From the Desk: Phil Swasey - ACG Partner Teacher

From the Desk is an Austin Classical Guitar (ACG) and GuitarCurriculum.com series that explores the organization through the eyes of the staff members. These articles focus on the staff’s thoughts and motivations, and hopefully provides a chance to get to know the people behind the scenes.

This week’s From the Desk is written by ACG Partner Teacher, Phil Swasey. Phil is currently a classroom Guitar Director at Bedichek Middle School in Austin I.S.D., he is the district content lead for middle school guitar and mariachi, and was named the campus Teacher of the Year in 2016. In the classroom, his focus remains on finding creative and empowering strategies to remove common obstacles in the way of student success.

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Impact in the First Years of Teaching by Phil Swasey

As most teachers can attest to, the first years in the classroom can be an emotional, physical and mentally trying time for young professionals. Working with directors that are experiencing these fresh and raw feelings for the first time has encouraged me to look back at my own experiences during the early stages of my career.

Almost ten years ago, after deciding on a career change and a cross-country move to Austin, I finished my alternative certification with Region XIII and jumped right into the classroom. I was excited to be on my feet, not chained to a desk, and grateful to have a guitar in my hands, collecting an adult paycheck. 

Despite my eagerness, my classroom was not the magical learning environment that I had envisioned. It was a chaotic swirl of indecisiveness, unwanted student behaviors, emotional swings and a general doubt about my effectiveness as a teacher. When I looked at my first group of 6th grade beginning guitarists, motivated, wide-eyed and full of potential, I thought that they deserved someone more experienced to guide them through the start of their musical careers.

During my moments of doubt, ACG and Jeremy Osbourne were there to support me and focus my energy on solutions to the problems that I was facing. I’m convinced that this outreach helped me to obtain a level of confidence in my practice, allowing me to serve my students more effectively early on. 

The truth likely is, my classroom was never as chaotic as I perceived it to be. Maintaining perspective on your own teaching practice and environment is a constant challenge. Teachers are impactful from their first moments on campus, and having mentors around to encourage growth and recognize strength is an invaluable part of learning the teaching craft.

The 6th graders that I looked at with doubt and hesitancy graduated from high school last year, many having continued on with guitar through their senior year at Crockett High School. Watching them mature as musicians and people over the last 7 years was a continual source of reward and gratification. 

Last year, I was talking with Rey, one of the students from that chaotic and mis-managed beginning guitar class. He was preparing his college applications for guitar performance, and in a moment I will never forget, he said, “I wouldn’t be doing this without you.” Rey is now on scholarship at the University of Texas and I couldn’t be more proud of him. This serves as a reminder for me that teachers are impactful every day of their careers, even the first one.


Postcards: Loudoun County, Virginia

Postcards is an Austin Classical Guitar (ACG) and GuitarCurriculum.com series that explores the guitar programs around the nation and strives to bring the guitar teacher community together

This week’s Postcards is written by Dr. Kevin Vigil, Guitar & Music Theory Director at Heritage High School, Chair of the Virginia Music Educators Association Guitar Council & All-Virginia Guitar Ensemble, and Member-At-Large of the NAfME Council for Guitar Education.

This week, Dr. Vigil focuses on a student in his county, Jack Osborne, excelling in the guitar world! 

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Postcard from Loudoun County, VA - By Dr. Kevin Vigil

Meet Jack!

Jack Osborne is a senior at Briar Woods High School (BWHS) in Loudoun County Public Schools. He served as concertmaster for the 2019 NAfME All-National Honors Guitar Ensemble that took place from November 7 – 10. Not only was Jack selected for this honor, but also acted as concertmaster for the 2018 All-Virginia Guitar Ensemble (AVGE) and (again) for the 2019 AVGE; which performed on November 21. Oh yeah… he also won the Beatty Scholarship Competition in Washington, DC!  Among the prizes was the opportunity to open up for classical guitar legend, David Russell.

So how did Jack get to this point? 

One word - opportunity. 

