2020 ACG Education Report

Dear Friends,

2020 has been a year like none other. It has challenged us, and demanded we grow and adapt in ways we could not have imagined. But above all else, the events of the past year have helped us to focus our intention, more than ever before, on the importance of inspiration and service. 

Through it all, music has shined as one of humanity’s greatest treasures. In its gentle and powerful way music has offered new roads to connect when so many have been closed. We’ve seen Italians serenading one another from their balconies in the height of the pandemic, Yo Yo Ma create #songsofcomfort, and the cast of Hamilton inspire millions through live-streamed appearances. Closer to home we’ve seen students and teachers make never-before-imagined collaborative artworks. Our youth and adult community ensembles have courageously sailed into unknown waters, and our concerts have reached audiences across the globe for the first time.

It is a solemn time, and a tragic time for many. In addition to the effects of pandemic life, our nation and our world has awoken to a new awareness of racism and inequity in our communities and within ourselves. Racism and inequity are not new, tragedy is not new, but the voices of change and leadership have thankfully found a larger platform in our public discourse.

I am deeply grateful for our team at ACG. And that includes you! We have worked hard to grow and adapt, pivot quickly where possible, and set in motion processes that will create the kind of mindful change that can only happen over a long period of time. 

On behalf of all of us on the ACG team, thank you for your belief in us, and for your belief in the power of music to do good in the world. 

Matt Hinsley, Executive Director


1) ACG Organizational Ecosystem

This is a report about ACG Education. For nearly twenty years, education has been the single largest division of ACG. At the same time we’d like to point out that, with growth and experience, we have come to see less and less actual division between the different streams of our work. We have come to realize that, like music, inspiration flows freely between all of our services if we can be open to the possibilities. For that reason, we’ll say just a few words about ACG overall. 

As an example of this intersection, every major ACG concert event begins with student performers. All students (in typical times) can attend ACG concerts for free, and in that way, our concerts enable large-scale performances that allow students to play on the biggest stages with artists and peers. This experience offers countless opportunities for collaboration, inspiration and education for all involved. For an extensive update about how ACG Concerts have adapted during this time, click here

We are frequently centering student and community projects as integral parts of our concert-making, as was the case, for example, with the premiere of Everything Changes at Once (a piece made by students in 29 US cities) in May as part of our 19-20 season finale. This was also the case with the premiere of Forward (created by our four youth and adult community ensembles) as part of our Fall 2020 finale.

Also in this report, we will discuss our strengthened efforts to acknowledge and take action towards racial equity in our services, for example, to diversify representation in our curriculum teaching library, among other things. But these efforts are not limited to ACG Education. They can, and should, be seen throughout our artistic production as well. For dozens of examples of inspiring artmaking, we invite you to look through our YouTube Channel.

ACG has remained strong and productive during the pandemic. Our curriculum and training were in high demand, our Music & Healing services actually expanded because of the move to online interactions, and our artistic pivots to live-stream concerts resulted in many strengthened connections with our supporters, many new friends, and a lot of good will as evidenced by overwhelming feedback and generosity.

2) Central Texas

Our partnership continues to deepen with Austin ISD. In a recent strategic planning meeting with the Fine Arts Director, Alan Lambert, we were very pleased to see Guitar listed as a core subject for every middle and high school in the district. We are happy to report that Manor ISD, expanded their offerings to include guitar at the high school level in fall 2020, complimenting the impressive growth and success of their Decker Middle School program. After school programming at Del Valle High School has stalled due to the pandemic, though we look forward to continuing services as soon as possible. Similarly the projected growth into San Marcos ISD Middle Schools has not taken place, but we are hopeful for the future. He have recently confirmed, however, Hutto ISD as a new Central Texas district partner, and we will begin training elementary and middle school teachers in spring 2021.

During “normal” times, on a spectrum from broad to specific, our services in Central Texas include: District Strategic Support, District and Region Assessment Creation and Execution, All City and All Region Audition and Direction, Curriculum Development and Distribution, Teacher Recruitment, Teacher Training, Individual Program Support or Teacher Consultation, Free Individual Lessons focused in Title 1 Schools, Instrument and other material support, Special Collaborative Events, Student Performance Opportunities, and In-School Guest Artist Performance Engagement.

We are particularly grateful to have added Jess Griggs to our team, in July 2019, as our Director of Music and Community Engagement. Among Jess’ many responsibilities is interfacing with our local districts and many teachers to assess needs, match resources, and accomplish our suite of services. We are also particularly grateful to report that, with the exception of All-City and All-Region ensembles, we have continued to provide all of our services, albeit with modifications. Here are some highlights:

Free Individual Lessons: Individual instruction is actually quite effective by video conference. We have slightly increased our budget for individual instruction to help meet needs during the pandemic and hired three new teaching artists. Our teaching artists are meeting with students via zoom each day from schools across Central Texas. We are particularly proud of our Javier Niño Scholarship Award Winner, Elijah Flores, a senior at Crockett High School who is currently preparing auditions and meeting with university professors.

