Music for a Little Spirit

This story is part of our ACG Fall Fund Drive Changing Lives Storyboard. Consider supporting ACG today!


Since 2012, our Lullaby Project has paired ACG artist-clinicians with mothers in challenging circumstances. Together, they talk about the mother's hopes, fears, and musical inspirations, then create and record a personal song for her baby. The mother then has a lullaby entirely of her own that she and her child can listen to for years to come. A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the recording session of one mother's lullaby: "Bright Eyes."


Photo by Bastien Jaillot

A woman sits in front of a table scattered with recording equipment, a journal, and a box of tissues. A man offers her headphones, tilts the mic closer to her face, and asks if she’s ready. She inhales deeply, gazes at the phone leaning against her water bottle, and laughs good-naturedly. “As ready as I'll ever be. Let’s do it.”

The woman is Kheira, mother of Jennings Dean. Jennings has spent the first 130 days of his life in the neonatal intensive care Unit of St. David’s Medical Center. He was born several months premature, weighing only one pound at birth.

Kheira’s phone, propped up to be the center of attention while recording, displays a recent photo of Jennings: a healthy, plump tot wearing huge, goofy glasses - it was costume day - and a Yoda onesie that says “Too Cute I Am”. This picture would have been impossible to imagine a few months ago.

Kheira is recording a lullaby she’s written with the calm guidance of Arnold Yzaguirre, one of Austin Classical Guitar's Lullaby Project clinicians. They’ve already met a few times in the past month to talk about the melody, lyrics, and message of her lullaby.

“It was magic,” she said of the process. “It was like the melody was already there, we just plucked it out of the universe.”

Photo by Aditya Romansa

Music has always been present in baby Jennings’ life. Dismayed at having to leave him alone in the NICU every night, Kheira persuaded the nurses to play Pandora in his room.

“It started with just classical, but it’s evolved to whatever we’re listening to. He loves Foster the People. We have Fleetwood Mac Saturdays.”

Some mothers in the Lullaby Project choose to have someone else record their lullaby, but Kheira wanted to sing it herself. Her voice radiates with gentle, soothing strength. She tells Jennings of the uncertainty at the beginning of his life, and the fearless resilience she saw in his bright eyes. Her words reflect his light from within during the dark time, and encourage him to Be kind. Be brave. Be unafraid. Always remember you’re a part of my soul … If you ever forget how much you are loved, just listen to your song.

“Before I started working on the lullaby,” Kheira said, “I hadn’t been thinking about what I wanted to say to him outside the hospital, because I hadn’t even thought about the future.

"I was so busy living in the now, thinking about the medical jargon, the questions of ‘Is he breathing? Is he surviving?’ It was good to take a step back and think about what the future could be, and to think of him as a little person, a little spirit.”

A few weeks later, Arnold brought the final recording of “Bright Eyes” to Kheira. She held her baby, finally home after over 140 days, in her arms while her husband and Jennings listened to the lullaby for the first time. Tears rolled down her face as she said, “It’s perfect.”


Thoughts from the Border: Eclipsing Violence with Music

This story is part of our ACG Fall Fund Drive Changing Lives Storyboard. Consider supporting ACG today!


“We’re trying to save them with music.”

Last weekend, we opened our International Series 2018-19 Season with celebrated guitarist Ana Vidovic. While audience members enjoyed an art display and refreshments in the lobby, a small group of people gathered in the Black Box Theater. They were students, teachers, and mothers from the city of Reynosa Tamaulipas, Mexico, and they had driven more than five hours from the US-Mexico border to perform for Ana Vidovic.

The students - one only six years old, his legs dangling off the chair as he held a half-size guitar - each played short solos while their mothers watched proudly. Ana listened to each one and gave thoughtful feedback, the students nodding with wide eyes at their teacher’s translation of her words into Spanish. A few years ago, the possibility of such an opportunity for these children would have been unthinkable.

According to their teacher, Mario Quintanilla Saucedo, the city of Reynosa Tamaulipas has become increasingly troubled with violence in recent years, and there's no clear end in sight.

“It’s practically unsafe to go into streets and live a normal life. Children 9 to 14 years old are enlisted in the most dangerous criminal gangs, carrying assault rifles instead of musical instruments,” Mario told us.

Mindful of the deteriorating role of culture in their city, a small group of music-lovers began searching for a guitar teacher for their children. They came upon one in the city of Monterrey Nuevo León, 140 miles from Reynosa. Mario Quintanilla Saucedo has studied with distinguished masters of international stature - including Ana Vidovic - and placed in national guitar competitions across Mexico.