Jack has had the opportunity to learn guitar at BWHS under the direction of Dr. Michael Murphy, from his private instructor, Jamey Mann, and the PAVAN Regional Governor’s School to list a few. Jack has also, and perhaps more importantly, had opportunities to stumble along the way. He told me about a poor outcome from a competition; which damaged his spirit and passion to continue with guitar.  However, a friend and fellow competitor, Ryan Robinson, gave him some sound advice, “performing is not about winning or losing, but about reaching your audience.”

Jack has certainly taken his friend’s advice and continues to strive to reach others with his musical performances. He is also planning definitely to continue his studies of the instrument in college as a performance major and potentially double major with computer science.


We’d love to hear about guitar in your part of the world next! Reach out to Jess Griggs anytime with your story and a photo or two.


Live at the Library: “Evening” with Thomas Echols & Invoke

Dr. Thomas Echols - performer, composer, songwriter, instructor at Austin Community College – is one of the most creative artistic innovators we know. At home in many styles and multiple media, Echols was the mastermind behind ACG’s Summer Series NARRATIVES that rolled together poetry from Argentina, Portugal, and England, minimalism, ancient and modern instruments, synthesizers, and contemporary responsive composition.

 On Sunday, December 1st at 2pm (doors at 1:30), Echols will be joined by award-winning and supremely imaginative Invoke String Quartet for the first of two ACG Live at the Library shows.  The event will be held at Austin’s new Central Public Library, it’s free, and open to the public.

We asked Echols to share a few thoughts on the show, which he’s calling, EVENING:

ACG: Tell us about EVENING?

TE: Evening” presents a sonic landscape that is inhabited by songs, compositions, and improvisations. The focal points of the performance are four songs, somewhat sparse and inward looking, that unfold out into instrumental forays.  At times, the players are guided by GRADUS, a contrapuntal algorithm that I built to be an additional participant in the work. GRADUS performs a complex role: providing pitch content to be played by us, processing the sounds captured from our instruments, and performing newly generated material through various types of synthesis. The emotive content of the songs is rather soft, dark, and heavy. GRADUS provides a kind of levity, by revealing that a lot of these same sonic experiences can come from a source essentially devoid of emotion (a computer). To help GRADUS to follow our expressive intent, I have made a device that mounts to my guitar that sends the algorithm information about the physical movement of my guitar and monitors the motion of my left hand, as I engage in a kind of hyperbolic expressive histrionics to communicate musical intention.

ACG: What do you love about working with Invoke String Quartet?

TE: Invoke, is amazing! They are a top-shelf string quartet that has chosen to ardently pursue a path of deep creative work: improvising, composing, song-writing, and working with new composers. With Invoke, I can provide a skeletal layout of what we are working on, and we can improvise around it until we come to something we love. I can also give them a detailed score and they can read it easily. They are a dream.

 

ACG: What do you wish everyone knew about working with synthesizers/electronic music?

TE: It’s more than people often think it is. Synthesizers are an amazing way to learn about traditional instruments: by creating a “patch” that resembles the sound of a clarinet or snare drum, you learn quite a lot! So, it is a means of learning to orchestrate. But just as importantly, computers, synths, circuits et al are a way of exploring new sounds and textures, new ways for musicians to engage with themselves, other musicians, and their audiences through various interactive techniques.

ACG: Why is creativity important to you, to humanity?

TE: When thinking of creativity, I really come to focus on two things: the idea of free will and of learning as its expression. A hot take on free will through a Tolstoyan lense is that we have it, but we have a whole lot less than we like to think. We are bound by a multitude of constraints that determine so much about our live, but in spite of that, we do guide the ship in some way.

 

About learning.... Creativity, for me, is the natural end result of learning, with learning and creating being somewhat like inhaling and exhaling. The creative act is the trace left by the fire that was the learning.

The creative part seems to come about through an important need: the need to connect with others, while continuously learning about the next thing that we will eventually create serves as a kind of path towards greater freedom. So, going back to the free will thing, a creative life allow a person to have greater agency, providing us with the most obvious mean of having a say in what we become. That's the long and short of it, so I tend to focus on learning and then find myself creating as a kind of happy accident, at least in the initial inception of the thing!

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Thank you Dr. Tom! We can’t wait. Learn more about Thomas Echols on his website or by checking out his band here.