Guitars: Many students do not own their own instruments, and remote learning as a result of the pandemic placed into relief this particular symptom of economic inequity. Thanks to the generosity of many donors, we have been able to provide nearly 250 guitars (over $35,000 worth) directly to students and programs lacking instruments. Read more on this effort online here

Everything Changes At Once: Normally there is an event called Concert and Sight Reading Contest each April involving ensemble performances for six external judges. This is a helpful focal point for programs, a great opportunity for teachers and students to receive feedback, and a powerful mechanism to maintain and communicate district-wide standards. When this event was cancelled in March 2020, we were tasked with coming up with an alternative. Travis Marcum wrote Everything Changes at Once, a hyper-flexible piece for guitar students at all levels, including options for video, photo, and spoken contributions. The piece was designed to be expressive of each person’s experience, and be approachable not only for all levels of students, but even for students who did not own their own instrument. The piece ended up serving not only AISD, but students in twenty-nine cities across the US.

Guitar + Dance: One of our favorite moments came during the last live performance we presented to the public, on March 7, 2020. The guitar and dance departments at Lively Middle School joined forces to make something beautiful together. In fact, the Lively Middle School guitar instructor, Meredith McAlmon, told us she took specific inspiration for the idea from the ACG overall season theme in 19-20 of “together.” From its inception, then, to the performance on March 7 in front of over one thousand people at our International Concert Series presentation of David Russell this beautiful artwork is a stunning example of the “ecosystem” for contextualized arts learning we mentioned at the start of this report.


3) Juvenile Justice System

At the onset of the pandemic we were particularly concerned about the possibility of continuing instruction in our Juvenile Justice System programs. While these programs were some of the last to authorize and implement remote teaching access for our teachers, we are pleased to report that by May our classes at WilCo (Williamson County Juvenile Services) and Gardner Betts (Travis County) were occurring regularly again. Since that time, classes have maintained consistency and even thrived amidst the challenges of online learning. In June, we actually added a third Central Texas program at Phoenix House, a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. At Phoenix House we provide two sections of daily, for credit guitar classes. This program is directed by Jeremy Osborne, ACG’s Assistant Director of Education, and instruction in Williamson County is provided by Ciyadh Wells, ACG’s Director of Individual Giving. 

The ACG daily, sustained, for-credit performing arts model in the juvenile justice system is extremely rare. We are unaware of another similar program of this scope in the State of Texas. We were asked by the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a division of the Education Commission of the States working alongside the National Endowment for the Arts, for information on our programming. ACG was then featured in the April 2020 national study: Engaging the Art Across the Juvenile Justice System (p. 5). Subsequently the AEP invited ACG staff to give a best-practices presentation alongside AEP and DreamYard staff at the annual Grantmakers For Education conference on November 30.

The groundbreaking nature of ACG’s work in the Juvenile Justice system has led to increasing talks with facility directors and educators across the state. Specifically we have been asked to replicate our program for Dallas County, and are engaged in long-term talks for a special new education initiative related to young adults.

For more insight into ACG Juvenile Justice System programming, we invite you to watch this 90-minute streaming special produced in April, 2020.


4) Curriculum and Teacher Training

The bulk of our technical and development resources since mid-March have been devoted to pivoting both our curriculum and teacher training to online formats. Even so, the team has published four additions to the curriculum library from Mexico: Sandunga, Son de la Negra, Cielito Lindo, and La Llorona. These additions were researched by ACG Director of Operations Salvador Garcia, arranged by Celil Refik Kaya, and finalized by Chris Lee. We have also added a “Special Projects” Section to the website to capture new-format multi-media collaborations like Travis Marcum’s Everything Changes at Once, Ofrendas and more.

At the on-set of the pandemic we made subscriptions to GuitarCurriculum.com free for six months, pointed users to our already-free resource LetsPlayGuitar.org, hosted roundtable discussions, aggregated solutions, and then announced and offered our 2020 Teacher Summits online for free.

Teacher Summits

Offering our 2020 Teacher Summits online during this time required two major streams of development in June and July: 1) Content 2) Technology.

Teacher Summit Content focused on two major areas: Racial Equity and Remote Teaching. Our discussions of Racial Equity were led by guest speaker Sam Escalante, Professor of Music Education at UT San Antonio, and ACG Director of Individual Giving, and leading voice on Racial Equity in the classical guitar world, Ciyadh Wells. Over the summer Ciyadh was also asked to speak several times on the subject of Racial Equity for the Guitar Foundation of America and her talk Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Guitar Community can be viewed online here. Our second content area of Remote Teaching was embedded into the entire experience because the Summits were, in fact, remote experiences. We discussed techniques for engaging students in welcoming, encouraging, and respectful ways, and focusing on expressivity even through video conference, all laid over smart technical and musical sequencing.

