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

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.

Volunteer Spotlight: Fred Springer

Fred Springer, a student at UT-Austin pursuing a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance, has been volunteering at ACG concerts since 2015. He has taken on a variety of responsibilities over that time, including usher, artist liaison, and stage manager. We recently sat down with Fred to ask about his reasons for becoming involved with ACG, and what his experiences as a volunteer have meant to him.

Interested in volunteering for ACG? Sign up here!


Q: Where are you from originally, and what brought you to Austin?

A: I was born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida. Eventually I ended up choosing UT-Austin, partly because of the strong program and the faculty, but also because of Austin Classical Guitar. ACG provided a great window of opportunity. When you look around as a student applying to schools, it’s rare to find an organization like this, one that is so symbiotic with the city. They do so much in terms of putting on performances and teaching, as well as all their community engagement.

Q: In what ways has music touched your life?

A: I started Kindermusik classes when I was four. I started guitar at eight, just learning simple pop songs on acoustic guitar, and then played bass guitar in a cover band with my friends. We played Cream songs, Metallica, Lynyrd SkynyrdThere’s a very rewarding cycle in studying music. You have an initial love for something, such as a guitar solo in a rock song, or a piece you hear at an ACG concert. You think, “Woah! That was awesome.” Then there’s an investigative time of getting into the details and learning. The reward comes at the end when you’ve brought it to a certain level and you can play it. I think studying music instills a sense of focus and work ethic. It directs attention and allows you to see what you can do. 


“I think studying music instills a sense of focus and work ethic. It directs attention and allows you to see what you can do.”

 

Q: Do you have a favorite memory with ACG?

A:  I still remember the first event I volunteered for, it was the second night of “The Lodger” at the Alamo Drafthouse. I love movies, I love Alfred Hitchcock, and obviously I love classical guitar, so that concert was almost other-worldly because it was a perfect package of Joe Williams’s original score and a classic Hitchcock movie – both happening at an Austin landmark. It was so cool, and from that moment I knew this was a unique organization. That first event, I fell in love with ACG – it’s a pride and joy of Austin.

Q: What do you appreciate about volunteering with ACG?

A: The level of insider access. Not only do you get to see artists perform, but you get to see how they work, because you can go backstage and see exactly what goes into a production. It’s incredible that a group of volunteers from the community and a few really dedicated people can put together these amazing shows.

Q: What does ACG provide to college students such as yourself?

A: The real downfall of music programs in higher education is how little they prepare you for the real world of professional music. People say once you have a college degree, you put that on your résumé, and then doors open. But you also have to make connections, get windows into organizations like ACG, build rapport with an employer or a community member. It’s been awesome for me to meet, talk with, learn from, and get to know the people and artists involved with ACG, and investigate what it takes to run an organization like this. It’s really been invaluable.

Q: Other than concerts, are there any other aspects of ACG’s work that interest you?

A: The program for incarcerated youth at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center really stands out for me. To see the young men there use music to its fullest potential, to see how playing guitar affects their individual growth, their process of maturity – that’s a real measurable impact. Music offers them an opportunity to think and to dream beyond themselves. It’s incredible to see their intent and good nature emerge. ACG provides a way for them to experience the diligence, the work ethic, the joy that comes from music.

Q: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about ACG?

A: I wish more people knew about the real reach of ACG’s community service. When people ask me about Austin, I point them to ACG, emphasizing that it’s not just an organization which presents classical guitar concerts. ACG’s intent and genuine nature sets it apart: it presents music as a celebration of life. The support, the money that goes into the organization, the love – it all comes back tenfold to the community.

A masterclass with Pepe Romero in October 2016. (Fred second from left)

 

Volunteer Spotlight: Lloyd Pond

For over ten years, Lloyd Pond has been a dedicated volunteer for ACG. These days, he spends much of his time repairing guitars used in our school programs, often saving badly damaged instruments from the scrap heap and getting them back into the hands of students. We asked him to share a bit about his upbringing, love of music, and favorite moments with our organization.