 


Interview: Matthew Lyons - Composer, Performer, Arranger

Matthew Lyons is an Austin based composer, performer, and arranger. Lyons was recently commission by the ACG Trio for their November 24th performance at Skyspace. In this interview, he discusses his compositions, and specific challenges and inspirations for the Skyspace piece. 


Earliest experiences in music? 

My earliest musical memory is listening to Beatles albums on cassette in the car - I had the albums memorized by color as opposed to name, so I’d say “Green one!” (perhaps that was Rubber Soul, for example).

I began studying guitar in 3rd grade. I took classical lessons, but wanted to be in a rock band. A pivotal moment was playing a song I wrote in the 5th grade talent show about my two Dachshunds, with my friend Chris playing rhythm guitar. When I ended the song by laying on the whammy bar (attached to the bridge of the guitar, moves the pitch up and down) all the other kids present thought that was just the coolest.

 

What led you into composition?

I’ve always written music, since I began taking guitar lessons. As my playing evolved, so did my compositional language. I chose to study classical guitar for my undergrad, but my teacher encouraged me to lean into composing more. After I developed a hand injury that made further classical guitar studies no longer an option, I decided to start studying composition at UT Austin, and quickly realized that I was on the right path.

Can you talk about some of the themes you explore in your music? Both as a composer and performer?

Each of my pieces tends to take on a different narrative - the only themes I can think of in my music are more abstract, such as a focus on colorful, jazz-inspired harmony, and themes and textures that both engage the audience while sometimes challenging them. It’s important to me that whatever might be interesting or engaging about my music is apparent on the surface. As a guitarist-composer, anything I write for guitar always has the intention of stretching the existing repertoire in some way. One thing I’ve experimented with recently is guitar and live electronics with a computer processing sound in real time.

What are some influences in your work? 

My favorite composers are J.S. Bach and Maurice Ravel, even though my music doesn’t sound at all like the former. Within the current climate of “classical music” (whatever that even means any more) I find myself gravitating towards composers and styles that are openly influenced by minimalism,”post-minimalism,” and/or popular styles. My favorite living musician is the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau - I listen to his music probably more than all other music combined. Something about it resonates with me - his integration of classical technique and form into original compositions and  jazz versions of popular songs (including Radiohead and The Beatles). The Beatles have always been my favorite band, and the charm of their music and personalities is something I can only try to emulate.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this composition in Skyspace? 

Just as the gazers’ focus in the installation shifts between the sky and the changing colors of the installation, I want the music to be on the threshold of attention, sometimes engaging the audience more and other times falling into the background of the overall experience.

How does the unusual venue inspire or shape your composition?

As I mentioned before, exploring colorful harmonies and the expressive relationship they create is one of my main compositional impulses. When I went to check out the space, experiencing the slowly shifting colors seemed to me like a great analog for slowly changing harmonic progressions. As someone who has music synesthesia, I associate certain colors with certain harmonies - not so much poetically as literally. The shifting colors of the sky - from brighter, to red, to dark blue - influenced the harmonic structure of the piece. 

What challenges does it present? 

Some practical issues include the fact that the piece is about a third the amount of time that the audience will be in the installation (although people can technically come and go as they please), and so when and how exactly to start and end will be unconventional for both audience and performers.


More information about SkySpace can be found on UT-Austin's website


ACG Global Services: Ravindra Paudyal - Kathmandu, Nepal

There’s no better way to describe Ravindra Paudyal than an absolute miracle worker. Internationally trained and accomplished, Ravindra began teaching at the Early Childhood Development Center in Nepal earlier this year and has already made a world of difference in the lives of his students.

In Nepal, resources are limited for children, especially those of incarcerated parents. According to UNICEF’s 2010 Nepal Child Poverty Report, over a third of Nepal’s 12.6 million children live below the national poverty line, and two in every five of them are severely deprived of at least two basic human needs. With life on the street as their only alternative, many Nepali children are forced to accompany their mothers to jail, since caretakers in the area are few and far between. Nepalese law permits children to stay in jail with their incarcerated mothers only until they reach the age of five, at which point relatives usually assume custody. Unfortunately, in many cases there are no relatives available to take care of these children, ultimately leaving them helpless and homeless. 