Technology was led by ACG’s Education Consultant, and Director of Guitar at Bedichek Middle School, Phil Swasey, alongside ACG’s Director of Curriculum Eric Pearson. Phil created online classroom environments using the “Canvas” Learning Management System (LMS) thereby developing not only the course through which our remote trainees would learn, but also the model on which they would develop their own units for the fall classes. 

There is a lot here! You are invited to email us for more information on these content areas, technology, or any other subjects in this report.

5) Let’s Play: Braille Lifelong Learning Resource

We are extremely pleased to report that our braille lifelong learning system launched in November 2020 in its first full translation. This new site, which you can visit online here, has been created for use throughout the Balkan Peninsula. 

We are very grateful to our partner in Montenegro, Rados Malidzan, for raising the funds and striking the alliances throughout the Balkans not only to make the extensive audio and text translations, but also arrange for free braille printing and distribution in multiple countries to maximize the resource’s utility. We are also very grateful to members of our team: Jess Griggs, Eric Pearson, Jordan Walsh, and Tyson Breaux who worked for months to implement this system.

ACG Performance Engagement Artist Joseph Palmer and Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Music Instructor Jeremy Coleman created the original sequencing and materials for Let’s Play. Rados had this to say when the newly translated site launched: “I am immensely thankful to Jeremy and Joseph for all their beautiful work they put in these so carefully and beautifully created lessons – everything is there – gradualness, attention to every detail both in music and didactic, dynamics, musicality, and the music, which is beautiful in every single piece! I had many of these pieces singing in my head for days after recordings. I am happy that I have managed to secure the cooperation regarding free printing of braille scores with societies of blind and visually impaired of Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of Srpska. In my opinion this will help to overcome this significant obstacle to the users, which is present at the moment in all these countries.”

Let’s Play was also an unexpectedly helpful system for many of our school-based teaching partners at the onset of the pandemic with the shift to remote learning. The system is built around a carefully sequenced solo learning track, paired with detailed audio guides, downloadable music scores, and no cost or barrier to access. These unique features made it particularly valuable for teachers with students learning at home.

6) Music & Healing 

ACG Music and Healing is a multifaceted program that serves Central Texans experiencing significant challenge or trauma in collaboration with over a dozen local hospitals, shelters and social service organizations. We began 2020 by hiring and training a group of five Music and Healing Artists, including 3 new musicians to share in creating music that helps our community members tell their story in song. Soon after, at the onset of the pandemic, we found that there was even more need for this type of service and remote interactions actually increased participants’ accessibility to the various projects. So we deepened our relationships with individuals at Dell Children’s Hospital, with new mothers at Any Baby Can through Lullaby Project. We created new songwriting courses and artist partnerships for women at Red Oak Hope serving victims of human trafficking. We deepened our friendships with the medical community, expanding our services to patients throughout Austin as well as working directly with the wonderful med students at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Med School. We added new partnerships with providers at St. David’s Hospital. We also began a veterans songwriting program in partnership with the veterans creative expression organization Resilient-Me. 

Another beautiful example of the crossover between ACG programs throughout the organization was Together, the large community-based production in January. Two participants from our Music and Healing programs at Dell Children’s Hospital and the Livestrong Cancer Institutes were featured in this show. Their voices echoed throughout, intertwined between original works of music composed around their story.


7) Music & Community

As we said at the beginning of this report, the boundaries between ACG Education, Concerts and Services is increasingly and intentionally blurry. As much as we wanted to inspire with meaningful art, and support school-based education, we also wanted to ensure that opportunities for connection for our youth and adult guitar ensembles would continue through the pandemic. We’ll highlight three such projects, in chronological order: Solace, Ofrendas, and Forward.

Each spring for fifteen years ACG has awarded a prize for a new guitar ensemble composition and then premiered the winning work with a large gathering of a multi-state, all-ages, all-levels ensemble at an event called ACGfest. This year’s winning composition was called Solace written by Brandon Carcamo. ACGfest would have occurred in April, and had to be cancelled. But, led by ACG Artistic Director Joe Williams, the project was able to continue as an online collaboration with the dozens of participants who would have been present live.

There is a tradition in Mexico and Latin America called Ofrendas where loved ones who have passed away are honored by placing their favorite foods, drink, or other significant objects on altars. These objects, called “ofrendas” or “offerings”, are believed to help guide and welcome the spirits of our departed loved ones back home to celebrate Día de Muertos. In collaboration with Mexic-Arte Museum, and led by our Director of Operations Salvador Garcia, who joined Joe Williams as the co-Artistic Director of this project, we commissioned 20 short music-video ofrendas from local artists, and received many dozens more from community members. We invite you to experience some of these captivating tributes in the playlist below, or read a story from one of our individual contributors online here.

