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The St. Louis Classical Guitar Society

Changing young students through the power of music

Students from Adams Elementary School in St. Louis prepare to perform at the offices of Square, located in the Central West End's Cortex innovation district. The young musicians are part of St. Louis Classical Guitar Society's educational outreach. | photo courtesy St. Louis Classical Guitar Society (click for larger version)

January 10, 2018
When Central West End resident Sue Jackson thinks about the good being done by folks in her community, her praise quickly becomes enthusiastic.

"A lot of people talk about making a difference, making a change," said Jackson, who is a member of the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society. "But when you find an organization like this that's actually doing something with boots on the ground going into these schools and turning these kids' lives around, that's amazing."

St. Louis Classical Guitar Society Executive Director Kevin Ginty. |photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)
Even more amazing is how that organization is making those changes using the simple power of music. That's what the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society is all about.

Incorporated since 1980, the group opened extensive educational programs with schools not long after the Ferguson unrest, beginning by offering guitar classes in the suburb's school district. Today, the organization works with as many as 20 educational institutions around the area including inside the city of St. Louis. Traveling teachers partner with music educators at each school to offer regular lessons in a nine-level curriculum.

"The students learn music in three parts and they can play as an ensemble group," said St. Louis Classical Guitar Society Executive Director Kevin Ginty. "Right from day one they are playing music together because the parts are simple enough that they can pick them up really easily."

Ginty, a 25-year-old native of Las Vegas who came to the Gateway City from Florida six months ago, fell in love with classical guitar while attending a performing arts magnet school. The genre, which involves playing a nylon-string version of the instrument without a pick, can cover a wide variety of compositions from Renaissance to Baroque to modern works. Often, the pieces are arranged for a single player.

"It is almost like we took a whole orchestra and put it on one guitar," he said.

Mark Akin, a teacher with the program, said it is vital in these days of tight budgets to help schools offer what they can to further the arts education of area youth. "We hear stories of musical classes getting cut in school and so any extra outlet we can provide to students, I think, is incredibly beneficial," said Akin. He travels to six schools a week to introduce guitar music to fourth through eighth grade students from Normandy to St. Louis city.

"Playing classical guitar is my passion and I love sharing my passion with others, specifically the next generation," he said.

Adams Elementary School students sit in the Kemper Atrium at the Sheldon Concert Hall prior to a performance with the Beijing Guitar Duo in November. |photo courtesy St. Louis Classical Guitar Society (click for larger version)

Reaching Adults, Too

But it isn't just students who are being exposed to the society's work. The non-profit holds four concert events each year at the Ethical Society in Ladue and the gatherings attract substantial talent from far afield. Jorge Caballero will take the stage later this month. Praised by the New York Times for his work, the Peru native became the first guitarist in more than nine decades to win the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Award. The artist will also teach classes at the 560 Music Center in University City the following day.

Paul O'Dette and Ron McFarlane are set to visit in March and Manuel Barrueco will come to perform in April. In addition to the October-April main series, two special events are typically offered at a rotating venue as well.

Ginty said that the instrument is a versatile one and audiences will enjoy the events.

"The classical guitar at its heart and soul is really a solo instrument," Ginty said. "But it can also be used as a chamber instrument with other guitars or other instruments such as flute, violin or voice in small pairings."

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During the summer while the concerts are on hiatus, the organization expands its education programs to include teachers as well as students with professional development efforts aimed at helping educators to convey the intricacies of an instrument that can sometimes be lost in the shuffle among other priorities.

"A problem that we've seen is that music educators are trained to teach band, orchestra and choir but there is a growing demand and interest for guitar," Ginty said. "So the teachers that are getting hired for band or choir and the school might say 'Oh, by the way, do you mind teaching a guitar class?' The teacher may have no experience teaching guitar at all."

Jackson is glad that's changing for both teachers and students. She says the society's programs help boost attendance and academic performance in some of the most underserved districts around the area.

"It's a real feather in our cap," she said of the group. "People talk a lot about our sports teams. They come and they go. They win and they lose, but the guitar society hits a home run every season."

The Caballero performance is set for Jan. 27. To purchase tickets or learn more about the membership, programs and events sponsored by the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society, visit guitarstlouis.net. Interested listeners can also hear "Inside Classical Guitar," a radio show produced by the group on 107.3FM Monday evenings at 7 p.m.

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