Becoming a Black Belt Musician- The Bridge Article


Becoming a Black Belt Musician

Using martial arts motivators to get kids to practice.


If you’re like me, you may have occasionally asked yourself “What do music and martial arts have in common?” . . . or not. Fortunately for aspiring young guitarists, a local Portland Community College graduate has not only asked this question but also furnished the answer.

Brian Parham wears many hats: musician, teacher, software developer, writer, among others. Tying all of these together is “The Ultimate Rock Guitar Dojo For Kids”, Parham’s system of musical instruction and instructional book series of the same name, which features a martial arts belt-style reward structure for motivating and incentivizing children to more diligent practice and learning.

Parham’s journey actually started years ago and hundreds of miles away. Long before he was a musician and author, he worked for the federal government running a gym used by employees of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Labor. Opening the gym early in the morning left Parham a lot of spare time which he chose to put to good use by learning the guitar. Music became such a passion that he decided to study it full-time, researching the music programs at community colleges around the country and eventually settling on PCC. Parham and his wife packed up and moved to Portland, where he immersed himself in music and writing classes. Calling his instructors “phenomenal”, Parham credits them with giving him the technical ability and musical language to be the kind of teacher he aspired to be.

Enthusiastic, energetic and eager, Parham runs a series of music programs throughout Portland based on the URGDK model. The beauty of the concept lies in its simplicity – rather than ask a child to take lessons and spend time practicing based on a vague notion of increased proficiency in the distant future, “belts” are awarded after achieving a clearly articulated and organized set of criteria.

New students begin with The Ultimate Rock Guitar Dojo for Kids: White Belt Edition and need to master, for example, the minor pentatonic scale, basic rhythm components, power chords, and riffs on each string to advance to yellow belt status. Each belt level also includes sections on music theory and influential guitarists throughout history. To ensure that his students become well-rounded musicians with a diverse skill set, Parham has structured each level’s material to lead to and culminate in the writing, recording, and live performing of an original song. Finally, once the student passes a written exam, he or she is awarded a new colored guitar strap as a belt equivalent. Future books in the series will cover yellow, green, red, and finally black belt level material.

Inspiration came to Parham in the form of “a lot of kids not practicing.” He laughs when he says this but concedes it’s a problem faced by music teachers everywhere. When one of his guitar students began missing lessons in order to study for her upcoming taekwondo belt test, a connection was sparked. A student of jujitsu at PCC Sylvania, Parham began to realize important differences in how kids are taught and study music versus martial arts. Having long struggled with keeping his young students motivated, it dawned on him that children need a tangible reward, a constant reminder of progress achieved and future goals to strive for. He realized that the belt system used in many martial arts was the missing ingredient.

Spend five minutes with Parham and one quickly realizes that enthusiasm and positive thinking are the keys to everything he does. The creation of URGDK was no exception. He immediately began writing the White Belt Edition while riding the PCC green line shuttle to and from classes every day, using free word processing and music notation software because that was all he could afford.

The writing process was not easy; while the software cost him nothing, it was limited in functionality which meant that although he could create the musical notation for the book, he couldn’t save any of it. Support came in the form of a devoted wife who painstakingly recreated his examples using Windows Paintbrush. When an accidental omission of time signatures from his notations caused a five month delay in completing the book, additional inspiration was furnished by the parents of many of his students who were eager to see the finished product.

Parham says that the URGDK has been overwhelmingly successful; as in martial arts, kids at the white belt level immediately ask when they can advance to yellow. “I’ve noticed a massive improvement in their motivation to practice. I’m seeing that the kids are practicing more and they’re having more fun”, he explains. White Belt Edition is well laid-out, with clear, easy-to-follow explanations accompanied by numerous notation examples and photographs illustrating each chapter’s concepts. The book has received excellent reviews and a number of endorsements from educators around the country.

Not one to stand pat, Parham is leveraging the success of his system into a larger plan to revolutionize music education for kids. In addition to planning the yellow level instruction book, he is developing an iOS companion application that will feature full compositions in a band-in-a-box format so students can practice along with backing tracks. Parham is also has a similar book series for bass guitar in the works with the help of a fellow music teacher. “This book has changed my life in so many ways and the response has been phenomenal,” he says.

The Ultimate Rock Guitar Dojo For Kids: White Belt Edition represents a novel solution to the age-old problem of motivating kids to diligently practice their guitar lessons. It is available online at and locally at Trade Up Music.

© PCC Bridge & respective correspondents, 2010-2015

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