Guide to Giving 2021: Tucson Nonprofit Lead Guitar Teaches Students in Harmony Business

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ohA Musician’s Efforts to Support a Student Group is now a national nonprofit that teaches guitar in underserved schools from coast to coast. The Tucson-based nonprofit Lead Guitar promotes discipline and a love of the art through ensemble guitar lessons, in partnership with dozens of schools in six states.

Lead Guitar was founded in 2007, but the story begins in 1999 when executive director Brad Richter worked as a touring musician. In his work, Richter occasionally visited local schools on tour to give a concert or lead a workshop. On a trip, he visited Page High School in northern Arizona and met five Navajo students who were playing guitar. Their music impressed Richter, but he saw how their craft could improve with more support and resources.

“They couldn’t read music and their technique wasn’t that good, but they were fabulous players and their instincts were great,” said Richter.

The founding of Lead Guitar began when Richter began to write a music program to teach these students and guide the teacher. Over the next 20 years, Lead Guitar affiliated with the University of Arizona and worked with approximately 35,000 students in over 80 schools.

The association’s teaching artists, often professional musicians, work with school teachers to develop ensemble guitar lessons. Students learn to read music, appropriate guitar technique, and a variety of acoustic songs.

In particular, Lead Guitar works with disadvantaged students. Richter says they are looking to help schools where more than 80% of students are entitled to a free and discounted lunch, and lack other artistic resources.

“It’s a very high poverty level, but it’s shocking how many schools in Arizona qualify,” Richter said. “We simultaneously teach the teacher while teaching the class, with the idea that after two or three years, the teacher can take over.

Richter saw first-hand how the “social and emotional learning” of music training can improve the behavior of a discouraged or troubled student. Often their difficulties stem from the fact that they live in impoverished and resource-poor areas. He says 81% of the students Lead Guitar works with qualify for a free and reduced lunch, and 87% are students of color.

“The way that the lack of resources in schools is linked to poverty, and the way that poverty is linked to race, is very upsetting,” said Richter. “In a way, this is something that we run up against, because we work with schools that have a disproportionate number of traumatized children. We might have adults who say we shouldn’t push kids too hard or let them do whatever they want in guitar lessons, but our point is that they crave structure, guidance and input. . If we can instill discipline and focus, and do it with love and patience, that is of great value. “

One of Richter’s favorite stories from Lead Guitar is that of college kid Christian Gomez from Colorado. Gomez had multiple behavioral issues and struggled in English and Spanish. He also had difficulty hearing and needed hearing aids. When Lead Guitar started working with the school, Gomez grew rapidly.

“He just took off and has become one of our most exceptional players. He could do anything on the guitar and people gathered around him at school. He was the star of every gig we had, ”Richter said. “And now he’s a professional musician doing concerts as a singer and guitarist.”

Richter even saw a college student play guitar in a touring heavy metal band. However, he can still see the academic influence in the student’s play.

Over the years, Lead Guitar has moved away from the “classical” guitar label and instead focuses on the “guitar ensemble”. They still teach many classical skills, including music reading and ergonomic techniques, but have expanded to include more folk and blues songs.

“We looked for more composers who reflected our students and their heritage,” said Richter.

As with many nonprofits, Lead Guitar is in need of support for its operations the most. Their donors include the City of Tucson, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and many others.

“We see all of these disparities, and it starts with the haves and have-nots,” Richter said. “One of the things we are seeing is that the need is so great, especially after the pandemic, and the gap between people in the community has widened. It’s really helpful to be able to apply these resources to the schools that need them the most.

Locally, Lead Guitar works with students in the Tucson Unified School District, Amphitheater Public Schools, Sunnyside Unified School District, as well as private and charter schools.

For more information visit leadguitar.org


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