It’s More Than Just Music

by Erik Mann, July 14th, 2015

I’m a music fan. A huge music fan. There’s a thrill to playing an instrument or to experiencing a master musician play live that is impossible to put into words. In the classical guitar world, true artists such as the L.A. Guitar Quartet, Edel Muñoz, Jason Vieaux, Ana Vidovic and so many others have sent chills down my spine and added depth to my life.

Yet in spite of the joy that music itself brings I have long felt the need to be a part of something that brings a different sort of meaning. When I was asked to head the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society in 2009 I realized that it could be a tremendous resource for making a bigger impact in the lives of people in the city that I had fallen in love with. Soon an idea presented itself, modeled on a program run by Austin Classical Guitar and now in 50 schools in Austin Texas: classical guitar classes as a vehicle for change. The idea was appealing. I have no doubt that music saved me when I was a teenager, and I know many others who feel the same way.

The board and I decided to see what need there was in Cleveland. We began with Lincoln-West High School, where the music teacher had requested assistance in bringing positive musical experiences to their students. Later the music teacher of Buchtel Community Learning Center in Akron contacted us to begin a program there, followed by the artistic director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, which now houses our classes in several locations. These programs are all based in communities with few resources but a great need for the arts, and CCGS is part of a minority of arts organizations that works in such challenging neighborhoods while providing yearlong, hands-on programming.

In 2014, 8 local foundations commissioned Mitchell Korn Arts to do a study of arts programming in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The resulting document The Right of Every Cleveland Student to a Comprehensive and Authentic Arts Education, verified that what the CCGS had seen on a smaller scale was true citywide: among other findings, it notes that there has been a significant disinvestment in arts education and that the distribution of resources for the arts is very uneven. *

We’ve had lots of successes. Students in our programs have performed at the House of Blues, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cuyahoga Community College, the Rib Cookoff, retirement homes, and as opening acts for performers on our own International Series. But nothing- no statistic and nothing that I can ever put into words- can replace the moment of focus and passion that I have seen on the face of countless kids involved in activities that are challenging and engaging. And then there are the “bad” kids whose behavior completely changes when they get hooked on guitar- they are some of my favorites. Now I’m happy to say that we have opportunities to deepen our involvement at these schools as well as to bring these classes to even more students.

At Lincoln-West High School we have a record 120 students requesting guitar (out of about 50 spots!), including many incoming freshman, and many returning students have requested that we start an advanced guitar class. This community connection within Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood (which houses Lincoln-West) has led to plans to expand to Walton Elementary School, a K-8 school a short distance from Lincoln-West- and eventually to all of the schools in this neighborhood. These classes will become one of the few connections between the neighborhood’s schools, making it more likely that students will stay in school in the transition from 8th grade into high school, while providing adult mentorship for so many kids who don’t have adult role models, and getting them involved in something meaningful. Indeed, we have already started seeing these connections begin to happen.

Yes, I love music. But this is about more than music.


*To learn more, read this short blog post by Deena Epstein, which summarizes this report.