String Theory

How Austin Classical Guitar is changing the way the country learns to play

Austin Classical Guitar is changing the way the country learns to play

Travis Marcum of Austin Classical Guitar conducting
Austin Classical Guitar provides tips and values to teachers from all over the country. Photo by Jack Kloecker

It’s hard to separate Austin from images of guitars. Travelers are greeted by eight colossal guitar statues at ABIA baggage claim, and will likely spend a generous portion of their trip listening to guitar players at bars.

Classical guitar remains underrepresented in that glorification, but as many kids’ first opportunity for formal instruction, the way it’s taught can play a crucial role in how musicians ultimately develop in the Live Music Capital and beyond.

On July 21, guitar teachers from all over the country met for the first day of an annual teacher summit at The Rosette, the official concert and learning center for Austin Classical Guitar (ACG), which builds classroom-based guitar programs and instructs teachers on how to best utilize the curriculum for a well-rounded guitar education.

A documentary and a teaching handbook passed out at the reception instilled teachers with five main categories of instruction values: trust, individual importance, perseverance, success, and celebration. Two of those especially, executive director Dr. Matthew Hinsley points out, are a source of pride for the organization.

“We look at this on a daily basis in every single class period, as well as in the macrocosm,” says Hinsley. “We definitely provide, ‘Here's what you do on day one, and kids move their fingers this way, and sit in a certain way.’ But there's also that deep belonging and personal engagement…where I think the magic is.”

ACG also organizes community ensembles and multiple social work programs in Central Texas, with the majority of its efforts still focused on school curriculum. Along with managing the information-packed GuitarCurriculum.com and teacher resources, it provides ongoing support in schools, sometimes over the course of years.

An ongoing project with Hutto Independent School District sends ACG staff teachers into the school for hands-on instruction, while brainstorming engagement initiatives and setting evaluation standards. Students will be encouraged to try out sight reading in contests, or meet inspiring guest performers; teachers will learn best practices and, over time, internalize how to run the program with little intervention.

Another school in Austin, East Side Memorial High School, has been working mostly independently since its training in 2005. But with a new teacher coming on this fall, the ACG team is returning to welcome her with refreshers straight from the source that will continue throughout the year. This kind of targeted maintenance keeps things running in more than 50 Central Texas programs.

Independence hinges on the Teacher Manual, the core piece of the sprawling GuitarCurriculum.com puzzle, accessible to any teacher who wants it worldwide, whether or not their school participates in ACG programs. It contains lesson plans complete with three-part scores, opportunities for social emotional learning, and Spanish language support (translating musical terms and phrases for cueing better playing posture). Beyond the manual, the website offers even more sight reading, video tutorials, and recommendations on inclusive teaching.

The curriculum also depends on the success of students who go on to prove it works beyond producing a clean tone, and disciplined guitarists. ACG communications director Angelica Campbell came into the organization’s orbit in high school, as a student of one of its programs.

Reaching her junior year, Campbell decided she wanted to graduate early and get a music degree. A faculty member connected her to Hinsley and ACG director of education Travis Marcum, who gave her a guitar, lessons to prepare for auditions, and support all throughout college. Now, as a staff member, she still gets to perform and spends most of her time connecting with communities that ACG serves.

“Our tagline for the methodology is, ‘Expressive, beautiful music-making from the very first day,’” says Hinsley. “When we can accomplish that, then young people get fired up, and once young people get fired up, there's pretty much nothing that can stop them.”

Opening night for the Austin Classical Guitar 2022-23 season will be held as a benefit concert featuring Flamenco guitarist Grisha on September 23. The performance and an outdoor dinner will take place at the home of Jeff and Gail Kodosky, and will benefit ACG community services. Tickets ($1,000) and season ticket packages available at austinclassicalguitar.org