Miles to Go

Our Director of Education, Dr. Travis Marcum, has been collaborating with the Livestrong Cancer Institute’s new CaLM Clinic, opening this spring, at the UT Dell Medical School. Their goal is to build a holistic approach to cancer treatment, and ACG’s role will be a music-wellness service that includes learning opportunities, personal-story song writing, and performances. He was paired with a cancer patient to develop a process for musically conveying her journey, and together they wrote a beautiful song that you can listen to here. We recently had the chance to sit down with Christina and hear about her experience.


A loving mother, wife, computer programmer, knitting aficionado, and athlete, Christina is spunky, matter-of-fact, and fearless. Her willingness to persevere and accomplish whatever she sets her mind to has driven her to run marathons, craft complex and time-consuming knits and quilts, and apply for her dream job.

She never thought she’d win the web developer position for her favorite knitting website, but the motivation to apply despite her skepticism led to her appointment as one of only four full-time employees on Ravelry. The tiny staff works remotely from three states around the country, and provides a knitting and crocheting community resource for a following of 8.5 million members around the world.

“There’s not really anyone else that does what we do. The biggest non-English speaking contingent is in Germany, because knitting is really popular there - you can buy yarn in grocery stores. Also, about 20% of Iceland’s population is on Ravelry.”

Christina was lifting weights and running multiple times a week when she began to notice back pain. She thought it was from strenuous exercise, but as she began to investigate the cause, she learned it was due to a tumor pressing against her tailbone. She’s been in treatment for a majority of the past three and a half years.


Recently, she was asked to be a member of the CaLM Clinic’s Advisory Board.

“I was hesitant because my cancer is chronic, meaning it won’t be cured, so my time is precious. I think really hard about the time I spend away from my family. But I decided this sounded like an exciting opportunity, and it’s been so much more fulfilling than I ever could’ve imagined it would be.”

The CaLM Clinic focuses on three crucial elements cancer patients seek: a sense of calm, a feeling of capability, and being comfortable.

“Doctors are experts at medicine, but they’re not experts at being sick people. So here, you can actually talk to sick people about what it’s like, and how they can make your lives better.”

Travis Marcum attended one of the advisory board meetings to see how ACG could assist the CaLM Clinic programming. When he talked about the Lullaby Project, Christina was instantly hooked.

“Hearing about it gave me chills. I immediately piped up and said, ‘I want to write a song about my cancer.’”

Travis asked her to help pilot the program, and together they worked on a piece of music that would be meaningful to Christina.

Miles to Go

“I knew I wanted the song to sound like Sufjan Stevens. Also, I had found out only a month before we started this process that that there’s no cure for this cancer, so I already knew what I wanted to say."

"I really wanted to tell people I know I’m in this weird space, and I’m certainly going to feel hopeful because medicine is changing. But hear this news and don’t be in denial ... also, I’m ok."

The phrase Miles to go comes up frequently in Christina’s song. It served as a mantra during her marathon-running days, reminding her that I’m present in this moment - where there are still miles to go. During the pregnancy with her daughter and subsequent maternity leave, Christina spent 40 hours crafting a uniquely-stitched quilt that says Miles to go. The lyrics incorporate quilting imagery: "I can darn me where I’m worn/Mend me where I’m torn."

She receives treatment at a cancer clinic in Houston, and the drive to and from the center also plays a large part in the lyrics.

“The song really captured my feelings about going through the long, challenging process of literally driving miles and miles - miles to go - to do these scans to find out what’s going to happen next.”

"I can bear the weight/I can bear the wait," begins the chorus.

She finds it comforting to take the same route each time, and one of key landmarks is the Starlite Drive-In Movie Theatre.

“I think it’s beautiful. It’s a little bit dilapidated, but it’s still there, still standing; it resonates with a lot of people.”

Her mantra of Miles to go has been encouraging as she's traversed the treatment process.

“I like to do things that are a little scary and challenging just to see what happens. Running marathons felt like that to me. If there’s something I want, I will learn or do whatever it is just to get that thing. Lots of treatment sucks, but it's so easy to keep my eyes on the prize: I do this, and I get to spend longer with my husband and daughter. That’s what matters to me.”

Christina’s seven-year-old daughter plays piano, and Christina really wanted her to play in the song. Travis wrote out a part for her to practice at weekly lessons, and professional guitarist and songwriter Claire Puckett came over to their house to record it. Christina’s daughter aspires to be a professional musician, so she peppered Claire with questions about a musician’s life, and could barely contain her excitement at the answers.

