Guitar & Juvenile Justice: “The best night I have had in a long time.”

Travis Marcum is Director of Education and Outreach for Austin Classical Guitar.  He shares here a reflection on last Tuesday’s (12/3/13) performance of his class at Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center.

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We met first in our classroom to tune up and rehearse the pieces for our concert.  The students were distracted by their wardrobe, which consisted of formal slacks, button-down shirts, vests, and clip-on ties issued by Travis County for residents to wear when they appear before the judge. So after 15 or 20 minutes of finding the right size vests and slacks, we had just enough time to run our program once before packing up and walking from the residential lock-down units to the courtroom where we would perform. 

We walked through many locked steel doors; the students stop and turn around while staff members press buttons keypads to open them. We walked outside for a moment through a courtyard surrounded by tall chain-link fencing, then through the primary booking area for juvenile offenders where staff members are typically on the phone with police officers and concerned families.

As we walked, I thought about the memories this must bring back for my students. I thought about them as scared young men, facing the prospect of speaking to their families after being arrested. However, when I looked back at their faces, they looked excited and happy. They were confident, yet uncertain about this new experience, much like I remember feeling the first time I performed in front of an audience.

We entered the empty courtroom and arranged our chairs, music stands, and footstools. The students asked me, “How many people are going to be here?” “Are they going to stay quiet the entire concert?” They wanted to make sure that everyone would hear the dynamic and phrasing decisions they had spent so many hours refining.  We had just enough time to practice the beginning of each piece before a large crowd began flowing into the courtroom.

Every 12 weeks or so, the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Travis County (CASA) holds a volunteer swearing-in ceremony that incudes around 100 community members who have chosen to give their time to help children who have been abused or neglected in the Austin area. CASA has been extremely supportive of our guitar program at Gardner Betts, and they have been kind enough to invite us to play for their ceremony for the last 4 years.

The students watched as dozens of people filed into the courtroom and I could see their eyes getting progressively wider as the seats filled to capacity, leaving a number of people standing in the back.

After a short introduction, we played five pieces from our ACG curriculum with a few solos interspersed.

They played beautifully! The start of each piece was choreographed: standby position to playing position, then left hands up. Each piece began and ended together. Each piece was full of expression: ritardando, crescendo, decrescendo and articulation, all executed together for the sole purpose of communicating the character of the music. The final chord was a fortissimo, rasgueado E major chord in Malagueña. The audience rose to their feet and the guys bowed from the hip just long enough for each to whisper, “I did awesome”, a technique we had practiced in class.

We walked out of the courtroom as the applause continued and the guys did not stop smiling the entire way back. We sat back down in the family visitation room where we rehearse and I said, “talk to me”. One student, still grinning ear-to-ear, simply said, “I want to do it again”.

As a teacher, I feel it is so important to acknowledge this moment immediately after a fantastic performance. It is so crucial to make the association between weeks of hard work learning, refining and practicing and this truly unique and transcendent feeling of accomplishment. And these guys deserved the recognition. As they packed up to return back to the residential cell units, one guitarist stopped me and said, “This was the best night I have had in a long time.”

I have directed our classical guitar program at Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center for four years now. It is, undoubtedly, the most unique and rewarding teaching experience of my career. Each class day, I get to work with a group of young men who have not had many, if any, opportunities to experience unambiguous success in an academic setting. I get to help them do something beautifully and in the process, I am constantly reminded of the power of music to improve our lives.

Travis Marcum, Director of Education & Outreach

Austin Classical Guitar

Read our previous Changing Lives Story: From the School District Director of Fine Arts