Chord by chord
Austin classical guitarists are out to change the world as social servants
A few years ago, a young man who faced serious criminal charges entered the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center off South Congress Avenue.
“He was going to be there for a while,” says Matthew Hinsley, executive director of Austin Classical Guitar, which conducts guitar classes at the detention center. “He was angry, as many were, and detached. Yet the staff at the center felt he would do well in a guitar class.”
Jeremy Osborne, Austin Classical Guitar’s assistant director of education, placed an instrument on the floor in front of the young man and invited him to play.
“In every class period, he refused to participate,” Hinsley, 43, recalls. “After two weeks, he picked up the guitar and started playing. Jeremy spent time with him out of class to bring him up to speed so he could play confidently. Confident, expressive music-making in an atmosphere of belonging is part of our core philosophy. He became the best guitar player there in about eight months.”
The young man, however, was still having problems with his treatment program and class work. The staff suggested pulling him out of guitar class, part of the Austin arts group's globally recognized revolution in guitar training, until he shaped up. Osborne asked the staff to give him a chance to address the problems directly with the young man in the context of guitar class. The strategy worked.
“He graduated from high school, successfully completed his therapy work and was released,” says Hinsley, whose group has acquired an uncommon reputation for melding art with social service. “But before he did, about 18 months after we met him, he took time to work on an art project. For three months, he took copy paper, rolled it into tubes, taped them together and assembled them into a full-scale 3D model of a classical guitar. It's beautiful. He presented it to Jeremy as a gift.”
During the 1990s — when Hinsley joined Austin Classical Guitar as a volunteer — it was a part-time nonprofit group operating with a budget of about $1,000. It intersected with the public mostly through small, high-quality performances by guitar masters. Nowadays — bristling with 10 full-time staff members, 10 contract teachers and a $1.4 million budget — the group has generated specially devised music training programs for 50 Central Texas schools. It oversees similar programs in 40 states and 20 countries. St. Louis alone hosts 23 of the signature Austin Classical Guitar education programs, while Loudoun County, Va., has 46.
“We have 300 partner-teachers in Texas who have reached tens of thousands of kids,” Hinsley says. “Globally, we have reached hundreds of thousands. With time, a professional teacher doesn’t really need us. We show them how to do it, and after four years, we aren’t needed on a daily basis.”
The world has taken note.
In 2017, Hinsley accepted the Texas Citizen of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers, an improbable honor for an artist and music teacher.
“Matt Hinsley is a remarkable individual who is making our world a better place through his intellect, leadership, community service, musical talent and scholarly contributions,” says former University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who takes personal lessons from Hinsley. “He has a unique ability to inspire students of all ages to reach their fullest potential, not only in music but by instilling self-confidence. It is remarkable to see a young student acquire confidence, perform onstage and how this translates to success in academics, athletics and in their daily lives.”
Artist as public servant
It must be said from the start that most nonprofit arts organizations of a certain size offer educational programs of some sort. Foundations, governments and individual donors reward these programs because they show a sense of responsibility to the larger community, especially in times when school arts programs are vulnerable to budget cuts.
For many years in Austin, however, too many of these well-meaning programs were not given sufficient thought or attention. And how could you blame the artists, most of whom were not trained as social workers or teachers?
Hinsley, however, takes the social-improvement impulse a step further. He explicitly identifies himself as an arts public servant.
“In some ways — the obvious ones — that service grew directly out of my training,” Hinsley told the American-Statesman in 2017. “In other ways — perhaps less obvious — work in service stretched me from the very beginning and has never stopped. Because the myth for many young artists is that if you just get good enough at what you do, the world will come to you and watch you do it. But that notion is rooted in fallacy — because it is rooted in a model of the universe with oneself at the center. And that is not how the universe works.”
He believes that as a public servant, he must constantly dig into his community and ask who is being served, who is not and how can they be served better.
“It demands flexibility in every aspect,” he says. “It has led us to realizations that music can heal and engage so many people in such profound ways — but not perhaps the ways we thought we knew. So if it’s developing classroom-based systems for guitar education, or a Braille-adapted curriculum for students at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, or the Lullaby Project at Travis County Jail or musical puppet shows for kids in Austin Public Library branches — we live and flourish with this irony that while the world may not revolve around that which we have, it most certainly can interact in beautiful and mysterious ways with that which we can be.”