Inner Strength

Christina appreciates the assistance of Travis, who knew how to get at the heart of what she was saying, and Claire, whose production and orchestration skills helped create a beautiful song.

“I listen to it on days when I need a little boost of strength. It’s a good reminder to myself that I’ve got this. I’m gonna get through this next step, and it sucks, but I can do it. I know I said all of those things and believed and meant them at the time, so this is all in me somewhere.

Her advice for people considering the music wellness process of song-writing is to “Do it. You will feel safe, you will not be alone, they will take care of you and guide you, and at the end, you’re going to have a physical thing to represent the feelings inside you. It’s going to be really good for you to have the song; there will be days when you’ll be so glad you do ... even if you don’t share it with anyone, even if it’s just for you.”

Christina was recently filmed in a video about the CaLM Clinic that will screen at SXSW in a few weeks. The Clinic is pretty unique in its field, and there will be several representatives speaking about their work to other medical professionals. She's been asked to speak about her experience in a panel, and they'll play her song with the lyrics up on a screen.

A Transformative Experience

We recently spoke with a senior at Crockett High School. He performed with Crockett's guitar ensemble at the 2019 Guitars Under the Stars, our annual education gala, and was also one of the three speakers for the event. He even has a special connection with the featured artist for the gala, Berta Rojas. We wanted to share his story with you.

Rey Rodriguez began playing guitar seven years ago as part of a pilot program at Bedichek Middle School. The first musician in his family, he quickly learned that with music, the more he gave, the more rewarding it became.

"If I respect people and show them I can work hard, they'll present me with different opportunities, and allow me to grow as a musician."

Rey has always appreciated the welcoming environment of his guitar class, and finds the lessons in teamwork especially valuable.

"At Crockett High, my ensemble is like a second family, my family away from home. I can tell them anything, we're all close. The ensemble setting teaches me to work with others, and to have the discipline to work on things for the group."

One particular experience early in his high school career had a transformative effect on his future.

In January of his freshman year, Berta Rojas came to Crockett High to give a masterclass.

"She came in and I was thinking, OK, she plays guitar, that's not new - lots of people can play the guitar. But when she started playing, I learned that I've been listening to guitar wrong my whole life."

Rey broke into a wide smile at the memory.

"Berta was very inspiring. I'd never seen such an amazing musician, and she was very kind and motivating, and really wanted to help us learn. I learned from Berta that you don't always have to be robotic when you play, that you can express the music and still play beautifully."

"Up until then, I had no idea music could be so expressive. I realized that's what I wanted to do: be a solo musician."

Asked if he was excited to talk to Berta at the gala, Rey demurred.

"I was starry-eyed over a celebrity; I doubt she remembers me."

In the spring of 2019, Rey received a full-ride music scholarship to study guitar at University of Texas - Austin. He is especially grateful he stuck with music because of opportunities like this Saturday night, when he performed with the Crockett High School Guitar Ensemble right before Berta Rojas took the stage at Guitars Under the Stars.

"Guitar is my life, and without ACG, I don't think I'd be as happy doing what I'm doing, and I wouldn't be the person I am today. ACG has allowed me to achieve new heights as a musician that I would've never been able to reach on my own."

Rey, third from bottom left

Caitlin McCollom: A Universal Experience of Spirituality

We're so fortunate to partner with local artists for our International Series at the Austin ISD Performing Arts Center. On Saturday, January 22nd, the work of Caitlin McCollom will be displayed in a beautiful and fascinating exhibit in the lobby for Irina Kulikova's concert. We had the chance to speak with Caitlin, and she shared some insight into how she became an artist, what influences her painting, and what she portrays in her work.

How did you become an artist?

I was calling myself an artist even as a little kid. I loved to paint and draw, and I had a super-active imagination and strong connection to spirituality. I grew up in Dripping Springs when it was still rural, so I was very connected to nature and bucolic solitude. I hated school very much; I couldn’t wait for it to be over. When I went to college, I decided to major in painting. It wasn’t a supported talent when I was younger, so getting to study it professionally made it apparent that it was not just a passion, but something that would be my whole way of life.

I started showing exhibits when I was a junior in college, and continued to show all over Texas after graduating. I also ran a little gallery with the intention of supporting other artists, but it was really a way to meet as many artists in the community as possible.

Then, I moved to New York City to get an MFA and pursue my career there.

Shortly after moving, I acquired a chronic genetic disease and fell very ill. I spent some time in the hospital, then moved back to Austin.  I was desperately ill, couldn’t work at all, and didn’t really have any money, since I’d just moved to New York. It all just fell apart - I had to start my life over.

