by Stephanie Powell
Ferguson, Missouri, has been the scene of considerable racial strife over the past year since the shooting of an unarmed African-American teen, Michael Brown, by a white Ferguson police officer. The St. Louis Classical Guitar Society (SLCGS) is determined to help make a difference in that troubled community.
In January, the society launched Phase One of the Ferguson Guitar Initiative, a program that unites teachers, students, and SLCGS volunteers to bring classical-guitar music and learning to the schools. This year, SLCGS also became the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts grant, which will be used to bring world-class acts to schools in the St. Louis area. Benefits from the grant already have reached Normandy High School—which Michael Brown attended—a school full of students who can really use this type of support, SLCGS president William Ash stresses.
The third-longest-standing guitar society in the United States, the SLCGS was established in 1963. The organization carried itself through the ’70s by bringing world-renowned performers to the self-proclaimed Gateway to the West—the group’s performance history includes such esteemed classical-guitar greats as Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, and the Romeros.
In more recent times, however, there has been a shift in the society’s philosophy, Ash says, namely an increased emphasis on education and advocacy. Today, SLCGS supports 16 schools in the Normandy-Ferguson school district in various ways.
I spoke to Ash about the society’s desire to tackle education, and its role in the world of classical guitar.
How do you think classical guitar fits into the St. Louis music scene?
It adds a very important complement to more traditional music presentations—the symphony here is world-renowned. I think a group like ours adds an alternative classical-music experience. For many people, it’s a great window into the wider world of classical music.
What caused SLCGS to shift toward an education-focused approach?
We started in 2010 asking donors to give us money so we could buy guitars for the schools for guitar programs.
Now, we are actually providing a teacher to the schools in a more structured learning environment by using guitarcurriculum.com from Austin Classical Guitar. It was mostly just becoming more aware of the need and the opportunity—we saw that the kids could really benefit from it. The level of commitment grew when we realized how much good we could be doing. It gave us a much larger outreach and a more important role in the community.
And how has that changed over the past five years?
It’s just becoming wider and deeper—our feelings are being reaffirmed every time we see a program started or expand, and it just makes me feel more committed to it personally. I found that a lot of people in [SLCGS] felt the same way I did.
What has the reaction been to Phase One of the Ferguson Guitar Initiative?
Very positive. These programs are working just beautifully in the schools that we are in. The fine arts directors, the teachers, and the administrators are just thrilled to have it. We need to get more word out to our own community. [We have] plans to expand into six more schools in the near future—contingent on getting the funding to continue it.
Has it been well received with the students?
Absolutely—they really relate to the guitar. There are more kids that would like to take guitar than we can accommodate—so we are giving classes up to about 15 [students]. The interest is always very high. We’re really reaching a whole [new] group of kids and we’re actually strengthening the music culture in a given school because it’s adding another dimension to it without taking away from what they are already doing.
Well, there’s a couple of ways to look at it. Even before the Michael Brown incident last summer, we had talked with the fine arts director about [the school’s] interest in having a guitar program. When I contacted him, he was very much in favor of it, but they had absolutely no money at all.
So we set it on the back burner because it was just one of the many conversations I had been having with administrators, but after Michael Brown, a question that popped up in my mind repeatedly was: What can we do to help the situation in Ferguson as an arts group? And it just seemed that the most natural thing to do was to support activities for kids in the schools. So I approached him again. In the meantime in July, just a month prior [to the Michael Brown shooting], we had this seminar from the Austin Group at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, which is just three minutes away from downtown Ferguson. And, so, we had this new curriculum that people were excited about.
These two strands of thinking just came together all of the sudden—we had a program that we really wanted to get started in St. Louis—and with all of the things that happened in Ferguson and with the prior interest expressed, it just seemed natural to go back. So, I showed Douglas Irwin, the fine arts director of the district, the curriculum and he immediately said that he would love to have it.
As an organization, we wanted to be a part of the solution and not just ignore what was going on there.
I was able to apply to the Augustine Foundation—it was very, very close to the deadline, like two days beforehand—I made an impassioned plea to get this special application in to them in addition to what they would have originally given us, and they said yes.
So, through our art we’re trying to support kids in a district who have been underserved in so many ways. I think these programs can help give them an element of what they have been missing—something they can be excited about. It’s not like they have no music programs in the schools, but we are serving kids that aren’t already enrolled in the music programs, and so it strengthens the music culture in the schools.
The Ferguson Guitar Club (students from guitar programs at Central and Johnson Wabash Elementary Schools)
What’s next for the Ferguson Initiative?
[The school district and administrators] said that they’d like to have this program in eight of their schools. We’re in two of them, so the challenge is to keep it going for the schools that we’re in, and also to expand it into the others, as well.
So we’ve got a blueprint to expand and it’s just a matter of us building our program’s capacity and our organization’s capacity to support all of this. But, basically, my next task is to find more money to expand it and once we’re in eight schools—there are a lot of schools in the district maybe 24 to 30—but this is in the southern part of the district, which is the most problematic as far as poverty. It’s right in the area where all of the commotion happened. We’re right in the center of where these families live—where all of the protests have been going on. We are starting where the need is greatest. I’m really excited about that and I think it’s going to grow and make a huge difference.
What changed in the curriculum of the schools that allowed you to begin offering classical-guitar classes?
I think the main change is having [the Austin Classical Guitar] curriculum available and that it’s so well designed. Before, guitar classes could have very low or minimal aims and expectations.
We didn’t have access to a really good instructional approach—we were limited to one-on-one lessons. We didn’t have the opportunity for the kids to participate, and [now] the ensembles are in regular music programs.
Is implementing and expanding this curriculum SLCGS’ foremost focus in 2015?
I’d say yes. We still are doing and will be known for presenting wonderful concerts, but this is our growth area. It’s not going to get more people to come to our concerts, but we’re going to have more of an impact on the community .
How do you think classical guitar has evolved in the 21st century?
I think it’s becoming more of a worldwide phenomenon—for example, the winners of the GFA [Guitar Foundation of America competition] in the last 15 years have been non-Americans. There’s a very strong contingent of players from overseas. I don’t think that we’ve really even touched our potential in this country for [making] people aware of how wonderful the music is. It’s just a matter of finding a way of getting people to come to the concert for the first time. It’s going to take coordination and more resources in terms of people and money, but I think that going through the educational approach might be a way to engage more people and help us become stronger.
Is there is a general misconception about the classical guitar that keeps its audience from growing?
That’s a good question. People might see it as an elitist kind of group—kind of like chess players, or something like that, or only for certain groups of people that have a strong intellectual interest in something. But I think that’s incorrect. There is a lot of emotional music that is written for the guitar and many styles that [anyone] could really relate to. So, the term “classical guitar” itself probably limits us in the minds of many people who hear it, especially if they are not familiar with it, or if they hear it for the first time. I don’t know any other term that would be better. I think people do have a misconception that it is not for them, but really it is the most accessible art form among the classical approaches. I don’t know how to get around that, because I certainly don’t want to take “classical” off of that—if you just say “guitar” it doesn’t convey any information that people would need to know—but there is sort of a perception problem.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Jason Vieaux, Joaquin Rodrigo, female flamenco guitarists, a special focus on contemporary luthiers, and much more. Click here for more information on the issue.