Interested in volunteering for ACG? Sign up here!



Can you tell me about your family’s musical heritage?

My grandmother grew up playing piano in a small Texas town near Louisiana. She taught all of the grandchildren how to play, so that’s how we all got our musical influence.

We had a piano at home, and people would come in to take music lessons. Often people from the church would come to practice singing, and my grandmother would rehearse with them or provide music. Sometimes my family would gather around the piano and sing old songs she had on sheet music from the 20s and 30s.

In what ways has music touched your life?

When I was about 10 or 11, I said “I hate piano, I never want to play again.” My grandmother said, “If you don’t want to play piano, what instrument would you like to play?” I said,“I’d like to play the violin.”

There was a man who played violin at our church, and so it just came into my mind. We were a middle-income family. I really didn’t think there was any way I’d get a violin; I just wanted a way out of playing piano.

The next day I came home from school, and my grandmother had gone down to the Heights area – where there was a music store – and bought a violin. She showed me the rudiments of playing, which led to playing in the school orchestra – I always enjoyed that. Late in high school I started playing the guitar. Rock ‘n roll, Elvis Presley and all that stuff.

How did you get involved in woodworking and repairing instruments?

My father and his family were all constructors, builders, people who made things. He built our house, so every day he’d come home from work and start working on something. I was side-by-side with him, learning about tools and working with wood. Repairing instruments probably came when I had the chance to meet the man who adjusted my violin. He had a great workshop, and immediately set my mind to thinking about, “How do people make and repair instruments?”

“Musicians are always wild and crazy, and it’s fun to hear their experiences, to share that interest and joy of making music.”

How did you first get connected with ACG?
I came to Austin around 2004. I had attended guitar concerts here before, and I started playing with the classical guitar ensemble. A couple of years went by, and my wife and I bought a house in the Crestview neighborhood. One day, I noticed a sign nearby that said “Austin Classical Guitar Society” and I thought, “I could go by there and see if they need help.”

What have you enjoyed about your experience here?

It’s the people. The reason I wanted to play in the classical guitar ensemble was to meet people who were interested in music. Musicians are always wild and crazy, so that’s fun to hear their experiences, and share that interest and joy of making music. Of course the other major interest I had was the instrument repair: to repair the instruments, marvel at the ways middle and high school kids can manage to destroy and damage and otherwise misuse the instruments; I try to put them back together.

Are there some special memories, people, or events that stand out if you reflect on your years here?

Sometimes I would have the opportunity to meet with the concert artists or interact with them. That was always a fun thing for me. Sometimes we were surprised at their eccentricities.

We’d have some artists come and play at schools. I’d provide transportation, and one that most impressed me was going to the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Watching those students – wow, how incredibly inspirational! After hearing the performer play, listening to the response of the students – so interested and so captivated by the music, and asking very good questions.

“I wish that each one of those people could have some of the same experiences that I’ve had: of seeing how other parts of the community can benefit from the efforts of all of us put together.”

Pepe Romero, he’s part of a lot of beautiful memories. During the GFA convention, I was at the UT radio station that did the interview. To hear his stories about his family, and his father and his music- every time he tells these stories, it’s such an emotional event. He related a story of his father’s passing, and everybody, everybody was in tears. Even his wife, who I’m sure has heard that story a hundred, a million times.

What are your impressions overall of ACG as a non-profit organization and the service it provides?

It’s certainly an amazing success story. It’s grown and grown, now all kinds of wonderful things are happening. The idea that guitar and music is only a basis, a beginning, for contact with students, troubled individuals, people who need help, people who have special needs, that guitar and the music generated from it is only a tiny portion of that. It provides a connection into other areas of people’s lives, other needs they may have. That’s a fantastic concept to me, and it wasn’t one I ever imagined when I became involved with ACG. I looked at it as a feel-good thing for me to enjoy some music great performers can bring, but it’s certainly much much much much more than that.

What is the one thing you wish that more people knew about ACG?

It’s so much more than just going to a concert and listening to a great performer.