But it was an amazing time to learn what I really wanted out of my life: to be a full-time artist. It took me six months of doing nothing but healing, and then I got back to work once I saved up enough money for art supplies.

As an artist, I have a compulsion to create. The hardest part of the illness was that I couldn’t work for a while.

In New York it’s really expensive, it's a really hard way of life. As a full-time artist, I can live a lot more inexpensively in Austin. I’ve been a full-time artist for a few years now, which was my dream! I don’t know if that would’ve happened in New York. I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be.


Blood Core, Acrylic on yupo

Do you feel that art helped you with the healing process?

When I was finally able to work again, I made this series called “Blood and White,” which was all about the fragility of the body, and the physicality of disease, and trying to make fragility and disease look beautiful. It was made in a stark way, but also in a way that had a very strong aesthetic component. I was trying to communicate to people where I had been the past year ... that was healing.


Did your illness inform your aesthetic sense?

I definitely have a very particular aesthetic sense; I always paint in red, I love the symbology of it. And in my work from 2014, while I was healing, I had this strong urge to use the color blue because I was trying to communicate the idea of water as a symbol of the spiritual realm.

I read this book called the “Cloud of Unknowing,” an anonymous medieval text on early Christian mysticism. In it, there were beautiful, specific instructions for having a mystical experience. It was fascinating. The author talks about this idea that the way to experience God is through entering the cloud of unknowing: with no preconceived notions of what God is, and no knowledge of anything beyond your existence in the moment, God gives you a spiritual experience.

Around that time, I became fascinated by a weather phenomenon in South America called a Garúa: a low-hanging, transparent cloud that can appear suddenly. You don’t know it's there unless you pass through it - it's so dense that your body becomes soaking wet.

The garúa reminded me of the ‘cloud of unknowing’, and I realized that water was a symbol of the spiritual realm. What I try to say in my work is that what's completely real can be absolutely invisible, and you only know it’s there from experience.

What message do you convey in your work?

The red is physical, and the blue is spiritual. You have this physicality, this red blood, and then something happens beyond you, and it’s like the water of the spirit realm mixing in with your blood.

It’s swirling all around you, and you feel the sense of being infused with something beyond yourself. It’s similar to the invisible experience of music causing a strong emotional reaction.

The abstraction of my paintings can purify meaning without confusing the viewer with a concrete subject, but each of my paintings has a specific shape. There are teardrops, orbs, hearts;  these shapes are all Jungian symbols with universal meaning. 

I try to have layers of symbols in my paintings to make them universal, but also very personal, so people can see their own lives and the meanings ascribed to them. What inspires me most is people’s stories about spirituality, and about near-death experiences.

Each painting has its own kind of message, and reveals itself to me in a different way. I can tell if a work is successful or not if someone looks at one and says it means to them the same thing it meant to me when painting it. It’s a visual language, so if it’s not translatable, I feel it’s not very successful. I really try to have a painting mean something attainable.

Irina Kulikova: An Exchange of Energy

Our first International Series concert of 2019 features the fabulous Russian guitarist, Irina Kulikova, whose musical elegance, beauty, and power have captivated audiences around the world. We can't wait for her Austin debut on January 26th!

Irina Kulikova, a daughter and granddaughter of musicians, grew up listening to her mother play cello. She taught private lessons and played in a quartet, and Irina remembers often accompanying her mother to the “Wedding Palace” to hear her perform for ceremonies and receptions.

“I was always there, and always naughty,” Irina recalls fondly.

Her mother had a profound influence on her, musically and otherwise. When Irina was five, she wanted to play either the violin or cello, but her mother insisted she start on guitar because it was “easier to play in tune at first.” To this day, Irina strives for a cello-like sound in her guitar playing, and says she has a strong cello technique.

Her parents in Chelyabinsk, Russia

Irina believes her mother was the anchor of her family when she was little. When Irina’s father lost his factory job during the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was her mother who supported the family, balancing three jobs with caring for Irina and her younger brother. Irina's father pursued his passion of photography, and today has made a career of it.

“When the Soviet Union fell, the women found new ways of survival even as the men were losing jobs.”

Just as Irina's mother introduced her to cello, so too is Irina exposing her daughter to the world of music. Mariëlle is six and a half, and already plays piano, acts, and sings. She's strong-willed and free-spirited: Irina considers it a success if she can choose her daughter's clothes even one or two days a week.

She also sees a lot of herself in her daughter.

“She has a very sharp mind, very bright and very supportive. If she wants something a certain way and I disagree, I make her prove why she’s right.”