Over the summer there were questions as to whether or not we’d be able to have our two adult and two youth community ensembles continue in the fall. We asked our members if they would be interested in trying to do something innovative together, and the answer was a resounding “yes!” What emerged, then, was an ACG commission from composer Michael Keplinger to write a forward-looking piece in four movements, each to be created as a multi-media work by our four community-based groups. The beautiful project, called Forward, led by ACG Community Ensembles Director Tony Mariano, Youth Camerata Director Stephen Krishnan, and Youth Orchestra Director Joe Williams, was premiered during our fall finale on December 12.


8) Future

Some exciting upcoming projects for us include the creation of an ACG Education Composer Residency. We will offer a year-long paid fellowship to composers of color specifically to write music for our students in Austin and those using GuitarCurriculum.com worldwide. We plan to expand our teaching artist staff to serve even more young musicians through our free private lessons program while deepening the experience through mentorship and college preparation services. In Spring, ACG will be making concerted efforts to build artist partnerships with individual schools in Austin, Manor, San Marcos and beyond to help brainstorm, develop, and execute long-term projects (like Everything Changes at Once) tailored to the individual wants and needs of the particular school community. We will be exploring exciting new partnerships with ISDs and juvenile justice centers across Texas to help build inspiring, lasting music programs there. ACG Music and Healing is anticipating doubling services throughout the Austin area in 2021 and we plan on creating a handbook, training manual, and digital archive of all past projects in the coming year. 

In March of this year, the world changed for everyone. But for many of the people involved with ACG Education and Music and Healing, this change has been especially distressing. Students and teachers in our Title I. school programs, patients undergoing chemotherapy, families of color who are experiencing disproportionate loss of life and income. Our first priority is to be with our core Austin community, to listen, and to continue to create opportunities of respite and inspiration for all of us. In 2021 and onward, we will take with us the lessons we have learned, and those we continue to learn in an effort to better teach, create, play, laugh, cry, dream, together. 

I’m hopeful that when we do return to our normal life, we will appreciate each other more, have a stronger sense of community and a deeper, meaningful understanding of life… and how to live that life”

Statement from Albuquerque New Mexico High School Student

ACG’s education programs and social services are made possible through the generous support of many individual and institutional donors, including:

Augustine Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, Kaman Foundation, Bill Wood Foundation, Cain Foundation, Webber Family Foundation, Still Water Foundation, Lucy & Bill Farland, Rea Charitable Trust, Texas Commission on the Arts, H-E-B Tournament of Champions Charitable Trust, Kodosky Foundation, Long Foundation, Shield-Ayres Foundation, the Skeel/Baldauf Family, Louise Epstein & John Henry McDonald, Bill Metz, MFS Foundation, University Area Rotary Club, Meyer Levy Charitable Foundation, Applied Materials Foundation, Seawell Elam Foundation, Sue L. Nguyen Management Trust, Dr. Michael Froehls, Sarah & Ernest Butler, Mercedes-Benz of Austin, Austin Community Foundation, United Way for Greater Austin, Carl Caricari & Margaret Murray Miller, Burdine Johnson Foundation, Wright Family Foundation, 3M Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Texas Bar Foundation, D’Addario Foundation, Strait Music Company, Urban Betty, Inc, PwC, Tesoros Trading Company, Calido Guitars, and many, many others.

30th Season Begins: Pepe Romero

PLEASE NOTE: This concert occurred on September 26th. UpClose Online events are conceived to be unique, one-time, moments of creation and togetherness. 

Ever since his standing-room-only, sold-out, people-in-the-hallways, first performance for ACG on Friday, October 10th, 2003 at the Unitarian Church, guitar legend Pepe Romero has been a huge part of Austin Classical Guitar. He has lifted us over the years with his music, with his stories, with his generosity, and his deep, spiritual presence. Los Romeros’ Father’s Day concert in 2006 marked the beginning of our summer ensemble programming. When we hosted the Guitar Foundation of America and produced sixty five events in six days at the Long Center, the week began with Pepe’s solo recital to a sold-out crowd in Dell Hall, introduced by the UT System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, and live-broadcast by KMFA.

It’s because of this deep connection, that we couldn’t imagine anyone else opening our 30th year. His concert on September 26th at 8pm CT will be free, donations accepted, and beamed from Pepe’s living room into yours. RSVP Here

One of our warmest memories was made on October 13th, 2016, when Pepe graciously agreed to perform and record Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major with over 80 of our high school students from all around Austin. You can watch the magical video below!

