Guitar Teachers' Congress, Estelí, Nicaragua, 9-12 July 2014

A good way to summarize the first Congreso de Guitarra de Nicaragua is a re-post of an article I did for Matthew Hinsley, director of the Austin Classical Guitar society. The article was published to the GuitarCurriculum.com newsletter, July 28, 2014.

Last summer (2013), Houston high school guitar educator Edward Grigassy attended our national teacher training in Austin with a friend, Professor Ernesto Sol Bonilla, from Managua, Nicaragua.

Following the training, they asked if they might use some materials to help develop a national guitar congress in Nicaragua. We said "yes," of course, and they ran with it! Earlier this month they held a highly successful guitar congress and sent us pictures and videos from the event, along with Spanish translations of many of our Level 1 materials and music scores.

We asked Mr. Grigassy to tell us his story.

GuitarCurriculum.com: You have had a great career as a guitarist and educator in Houston, Texas, how did you get connected to, and passionate about, guitar in Nicaragua?

Edward Grigassy: As a full-time high school guitar teacher and local gigging musician, Houston has been very good to me and I am thankful for all the abundance I experience every day.

I was first introduced to Nicaragua through my mother who is a Quaker and works for Friends' Peace Teams, giving support and anti-violence workshops throughout Central and South America. In 2008, she introduced me to Lillian Hall, a Quaker residing at that time in Managua, managing the Quaker Nicaraguan solidarity group, ProNica.

Lillian invited me to come there and interact with several folkloric instrumentalists and singer/songwriters after hearing about my experiences and interest in the music of Latin America. Especially timely was her invitation to interview and learn from the great singer/songwriter Salvador Cardenal Barquero, who was suffering from a chronic blood disease at that time and whose health was failing. So in July 2008, I traveled to Nicaragua and met and interviewed Salvador. I also immediately had the great fortune to meet many other wonderful Nicaraguan guitarists and musicians, who I now count among my personal friends.

One of the first things I noticed about Nicaragua that made it especially attractive to me is that the guitar is a key component of the country's musical culture. And I mean the Spanish nylon-string guitar that so many of us study and play. This means that if you get out your guitar in any public setting in Nica, people will stop what they are doing and listen. And if you know some of the most popular folk songs, you'll have a sing-along going in no time!

For example, one of the popular "national anthems" is a folkloric piece for instrumental guitar, called "La Mora Limpia." It's purely instrumental (!), usually played only for guitar melody and guitar accompaniment, but it is also performed on mandolin, violin, flute and/or flauta dulce (what we call recorder). There are no lyrics that I've ever heard. It is an intricate and beautiful composition. It starts in a minor key and later goes to a soaring major section. And it is in 3/4 - 6/8 time, which lovers of Latin American music adore so ardently. So the music and the cultural celebration of the guitar keep bringing me back there.

Up-and-coming stars of the guitar and the stage, Yahoska, Valeska and Brisa, three of our youngest attendees!

And due to the privilege of a full-time high school teacher's income and schedule, I have been fortunate enough to visit every summer since 2008, continuing the bonds of friendship I have with the many musicians and non-musicians I have become acquainted with over the years.

GuitarCurriculum.com: What have been the biggest challenges for you to build a program of significance in Nicaragua? What has been most gratifying?

Edward Grigassy: In addition to visiting for my personal enjoyment and education, I realized that I have a heart for teaching the guitar and music. So over the last few years I have helped organize workshops for young students. On other occasions I have volunteered to attempt to start or support fledgling guitar programs in various places in Nicaragua and El Salvador. For more information about specific past workshops, please see my blog.

After working with guitar students at a relatively new, yet very rigorous music school in Estelí, called Escuela de Música "Sones Segovianos" (July, 2013), I decided to do a more thorough investigation of what methods other guitar teachers were using and what their needs were for their various programs. I learned that most teachers did not have specific methodologies in place for large ensembles. In fact, the whole idea of teaching class guitar was not being implemented there. So after numerous meetings it became obvious that a guitar teachers' conference would have immense value to these hardworking educators.