Mariëlle is always close by when Irina gives lessons, listening quietly while occupying herself with something tactile and creative, such as drawing or playing with clay.

“She once asked me how many students I had, and after I told her, she said, ‘No Mommy, that’s not right. You have one more - I’m your student.’ Even though she doesn’t really play guitar! She’ll pick it up for a while and learn something, then leave it for two months or so, and come back remembering exactly what I taught her. Sometimes, she corrects the hands of my students - and she’s right! The students become very embarrassed.”

Mariëlle doesn’t travel with Irina during her concert tours, as Irina believes the traveling life of a performer is too hectic. Irina never worries about her while she's gone though, because, "I feel confident that when I’m away, she knows exactly what she wants, and will do fine."

“My main goal in life is to make people happy: I make my daughter happy, I love cooking for my family and friends, and when I play in a concert, I bring a message with my music. People with sparkling eyes come up to me after a concert and say 'Thank you.'  When you see people so happy because of your playing, it’s an incredible exchange of energy, it’s so meaningful and so important."

Though touring can be arduous and lonely at times, Irina admits she’s grown accustomed to life on the road, and at this point, it’s just a fact of life.

“I’ve traveled since I was eight, so now if I’m home for more than two weeks or a month at a time, it feels like a disaster. I want to perform!”

Irina also loves meeting new people, and finds performing greatly rewarding.

“Giving an audience the right food for the mind, the right feelings, is incredible.”

She loves US audiences in particular, since they enjoy contemporary music and always give her amazing feedback after concerts. She did have to get used to speaking from the stage, as that is not customary in Russia, but now finds it easy to break the ice with even the most non-responsive audiences.

Helping a student in an Italian masterclass

Irina, who has never been to Austin, is especially excited for her visits to four local schools, and for the masterclass she’ll be teaching at the University of Texas.

“I had a difficult path - working many jobs, practicing a lot - to pursue my dream, so I understand the struggle of young musicians. I’m grateful for my experiences, because I can share them with passionate people who can learn from me.”

Strait Music Ticket for Kids: A Passion for Helping Young Music-Makers

Last fall, we began a program with Strait Music Company. Thanks to their generous support, we now offer all middle and high school students free tickets to our entire International Series 2018-19 season at the AISD Performing Arts Center. We’d love to share with you the story of this beloved community business, along with some words from Clint Strait, the family’s third-generation to lead the music store.

In 1963, Dan Strait opened “Strait Piano and Organ” on the corner of 9th and Lamar. His motto, which remains true today, was “Where customers become friends.”

After quadrupling in size, moving three times, opening a second location, and enduring two major floods, Strait Music Company now rests in the hands of Dan’s grandson, Clint Strait.

The full-line music store has expanded from only pianos and organs to almost all musical needs, including guitars, band and orchestra instruments, Pro Audio equipment, amps, and keyboards. They also provide service to all items on sale, employing twelve repair technicians, three guitar luthiers, and one orchestral luthier.

“We’re very proud of the rich history. This store is all we know, it’s our extended family. A lot of people have been working here as long as I’ve been alive, some longer. They’re why we’re successful.
– Clint Strait

“The funny thing about my family is that there are no serious musicians – I don’t play an instrument. That being said, I’m extremely passionate about music: I’ve grown up around it, I love seeing live music, and I have a pretty awesome record collection. Music is an enormous part of my life, it fulfills me. I think there’s nothing better than sitting around a campfire and jamming some tunes.”

“There’s a community service aspect to what we do: being helpful in making music-makers.”

Clint’s enthusiasm for music translated into a collaboration with ACG: “Strait Music Tickets for Kids“, a program offering free tickets to all middle and high school students in the Austin area for our International Series Concerts at the AISD Performing Arts Center. Attached to every ticket is a 10% discount to Strait Music.

“We think playing music is really important for a child’s development. My four-year-old son just started piano lessons, which is certainly a ‘to-be-determined’ experiment.”

“We’re excited to be able to provide this, and the bottom line is that we’re really passionate about kids playing music, and we think this program will inspire them. They’ll see the shows, get revved up, hopefully want to start playing, and when they do, they’ll have a discount at Strait Music. I’m really lucky to be part of such an awesome business and fun industry. Nothing makes me happier than seeing kids in my store. “

Top 10 Moments of 2018

Grab your seats, it's time for ACG's Top 10 Moments of 2018! The original list had over 20 contenders, and it took some serious negotiating and compromising to pare it down to the ten you see below. But every one of these fills us with joy, and we hope they'll put a smile on your face too.