We caught up with two people who were there that night, and asked for their recollections. 

Rey Rodriguez, a student who we met in our local school programs Bedichek Middle School under the direction of Phil Swasey, and Crockett High School under the direction of Ron Hare, was part of the performance in 2016. We asked Rey how that performance was for him, he shared:

“It was amazing and I am very grateful to ACG for the experience. It was a great performance and super fun! I was able to sit front row and see Pepe Romero perform with us. It was also very impressive how he was able to lead that many students and keep their interest through many hours of practicing. It was inspiring to say the least.”

 We were lucky enough to be able to have Rey share the impact of this performance on his future as a musician with us: 

“I had seen interviews and multiple performances of Pepe through youtube prior to the performance, but afterwards I was able to truly see who he is as a teacher and musician. He is incredibly knowledgeable about musical phrasing and was able to convey that to a young 16 year old me who was still figuring out how to truly feel music. I am a second year B.A. guitar major at UT Austin and am currently teaching for the UT string project. I am grateful to have that performance to look back on and take notes from for my teaching.”

Rey also shared how the experience influenced him beyond the surface of being a student, and how it influenced him as an expressive musician and artist. 

“From the performance I learned that if you are truly passionate about what you love, there will always be someone there to listen. I'm sure if Pepe Romero was unenthusiastic and impatient with us no one would be inspired from the experience, but that didn't happen. He showed compassion and was very happy to see so many young guitarists in one place. His passion for guitar is inspiring. I hope through my playing and teaching, I can convey that passion to my audience and students like he does.”

We spoke with a parent who attended the rehearsal and the performance as well. Diane Skeel’s son, Andrew Baldauf was in the ensemble. She recalls,

 “The thing that sticks with me is the amazing energy that was in the room. Having that opportunity to play for and with Pepe Romero, it was like meeting an idol. I remember the nervous excitement, and the exhilaration as the music started to come together. It was particularly fun watching the kids as they went up afterwards to meet him and take photographs."

We are so grateful to have had the privilege of Pepe Romero’s musicianship, inspiration, and presence with us and to have the opportunity to share that with our community. We are so excited for his upcoming performance with us on September 26th. We hope that you can join us for the magic and look forward to experiencing more beauty and music together in our 30th season.


ACG Instrument Drive

ACG turns 30 this year! In celebration, one of our generous supporters is matching every gift up to $50,000 between now and our opening concert with maestro Pepe Romero on September 26th! Make a gift today.

We are hosting an instrument drive for guitar donations!

This drive will benefit local school programs that do not have enough instruments to support their guitar classes this year. This is especially important right now, because students are learning from home and do not have access to classroom instruments.

So, if you have any lonely nylon-string guitars collecting dust somewhere round them up and donate them to an aspiring young musician today!

Due to the structure of our classes, we are not able to use steel-string or electric guitars, only nylon string classical guitars will help at this time. If you’re unsure what you have, email us and ask!

You may drop off your donations at our office address any time during business hours.

5900 Balcones Dr. Suite #240 Austin, TX 78731

In the interest of safety, we won’t meet you at the door, but we’ll be checking for donations regularly.

If you have any questions or concerns, please email Ciyadh Wells at ciyadh@austinclassicalguitar.org

Thank you for your help in supporting our local students become successful young musicians and experience the joy of music making!

Remote Teaching Resources

As many teachers in our community are faced with the prospect of remote teaching, the GuitarCurriculum.com and Austin Classical Guitar Team want to share all the remote resources we have available.

Let's Play.com

This is a completely free, graded, solo study track with 44 expressive sequential pieces. You and your students can download the entire 82-page book for free online here (choose pdf download).

The music, mostly written and arranged by Joseph Palmer, is beautiful and engaging, with ample fingering and dynamic indications. Even more exciting is that each piece in the first seven levels have accompanying audio guides, also free, and available for streaming online here.

As you may know, we developed this site specifically for use by the blind and visually impaired community, so some of the audio guides are labeled Braille Lessons, which your sighted students may simply ignore. The other audio lessons, however, address detailed technical and musical subjects, and provide recorded examples of each piece.

How can this help you and your class?

For beginning and intermediate classes you could assign, for example, an appropriate piece for each student to learn on their own using the audio guides. This will assist the speed and quality of their progress through the new material, and allow your remote teaching sessions to be more productive. They can prepare a section on their own, and share their progress with you via video exchange or in remote consultation. Additionally, since the 44 pieces are directly sequential, you and your students will have a clear path forward.

How does this relate to GuitarCurriculum?

