The Thousand-String Guitar

Austin gets the world jazzed about classical guitar

Austin Classical Guitar Society students
Austin Classical Guitar Society students (Photo by John Anderson)

At 10am on a weekday morning in June, you expect local teens to be marking the summer break in the time-honored ways: minimum-wage-slaving it in some mall retail outlet, catching rays at Barton Springs, sleeping in. But on this second Tuesday of the month, 11 youths have forsaken the usual rituals of the season to be in a classroom at Austin High, polishing their skills at making music.

And you can tell by the bearing all 11 share – left foot up on a footrest, instrument resting against the inner left thigh, left hand on the fingerboard, right hand hovering lightly over the strings, eyes focused on the instructor as he demonstrates how to play a section – that they're intent on the task. This is no forced detention, no time filler to occupy restless adolescents out of school. These kids are present, engaged with the material, determined to learn. See, they have a gig lined up – a big gig. They're two weeks out from playing on the stage of Dell Hall, where they will be joining 189 other young musicians to premiere a new work by Graham Reynolds. And they won't be playing for just a hometown crowd; their audience will include classical guitar enthusiasts from around the world.

Hold on a minute, you say. Classical guitar? That was all the rage back when Andrés Segovia was The Man, but it hasn't had much cultural currency since the Eisenhower administration, has it? In fact, wasn't classical guitar's last big moment on the cultural radar the year that Nixon got elected – you know, when Mason Williams strummed his way to the top of the charts with "Classical Gas"?

Maybe, but in Central Texas, classical guitar is making a comeback that would have Segovia giddy. Middle school and high school students are taking up the instrument every year now by the hundreds – that's right, hundreds – and, despite having little or no prior experience with it, are rapidly developing into players of the first class. They're consistently winning top rankings at statewide solo and ensemble contests, and more than a few are being offered scholarships to further their studies at the college level. The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College host a national contest for classical guitar ensembles at which the McCallum Fine Arts Academy has taken first place in the high school large ensemble category four years running. And this year, Lamar Middle School took the top prize in the middle school division. In the Guitar Foundation of America's international youth competition, which routinely draws the crème de la crème of young guitarists from some two dozen countries, Austin students have made it to the finals round five times in recent years, and in 2006 one of them, Thales Smith, won the youth division. That's a record that no other city in the country can claim.

The Guitar Foundation of America is hip to that fact, which is one of the reasons that it's been eager to bring that international competition, along with the GFA's annual convention, to our town for some time. "For six years, they've been asking us to host this event," says Matthew Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar Society, which is bringing the festivities to the Long Center June 22-27. This isn't just another case of conventioneers wanting to party down in the live music capital of the world. For this crew, Austin is a new center for the musical form they love, a place where classical guitar is in the ascendant, is reaching a new generation, is cool.

Much of the credit for that goes, quite naturally, to the Austin Classical Guitar Society, an organization that may not be as well-known in its hometown as it is recognized and admired in musical circles beyond the city limits. "We have a good reputation in the classical guitar world," Hinsley says. Asked what his organization has done to earn its good name, he explains: "First, we've had a robust international concert series for 15 years. We've had all the greatest classical guitarists in the world – several of them multiple times – and many of the rising stars. We take good care of our artists when they're here, and that has helped our reputation to spread. We're one of the largest entities of our kind ever. And the thing that sets us apart is our education program. There is no parallel program in the United States. We're seeing almost 700 kids a day now in 15 schools, and that's growing dramatically all the time."

Yes, as you may have guessed, it's ACGS that's been putting all those classical guitars in the hands of local students, teaching them to pluck and strum, turning them on to Albéniz and Villa-Lobos and Sor. For the past decade, the society has been steadily building its education efforts, working to bring classes into area schools and even developing a formal curriculum for classical guitar that was the first of its kind in the nation. The curriculum took four years for ACGS to create, but in the 21 months since it's been available online (www.guitarcurriculum.com), it's been adopted for use in 50 locations across North America.

That success is largely owed to ACGS' approach to teaching the instrument, which runs counter to much of the conventional thinking among classical guitar educators. "When we started building this curriculum," says Hinsley, "the feedback that we got from well-meaning individuals was: 'If you're going to build a guitar curriculum that you actually want to work, then you're going to have to make sure the music you teach is the music that kids are listening to. You're going to have to build in classic rock. You're going to have to build in some heavy metal. You're going to have to build in whatever pop elements you can to get kids involved.' It's sort of the 'let's chocolate-coat our broccoli' approach to delivering this artistic program. I've always rejected that notion. I feel like great information and great art sells itself if you can engage kids properly with it.