If you have a favorite ACG moment from 2018, let us know!

#10 - The Cycle Continues

Our annual gala for ACG Education, Guitars Under the Stars, was an evening full of captivating moments and moving stories, and Grisha’s playing was mesmerizing. But perhaps the most poignant moment for us was the performance by the Alumni Ensemble, a group of four gifted guitarists who graduated from our programs in Austin schools.

One of them was Javier Saucedo, who we first met during his junior year at Akins High School. Javier went on to earn a music degree from Texas State, and this fall we asked him to lead our program for youth incarcerated at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center. He agreed, and working closely with his former teacher and Assistant Director of Education Jeremy Osborne, we've been thrilled to watch Javier emerge into a capable and inspiring teacher himself.   

“The cycle continues – I had great teachers in high school who helped me get through a rough patch, and now I get to do the same for others.” - Javier

To read Javier's story, check out this blog.

#9 - Recognizing an ACG Legend

Lloyd Pond has been volunteering in our office almost every week for over ten years. No task is too large or small for Lloyd, but his specialty is repairing the guitars used by students in ACG’s local school programs. When RecognizeGood, an Austin-based nonprofit that shines a light on members of the community, named Lloyd a 2018 RecognizeGood Legend award-winner, we were thrilled - but far from surprised.

Beyond the thousands of hours he has spent here fixing instruments, taking out the recycling, stuffing envelopes, and helping out in whatever way we need, Lloyd’s impact goes much deeper.  As April Long, ACG’s former development director, put it, Lloyd represents “what ACG is all about – joy in community. In his deep kindness and infectious joy, in his commitment to creating community, and in his willingness to help in any way, Lloyd has shaped ACG and has shown all of us what it means to live with an open heart.

We couldn’t agree more. Congratulations, Lloyd!

#8 - A Week of Student Achievement

Our education services began in 2001 in one school as part of an initiative to improve the quality of classroom-based guitar instruction. Today, ACG Education is supporting programs in 60 central Texas schools that reach over 4,000 students every day. There was a week in November that really encapsulated how far we have come in 17 years. On Monday afternoon the Travis High School Advanced Guitar Ensemble performed at the National Association for Music Education Conference in Dallas - they were the only guitar ensemble invited to play! Then on Wednesday night at the AISD Performing Arts Center, we got to see some of the most talented middle and high school students in the city perform together as part of All-City and All-Region Guitar Ensembles. We were just blown away by the quality of the performances, the diversity of the students and schools represented, and the joy that was so evident on the faces of the players and audience members alike.

To see the Travis HS guitar ensemble performance in Dallas, click here.

#7 - Helping Other Communities

We can get so focused on our own work at ACG that we forget other people are watching us, too. So when individuals or organizations from communities outside of Austin seek us out for guidance it is both gratifying and humbling. Two instances of this happened recently - in September Matt was asked to speak about nonprofit leadership in front of dozens of executive directors at the 6th annual Guitar Society Summit in Baltimore, and then in November a U.S. State Department-sponsored delegation of 18 NGO leaders from Africa visited ACG to learn about our approach to community service.

BONUS: Classical Guitar Magazine featured a story about Matt's presentation in Baltimore! Check it out here.

#6 - ACGYO in 360°

The ACG Youth Orchestra just keeps getting better and better. This select group of talented young guitarists from across the region has already played on some of the biggest stages in Austin, but nothing prepared us for the ACGYO's performance this past spring on the downtown rooftop of the Contemporary Austin Jones Center. The 360° video speaks for itself - check out how awesome it is to be in the center of such cool music-making!

#5 - Joe Williams named Artistic Director!

A major milestone for ACG took place in September when Dr. Joseph V. Williams II signed on as ACG’s first full-time Artistic Director. Joe is no stranger to ACG, of course. He's led our youth orchestra since it was founded in 2013, and as Composer in Residence for the past five years, Joe's been the creative force behind some of the most ambitious projects we’ve ever produced. We’re not the only ones who think Joe’s great - in June, the Austin Critics Table selected the original score he wrote for last summer’s i/we as Best Original Composition for 2017-18.

As Artistic Director, Joe will be curating our concert series and dreaming up new and exciting directions for ACG. He’ll also continue creating deep and beautiful music, and leading the ACGYO to even greater heights. With his passion for great art and a commitment to serving our diverse and growing community, the future of ACG is looking brighter than ever.

