKeD,” to other music educators.
A fundraising effort has collected tens of thousands of dollars to cover the costs of the trip, which also will include visits to Walt Disney World and the ocean. LeMay said any additional funds raised will go toward efforts to expand 3 Strings into other schools.
“The community has just embraced this,” she said. “They seem to really understand the need of what’s been missing for kids.”
Visit tinyurl.com/three-strings-guitars to learn more about the group’s fundraising effort.