Many roads taken
Matthew Hinsley grew up in Hamilton, the home of Colgate University, in upstate New York. His mother is a computer scientist, his father a retired history professor. They divorced when Hinsley was 11.
His childhood and youth were full of engaged activity, lots of time outdoors, success at soccer and tennis and good grades in school. Yet it was music that captured his heart and soul. By age 4, he was playing the violin and then learned the piano and the cello.
“My father was a fine amateur pianist,” Hinsley says. “I grew up listening to him most nights.”
The family’s instrument room — just consider that fact for a moment — included little wooden flutes and a balalaika, a stringed instrument popularized in this country by the movie “Doctor Zhivago.” His mother had bartered American bluejeans for it in Russia.
Hinsley played the saxophone and the trumpet in his school band and continued his cello lessons for another eight years.
“One day in the fourth grade, I asked my teacher, Frank Vecchio, what his favorite instrument was,” Hinsley says. “He said the guitar.”
Hinsley naturally asked his parents for a guitar and received one as a Christmas gift.
Vecchio died shortly after in a car accident.
“I took a deep dive for a long time,” Hinsley says. “I was really devastated. I remember the color of the room and the gloomy winter outside. The teacher was trying to get the whole class to do something. She let me sit there and be by myself.”
As part of the healing process, his parents tracked down Vecchio’s teacher, Ed Vollmer, who also lived in Upstate New York. Lessons with Vollmer kept the guitar in Hinsley’s musical mix.
It should come as no surprise after all this musicality that in his teen years, Hinsley headed off to the Interlochen Center for the Arts, the high-flying fine arts academy and boarding school in northwestern Michigan.
“It blew my mind,” Hinsley says and laughs. “It was the first time being part of an international student body with many other kids serious about music, in many cases for far longer than I had been. It was an eye-opener.”
At age 16, Hinsley became one of the first guitar students accepted at Oberlin College and Conservatory, a top-notch progressive private school in Oberlin, Ohio.
“We were the first to graduate,” he says of himself and two other guitarists. “And for the whole time, fish out of water. You see, the guitar is not a traditional symphonic instrument. Music schools evolved globally out of choral, operatic, symphonic and chamber traditions. We were offered no specialized music history or music theory for the guitar. And at first there were no guest artists. Many of the great, famous composers didn’t ever compose for the guitar. Some did for the lute, but the guitar as we know it was not invented until the end of the 18th century.”
Another American university offered a thorough, rigorous training in guitar. So after graduating from Oberlin, Hinsley headed to Austin in 1996 to study with Adam Holzman, the internationally renowned performer and recording artist who had founded the classical guitar program at the University of Texas.
It should also be noted that Austin was — and is — home to the only nationally syndicated broadcast guitar radio program in America, “Classical Guitar Alive!”
With his usual thoroughness, Hinsley quickly earned two advanced degrees from UT in guitar performance.
While in Ohio, Hinsley had started a student guitar club that booked, with increasing success, guest artists. He had also written a senior thesis about the classical guitar’s potential as part of the arts market. He brought those skills and that knowledge to the Austin music scene.
“I had learned that guitars come with superpowers,” Hinsley says. “Affordability. Popularity. Portability. The visual aspect. And versatility — you can play by yourself or with voices or other instruments.”
The Austin Classical Guitar Society, as it was then known, had been created by and for guitar players as a sort of club. When Hinsley became president of its board of directors — there was no paid staff back then — he first worked on ways to build a long-term plan for booking and marketing the previously irregular guest performances.
By 1998, the community had responded. More people attended concerts. More people joined the group as members.
Today, the group offers several series of concerts each season. The International Series, for instance, showcases top talents from seven countries this season. The world’s best-known classical guitar virtuosos —such as John Williams, Pepe Romero and Eliot Fisk — have played this series.
The group’s Summer Chamber Music was added in 2006. The Classical Cactus Series is showcased once a month at the crowded Cactus Café on the UT campus, and the Up Close Series of concerts started inside historic houses but has expanded to other venues.
“The people love the mix of design, social time and music,” Hinsley says. “In this kind of format, it is not the name on top of the marquee that matters. It becomes a social event with music as part of the glue, just one aspect.”