#4 - Eclipsing Violence with Music

On a Saturday night in late September, a group of young guitar students traveled with their teacher and parents five hours from Reynosa Tamaulipas, Mexico to the AISD Performing Arts Center to see Ana Vidovic perform for the opening night of our International Series. They had brought along their guitars, in hopes that they might be able to meet and play for Ana before her concert. She graciously agreed, and they all gathered in the black box theater for an impromptu master class! 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, giving thoughtful feedback while the students nodded, wide-eyed, at their teacher’s translation of her words into Spanish.

The story didn’t end there. Since that night, we've been working closely with the teacher, Mario Quintanilla Saucedo, along with his partners in Reynosa and other Mexican communities to help them build their own guitar education nonprofit. They've discovered that engaging kids with guitar is a way to keep them safe from the crime and violence that increasingly surrounds their lives.

You can read more about their efforts here.

#3 - "Miles to Go"

Over the past year, ACG Director of Education Travis Marcum has been working with a team from UT’s Dell Medical School to help establish a music-wellness program for the Livestrong Cancer Institutes CALM Clinic. One of the program's components will be collaborative songwriting, and to explore how it might work Travis met over several months with a Christina, a volunteer who serves on the Young Adult Advisory Council for the CALM Clinic.

Christina is a loving mother, wife, biologist, computer programmer, and athlete living in Austin. She’s also a seamstress extraordinaire, with a lifetime of experience knitting and quilting beautiful textiles for her friends and family. She received her cancer diagnosis 3 years ago, and has been undergoing treatment at MD Anderson in Houston ever since.

Working together with Travis, Christina wrote “Miles to Go.” The poetry and music paints a picture of her frequent drives from Austin to Houston to see her doctors. She describes the experience of waiting for answers and treatment while bearing the weight of the situation, using the language of sewing, quilting, and knitting to convey her message of strength.

The result is a profound and personal expression of Christina’s experience and her spirit. It’s also a beautiful song. Hearing it touched us deeply, and we’re incredibly grateful that she was willing to share it with the world.

#2 - dream

dream, a multimedia concert presented over three days in August at the Blanton Auditorium, was one of the most ambitious projects we’ve ever produced at ACG. It was a concert devoted to the truth and experience of young people, and their desire to be heard, to be listened to, to be taken seriously. Over several months we sat with young people in our community, and asked them to share their thoughts and stories with us. Their voices inspired every part of dream, including a new three-movement work composed by Joseph V. Williams II. Surrounding Williams’ composition were songs and chamber pieces re-imagined by the performers.

This video features the breathtaking interpretation of an Angel Olsen song by Travis Marcum and recent McCallum High School graduate, Ta’tyana Jammer.

#1 - Let's Play!

In June, after years of dreaming and planning, we finally launched Let’s Play!, a web-based resource designed to provide guitarists with visual impairments everything they need to learn to play classical guitar. Created in partnership with Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, Let’s Play! includes a progressive series of classical guitar solos, downloadable scores in both braille and traditional music notation, and audio guides focusing on technique and braille music literacy.

We’re blown away by the response. In just six months, Let’s Play! was accessed over 5,000 times by users from almost 100 countries. It was featured in stories in both Austin Monthly (link) and the Texas Standard (link). But what really touched us most deeply was this long-distance email we received two weeks after it launched:

"I am a blind adult with an interest in playing classical guitar. In South Africa, there are not many teachers willing to take on the challenge of such a task. I am writing to thank you from the bottom of my heart for creating this resource and making it available to people like me." - Hendrik S., Potchefstroom, South Africa


Happy Holidays from all of us at ACG!

The Courtroom as a Stage for Music

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

People streamed through the door, gathering in the front lobby and chatting excitedly. The metal detectors, unnecessary for this occasion, had been moved to the side. There was a note of celebration in the air despite the inauspicious location: Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center.

Friends, families, and members of the community had all assembled to see three young men, three adolescents incarcerated there, perform a guitar concert.

Jeremy and his former student, now colleague, Javier

For the past few months, these students had worked with Jeremy Osborne, ACG Assistant Director of Education, and Javier Saucedo, an Akins High School guitar alum, in the only for-credit arts class offered at Gardner Betts.

James German, a Residential Treatment Officer Lead, has been at Gardner Betts for almost 15 years, and witnessed the beginning of our Juvenile Justice guitar program there eight years ago. He said most students have never played guitar before taking the class.

Some of them don’t want to play at first. But once they start learning it, they want to do it all the time. They ask, ‘Can I have my guitar?’ and practice in their units. It really makes them focus on better behavior, because they want to play the guitar, they want to be part of these performances, they want their family to come and see them. ”

The musicians were already seated onstage as the audience filed in to take their seats. A courtroom is an unusual concert venue: a short wooden barrier divides the performers from the crowd. The guitarists were in a small arc near the podium, not to face charges before a judge, but to share music with a warm audience of family and friends. The podium, as they began to play, was completely forgotten.

