Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep guitar ensemble transcends typical arrangement

The Notre Dame Preparatory Guitar Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Preparatory)

After the Notre Dame Preparatory Guitar Orchestra recorded a CD to close out the 2017-18 school year, instructor Philip Hemmo liked what he heard and decided to share.

The ensemble — a group of NDP student guitarists that play music originally designed for string orchestras such as music by Johann Sebastian Bach — recorded a college-level piece called Tango by Mark Houghton, a guitarist from England. Since the CD wasn’t for sale, Mr. Hemmo decided to send a copy to Mr. Houghton.

“He was so impressed by that recording of his work,” Mr. Hemmo said. “That is why he composed a work for us.”

Not only did Mr. Houghton compose a specific piece of music for the orchestra, but he dedicated it to Mr. Hemmo and his students. The arrangement, however, was not going to be easy, Mr. Hemmo said.

Still, his students unanimously said they wanted to work on it for their end-of-year recording.

“(My students) are willing to accept the challenge and push the limits of what they are able to do,” Mr. Hemmo said. “We had a rehearsal earlier today (March 26), these kids are ready to record.”

From NDP football games to Arizona State University, the orchestra has had numerous experiences that, Mr. Hemmo says, “further our education and perform.”

Some of those include field trips to ASU, recording CDs at Grand Canyon University and performing in different dioceses across the Valley.

In seeking opportunities, Mr. Hemmo looks for ones that “provide an educational experience but also provides a deadline that forces the students to go beyond what they see as a limitation and push themselves to be greater than they can be.”

That work has paid off as NDP Principal Jill Platt says she is “amazed” at how well the group plays.

“I’m a big fan of these kids and I’m inspired by their work ethic,” Ms. Platt said in a prepared statement.

“Phil Hemmo has the ability to transform the beginner into a classical guitarist in just a matter of months. We are blessed to have him at Notre Dame Prep because he is dedicated to helping students become greater than they think is possible.”

Uncovering a passion for six strings

Mr. Hemmo has been at NDP for four years. He attended the University of Arizona and the University Illinois before teaching at Arizona and Pima community colleges in Tucson.

NDP Guitar Orchestra instructor Philip Hemmo (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Preparatory)

He said he noticed NDP had many guitar classes but no opportunities to take skills to the next level. This led to Mr. Hemmo creating the ensemble, which he said is typical on college campuses.

NDP senior Sebastian Beller had been playing guitar since he was 12. He took Mr. Hemmo’s Guitar 1 class as a freshman and upon completing the course, he became intrigued with the new class.

“I just thought it was a great opportunity to continue building upon my skills as a guitarist with a great instructor, obviously,” Mr. Beller said. “I just feel like it’d be a lot of fun to get out there and showcase all that Mr. Hemmo had taught us and just to further my passion for the guitar.”

In the orchestra’s first semester, there were nine students who signed up. After spending time performing and taking field trips to local colleges to see the possibilities in college for music, enrollment jumped 19 students in the second semester.

Even with the significant growth of the program, there were challenges early on, Mr. Hemmo said. The biggest was changing the culture.

“I wanted to build an environment where the students in the class had an identity and they appreciated that their hard work would allow them to prosper and build that identity as an ensemble,” Mr. Hemmo said.

In growing that culture, Mr. Hemmo said the various opportunities and successes have made a big impact, leading students to want those and more successes.

The experience

When it comes to music in education, Mr. Hemmo says it’s vital.

“Music correlates to everything we do in education,” he said. “Music builds neuro-pathways that help students who study mathematics. Music is history. Music is creativity. Music develops cognitive learning. It’s essential.”

With this in mind, Mr. Hemmo holds his students to a high standard consisting of constant improvements within reason, leading to students improving past what they thought they could reach.

The Notre Dame Preparatory Guitar Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Preparatory)

The idea behind this standard is for students to see hard work leads to improvement, an ideal Mr. Hemmo says extends out of the classroom.

In his three years with the orchestra, Mr. Beller has enjoyed the various field trips and performances, but the key part of his experience has been the people he’s performed with and met.

“Every year, we get a new wave of people and every time, it’s people with new talents, people with new personalities and it just creates an interesting and wonderful dynamic.”

His favorite experiences are when the ensemble takes trips to ASU to learn from college professors and meet with guitar alumni.

When all is said and done, Mr. Hemmo hopes his ensemble students learn the benefits of music and how it can make people better. Mr. Beller said the biggest lesson he learned was focus from his time in the orchestra.

He learned this because of the many deadlines that bring consequences if students miss them. This has forced Mr. Beller to pay more attention to detail and improve his performance.

With his high school days almost behind him, Mr. Beller left some parting words for those NDP students who might be considering joining the guitar orchestra.

“It’s a great experience and you should definitely join,” he said. “Mr. Hemmo was a wonderful instructor and this was an amazing experience in honing in your focus skills and developing yourself as a musician.”

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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