“We felt there was not an adequate solution for engaging kids—similar to how they would be engaged in an orchestra or a choir classroom,” Matt Hinsley, executive director of Austin Classical Guitar (ACG), says about the importance of teaching classical guitar in schools.
In 2001, Hinsley decided to address that challenge. ACG entered the public-school arena with a program in one school with 15 students. From 2001 to 2004, interest continued to grow, and ACG soon had programs in two schools with nearly 100 students. “We had some modest growth,” Hinsley says, over the phone from Austin, where he’s just finished grabbing a cup of coffee with a former classical-guitar student, “and we had six graduates go on to college with scholarships for guitar study.
“Some good things were happening—we were putting a lot of passion and energy into it, but we were definitely feeling the lack of a powerful curriculum solution for teaching guitar.”
Contract educators agreed, as they continued to struggle teaching an instrument that lacked a structured curriculum in a classroom setting. “We were facing the challenge of having kids of different levels in the same classroom,” Hinsley says. “We wanted something that would allow us to engage different kids at different levels in meaningful music-making at the same time.”
Between 2004 and 2008, ACG’s involvement in the public-school system swelled from one program to eight with more than 500 students enrolled. ACG, which regards community service and education as a benchmark in its core mission, recognized the need to develop a methodical teaching curriculum for classical-guitar teachers, and in October 2008, the guitar society launched guitarcurriculum.com as an online resource for teachers around the globe.
“During [those four years] our focus was testing the material, implementing the material, and learning our way around what it would mean to have a fully functioning ensemble-based classroom,” Hinsley says. “In 2008, we became full partners with the [Austin Independent School District], and the programs grew a lot after that. We have 51 school partners in Austin alone, and many others around the world that use the material.”
Tapping a variety of mentors, the online resource was able to hone its unique structure and take shape. Hinsley’s former teacher, Adam Holzman, classical guitarist and professor of guitar at the University of Texas, Austin, was influential in the development process. Dr. Robert Duke, director of the Center for Music Learning at UT Austin, and someone who Hinsley regards as a “widely respected music educator,” was also instrumental and “deeply involved in the development of the curriculum,” he says.
“We have an overarching philosophy that really drives almost everything that we do—a goal of expressive music-making from the very first day for all of the kids participating in our programs,” Hinsley says.
This 2015 Austin Independent School District and Austin Classical Guitar video discusses the curriculum, teacher training, standards, and assessments developed to support the growing new classical guitar for-credit course area now serving thousands of diverse students in Austin public schools.
Guitarcurriculum.com is divided into nine levels of advancement, and breaks down the mechanics of learning how to play classical guitar through a series of online courses—from learning to sit and move a certain way, to sight-reading, and learning to create great tone. Part of what makes the resource matchless, Hinsley says, is that the material is constantly being updated—with new repertoire added to the library and new tutorials uploaded on a regular basis.
“The online material is omnipresent—teachers have access to it the very first day of training,” he says. “It’s varied and flexible, and not like a textbook where you start at page one and go forward in that straight sequence. Teachers can create [lesson planning] in a customized way for every individualized class. Tools are available for their use, as they need it, and their study.”
The approach, Travis Marcum, ACG’s director of education, says, allows for each individual to learn at a pace that is appropriate for the student. “It’s about confident, expressive, and technically sound playing from the very beginning,” he says, “while building the community of the ensemble. Small technical hurdles are introduced over time with the sole purpose of serving a musical function in the repertoire.”
“Spy Tune,” an example of an early-stage piece, can be taught to beginners by reading from the page or by rote, Hinsley says. “In three parts of only slightly increasing complexity, any group of students can learn one or more parts within one class period. It is rhythmically catchy, fun to play, and when combined with the other parts, really gratifying. As soon as a group begins playing together with unified musical intention, as soon as the process of refinement begins and the results are audible, we have achieved the outcome we are always looking for at all levels: students playing beautifully.”
To introduce teachers to the online curriculum, ACG offers a summertime seminar held in Austin and open nationally for all enrolled educators. In Austin itself, teachers in the school district using the curriculum are required to attend.
“We have a different relationship [in Austin] than we have in other places,” Hinsley says. “We participate in the Austin Independent School District in service training, which is specific to the school district. My team is on-site in the schools in Austin about 150 hours per week.” ACG provides extensive team teaching, teacher training, classroom observation, and course direction depending on what the classroom requires—with 51 programs in place in the Austin area, some of the newest teachers to guitarcurriculum.com require a “more intensive investment.”
The reaction to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, Hinsley says. As Greg Goodman, fine arts director of the Austin Independent School District, noted in a letter to ACG, “The number one benefit of the classical-guitar education program has been the opportunity to address cultural diversity through a rigorous art form. We have seen increased student, family, and community engagement with the particular program. Austin Classical Guitar has done an incredible job of increasing quality and access to a new art form that has allowed a diverse option for our students.”
Today, ACG estimates that 450 schools in the United States alone are using guitarcurriculum.com, and the momentum continues to grow fortissimo.
“I think that there’s a leadership component to the work that we’ve been fortunate enough to do here,” Hinsley says. “We take that leadership seriously and we certainly want to advance the conversation about what quality guitar education is in the country and, to the extent that we can manage to continue to do that, we certainly will.”