“Our idea was to rescue children by occupying them in the art of classical guitar before they could be victims of organized crime," Mario explained, "the theory being that a child who learns guitar from a young age will never carry a weapon.”

After almost a year of bringing a student to study with Mario in Monterrey once a week, the plan changed: every weekend, Mario would drive the three hours to Reynosa Tamaulipas. Now, he has a whole studio of students between the ages of 4 and 53.

When Mario heard that Ana Vidovic was coming to Austin, he contacted her to ask if his students could play before the concert. He wanted to show them a world of hope, opportunity, and the possibility of life in the arts.

"Keep your strength," she told one of the students after he'd played. "Mantén tu fuerza."

“This trip to Austin showed that we are doing the right thing by helping children grow up in an environment of music instead of one concerned with terror and violence," Mario wrote to us after the concert.

“Our students and their parents were very happy with the reception and attention you gave us, it was much more than we could have imagined. The stage you set up so Ana Vidovic could hear us was spectacular and touching. ACG is a wonderful organization, and your team was very kind.”

His guitar studio would soon like to relocate to a nearby city of McAllen or Mission, Texas, since Reynosa is very dangerous. "We do not want any of our students to be accidentally injured by a stray bullet. Currently, our facilities are in a private house for our students' safety.”

"We see education as a cornerstone for changing the course of our children and our environment.”

They aspire to follow the model of ACG Education.

“Our project is small and has a limited budget, but we believe it will grow. We will hopefully see our progress reflected in disciplined young people with artistic training who someday could be in high spheres of the classical guitar world."


Artist Robin Emmerich: Overcoming Fear

We had so much fun partnering with local visual artists this past season as part of our International Series concerts at the AISD Performing Arts Center, and look forward to showcasing more talented artists in the coming year! For our opening night concert with the fabulous Ana Vidovic on September 22nd, we're thrilled to feature Austin-based artist Robin Emmerich. We recently got the chance to speak with her about how she dove into art after grappling with personal struggles.

What led to your present career?

I was working my way up the corporate ladder, but found myself unfulfilled. I thought, 'Wow, I went to college and everything for this?'

Then the perfect storm happened: a car accident, someone attempting to break into my home, someone attempting to break into my car. These random events led me to deeper work, deeper healing work. I started a personal journey of transformation.

Those events created a lot of fear. I found a doctor who brought me into a deep meditative state to work through those experiences. Through my personal development, I tapped into the creative force, the artist, within me.

How did you begin painting?

One day years ago, I wanted to open my heart more to love, and an artist friend said, “Come paint with me. Just try it.” I turned on music, set my intention like I would in any of my other work, and four hours later had created this amazing, gorgeous painting. I was in awe.

In a sense, I became addicted to that fear of facing a blank canvas, setting my intention, going inward, and painting.

My art comes from intention. I overcome the fear: I set an intention, feel the fear, and do it anyway. It’s like going on stage. Because art comes from such a higher place within us, sometimes it’s not for us to know how it’s going to be created. I set my intention, and trust in it.

What do you hope people get from your artwork?

A lot of people that view my artwork feel peace, hope, positivity. My hope is that no matter what a person has experienced, my art brings to them what their heart most desires.

I’ve already painted one piece while listening to her performance of Asturias by Isaac Albéniz, and I’m working on another.


Our Partners for "dream": CASA of Travis County

We're honored to partner with CASA of Travis County for our upcoming presentation of dream. This isn't our first collaboration - for the past several years, students from our guitar classes at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center have performed at CASA's swearing-in ceremonies for new volunteers. We talked with Callie Langford, their Director of Communications, to learn more about the services CASA provides for children in the welfare system.

I’ve worked with CASA of Travis County for the past ten years. CASA is a national organization that started over 40 years ago in Seattle, and the Travis County organization began in 1985. Last year we had over 700 volunteers helping almost 1,800 children.

We speak up for kids in the child welfare and foster care system. We recruit, screen, and train volunteers to work directly with kids in child protection services. Our volunteers don’t need a special education or background to become children’s advocates in the courtroom, in schools, and in the community.

The volunteers spend time building a trusting relationship with the child. If something goes wrong, or if the child is scared, the child knows to call the CASA volunteer.

To help build a well-rounded picture of the child's experience, the volunteer gets to know the parents, foster home parents, shelter workers, therapists, doctors, attorneys, and case workers. The advocate will see the child more often than most parties on the case, and will go to the courtroom and defend the interests of the child or sibling group about four times a year. Unlike an attorney with multiple cases at a time, our CASA volunteers are focused on only one child or sibling group.

CASA volunteers keep children in protection services from falling through the cracks of the system.