"We worked with a very gifted educator, a guy named Dr. Robert Duke, who's the founder of the Center for Music Learning at UT. He was one of my mentors and also the mentor of our education director, Travis Marcum. If I could boil down Bob's message to us, it was: 'Be sure that you're getting young people to behave like musicians from the very beginning of their experience with the instrument. Be sure at all times that the focus is playing beautifully, playing musically.' The alternative to that would be a series of exercises: 'Let's pick up the guitar. Kids, this is an E. Everybody say E. Now, everybody play E. On Friday, we're going to have a test on E.' Instead, let's find a tune that they can play that uses E and maybe one other note, and let's talk about how to play that as beautifully as we possibly can. That's utilizing the fact that we have 20 players in the room, and we can do different things with rhythms and percussion, or we can get the instructor to play an accompanying part that turns it into a meaningful musical product. But whatever it is, let's get these kids engaged. And I believe personally that part of that engagement also means completing the ecological circle of musical and artistic study, which includes performance at the end of it. 'So here's a guitar; here's some music; let's play it. Oh, by the way, this is an E. Here's how you count it, and there will be tests, but we're making this musical product together, and in three weeks, we're going to be onstage performing it.' The kids have a job to do. And it doesn't matter that it's not Santana or it's not Green Day or whatever else they happen to be listening to. They have a job, to get engaged, and the emphasis is on quality and musical expression.

"And it's been absolutely incredible. The kids have come to the instrument not really knowing what they were getting into. We were involved in starting a program at Crockett High School about three years ago, and 93 kids signed up for guitar in the first class, just because there was guitar on their choice sheet, and they said, 'I want to go do that.' And 90 percent of those kids were not choir and band kids leaving choir and band to go do guitar. These were kids who had never been involved with music in middle school or high school. So who knows what they're expecting, but they come in and they start playing classical guitar, and they start playing beautifully. The next year, we had about 155 kids in the guitar program – so it grew pretty dramatically at Crockett alone.

"At the end of that first year, our director of education came into my office with a discipline problem, and it turns out that this student was arguing with our instructor about whether or not it was appropriate for a student in the class to play 'Asturias,' by Isaac Albéniz. So we had to deal with the issue, but the amazing thing to me was that here we were in Crockett High School, where a year ago no kid knew what classical guitar was, and now we have 90 of them playing and one of them is arguing about whether one of them can play this 100-year-old Spanish piece by Albéniz. To me, it shows that they're not only doing what they're told because they have to get their grades; they're learning about this music, and they're getting excited by it."

If you can't tell, education is the subject that gets Hinsley going, that puts a gleam in his eyes, that makes this already engaging and expressive man even more ardent and articulate. Connecting kids with music, teaching them new skills, is clearly his passion. If there was a Glee for classical guitar, he's who you'd cast as the teacher. With obvious pride, Hinsley recounts story after story about students and how their work with ACGS affected them: the McCallum graduate, now at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Hinsley's alma mater), who told a magazine interviewer that the moment that crystallized his interest in classical guitar and got him to dedicate himself to the instrument was when ACGS brought Eliot Fisk to the school to play; the guest musician who told Hinsley that he'd never had an experience like an ACGS outreach performance, where all the kids were riveted while his group was playing; another McCallum grad who joined the Army band as a classical guitarist but was asked by the band to play jazz on electric guitar as well and e-mailed Hinsley from Afghanistan to say that it was his training from ACGS that allowed him to make that transition so easily.

Hinsley adds that this last former student told him that, being in Afghanistan, there's no place he can buy new music, and he's dying to learn some new pieces and enhance his skills. "Of course, the guitar society put together a big package of music for him," he notes. But for Hinsley, the larger point is the impact that ACGS had on this young man's life: "Here's a kid who had not played guitar before high school. We scholarshipped all of his lessons, provided him an instrument, and he was in the class guitar program. So a nonprofit organization's education program was able to connect a kid to a passion and give him the training that he needed to turn that into a viable career. But even now, after the career is going, he's passionate about it. It's something that he loves and takes with him and wants to get better at."

Flash back to 1996, and the young man with the passion for classical guitar and yearning to get better at it could easily be Hinsley. He came to Austin at age 20 out of a desire to improve his musical skills by studying with Adam Holzman at the University of Texas. Hinsley was fresh from Oberlin, where he had been one of the school's first classical guitar students and had taken it upon himself to found a guitar club as a way to bring master guitarists to the school to give concerts and master classes. When word of that got around UT, he was handed the reins to the Austin Classical Guitar Society, then a small presenting group with an operating budget of less than $5,000. He took those reins and never let go, moving from volunteer to board member (and board president) to executive director as ACGS gradually evolved into an organization with a $400,000 budget, an international concert series, a community concert series, and the all-important educational outreach program. The exceptional growth of the society and its impact on the community is testament to the fact that, for Hinsley as for his student, "even now, after the career is going, he's passionate about it."

And if you needed any further proof, it's in the spectacular festival he's put together for this week – not just for those GFA visitors but for Austin. This is one guitar conference that's as much for the community as for the academics and industry insiders. More than 20 concerts over a six-day stretch, many of them featuring local heroes (from the Miró Quartet to the Biscuit Brothers), most co-sponsored by Austin arts organizations and businesses as collaborators, and all open to the public. (See "Got the World on a String (or Six)," below.) Not surprisingly, given ACGS' contrarian nature, that's a different approach to a Guitar Foundation convention.

