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Guitars for Change Program improving Annapolis teens' lives, one chord at a time Around Annapolis

Capital - 3/15/2020

Fluorescent lights are shining on top of several chairs that are stacked against a wall, while others, occupied by seven students, form a semicircle.

Each student is holding a guitar, looking back and forth between the strings of the instrument they're still learning how to play and the music sheet resting on the stand in front of them.

Directing them is guitarist and music teacher Gabriel Rodríguez, and accompanying them is Meng Su, a world-renowned classical guitarist and Baltimore Classical Guitar Society artist-in-residence. As soon as they're done practicing the song, they rest their arms and smirk at the joy of realizing they have just completed an entire melody together as a group.

The students convene once a week as part of the Guitars for Change program, a joint effort launched in fall 2018 between BCGS and the Center of Help for immigrant children with adverse experiences. The after-school program identifies at-youth risk and provides them with free guitars to keep them engaged in healthy activities and away from the streets.

The idea was born after Tatiana Klein, Center of Help's secretary of the board, and Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, president and CEO of BCGS, reconnected at a reception after a concert. They both shared information about their educational programs, and, after a conversation, a collaboration between both programs was a no-brainer.

"The BCGS had been looking to expand the educational arm of the society and when Tatiana mentioned Center of Help's Maria de la Paz program, I thought it would be the perfect fit," Sigurdardottir said. "The guitar lessons teach children discipline, patience and how to pay attention to the conductor so that they can come into play in a group setting when it's their turn. If you think about it, these also apply as important life lessons."

Guitars for Change started as a pilot program in Annapolis after the revival and an uptick in MS-13 gang activity. Immigrant children were especially considered at-risk for induction into a gang because there are fewer after-school programs in which they can take part and because most are often on their own after school.

Originally, approximately 25 students were invited to partake in the program, of which 19 stayed for a period of time to take free guitar lessons.

Rodríguez, who recently moved from Puerto Rico following a successful career as a guitarist, is the third teacher to join the program. "It's important to keep children busy with healthy activities. These guitar lessons also teach them courtesy lessons in life - discipline, respect, trust."

Currently, there are 11 students total - four are beginners, and seven already played at their first ensemble on March 8 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. There, they shared the stage with other world-renowned classical guitar players, among them Manuel Barrueco and, once again, Meng Su.

"The students have such a wonderful energy, they're so original in their reaction to the music. They're enthusiastic and passionate, and that is precious. Music can be an oasis of life and soothe your mind and your world," Su said.

The program has proven to be successful because of the changes seen in students, Klein said. Klein believes in the power of music and brain development, saying the program's students are academically-focused and have demonstrated their commitment to continue to succeed at school.

"A lot of the students would be alone at home and bored because there aren't those many after-school programs available to them," she said.

Two of the biggest needs of the program are transportation and finding committed donors who believe and support Guitar for Change's mission to engage children in after-school programs. "Consistency is key, both for the children and the program," Klein added.

At the end of rehearsal, the students put their guitars down and stretch their legs. In the meantime, Su shares a couple of techniques with them on how to make the instrument sound louder by simply applying a little more force into the strings.

Right before I leave, she offers a free mini-concert to express her gratitude to the students for sharing this space with her. Shortly, she's strumming the guitar to the sound of Joaquín Rodrigo's guitar classic "Concierto de Aranjuez" remixed with the old Nokia phone tune. Of course, this is then followed by expressions of admiration and a round of applause.

Caption: Classical guitar player Meng Su shares advice with the Guitars for Change students about playing in front of an audience.

Ariana Perez/Capital Gazette