The service part
The group won its first cultural contract from the city in 1998 with a plan to bring in competition-winning young guitar players for free concerts all over the city.
It turned out that Hinsley, the nonprofit he led and the instrument itself — remember those superpowers — were perfectly matched to the kind of arts social service that people who fund programs prize.
For instance, at the behest of a volunteer, Lona Burwell, the group added a guitar ensemble program for adult amateurs, a program still thriving 20 years after its inception. When Burwell died, Hinsley spoke at the funeral, saying that her suggestion ultimately opened new vistas for what music can mean in a community.
“It was about shedding armor,” Hinsley says, “shedding a preconceived notion that music is something that has to be onstage with bright lights on it. One of the magical things about the arts in general and music in particular, people can find places to be within it on so many different levels, from listener to participant, from casual to expert. The truth is any involvement in music is good involvement in music.”
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Traditionally, classical guitar had been taught one-on-one or with very small groups of students. Austin Classical Guitar found a way to expand the number of students involved in the learning process at any given time.
After the success of the adult amateur program, Hinsley and his team worked with teachers at McCallum High School, where Austin Classical Guitar was giving free lessons to low-income students — an initiative begun by guitar performer and teacher Klondike Steadman. After several years, Hinsley and his team realized that they needed to develop a new approach to teaching guitar in a sequential manner in classrooms. They took what they learned in these larger classroom settings to Lamar Middle School. By 2004, six graduates from McCallum had gone on to attend music schools.
As they developed this breakthrough program, they worked closely with Bob Duke, known for his role on the “Two Guys on Your Head” show on public radio and as founder of the Center for Music Learning at UT.
Oddly, the dot-com bust helped.
“There was great pressure on the school district to have high enrollment in audited services,” Hinsley says, “and low-income students at Title 1 schools were not engaged in fine arts, in part because of costs.”
Again, remember those guitar superpowers.
By 2007, Austin Classical Guitar had expanded its educational program to seven Austin school district campuses. The media and academia began to notice. In 2009, the UT School of Social Work ran a study about this larger-scale guitar education in high schools. Interaction with social workers led to an introduction to Estela Medina, the chief probation officer at Gardner Betts.
“Classical guitar in a detention facility is not a pairing most people would come up with,” Hinsley says. “We didn't know what to expect. The staff at Gardner Betts didn't know what to expect, either. Yet the program exceeded expectations almost immediately. We were having more fun with students who were more engaged and were developing more quickly than we could have hoped for.”
Across town, Austin Classical Guitar had been giving free concerts at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired since 2000. In 2010, Hinsley toured the school’s new auditorium and met with some of the students in a classroom setting.
“A girl put up a hand and said, ‘I want to learn guitar,’” Hinsley recalls. “A boy next to her said, ‘I want to learn guitar.’ I said, ‘You need a guitar program here.’”
Jeremy Coleman, a Marine veteran with degrees in music therapy and music education, helped Austin Classical Guitar map out a program for the school. Yet soon they discovered a literacy barrier.
“We realized that world didn’t have music for Braille readers to become lifetime learners on guitar,” Hinsley says. “So we undertook a new project, ‘Let’s Play Guitar,’ to create a large library of Braille scores combined with audio guides, Braille literacy and guitar lessons."
“Let’s Play Guitar” launched online in July 2018. People in 25 countries had accessed it by end of the month.
“An adult learner in South Africa wrote to say thank you, he had been looking for years for someone who could teach a blind person play guitar,” Hinsley says. “He learned about it on Twitter. He played for us on Skype in early August 2018.”
Austin Classical Guitar is not the only local arts group to have created a national model for arts social service. Forklift Danceworks stages large singular community-activated performances, most recently at Givens Pool in East Austin. Creative Action is an arts-based youth development group that emphasizes social and emotional learning.
Yet to use the usually modest classical guitar as a means to change the world is quite another accomplishment.
“Music is sometimes thought of as an ornament or as something nice to have,” Hinsley says. “For me personally, I believe what social workers do is pivotal for our society. So to have them view what we do with music as being especially practical and effective is very meaningful.”
Austin Classical Guitar
5900 Balcones Drive, No. 240