"The vision for the festival was a new vision," admits Hinsley. "The vision of opening this up to the public in a major way, bringing in a lot of artistic partners, creating a big festival atmosphere, that's new. We have an opportunity with an international guitar convention, which is typically academically and industry focused, to create something that is bigger and broader and more community based. That's what makes it a really unique event and one of the things that's getting so many people involved."

Indeed. Hinsley is bringing all these disparate elements of our community together in this single effort in much the way that he's bringing 200 young guitarists together to play Graham Reynolds' new piece. And the result should be equally monumental, like the sound of some musical instrument from an ancient legend, a guitar with 1,000 strings.

But though his vision is epic, Hinsley knows that it starts small, with those 11 teens in the Austin High music room working to get their parts down, with the kid at Crockett who's never picked up a musical instrument but decides to take a chance on a classical guitar class. And though he's been working toward this convention and festival for years now, Hinsley knows he won't be done working at the end of next week. There are the daily music classes that ACGS will be starting at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center in September, the first ever offered at the facility. And Hinsley is being recruited to consult with guitar societies in cities across the continent. And more classes and more concerts and ....

"There's still a tremendous amount of work to be done," Hinsley says. "We wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if the package was complete."


Got the World on a String (Or Six)

In agreeing to host the Guitar Foundation of America's 2010 convention and competition, the Austin Classical Guitar Society determined to make the event wide-open to its home city: Local arts organizations and businesses would have an active presence in the festivities, either onstage or partnering with ACGS in the presentation of performances, and Austin residents would be encouraged to attend the week's concerts, competition sessions, and special events. The brochure created to tantalize the locals with the week's musical bounties touts this as "Austin's greatest collaborative classical music festival ever," and it's hard to disagree. Along with a veritable United Nations of guitar heroes – Pepe Romero (Spain), Grisha Goryachev (Russia), Jorge Caballero (Peru), Atanas Ourkouzounov (Bulgaria), Ana Vidovi´c (Croatia), Berta Rojas (Paraguay), Marcus Tardelli (Brazil), the Katona Twins (Hungary), and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (United States) – ACGS' lineup brings together hometown stars Adam Holzman and the Miró Quartet of the Butler School of Music, Maestro Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra, composer Graham Reynolds, Michelle Schumann of the Austin Chamber Music Center, the Biscuit Brothers, and cinematic mock-meisters Master Pancake Theater (heaping ridicule on the 1986 Ralph Macchio guitar epic Crossroads, for free on the Long Center City Terrace), with performance support from the Long Center, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Texas Performing Arts, Austin Lyric Opera's Armstrong Community Music School, Texas Early Music Project, Zach Theatre, and the Austin Children's Museum. It's what you call an embarrassment of riches. The schedule below features selected highlights of the six-day festival running June 22-27, Tuesday-Friday. All events take place at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. Unless otherwise noted, performances are in Dell Hall. For more information, call 300-2247 or visit www.austingoesclassical.org.

Tuesday, June 22

Matthew Hinsley
Matthew Hinsley (Photo by John Anderson)

8pm Pepe Romero (Spain), followed by opening reception featuring Austin band Mother Falcon

Wednesday, June 23

11am Dr. Tom Echols, Dr. Isaac Bustos, and Dr. Steve Kostelnik, all of Austin

4pm Jorge Caballero (Peru)

8pm Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (U.S.) with Phil Proctor of Firesign Theatre performing The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote: Words and Music From the Time of Cervantes

10pm Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow presents Master Pancake Theater spoofing the 1986 film Crossroads, starring Ralph Macchio (Long Center City Terrace).

Thursday, June 24

11am 2009 GFA International Concert Artist Competition winner Florian Larousse (France), Berta Rojas (Paraguay)

4pm Atanas Ourkouzounov, guitar (Bulgaria) & Mie Ogura, flute (Japan)

7:15pm Education address by Dr. Robert Duke and Youth Guitar Orchestra concert featuring the world premiere of Graham Reynolds' "Power Man" for 200 guitars

8pm Adam Holzman (U.S.) with the Miró Quartet

Friday, June 25

10am-3:30pm International Competition Semi-Finals (Rollins Studio Theatre)

4pm Ana Vidovi´c (Croatia)

8pm Grisha Goryachev (Russia)

Saturday, June 26

10am Luthier Showcase, first half (Rollins Studio Theatre)

11am Youth Showcase

1pm Luthier Showcase, second half (Rollins Studio Theatre)

1:30pm Children's Show starring the Biscuit Brothers with special guests the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Free Blue Bell Ice Cream!

4pm Ronn McFarlane, lute (U.S.)

8pm Austin Symphony Orchestra with Pepe Romero and Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

Sunday, June 27

10am International Youth Competition Finals, junior division

11am Marcus Tardelli (Brazil), GFA Convention Guitar Orchestra

1:30pm International Youth Competition Finals, senior division

4pm Katona Twins (Hungary)

6:30pm International Concert Artist Competition Finals, followed by closing reception

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Classical Guitar Society, Matthew Hinsley, Travis Marcum, Adam Holzman, Graham Reynolds, Pepe Romero, Alamo Drafthouse, Master Pancake Theater, Biscuit Brothers

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