It relates directly! The LetsPlay material was created to mirror the sequencing of GuitarCurriculum as follows:

LP Level 1 = GC Level 1 (simple, open string songs)

LP Level 2 = GC Level 2 (introduces reading on strings 2 and 3)

LP Level 3 = GC Level 2 (introduces reading on string 1)

LP Level 4 = GC Level 3 (3 pieces + 1 scale to learn and master im alternation and string crossing)

LP Level 5 = GC Level 3 (im alternation solos with open string bass notes)

LP Level 6 = GC Level 4 (solos with fretted bass strings)

LP Level 7 = GC Level 5 (more advanced solos with fretted bass strings)

LP Level 8 = GC Level 5+ (parallel literature, 1st position only, no audio guides)

Other Resources & More GuitarCurriculum.com Materials:

GuitarCurriculum.com: Our Director of Curriculum, Eric Pearson, has just changed permissions on videos in GC.com and are available for anyone who navigates to the video page. These videos are tailored specifically towards students and you can find them here.

Using Zoom? Here is a great video on how to optimize audio on a Zoom call for music.

Need more resources? Here is a comprehensive list of remote teaching tools.

Please be kind to yourselves during this time. All the solutions proposed above are imperfect, and there will be a ton of troubleshooting in the weeks ahead.

Additionally, feel free to reach out to anyone on the ACG team if you have any questions or need support!

Interview: Clint Strait - Owner of Strait Music Company

Thanks to the generous support of our friends at Strait Music Company, we're thrilled to be able to offer FREE TICKETS to middle and high school students for all of our International Series concerts during the 2019-20 season.

On Saturday, we will be hosting International Acclaimed Guitarist, David Russell - and we will have a record number of students from Austin ISD and surrounding school districts in attendance. This is in large part due to Strait Music Company. 

Interested in the inspiration for the ticket program, ACG Development Associate, Ciyadh Wells, headed out into the field to talk with the owner of Strait Music Company, Clint Strait.

Ciyadh Wells: Since this business has been in your family for 3 generations, can you provide some background as to how this business started? 

Clint Strait: It’s actually crazy because we were at TMEA this past year and the theme of our booth was, “Set the Record Strait”. We did a 57 year museum-like timeline of Strait music company to tell the true story about this company. It was pretty cool. There were some instruments for instance, like this bugle on my desk that was my great grandfather's WW1 bugle. I never met my great grandfather, but he worked for a Lyons music company in Chicago.

My grandfather was in WW2 and when he came back he was living in Houston. I think he pestered this one guy enough to where he gave him a job selling pianos. So my grandfather was a pretty good salesman and back then the main piano franchises were Baldwin franchises. So he started selling those, and then he received the opportunity to open up his own franchise in Austin. Austin was a much smaller town back then - just a little college town. So he moved the family here and started Strait Piano and Organ. He had a bookkeeper, repair person, and he was the salesperson. That was it. That was pretty much the original staff. 

What happened is that the Beatles started playing Vox amps, and Baldwin Piano owned Vox amps. We were able to get them pretty easily. So we started selling amps and guitars, and that was pretty much our first expansion. Beatles exploded, guitars exploded along with it. Then we started getting into the band instrument business and then we just expanded over time. 

The 80’s happened and then we had big synths and keyboards and all that stuff. We really pride ourselves on being able to service everything that we sell in the store. So I have a full service repair shop . We’re really big into rock and roll stuff because this market supports that. The school, band, and orchestra side is a really big part of our business too. Rentals beginner rentals and yeah that is our music store. 

CW: Do you have a first memory or experience about Strait Music that you would like to share? 

CS: Oh man, definitely the store at 9th and Lamar. That’s the store I grew up at. So, honestly my first memories are of going to that store with my dad when the store was closed. We had an organ room, all those organs with all the buttons, and I would go back there and turn all the buttons on and just make noise. I was just banging on stuff to see what sounds they made and that’s kind of what I remember, the organ room. 

I spent a lot of time there with my dad when I was a little kid. Whether we were open or not open. I really liked it when we weren’t open because I could just go around the store and make noise on anything. Play the drums or whatever so that’s kind of my first memory. Also that store was next to the original Whole Foods and my dad gave me money and I would go next door to buy fruit leathers - that’s what I remember. 

CW: So you have some guitars on the wall in your office. Do you play guitar at all? 

CS: I do not. I am not a musician. There really aren’t a lot of musicians in my family. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. It might not be a bad thing really and it’s been good for business I think. You know, I’m so passionate about music and I think even more so than a lot of people in my family. I am a crazy music nerd. I have an amazing record collection that I still add to on a weekly and monthly basis. 

Growing up I was super into music. I really identify with the different types of music that I listened to growing up. Like whatever music I was listening to at that time really defined that time in my life. Whether it was first when I got into Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Dead and then going to college I was really into jam bands - so I would go on tour a lot and saw a lot of different bands in a lot of different places and now my musical taste is so wide open to hip-hop to jazz to whatever. 