It's really a big commitment. About half of our volunteers have full-time jobs, and they range in age from 21 to 83. They have families, careers, and travel obligations. We ask our volunteers to commit to the lifetime of a case, which on average is around seventeen months. Volunteers typically give about fifteen hours per month.

It’s a really empowering and very engaging volunteer job, and probably the most professional volunteer role out there. I’m always amazed at how many people are able to do their end, and how much time they’re able to give. Our volunteers are incredible people.

A volunteer once told me that “It doesn’t take up time, it creates a space. It makes your life bigger.” 

I interviewed someone who was aging out of the CASA system a few years ago. We try to help the children make healthy adult connections and go in a successful direction after leaving our program. This young woman told me that she couldn’t decide between going to school to be an attorney or an engineer.

I asked where she would be without her Court Appointed Special Advocate, and she said with zero hesitation, “I’d be in jail.” She really attributed the success and direction in her life to her CASA volunteer.


Our Partners for "dream": Seedling Mentor Program

We're so proud to partner for the first time with Seedling Mentor Program for our upcoming presentation of dream. We spoke with Molly McIntosh, their Recruitment Coordinator, about what Seedling is doing to help Austin youth.

I've been the Recruitment Coordinator at Seedling for three years, meaning I encourage people in the community to volunteer with us.

We're a school-based mentoring program for children who have a parent either currently incarcerated, in and out of jail, or recently released, deported, or detained. Through partnerships with local school districts, we find children who would benefit from the program. We’re always recruiting mentors, but now is the height of our recruitment season because the school year is about to begin.

We pair a mentor with a mentee, and then somewhere along the way, the magic happens.

There are three unique stressors for these children. One is the stigma and shame which follows them through every stage of their parent's incarceration. The second is the “Conspiracy of Silence,” meaning the children are either not told the truth of the parent’s location, or they’re told they can't reveal it or express any feelings about the situation. The third is that there's no systematic support for children who have an incarcerated parent. There’s no government response; no one is asking about their needs.

A mentor can alleviate stress in each of these categories. Our mentors are as young as 20 and as old as 80, and they do all kinds of activities with their mentees: arts and crafts, playing games, reading books, or just talking about their lives. The children share their hopes, dreams, and stories - most of the time, the mentor is just listening. We don’t expect our mentors to be tutors, counselors, or parents.

We only ask our mentors to be a friend, to be someone who will listen to the child in a non-judgmental way.

One of the recipients of our recent scholarship competition for eighth-graders has been with her mentor since she was in second grade. She had been absorbed into the foster care system at different points in her life, and her mentor was the one consistent person she had through all the changes, ups and downs, and challenges. It’s rare to see relationships last that long. Our kids move, or decide at a certain point they’ve “grown out” of the program and want to move on. This relationship has lasted, and continues to last. Below is an excerpt from her application essay:

“My mentor has watched me grow from a little ladybug who wanted to be Beyoncé into a teenager who wants to be a business owner, cosmetologist, and a graduate of my dream college, Louisiana State University . I would never have made it without the short, beautiful lady who entered my life all those years ago. My mentor encouraged me, strengthened me, believed in me, influenced me, and helped guide me through the path of life. Through the seven years we have been together, she influenced me in ways that made me better both inside and out.”

The thing we really stress is the invisibility of children who have an incarcerated parent. There’s such a lack of knowledge about the population, and because of that, there’s a lack of resources available to them. Seedling is the only program of its kind in the country. To get engaged with us, to support our program, is truly to support a just cause.


Our Partners for "dream": American Gateways

For ACG, one of the most rewarding aspects of being in a big, diverse community like Austin is the opportunity to build relationships with other local organizations. We first partnered with American Gateways last summer for i/we, and are thrilled to be collaborating with them again for our upcoming presentation of dream. We recently spoke with Lora Petty, their Development Coordinator, who told us about some of the work American Gateways is doing in central Texas.

I’ve been employed with American Gateways for about twelve years. I first did direct client services, and recently I transferred into a development role.

American Gateways has been providing services for over 30 years to the central Texas immigrant community. We started out providing asylum - we used to be called the “Political Asylum Project of Austin.” Now we provide a lot more immigration services, some of which have been brought to light in recent weeks. We assist parents who have been separated from their children at the border, offering legal representation to adults trying to reunite with their children, and work within family detention centers. We also assist Dreamers through DACA - one of our DACA clients is a participant in dream.

There are special applications available to immigrants who have been victims of crime and violence in the United States. The job I had previously was to help file immigration petitions related to being the survivor of a crime.