That’s where ECDC comes in. Their mission aims to ensure incarcerated mothers have more control over their children’s fate, working tirelessly to supply each and every child with the resources necessary to shape their ideal future. With the help of Ravindra and the rest of their team, ECDC offers these children something they could never get in prison: the chance to be a kid. Through the power of music, children who were once in a seemingly impossible position are given a fresh start, finally able to enjoy their childhood.

Ravindra leads classical guitar classes every week, using ACG’s resource GuitarCurriculum.com to teach his students how to play and perform. For them, music is more than entertainment, it’s a rare privilege that becomes a source of great pride when they learn how to create it themselves. 

Ravindra Paudyal

“They want to show their ability and enjoy themselves in the field of music, and as a result, they find their dreams here,” Ravindra explains. 

Much like the children he teaches, Ravindra’s own upbringing largely shaped his future in music. “My older brother was a very good musician, until all of a sudden he became very ill and his kidney stopped working. At the hospital, he held my hand and told me, ‘you must learn music, because I don’t think I’ll get the chance.’ It was very hard for me to hear those words. Then one day he passed away. Our house, once full of musical sound and melody, suddenly turned into grave silence. These circumstances are what inspired me to learn music.” 

Slowly but surely, Ravindra began practicing guitar by himself.  “I couldn’t help but feel like the soul of my brother was imbedded in me. I felt like his dream was leading me,” he recalls. “Since then, I’ve realized just how much my instrument means to me. My guitar became a friend that led me to celebrate in joy, counseled me and supported me during my sorrows.”

Teaching guitar allows Ravindra to do the same for his students. “My greatest wish is to produce brilliant classical musicians through ECDC, so that they can make a living on their own after they leave the program. Beyond that, I hope to produce future teachers through ECDC so that they can teach the next generation of musicians.” 

He insists that ACG has made it all possible. “Working with ACG is truly gratifying because of their heartfelt intentions and their prolific direction of creating skillful musicians by providing quality education purely based on non-profit social work. They provide countless opportunities to a lot of skilled classical musicians, which drives me to be truthful and dedicated in my work. Because of this, I’ve been fortunate enough to enhance the lives of so many children.”


From the Desk: Eric Pearson - Director of Curriculum

From the Desk is an Austin Classical Guitar (ACG) and GuitarCurriculum.com series that explores the organization through the eyes of the staff members. These articles focus on the staff’s thoughts and motivations, and hopefully provides a chance to get to know the people behind the scenes.

This week’s From the Desk is written by ACG and GuitarCurriculum.com’s Director of Curriculum, Eric Pearson.

A native of western New York, Eric had previously served as Executive Director of the Infinity Performing Arts Program, Inc. and taught at Ithaca College and Cayuga Community College. He is a frequent clinician at state and national meetings for music educators, including conferences hosted by the Texas Music Educators Association, the National Association for Music Educators, and the American String Teachers Association.
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It’s an exciting time for GuitarCurriculum.com!

This summer we made some major updates to the website, including a whole new look and layout. We also added over 20 new solos, 10 new recordings, and several pieces submitted by guest composers using our new share music page!

We are always looking for ways to make this resource more robust and easily accessible for your use in the classroom. Just this week, we have begun adding model performance videos to the score landing pages of our ensemble arrangements. Check out this one featuring an ensemble led by our frequent guest clinician, Chuck Hulihan. If you would like to share an outstanding performance of one of the GuitarCurriculum pieces, please reply to this email, or post to the forum with permission to use your clip!

We have also been hosting a series of live webinars on a variety of topics submitted by users and teachers around the world. If there’s a topic you’d like us to cover, or if you would like to join in on the conversation, please reach out and let us know!

In the coming weeks we will be releasing new arrangements of traditional music from Mexico, revised course packets, new elementary materials and even arrangements of Turkish music by our guest composer, Celil Refik Kaya.

Ultimately, this resource is a reflection of what teachers like you have expressed a need for over the years. We thank you for the opportunity to grow in this journey together, and to help serve the developing young musicians in your classroom.

Keep in touch and please share what cool projects are going on in your part of the world!

- Eric Pearson

P.S. We’ll be at the New York State School Music Association conference in Rochester, NY in December. Stop by our booth and say hello if you’re there!

