by Sherida Mock
Nineteen years ago, Matt Hinsley was new to Austin and looking to build a community by and for classical guitarists. He had no idea that nearly two decades later, he would sit at the helm of an organization known throughout the classical guitar world as a shining example of music education and community service.
Meet the people behind Austin Classical Guitar: Matt Hinsley, Travis Marcum and Jeremy Osborne. These dedicated professionals have grown a small outreach initiative into a major force for good, both in Austin and well beyond its city limits.
AF: How did your outreach program begin?
Hinsley: We started in McCallum High School in 2001. We had one guitar class of about 15 kids. Almost immediately, we started having conversations about the larger curriculum. What is the proper sequence for teaching guitar? How do we engage multiple kids at the same time?
Travis and I worked together on GuitarCurriculum.com, which is a system for teaching guitar in the classroom. We launched that online in October 2008. By 2009, Austin ISD started to see that guitar is a powerful tool to engage more and different and new kids in fine arts.
AF: Where is the program now?
Marcum: We are at 51 programs, and we see about 3,500 students every day. That’s from a partnership with AISD, private schools and charter schools in Central Texas. We have a core education team that goes out to schools from elementary through high school.
We’re providing assistance statewide with [the Texas Education Agency’s guitar curriculum]. There are national groups that want to replicate what we’ve done here in Austin, and we’re going to provide as much help as we can.
Hinsley: We started ACG Youth Orchestra three years ago. It’s an auditioned classical guitar orchestra for kids under age 19. That was in response to parents with kids who weren’t in the school programs we have in place.
Travis is doing the Lullaby Project at the Annunciation Maternity Home in Georgetown. We meet young mothers in challenging economic and social circumstances and work with them to write lullabies for their babies.
We have a program at the Texas School for the Blind and the Visually Impaired. There’s a Braille adaptation of our curriculum for the kids there, so they have an opportunity for life-long learning as literate music readers.
We recently held a concert and sight-reading event. It’s important not just for the kids, but for the teachers, and it speaks to standards setting at the district or state level. We’re happy to say that next year is an official pilot for UIL.
AF: Tell us about your role in Austin Classical Guitar.
Hinsley: My role is changing all the time. Every day, the challenges are different. The services we provide have impact in many directions. Individuals who make what we do possible find great satisfaction and artistic connection and civic connection to the work that they know they’re making possible. Part of my job is to make that clear.
Osborne: I’ve been the boots on the ground for a while. During all this growth, there was a period of time when I was doing a 70- to 80-mile loop around Austin every day. I was either team teaching or teaching the class or doing an after-school rehearsal.
Marcum: A big part of my job is hyper-analyzing the learning environment, understanding from the student’s standpoint and from the teacher’s standpoint. Right now, I’m finishing up a Ph.D. in music education, so I’m fascinated with the craft of teaching and the effect that has on a student. I’m out in the schools, helping teachers understand that connection they can make with every student.
AF: What are your goals for the program?
Marcum: Our overall goal all the time is quality and providing something meaningful for the student. It’s a profound, transformative moment with any student, when you realize that you’ve done something really well. We’re really looking to provide that moment, anywhere we can. That’s growth to us.
Hinsley: We can meet people where they are and resonate in their individual lives. We can say, “This is your music.”
AF: What have you seen in individual students’ growth?
Osborne: I could sum that up with some of the Gardner Betts [Juvenile Justice Center] kids I’ve been working with. You provide a window of 45 minutes to an hour where they can completely forget what their situation is and be completely engaged in something they’re very proud of. That’s a huge change in some of these kids.
We’ve had kids that stay in school because of the guitar class. They come because they enjoy the community of the class. They love getting together and playing music, and I still hear from kids that I had four years ago. We’re striking gold for some of the kids that we’re reaching. It’s been extraordinarily rewarding.
AF: What does it mean to be in Austin?
Hinsley: We love Austin. There aren’t too many arts organizations that take the trajectory that we’ve taken. We’ve grown organically, and it’s a tribute to this community. Classical guitar is a tiny piece of classical music, which is a tiny piece of the arts and entertainment and cultural world. In that sense, it would be easy to dismiss Austin Classical Guitar as something insignificant.
But our focus is every individual in our community. When you look at it that way, the opportunity for service is limitless. If we tried to teach every instrument in the world, it would be a very hard thing to do. Our focus has been our ally.
Osborne: Austin is a city that values the arts. People here value innovation. Our educational approach is a new thing, and we’re the shining star of what we do in the schools.
Marcum: I feel tremendous support and respect from the Austin community. I don’t have to explain why we put so much attention into young people and schools. That conversation may take longer in other places, but here, from parents, teachers, school administration, from our board and from our concert-goers, there’s unambiguous support of everything we’re doing.
AF: How did you come to play classical guitar?
Hinsley: I started playing violin when I was 4 years old, and I was pretty active in a string quartet. One day I asked my teacher what was his favorite instrument, out of all the instruments he taught. And he said, classical guitar. And I said, “I want to do that.”
Osborne: I went to college to study music production, and you had to list an instrument. Since I already played electric guitar, I listed classical guitar. Then I went to a classical guitar festival at Columbus State University in Georgia. I was blown away. I came back and began practicing four to six hours a day. I ended up going on to grad school for it.
Marcum: Mine’s a pretty typical story, I think. I was self-taught, starting at age 12, playing acoustic and electric guitar. There’s that moment when you hear a classical guitarist for the first time, and you realize that everything you’ve done prior to that is so limited. You can make so much music as one person. The love of it has just grown throughout the years, and turned into a love of teaching.