So I’m really crazy passionate about music. I see it sometimes through a different lens as the owner of this store. I’ll see people on stage and think about what they’re playing and their gear set up. I've developed a good ear for sound quality and stuff. So it’s weird, I see it through a different lens. It’s a fun place to work and I get to see all these great musicians who come by the store. I definitely do not take it for granted that I get to work in an industry like this because it’s a really good industry to be a part of  and this is a fun place to work. 

CW: Where does music education and the Strait music tickets for kids start? Did you start lessons here? 

CS: So, we’ve never really provided lessons because the Austin School of Music has always been our partner. Dave started the school of music with one recital that was connected to our 9th and Lamar store. When we built out of the 5th Street store, we built out the school of music to be a part of us. So they have that entire side of our building - so Strait Music has never really provided lessons. For every iteration of this company and where we have been, the Austin School of Music has always been with us. 

From a music education standpoint, I have kids now and so I now have a much deeper understanding of what music can mean for children. Everything from confidence and cognitive abilities just everything, music helps them. I was into sports, and I had a lot of friends who were into music and went to college on music scholarships. I have friends that still play a lot of music now even though that’s not what they do now for a living. 

You know, music is a lifelong thing. It’s really amazing and just the impact it can have on a young child’s life, and through adolescence as well just for helping with everything and it’s really amazing. I’m on the board of directors of Kids in a New Groove. It’s an organization that provides mentorship through music to youth in foster care. So I get to see first hand what that impact is. So for the students, they have a dedicated music teacher that comes to them every week. Kids in that program have a 100% high school graduation rate compared to a much lower rate for kids who are not in these types of programs. So that alone, that stat to me, is mind blowing. I’ve really been subjected to the power of music through that organization. It’s amazing to see what those students can do. 

I also spent time on our industry the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) board of directors. I did a three year term as a board member of NAMM. Their motto is more to start, fewer to quit. And we feel that it is every child’s right to have access to music education. It’s our job to fight for that right. I grew up with great music programs, and there’s other parts of the world inside and outside this market where we just want to make sure that as a member of NAMM that those kids have access to a quality music education. And once again we know what that can do for children. So I’m very passionate about what music education can do for kids whether that be in the public education sector or privately. 

CW: How did you get involved with ACG? Where did that relationship begin? 

CS: I don’t remember where I got involved originally. Probably just meeting ACG’s Executive Director, Matthew Hinsley. As far as the Tickets for Kids program is concerned, it’s just a natural fit. To be able to provide the opportunity for these students to be able to go see these amazing performers is just amazing. I think Matt said the next show might have as many as 100 kids - that’s just amazing. Additionally, to be able to go see that quality of performer, to be inspired and to be able to take that inspiration back to your own life and your own practice, it can have an amazing effect. 

Even if only one of those kids is affected in a deeply positive way, whether it gets them to take that next step in their music playing journey is just awesome. So I am just really proud of that program, and that they thought it was really cool. I’m just so proud that we got to put our name behind it, because it’s going to give kids access to both directly through the Tickets for Kids program, but just being able to support ACG and being able to help to provide that access to kids is amazing. 

CW: What about Strait Music is uniquely Austin?

 CS: Well I think that Strait Music is the epitome of uniquely Austin. We’re a 3rd generation family owned business. We have been in Austin since it was so much smaller. My dad and I went to the same high school. When he went there, Westlake was finished being built and it was just a school far from everything. When I went there, I graduated with 600 people. Where houses exist now, there were just barb wire fences and ranches. And it's hard to imagine.

I think we’re helping keep Austin weird. We’ve always been a weird company. We have been forever. We’ve had to grow over time and we like to refer to ourselves as a professionally managed, family owned business. We’ve just grown so much that we’re not just a mom and pop shop anymore. We can’t run our business like that. Just alone in that 57 year business, Strait Music Company has bought out or absorbed 6 companies. Most recently, we bought Music Makers in 2013 and all of their employees are still here with the exception of 1 of them because he’s on tour with a grammy award winning band, but they're all still here. This past year we bought Violins Etc. and all their employees are still here. I have a brand new orchestral luthier shop with 2 luthiers. Their instrument manager is still here. 

So we’ve been able to grow and then also continue to support the musicians who are working at these companies that for one reason or another haven’t continued on. I identify myself as an Austinite and I can’t think of anything that is more uniquely Austin than Strait Music Company. I hear stories all the time of how someone’s family member or friend bought a piano from my grandfather. There’s a lot of history here. My grandfather's line, that we still use today, is where customers become friends. And we’ve been lucky enough to make a lot of friends and we hope to continue to make more with people from where and that move here. And we just do us really well. We have a deep rooted culture as a company that we will never lose sight of and that’s a culture that’s based on customer service. The customer always comes first. We’ve got the best and most knowledgeable people working for us. I think as an employer we take pretty good care of our employees and we’ve got people who’ve been here for 10, 20, 35 years.  We have just grown with this city, but we have kept our principles in tact.

