Texas Ex Takes Classical Guitar into Austin Classrooms

It may seem surprising that in Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World, classical guitar instruction in school classrooms didn’t even exist about a decade ago. But that’s changing.

Today Matt Hinsley, MM ’98, DMA ’03, is leading a growing effort to take the string instrument into the classroom. And Austin schools are clamoring for more.

Hinsley was named executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar Society in 2003. Until then, the nonprofit organization operated as a small but growing guitar club, and had a nascent education program with about 50 students at McCallum High School supported by volunteer music graduate students from UT. Hinsley, a music educator, saw potential in the program and was ready to take it further.

“Reading, writing, and making music on classical guitar cultivates students’ discipline and focus,” says Hinsley. “It develops their interest in doing something at a high level, and in doing so you are developing their interest in themselves and their abilities.”

But as the classical guitar society grew its education program in the 2003-04 school year to include about 100 kids from two high schools, Hinsley recognized a challenge: scalability. The guitar, he says, is the “ubiquitous pop instrument of the world,” with almost every kid at some point wanting to play one. So it was not difficult to get students who normally would not show interest in classical music excited about learning it on the guitar. Yet society staffers were finding limited materials available to help them teach classical guitar from the podium in an ensemble format.

“If you walk into a choir, orchestra, or band class, you see large numbers of young people playing together and making beautiful music with different members of the ensemble playing different things,” says Hinsley. “In 2004, we didn’t have an analogous system for teaching classical guitar well.”

So that year, Hinsley led the society in a four-year effort to develop a curriculum. The goal: to provide students with high-quality music experiences, including studying music theory, reading music, establishing a technical foundation, rehearsing, and performing. They also wanted to create assignments and materials that teachers could use to teach kids to play together beautifully, no matter their skill level.

After completing the curriculum, Hinsley says things took off.

“By 2008, we were teaching close to 500 students in eight schools in the Austin Independent School District,” says Hinsley. “And, we were in a position to help other people learn how to teach and train other teachers.”

The largest leap came in the 2011/2012 school year, when AISD asked the the guitar society to add programs in 11 schools. Now the society’s three full-time educators (including two UT-Austin grads) teach—and train others to teach—more than 1,500 students in 22 schools in the AISD, at almost no cost to the district. Funds are provided by donations from individuals, foundations, and city, state, and federal government sources. The organization also provides free instruments and lessons to low-income students in the classes to ensure all have an opportunity to participate.

Hinsley points to several examples of the program’s success: McCallum High School earned first place awards six different years at the national guitar ensemble competition at UT-Brownsville. In the middle school division of the competition, three different AISD ensemble groups have earned first place a total of five times.

Hinsley also sees evidence of success at an individual level. About 20 graduates have gone on to earn scholarships and study guitar in college or begin related careers.

“One freshman who couldn’t afford a guitar or lessons became a recipient of our free guitar program for four years, graduated high school, auditioned as a guitar player for the Army band, and got in,” says Hinsley. “He’s now connected with something he wouldn’t otherwise have had an opportunity to connect with, and in that thing found a love that he didn’t know he had, became an expert at it, and turned it into something that not only kept him more engaged in school, but also became his career path.”

In 2009 and 2011, respectively, the classical guitar society took guitar instruction to the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, both in Austin. Hinsley says these programs have succeeded as well, providing “significant engagement for kids that you wouldn’t necessarily expect would be interested in studying classical music, but perhaps need positive engagement in a scholastic setting as much or more than anyone.”

What’s next for the education program? Continuing to scale.

“Schools are seeing our programs doubling, tripling, quadrupling, and even quintupling in size after one year,” says Hinsley. “Kids are excited about studying this instrument, and that means that our future opportunities to serve are really staggering.”

Matt Hinsley. Photo courtesy Jennifer Judkins.


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