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An Interview with The Honorable Darlene Byrne is used by teachers in classrooms around the world, including at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center in Central Texas where Austin Classical Guitar (ACG) offers daily guitar ensemble classes for youth who are incarcerated. Many of the students in this program have at one time or another found themselves in the courtroom of The Honorable Darlene Byrne. Having spent over 15 years working with youth involved in the Juvenile Justice and Foster Care Systems, Judge Byrne offers a unique and insightful perspective on the work makes possible with these talented young people who happen to have troubled pasts.

What was your initial thought about a classical guitar program at Gardner Betts?

That it’s unique, innovative, and a win-win for the students and the facility. It’s not a program I would have ever imagined thriving in a detention center, but it’s become a wonderful enrichment experience that allows these young men to define themselves other than as someone who has broken the law. Learning music can reveal the unique, and often hidden, talents these kids have. It’s more than music. It’s mentorship, and the relationship the instructor has with the students.

"Austin Classical Guitar uses a beautiful art form to crack through the hard exterior of some of our community’s toughest young people and inspire in them a sense of beauty, passion, and self-respect."

What kind of impact do you think the guitar program has on the students at Gardner Betts?

As a judge, I routinely see young people in my courtroom who suffer from the effects of abuse, neglect, poverty, mental illness, and addiction. These youth often develop a hard exterior and are not easily reached by individuals in the community who want to engage them in a positive activity. Austin Classical Guitar uses a beautiful art form to crack through the hard exterior of some of our community's toughest young people and inspire in them a sense of beauty, passion, and self-respect. For some students this may be the first opportunity they’ve had to express themselves and their emotions. Most of the young people at Gardner Betts are one, two, or three years behind in their education, and this becomes something they are self-conscious about. Because of this, many learn not to like school, and feel embarrassed if they don’t know something. But the great thing about the guitar program is that all the students are starting from the same place. They’re learning the language of music together. Regrettably, I think many of these students have been taught to view messing up as a failure. ACG takes those messy moments, like when a student might be having trouble with a passage of music, and turns them into moments of enlightenment, discovery, and learning.

Do you have a favorite memory of the guitar students at Gardner Betts?

One of the most beautiful experiences I have had with the program was seeing one of the young men perform a solo in front of a live audience while at the same time displaying a paper and tape, life size, three-dimensional rendering of a guitar he had built. It is a remarkable piece of art and an expression of what this program can inspire within some of these young folks. This young man took it upon himself to create this piece of art for his instructors while his classes were on pause for the summer. It was a testament to how much passion the program had inspired in his heart.


New School Year Thoughts from Dr. Kevin Vigil

Dear Guitar Education Colleagues,

We asked one of our favorite guitar education leaders, Dr. Kevin Vigil from Loudoun County, Virginia, to share some thoughts about how he prepares for a new school year. Wow, are we glad we did! These are awesome, and we hope you find them helpful too. More on Kevin and his program is online here.

Greetings Guitar Gurus,

Some of you may have already begun the new school year while others will soon be in the classroom. Some of you are experienced teachers while some are starting their adventures in guitar teaching for the first time. No matter what your circumstance, welcome to the 2017 – 2018 school year!

I have been invited to share some thoughts and tips as we all begin this year, so here we go…

1) Learn your students’ names! Make it a point to learn every student’s first name during the first week of school, their last name by the end of the second week and the parents’ names by the third week of school. Calling students by their names is a sign that you care enough about each student to get to know them better. Get to know the parents and make it known that you are available to them. Many of them will be your strongest supporters.

2) There is a difference between ten years of experience and one year of experience ten times. We have probably all had a teacher sometime in our education that used the same syllabus and simply changed dates and presented the same exact lecture multiple times. I encourage you not to be that teacher. Instead, reflect on last year’s experience; what would you do differently? If you are a new teacher, journal everything and go back and review that journal as you prepare for the following year.

3) Backward Design: Yes, No or Maybe? Backward Design is a method of setting goals before making lesson plans and creating assessments. This is a standard model in education. Goals are certainly important, so ask yourself: What abilities should your students have acquired by the end of the year? How will you sequence instruction? On the other hand, be alert to your students’ needs. Not all students learn at the same pace. There may be times when forward design works better to improve mastery of a particular skill or concept. Remember, your students are not just numbers, they are kids. Be willing to alter your goals if you feel that it is in the best interest of your students.

4) Second chances. At the beginning of the year, you will likely have returning students in your program. Some may have been problematic last year and you may even have some negative feelings about a particular student. Take a cleansing breath and think back to your Human, Growth and Development classes or your own childhood. One year or even a summer can make a huge difference in a child’s life. Ask yourself: If the student was problematic in your class last year, why did they sign up to study with you again? You probably made more of an impact in that child’s life than you thought. You are the adult capable of compassion and forgiveness. We don’t always know what happens at home and the behaviors that were exhibited previously probably had very little to do with you. In fact, if they are returning, feel confident that they know you have much to offer.

5) Create opportunities for your students so that this year is uniquely special. Opportunities come in all shapes and sizes. You can set the stage for meaningful opportunities throughout the year. Give your students the opportunity to be in self-directed ensembles, lead a sectional, demonstrate what they do in their free time or participate in an open mic setting. If a student has a creative idea, pursue it with them. Other opportunities include community involvement in the form of performances at libraries, other schools, senior living facilities, or even guitar festivals. Bring in a special guest or take your students to a concert. Be creative, but most of all, make this year somehow different from last year so that it is uniquely special and memorable.

6) Stay active and nurture your passion. I assume that you learned and fell in love with the guitar at some point in time. Stay connected with those feelings and continue to practice your craft. Students are quite perceptive; they know if their teacher is fully engaged with them or simply going through the motions. When you demonstrate your passion for playing and teaching, your students will benefit more than you will ever know. You may enjoy watching this video of some teachers in Loudoun and Fairfax Counties in Virginia staying active and collaborating together to the benefit of their students.

I hope this is good food for thought and that you have an incredible and special year with your students.



2016 Education Progress Report

Online here.

See Pepe Romero play Vivaldi with 80 kids (October 2016)!

See Video is a project of Austin Classical Guitar, a nonprofit service organization based in Austin, Texas.  

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