The audience witnessed a transformation during the performance, a transformation of three somber young teens into three focused musicians striving for beautiful tone and rhythmic precision.

Enraptured with the guitarists’ poise and musicality, the audience listened thoughtfully as the students played together. After the first soloist performed and took a bow, the musician in the center of the arc broke his serious expression to share with him a wide grin.

“It’s a peaceful thing for the kids, it makes them feel better about themselves, because they’re accomplishing something, something they never thought in their wildest imagination they’d be doing. It’s so positive,” James said.

After the students finished the final piece on their program, the audience stood up by twos and threes to give them a wholehearted standing ovation. The students couldn’t help but smile humbly, looking around with surprise at their enthusiastic fans.

“Now that they see themselves play guitar, now maybe it makes them see themselves as musicians, artists.”

In the lobby, audience members had the opportunity to write letters of congratulations and encouragement to the musicians. Soon, there was a basket full of notes for them.

The guitarists, after talking with amazed friends and families, enjoyed a celebratory pizza with their proud teachers.

"Music for All" in Puerto Rico

For our ACG Fall Fund Drive, we’re sharing stories on our Changing Lives Storyboard of ways music has changed our world, and how our community helped make it happen. Consider supporting ACG today!

Fourteen years ago, Austin Classical Guitar recognized the need for an improved system of school-based guitar education comparable to established programs in choir, orchestra, and band. Three years later, we launched Now used internationally by hundreds of teachers serving tens of thousands of students, “” is a comprehensive teacher resource that includes a searchable library of original, pedagogically-sequenced ensemble literature, sight reading, and audio and video tutorials, all espousing a powerful core educational philosophy of “expressive, beautiful music-making from the very first day.”

We’ve been talking to teachers around the country – and the world – about how they use our curriculum. The following is a spotlight on Héctor Vázquez, a guitar teacher in Puerto Rico.

Héctor Vázquez was working on his Bachelor's in Guitar Performance when he became a Teaching Assistant. Although performance had always been his focus, he began to notice that teaching was improving his own guitar skills. This led him to the realization that to be a good player, you must know how to teach.

He started his Master's in Tallahassee, where he expanded his teaching experience by doing private lessons, leading a full studio, and directing a seminar. After completing his degree at a school back in Puerto Rico, he began to work at the Fundacion Musica Y Pais, and eventually led the guitar orchestra in his local conservatory.

The Fundacion brings music to schools lacking arts education as part of its Música para Todos (Music for All) initiative. It describes itself as an organization that "advocates for the democratization of access to music education as a citizen right. As part of that vision, we offer a varied platform of programs and initiatives to provide children and youth of Puerto Rico - regardless of social class or socioeconomic status - the necessary opportunities to discover, train, develop and express their musical talent."

"We were only in two schools at the beginning, and none of the students had their own guitars - they had to borrow them," Héctor recalls. They gradually expanded their reach, and now the program supports over 1,300 students in 20 projects located throughout Puerto Rico.

"I still perform, but teaching is what keeps me on my toes." 

Héctor believes his role is to help students progress smoothly and quickly. He works with guitarists between the ages of 8-60, and is grateful they all appreciate the thought he puts into instruction.

As he began to teach in more group settings, Héctor was frustrated by a lack of resources for guitar educators. He thought that a straightforward, effective progression for classroom guitar education did not exist.

"Teachers often start students with chords, which is really hard! My thought is, why are we making this so difficult? Guitar is a polyphonic instrument. Students should start one finger at a time."

He began to research a good method for ensemble use.

"I remember it was really hard for me to play chamber music at first because the guitar is such an independent instrument. So I wanted to find a curriculum where students could play their own parts independently while also listening for other’s music. That's when I found"

"I like GuitarCurriculum because it starts with melodies and open strings, meaning you don’t have to switch strings, which is one of the hardest things for a guitarist. The curriculum begins with very simple techniques and well-composed music to teach difficult concepts."

In the fall of 2017, Héctor subscribed to and planned to start using it with his students.

Then Hurricane Maria hit.

As a Category 4 Hurricane, it was the worst natural disaster to affect Puerto Rico on record. Most of the island's infrastructure was destroyed, the vegetation was obliterated, and much of the population was faced with a humanitarian crisis due to flooding and lack of resources. The storm wiped out the entire island's power grid, causing millions to lose electricity. Almost 3,000 people were killed.