It’s great to be able to see lives change, to see some positive outcome. Good news is few and far between, but when it comes, we rejoice in it.

Many years ago, one of my clients was a victim of a domestic violence incident. She called the police, made a report, and was helpful during the investigation. Some time later, she found out about American Gateways, and we were able to help her file the application for a U Non-immigrant Status, or "U Visa".

The purpose of the U visa is to enhance community policing and to have a safer community for all. A U visa encourages immigrants who have been victims of crime to file reports, because immigrants are often too afraid to contact police out of fear of deportation. This individual was brave enough to make that report and help the prosecution with the case, and the individual who perpetrated the crime served jail time.

When she was eventually found eligible for the U visa, she had a lovely husband whom she was able to petition as well. Now, as a family, they own a home, contribute to their community, and have work permits. It’s really a lovely story about an unfortunate victim of a crime who was then able to receive the benefits of a U visa.  Unfortunately, it all comes down to being the survivor of a traumatic event, but it is so rewarding to see the clients gain work permits, gain permanent residency, and gain citizenship.


Mak Grgić

Mak Grgić is a dynamic and versatile artist. On July 7th at Bates Recital Hall, he'll be pairing his unique approach to guitar in a duo performance with violinist Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We are thrilled to present this concert with Austin Chamber Music Center as part of their Summer Festival. This will be Mak's third Austin performance in five years, and we spoke with him recently about his musical background, and why he's excited for his return to Austin.

Q: What was your first experience with music?

A: I didn’t want to play the guitar; that was my father’s choice. Piano was too big, violin too squeaky. I took lessons, learned about theory, and got excited about guitar in a very normal, ambitious-child way: I just wanted to be good. My music studies took me from Slovenia to Zagreb, then to Vienna and finally Los Angeles, where the enjoyment of playing music really kicked in. Here I saw many wonderful musicians and new styles of music, which felt almost liberating to me. In Europe, you have to play a certain way, fit in a mold, and I find that very unpleasant. I prefer the more open space of L.A.

Q: You perform a wide variety of music. What do you consider your signature style?

A: I’m most comfortable with classical music because I grew up with it, but dabbling in other styles informs my approach to classical. I have more a sense of enjoyment than I did before. It’s fun to play styles like flamenco and rock, but I’m without a doubt a classical musician.

Q: Why do you view art as important to a community?

A: Art is the language all can understand, it’s a way of communicating that doesn’t ever perish. You don’t necessarily have to study art to have an aesthetic appreciation or emotional connection to it. It’s particularly important because it gives kids an extracurricular activity and keeps them off the streets, gives them a distraction. Art is an escape from the technology that’s overwhelming us and making us socially isolated. There are so many benefits.

Q: What do you love about Austin?

I’ve played here twice before, and I’ve seen how culture is alive in a very special way, how Austin is an innovative oasis of the arts.  It’s a privilege to come play for an audience that’s so appreciative.


An Tran: Playing from the heart

An Tran, a rising virtuoso from Vietnam, will perform for ACG's final Library Series concert this Sunday, May 27th at 2pm. We had the chance to sit down and ask him some questions about the role of music in his home life, his move to the U.S., and his desire to bridge two worlds through music.


 How did music play a part of  your life growing up?

My parents were music lovers. I was lucky to be raised in an environment where music was always there - my dad used to put the radio next to my mom when she was pregnant with me, so it was there from the beginning. My parents let me try out all different instruments, but when I tried guitar, it made a lot of sense. It was challenging, but also motivating to me as a kid.

When did you move to the U.S. from Vietnam?

I left Hanoi when I was 15 to study as a foreign exchange student in Nebraska. A while after moving there, I quit guitar - I got tired of playing the same things, and wanted a change. I’d been in the Vietnam National Academy of Music for a number of years, but I lost motivation when I moved to the States. Then, I visited a friend studying guitar with Anne Waller in Chicago, and when I had the chance to play for her, she told me I should continue. I realized I enjoyed performing, and that people liked hearing me play. I'm now a doctoral candidate studying with Anne at Northwestern University.

"The guitar is universal, which makes it easy to communicate and connect with people. I believe it can function as a bridge between Vietnamese music and Western classical music."

How does music of your homeland play a part in your performances?

I like to incorporate pieces close to my heart in all concerts, so about half of the music I perform is Vietnamese. I try to bring traditional Vietnamese music to as many audiences as possible, which I think gives them a small part of who I am. The final piece I’ll play next Sunday is an arrangement of a traditional lullaby my mom used to sing to me.

How do you view the guitar as a way to portray traditional Vietnamese music?

