Austin Classical Guitar Inspires Hope and Artistic Vision
Central Texas students find lifelong benefits by participating in the non-profit’s music program
By Bryan C. Parker
Photos by Phil Kline
Austin is a city bursting at the seams with musical talent, and some of its youngest residents tap into their abilities in grade school thanks to the work of Austin Classical Guitar. Formed in 1990, the non-profit organization works in around 50 Austin-area schools to teach the fundamentals of guitar and the joy of artistic expression through music.
Travis Marcum, ACG’s Director of Education since 2005, says the program’s primary function is inspiring and motivating students, both within music as well as their lives generally.
“Being creative and making music with your peers, performing classical guitar, writing songs, and composing — these are things that are fundamentally nourishing and have all kinds of positive benefits,” he says.
ACG performs dozens of concerts per year, and instructors sometimes provide private lessons, but most of the program’s work is in Central Texas schools, where they assist band and orchestra directors or teach their own guitar classes. That instruction is free of charge to districts and is funded through individual donors, grants and foundations.
Marcum’s first project with ACG was working to establish a guitar program at McCallum High School — an experience he calls “awe-inspiring and energizing.” The nascent program lucked into two incredibly talented students, Fabi Reyna and Claire Puckett. Young adults are prone to skepticism with any newcomer, and Reyna was no exception when Marcum arrived. But after a few weeks, something began to change.
“When you put a guitar in your lap and sit face to face, we let our collective guard down,” says Marcum. Reyna fell in love with guitar and went on to found She Shreds, a magazine devoted to women and gender non-conforming musicians. She’s currently on tour with Sleater-Kinney, one of indie rock’s most famous bands.
Puckett also pursued a music career, first by performing original music in Austin bands such as Mother Falcon and Hikes and, more recently, by joining the staff of ACG. Puckett says being a guitar student gave her patience and a strong work ethic, but more importantly, it provided stability.
“My teenage years were a bit tumultuous, but when I was in ensemble or preparing for a solo performance, I felt there was a clear path,” she says. Now, she fosters that same emotional clarity as the Program Manager for the Music and Healing department of ACG, a sector of the organization that helps people use music to process challenges like poverty, homelessness, or physical and mental health diagnoses.
Former ACG student Angelica Campbell experienced that same healing power of music as a teen struggling with depression while attending Travis High School.
“The only time I really felt happy was when I was doing something creative with my time, my favorite use of time being guitar,” she says. Guitar led her to UT’s Butler School of Music, where she furthered her musical training. Along the way, her former ACG teachers stayed in touch with her and offered supportive encouragement. That connection turned into a career when Campbell accepted a communications role with ACG at the beginning of this year.
Alumnus Justice Phillips says ACG gave him “real performance opportunities in great halls,” tangible experiences that many young musicians don’t have. His role has come full circle, as he now composes music for ACG students to perform for special projects in public performances and in classes at school.
One branch of ACG’s education program works with incarcerated youth in facilities such as Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center in Austin and the Williamson County Juvenile Detention Center. Students in such facilities continue their high school coursework, but offerings can be limited. According to Jeremy Osborne, the Juvenile Justice Program Director for ACG, the only option for an arts elective credit was computer-based until ACG initiated their program.
Many of the young adults in these facilities have little agency in their lives. “Everything is mandated, scheduled, watched over,” Osborne explains. But precious moments in guitar class offer opportunities for expression and creativity. In short, it’s an escape from the confines of the walls around them. Osborne begins teaching students to perform songs on the first day of class, asking individual students to play a single note in rhythm to craft an ensemble piece together. That immediate success is transformative, especially for students trying to rebuild their lives.
Osborne doesn’t approach teaching with the goal of making students into career musicians or concert guitarists. Instead, he says, “My goal is that we establish a relationship to art, so it makes them better humans and better at coping with life in general.” Ultimately, working with guitar affords all of the program’s students similar benefits. Whether incarcerated or enrolled in an arts magnet school, Osborne says learning guitar “helps them to be more introspective and gives them a voice for themselves.”