Eight high school boys in matching maroon T-shirts are focused intensely on Travis Marcum, our Director of Education.  They are sitting with their left feet on footstools, holding classical guitars, playing a piece of music beautifully together.  Their playing is not only synchronized, but it’s full of careful nuance with gorgeous and expressive moments that persist even in spite of the sporadic radio chatter from the guards just outside the open door in the hallway.

At the soft and slowing finish, Travis congratulates the group on their progress.  This is the second performance of the piece this evening, and already they’ve refined tone, togetherness and several expressive moments.  He asks if anyone has a comment and the boy to my right, Randy, raises his hand.  “Sir, I didn’t think we were right together at the end of measure eight, sir.”  One of the other boys nods at this observation, and Travis replies, “Excellent, let’s work on measure eight.”

It’s the kind of magic Travis Marcum, and our whole education team, help to create in thirty Austin schools each and every day.  But only this school, Gardner Betts, is a full lock-down residential facility of the Travis County Juvenile Justice System.

Earlier that evening I met Travis at his car in the parking lot.  “Leave your cell phone in your glove compartment so it doesn’t get scratched in the bucket” he told me.  When we entered, keys and cell phones (had we kept them) had to be deposited in a bucket at the front desk before we could enter the secure part of the facility.

As Travis and I set up the chairs for class he told me the kids were excited I would be there: “They’ve been playing a few of your pieces, and so they were pretty pumped when I told them you’d be here tonight.”  Four guards escorted the boys in, each of them with a guitar in one hand, and a music stand in the other with their music and footstool balanced on top.

The work began immediately after set up and tuning.  “Play four Gs, then four Bs, then four Es with great tone – on my count…” Travis kept them constantly engaged in positive, pro-active self-evaluation and constructive criticism.  His dedication to excellence is infectious, and each boy has caught the bug.

“Stop for sec.  Rodrigo, how do you feel about our sound just now?”  “I thought… on the E string, our sound was kind of thin, sir.”  “What can we do to make that better, Rodrigo?”  “We need to come across the string at more of an angle, sir.”  “Can you show the class both ways?”  Yes, Rodrigo could demonstrate both ways.  And the class joined him as they refined their sound.

About a month ago I received a letter from a Chemical Dependency Counselor at Gardner Betts.  He described the effects of our guitar class on one of the boys like this:

“A 17 year old male entered our program with a plethora of obstacles for success in his life. He was raised primarily in a single parent home with one of his parents being in and out of jail and/or drug rehabilitation programs. This child had made poor decisions with his own life by developing his own drug habit, committing crimes, and becoming delinquent in school. Although he is very bright and has multiple gifts and talents, these decisions limited his success in school and in society. Upon entering the program, his motivation for positive change was extremely low.

When offered an opportunity to join the guitar class, he enrolled. His motivation began to snowball and spread to other areas of programming. He went from putting forth minimal effort in school and his drug rehabilitation to becoming a leader by example for his peers. This youth is currently back on track to graduate high school on time and return to his home with a renewed commitment to his family and to himself for a more productive future.”

They have a performance coming up in the courthouse at a swearing-in ceremony for volunteer court-appointed advocates.  Our guitar classes play for every such ceremony now.  With the show not far away, Travis explained some of the particulars including the walk outside across the parking lot to the courthouse.  “I wish we could be outside now,” one boy said aloud to himself.

“Sir, can I ask Dr. Hinsley a question?”  This was repeated by James several times throughout the class.  “James, we’ll be able to ask Dr. Hinsley questions at the end of class,” Travis replied.  The end of class was approaching, and James sensed his opportunity: “Sir, can I ask Dr. Hinsley a question?”  “Yes, James, now is a great time to ask Dr. Hinsley a question.”  James looked me in the eyes and said “Dr. Hinsley, would you play something for us?”  And of course I did.

At the end of class they lined up to shake my hand.  Several said they couldn’t wait for me to come back.  Last month we had some guest artists in town perform for them, and one boy wanted to know if I knew them.  “They were so fast and so together, they were amazing, sir.”

Travis’ work at Gardner Betts, and our work in education broadly, is what we are most proud of at the Austin Classical Guitar Society.  We are proud because we have the privilege to work with such diverse young people, and have an opportunity to make a positive difference in their lives.  I’m sure they don’t realize, though, the profoundly positive difference they make in our lives, too.

Dr. Matthew Hinsley, Executive Director

Austin Classical Guitar Society

Information is available online about ACGS Educational Outreach and the global curriculum project developed by ACGS for classroom classical guitar instruction.  A December 2011 KUT radio story on the program at Gardner Betts is available for online streaming, as is Dr. Hinsley’s recent editorial in the Austin American Statesman on the importance of arts in education.  Donate here.