The guitar is universal, which makes it easy to communicate and connect with people. I believe it can function as a bridge between Vietnamese music and Western classical music, and I view myself as that bridge. The guitar is part of my personality, my identity.


The Gift of Guitar

This story is part of our ACG Fall Fund Drive Changing Lives Storyboard. Consider supporting ACG today!


In partnership with Austin Independent School District and Travis County, ACG developed the only for-credit arts class offered to young people incarcerated at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center. Now in its eighth year, the impact of these classes has drawn national attention, including coverage on PBS NewsHour and a feature story in Teen Vogue. Most recently, the Travis County Juvenile Probation Department has asked that ACG expand this program to begin serving Austin students who are currently on probation.

Below is a reflection from Kerry Price, an ACG board member, who recently attended a performance of students at Gardner Betts.



Last Sunday, May 6, I had the opportunity to attend a guitar performance by five students at Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center.  In the courtroom, each student played one or two solo pieces in front of the judge's podium to an audience of family members, friends, teachers, and ACG Board members and staff.

While the regular use of this room is anything but festive, on this particular afternoon we were there for an accomplishment: young students' hard work to prepare for the daunting task of performing alone.

I was very moved to hear a student play the same Villa-Lobos Prelude which, forty years ago, was the first piece of classical guitar music I'd ever heard. It was the same piece that began my own journey with the guitar and brought so much joy to my own life. What really made my day was seeing the piece performed on a guitar that I once owned - I'd given it to ACG so that maybe someone could use it. That my old guitar was used on this day, and that I had an opportunity to hear and see a student playing Villa-Lobos on it, was icing on the cake.

-Kerry Price, Board Member

If you are inspired by Austin Classical Guitar’s work with young people in the Juvenile Justice System, please consider making a donation to support this work today.


Opening a door

This story is part of our ACG Fall Fund Drive Changing Lives Storyboard. Read our previous story about the first-time-ever guitar experience we created for young movie fans right before they saw Disney/Pixar's newest film Coco. Consider supporting ACG today! 

Lynn Wills has been a member of ACG's Community Ensemble since the summer of 2016.  He credits his participation in the group with realizing the need to pursue a new direction in his career and a change in life purpose.

Lynn Wills (left) performing in a duet with Ed Collins, Dec. 10, 2017.

For more information about ACG's Community Ensembles, click here.


How did you become involved with ACG?

Growing up, a lot of my life centered around band. I played clarinet and saxophone in middle and high school, and senior year I was drum major, first chair, and section leader. In my senior year, half of my classes were music: marching band, jazz band, dance band, and theory class. By the time I went to college, I was burned out. It was too much, I was tired of performance jitters and auditioning, and I got interested in Air Force ROTC. I only played in the marching band my senior year of college, then I joined the Air Force.

As tired as I was of auditioning in high school, it turned out my area of specialty in the Air Force required an audition of sorts every year - people came in, critiqued me - it was just continuous criticism for years and years. I spent 30 years in the Air Force, and worked in the defense industry for 12 years.

Six years into the Air Force, I ended up stationed in Madrid. I went downtown, bought a guitar, met an American ex-pat living there, and started learning to play classical music. This was 1980 - a long time ago. I played off and on at home, but my family joked about how I never performed in public.

In March of last year, I started looking around for something new. I signed up for a guitar ensemble with ACG. At the first practice, I fell in love. Then, in November, we performed for a charity event. It was my first time performing in public since 1974. I had forgotten what it was like. The ensemble is such a supportive environment that a couple mistakes are no big deal. It was never like that in high school.

I started thinking, “What other areas of life have I restricted myself in?”

ACG Community Ensemble at St. Luke's on the Lake, Lynn far left.

"I was just amazed at what happens when you open a new door and start looking around. I’m pretty convinced if I hadn’t played guitar and joined an ACG ensemble, that wouldn’t have happened."

In October, I quit my job and applied to The University of Texas at Austin for a Master’s degree in Public Leadership at the LBJ School of Public Policy. I was accepted, and now I'm taking classes. It’s a public policy program in executive leadership, so 80% of the students are state employees. I would be really interested in teaching or consulting, as well as volunteering with a non-profit. I've just been amazed at what happens when you open a new door and start looking around. I’m pretty convinced that if I hadn’t played guitar and joined an ACG ensemble, that wouldn’t have happened.

How would you describe your experience in the ACG ensemble, and a part of ACG as a whole?

It’s very supportive, and there’s a lot of work involved. In an ensemble like that, you’re pretty exposed. Ensemble playing really drives you to practice. It also expands your repertoire, and I think I’m a better player than I was a year ago.