Luckily, Héctor's community survived largely unscathed.

"The Conservatory opened after a month, but it had no power until December."

"The foundations of our buildings and structures were ok, but we lost power.  That meant we had no internet, which meant I had limited resources, and I could only access the Curriculum from my phone. We charged phones in our cars. We did have generators - plantas - which powered fans to keep us cool, but that meant we had to fight against their noise when we played guitar."

Once the power was restored, Héctor was able to fully embrace all the resources in It was January, and his students were almost a semester behind. This fall, he began the Curriculum with his new students from the very beginning. He says it's working very well.

"As an educator, I wish to improve the culture of music and guitar from the ground up.  I take great pride in teaching in my home country. I wish to teach all musicians, despite their goals, most importantly to support the art of the guitar in the genres they like, and to create a wide-spread appreciation for the art and instrument. "

"Minor Waltz" by Travis Marcum, ACG's Director of Education
One of Héctor's guitar classes performing with a handbell choir as part of the 'Musica para Todos' initiative.

Let go and love: A Lullaby Story

Since 2014, 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.

Jennifer was in her second-to-last semester of college when she found out she was pregnant. She’d had a rough time in school, and many people encouraged her to take time off during the pregnancy. She decided to complete her degree anyway, her mindset being I’ve come too far, worked too hard, and spent too much time and money. I’m finishing school.

She ended up graduating a semester later than planned, which meant she was raising her newborn, Ava, while working, interning, and taking classes. Since she and her husband had no family in town, they worked out their schedules so one of them would always be home with their baby. That meant rarely seeing each other for the first several months of their daughter’s life.

Photo Credit Jenna Christina

She sought the assistance of ‘Any Baby Can’ through the Nurse Family Partnership, and they helped her with some of the most difficult parts of her pregnancy and postpartum struggles. When she told her counselor that she felt as if she wouldn’t be able to accomplish certain goals because of having a child, the counselor recommended the Lullaby Project. Jennifer had her reservations, but eventually gave it a try.

The first time she met with our one of our lullaby specialists, she brought Ava along, and her counselor was also there for support. Jennifer was nervous because she’d never written a song before, but they started off slowly.

“He just asked me to write down phrases I associate with my daughter - adjectives, words, feelings - which really helped, because I didn’t know where to start. And from those words, it turned into a letter to her.”

After the first session, she took the letter home. She began to read it while listening to her favorite music, then started to make up lyrics to the songs.

“I didn’t expect the words to come out like that, but all of a sudden it was pouring out of me; I was on a roll. I thought, ‘Wait, I can do this! It’s not as hard as I thought,' and then 'Wow, I can actually express myself in a way that is art.'"

Jennifer now realizes a lot of what she was going through emotionally was due to Postpartum Depression. She said even getting out of bed was a struggle at the time. But when she began to write down her thoughts for the Lullaby Project, reflecting on her first few months of raising a child, and how hard it was working, interning, going to classes, not having family in town, and never seeing her husband, she was able to overcome many of the feelings associated with those struggles.


Being a mother and having a child made me stronger, but I think the Lullaby Project helped me process everything I was going through, and put things in perspective. It helped me put everything into words, then put those words into the action of writing and performing. That made me stronger, pretty much more so than any other experience I’ve had. The fact that I was able to do something I’d never done before, and do it myself, was empowering. It meant I could feel like a role model for Ava."

The chorus of her lullaby for Ava says 'Let go and love, and grow stronger each day,' which is as much a message for Jennifer as it is for her daughter. 'Everything falls into place.'

This is Jennifer singing her lullaby with Arnold Yzaguirre, one of our lullaby specialists, at the Nurse Family Partnership Graduation with 'Any Baby Can'. After the performance, she said to the audience, "The Lullaby Project helped me rediscover my love, my passion for writing. I never thought I'd be up here in front of you singing, but here I am."

Ava, her daughter, crawls all over her during the lullaby in an attempt to grab the mic. Apparently, she always sings along when Jennifer practices at home.

"She wanted to be a part of it, she loves to sing. I want to get her involved in music."

Jennifer would love to continue writing lullabies for her baby, and maybe for a future child someday as well. She encourages all moms considering the project to go for it, even if fears get in the way.

"The Lullaby Project is honestly one of the most beautiful things I've ever done for my daughter, and for myself. It’s a very empowering and fun experience, and it brings out strength you didn't know you had. It might reconnect you with a passion of yours. I want all moms to do this, especially those that are going through postpartum depression. I’m so grateful for the entire group of people involved."