Postcards: Americas High School - El Paso, Texas

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 Adrian Saenz, guitar director at Americas High School in Socorro ISD* in El Paso, Texas. He is currently in his 16th year of teaching at Americas HS and his 20th year in public education. In the larger guitar community of Texas, Saenz edited and revised the UIL Guitar Prescribed Music List from 2007 to 2016. Saenz also holds a bachelor’s degree in general music from UTEP, a master’s degree in music education from NMSU, and as a guitarist, he studied under Stefan Schyga, Aquiles Valdez, and John Siqueiros. 

In this postcard, Adrian Saenz discusses the successes of his guitar program, but he also talks about some of the challenges his program faces due to district policies and changes.

Postcard from Americas High School in El Paso, Texas

By Adrián Sáenz

Hello from El Paso! In this postcard I’d like to share a bit about us, a challenge, and an inspiration. 

About us: There are three major school districts in El Paso Region 22 (El Paso ISD, Ysleta ISD, Socorro ISD) and four smaller districts. Within these districts, there are approximately 25 high school guitar programs and a few middle school programs. Americas High School (AHS) is in Socorro ISD. 

AHS has seen particular success at UIL Contest. We usually register one of the largest entries at regional UIL Solo and Ensemble Contest, and a lot of our students advance to Texas State Solo and Ensemble Contest (TSSEC). A high percentage of students even receive number 1 ratings at TSSEC.

On an individual student level, AHS Guitar has had 3 outstanding soloists at TSSEC (2012, 2015, and 2016). These outstanding soloist awards were accompanied with offers of full scholarships to continue their studies at various Texas universities, including UTSA and Sam Houston. Many of our guitar students have gone on to study at North Texas and UTEP. Perhaps our biggest accolade is Dario Barrera who received a full scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music in 2018 and is currently studying under Oren Fader. 

A challenge: My enrollment has dropped over the last 3 years, so I am rebuilding. One reason is that students are now required to select an endorsement (Graduation Plan) in middle school leading into high school (you can read more about this plan here). Band, orchestra, and choir students in the middle school feeder programs mostly select this endorsement, and the other career paths only allow for 1 year of a fine arts class. Compounding this issue is the lack of middle school guitar programs, meaning students are not seriously studying guitar at the time they are making these important decisions.

Lastly, because Texas has just one fine arts requirement, there are many “one-and-done” students who just need to fulfill the single fine arts credit requirement. So I often have high numbers in the beginner classes with low enrollment in the upper classes.

To counteract this I am advocating for more middle school guitar programs. Currently, I am personally teaching 40 students at a local middle school split across two guitar classes. We also have a phenomenal Mariachi instructor who is teaching four beginner guitar classes in an effort to build up our guitar program. The students in these classes will be able to enter the intermediate guitar class at AHS their freshmen year. 

An inspiration: I took a trip, along with the Socorro HS guitar director, to Austin in 2016. The purpose of the trip was to observe the Guitar Concert and Sight-Reading Contest in Austin ISD. We were impressed with the quality of high school and middle school guitar programs from Austin ISD and around the state of Texas that participated at the Austin ISD Guitar Concert and Sight-Reading Contest. 

This inspired us to build our own Guitar Concert and Sight-Reading Contest. And In 2017, we were able to implement the Concert and Sight-Reading Evaluation at Socorro ISD. In 2019 all 6 high schools in the Socorro District registered a Varsity and Non-Varsity group for 12 total groups. This was made possible with the help and guidance of Austin Classical Guitar and Edward Grigassy and Susan Rozanc from the Texas Guitar Directors Association.

In conclusion: The Socorro ISD high school guitar programs believe in the importance of advocating for music instruction; to teach the correct methods, techniques, best practices, and music literacy to elevate the status of the guitar. In order to secure the guitar’s future, we must establish guitar programs that are aligned to the national and state music standards to provide guitar students with a high-quality level of instruction. Socorro ISD is committed to elevating the guitar programs through the development of music education, establishing the guitar concert and sight-reading evaluation, and developing performance skills necessary for acceptance to music universities. 

Guitar Segment ends at 1:36

And finally, I am excited to work with Dr. Joseph V. Williams II, Artistic Director at Austin Classical Guitar, on their ‘together’ Youth Orchestra Tour in March. Their kids will work with our kids here in El Paso, and make something beautiful for our community.

And that’s it from El Paso for today! If you come to our city, I hope you’ll stop by and see us.

Adrián Sáenz, Guitar Director

Americas High School/Clarke Middle School


*ISD Stands for Independent School District

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.