Contributed photo by Paula Harding / Students in the Guitars for Kids program created by the Songbirds Foundation learn to play on donated guitars. The program is expanding this year, going from 300 guitars to 700 as the area school systems move away from voice and choir training during the pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced music teachers in Hamilton County and some other area schools to reconsider classes that involved singing, they didn't have to look far for an alternative.

They just had to change their tune a little bit.

Singing involves a lot of inhaling and exhaling — in many cases, in proximity to others — so things such as voice and choir lessons have been put on hold. Playing the guitar, on the other hand, can be done solo or at safer social distances from others. And it can be taught online, so the teaching can be done whether schools return virtually or in person.

The Songbirds Foundation has been creating a digital teaching program for almost four years, long before the new coronavirus hit, and it has already been implemented in several area middle and high schools. With that in mind, Hamilton County Schools will be partnering with the foundation to further ramp up its Guitars for Kids program when classes begin.

It will expand its operations in Knoxville, Memphis and parts of middle Georgia, as well.

"We will be adding another 400 guitars," said foundation Executive Director Reed Caldwell.

He said 300 guitars now are being used by middle and high schools as part of the program.

Claire Stockman, content lead for visual and performing arts with the Hamilton County Department of Education, said, "We are not replacing anything, we are just finding a new avenue during this pandemic to keep students engaged.

"We've had such success with the guitars, and they will stay with us, so kids can keep learning. We are in the process of building the program, and this sustains that."

How to get involved

Visit the Songbirds Foundation’s website at

Through the Donate a Guitar program, you can donate a guitar you are not using or make a cash donation.



Caldwell said the timing of the pandemic, while unfortunate, moves the program further along with its mission of getting guitars into schools.

"What's cool about this is that this puts us in just about all of the schools in the area and much sooner than we'd hoped," he said.

Caldwell said the original goal was to be in all schools in the area, including North Georgia, within eight years, and this cuts that time in half.

"And, these guitars will stay in these schools and continue to be used, which is great for us," he said.

His long-term goal is to take the program to the rest of the country.

"Our program has kind of synced up with the pandemic like we planned for this by having an online portal," he said.

All of the guitars are made available through donations, and Caldwell said he is trying to raise the $50,000 needed to buy the 400 new guitars and pay the instructors. Anyone interested in helping can donate good, working guitars or cash.

His team of almost a half dozen instructors will begin working with the music teachers in the schools on how to use the nearly 30 videos, songbooks and methods they have developed for the program.

"Some of them know how to play guitar and some don't, so for some it will be just honing skills and with others we will be starting from scratch. We are so excited that we have the ability and the friends that we can do this. It's proof to us that the foundation is doing great work. And, it means all of our instructors get more work."

Stockman said the reason for the success of the program is the quality of the program and the teachers within the school system.

"Our teachers are incredible," she said. "They have to learn the curriculum and learn to play and then it's up to them to integrate it."

Both Caldwell and Stockman said being able to play the guitar has many advantages that a person can use for their rest of their lives.

"It's great to be able to accompany yourself," Caldwell said, "and it's a lot easier to tote around than a piano."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.

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Contributed photo by John Dooley / Reed Caldwell, executive director, works with a student as part of the Songbirds Foundation's Guitars for Kids program.