 


Postcards: Jennings Junior High - Jennings, Missouri

Postcards is an Austin Classical Guitar (ACG) and GuitarCurriculum.com series that explores the guitar programs around the nation and strives to bring the guitar teacher community together. 

This week’s Postcards is written by James McKay, Music Educator at Jennings Junior High in Jennings Missouri. McKay discusses the expressive and therapeutic benefits of playing guitar in this Postcard.

 


Jennings Jr. High Postcard

James McKay

Here in a little town called Jennings Missouri, some really incredible things are happening. Tightly tucked away between St. Louis (Top 10 most dangerous U.S. cities) and Ferguson (known for the national attention it got from the Mike Brown incident), music has been used to impact the lives of youth who once have and continue to experience trauma.

Students playing guitar at Jennings Junior High. For a region of this size, the Jennings School District is fairly small. It's comprised of three elementary, one junior, and one high school. In 2014, I piloted a string program that has now blossomed to cover all five buildings. All students started on violin and later, when given a chance, moved on to viola, cello, or double bass. I began to notice that some of the students weren't taking music classes purely for the love of music. Some attended because of what the course did for them - relaxation. On several occasions, when asked about the class, students repeated responded,

"Playing music relaxes me, I feel calm."

Fast forward to 2017, my life was impacted by a visit to the workshop hosted by the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society. A wonderful gentlemen from Austin Classical Guitar introduced me to GuitarCurriculum.com, and immediately, I was SOLD ON the idea of a non-guitarist having the ability to teach classical guitar effectively. Three years later, we have 27 middle schoolers playing guitar and playing several performances throughout the school year. Thanks to the ongoing support from the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society, I can grow my program to scale.

The blessing in disguise here is, some of the students who signed up for the violin ended up falling in love with classical guitar. Our students now have expanded choices for music that helps them to not only express themselves but also enjoy the therapeutic benefits of playing music.


We’d love to hear about guitar in your part of the world next! Reach out to Jess Griggs anytime with your story and a photo or two.


Postcards: Internal Creations - New York City

Postcards is an Austin Classical Guitar (ACG) and GuitarCurriculum.com series that explores the guitar programs around the nation and strives to bring the guitar teacher community together. 

This week’s Postcards is written by Internal Creations’s (IC) Founder and Executive Director, Jahzeel Montes. IC is a New York-based “classical guitar program dedicated to empowering youth through music education while providing a safe, nurturing, family based learning environment centered on expanding the student’s knowledge in music and decision-making.” 

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Community Service Through Music

Jahzeel Montes

As a music organization, we must remember that all our work is to improve the quality of life for the communities and people we serve. In December, Internal Creations’ students performed Christmas songs for the residents, community members, local merchants and elected officials of East New York at Cypress Hills-Fulton Senior Center. This brought joy to the audience. Many of whom had never been exposed to a classical guitar ensemble. In return, the audience members and elected officials gave each student who performed citations for their community service!

That same month we performed at St. John's Bread and Life soup kitchen in Brooklyn. The performance took place while guests were waiting for their pantry order. Some of the audience members came up to learn how to play a song on the guitar! They loved the experience, and it bought smiles and confidence to their life in a matter of a few minutes. Later on, our students even helped prepare the food orders - working until near closing time. Through this experience, the young performers learned the beauty of giving back and how great it feels to help others who are in need.

Our students also performed an interactive concert at a Montessori School. We played children’s songs and the young audience was encouraged to sing along. The performance was followed by a Q&A, where the children asked the students about guitar, music, and their experiences. Our students then worked with the young children on educational games, and learned about what it takes to become a teacher in the pre-k settings. 

Lastly, when our students have gone into senior centers, it has not only been about the performance. It has been about the exchange of skills, ideas, and stories. Often, IC students take the initiative to teach the seniors how to play. Additionally, the students listen to the seniors’ stories and get inspired by their life experiences.

When students go into a soup kitchen, senior center, or a school to perform, it's not only about playing the guitar - it's about sharing and helping out with the work needed for their mission.

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Internal Creations approaches every community space trying to answer the question - how can we enhance our community through music? By creating meaningful performances, the organization inspires both the young musicians and the audience members. In turn, bringing people together through art, love, and respect.