The principal idea was to get as many guitar teachers together as possible in one place, and have them share their ideas about what works, what leads to success and quality in their respective guitar programs. The school "Sones Segovianos" (named after the region of northern Nicaragua, called "Nuevo Segovia," and where much of the traditional folkloric music was composed and disseminated throughout the rest of the country), offered their facilities for this proposed gathering. Soon we had a name, the "Congreso de Guitarra de Nicaragua" and several Nicaraguan teachers stepped up to be organizers and facilitators of the event. Chief among them was Ernesto Sol Bonilla, an accomplished guitarist and dedicated professor of guitarra at the Conservatorio de Música de UPOLI in Managua.

GuitarCurriculum.com: How was GuitarCurriculum.com helpful for you in this year's congress?

Edward Grigassy: Somewhat coincidentally, both Ernesto and I attended the GuitarCurriculum.com teacher training in Austin (2013), and we both saw right away the potential value of using your system in the training of guitar students in Nicaragua. We were especially impressed at the training we received from ensemble directing virtuoso, Dr. Michael Quantz (University of Texas, Brownsville). In after-hour discussions, Dr. Quantz was enthusiastic about collaborating with us on presenting the vehicle of guitar ensemble as a reliable, constantly engaging system for group education.

Since I've been using GuitarCurriculum.com in my high school classroom for years, I knew the potential it has to have students playing together beautifully, and at the same time working carefully on good posture, position, technique, tone and musicality.

So on July 9th, 2014, I was thrilled to be able to introduce the program to a room of 40 teachers and 30 students. In addition I had the honor of getting to manage a first-edition translation of about 40 pages of the GC materials for participants (the first time the materials have been translated into Spanish, I've been told). The teachers were overwhelmingly excited about the GuitarCurriculum.com methodology, not only the thrill of directing groups of students and performing music like an orchestra, but also the gradual focus of the program on good tone, technique and incremental mastery of sight-reading.

Though we presented the basics and the first-day procedures of the GuitarCurriculum.com, my presentation was only an introduction to its many positive aspects. We presented the use of the "Stand-by" position, which is a classroom and rehearsal management tool many of us could never live without (we used the term "stand-by" since they had heard it used for electronic devices and computers, but other teachers could translate it as "posición de espera" if they chose to).

Though I was not able to work with every teacher on GuitarCurriculum.com every day, I think the participating teachers were especially impressed to see an ensemble of complete beginners and non-music readers performing three of the pieces on our final concert. For the four days of the Congreso, Dr. Quantz rehearsed and conducted the advanced participants (who performed two lovely arrangements of Nicaraguan folkloric songs arranged for 4 parts), and I worked with the intermediate players and the beginners. On the final concert the GuitarCurriculum.com standards "Canción del espía," "Magia Azul," and "Viajando a Neptuno" were performed beautifully and in a professional manner by the beginning/intermediate ensemble (I'll let you figure out the English titles of those pieces)! The performance intrigued many teachers who later asked for more information and training regarding GutiarCurriculum.com. Fortunately we had the first-edition Spanish translation to get them started.

GuitarCurriculum.com: How can people learn more about your work? How can they assist you?

Edward Grigassy: Of course I will invite anyone with interest in this or other events related to guitar education in Latin America to please contact me and ask questions or offer their collaboration ideas.

Due to the overwhelmingly positive response to the first Guitar Teachers' Congress of Nicaragua, we are already planning another similar event, either in July 2015 or July 2016, and we are looking now for sponsors, funding and even just names and contact information of grant organizations that might help make this type of event happen.

For the 2014 Congress we were fortunate to have the cooperation of a private charity foundation called the Barr Foundation of Oklahoma, which in turn was a partner organization of Superemos, the Nicaraguan NGO that sponsors the "Sones Segovianos" music school on an ongoing basis. Any donations sent directly to the Barr Foundation of Oklahoma that are marked for the Guitar Congress of Nicaragua project will go 100% to the expenses of the Congress. We were so fortunate to find such a generous sponsoring organization that charges no overhead on projects devoted to improving the lives and education of the youth in Nicaragua.

For links on how to donate, please check the Congreso Facebook page.

GuitarCurriculum.com: What advice would you give to someone looking to make a difference in another, similar community or country?

Edward Grigassy: Try to find a music school, an art center, or even a community center in the community that you know could use more guitar education. Go there, meet with the managers, founders, and/or sponsors of that school or community center. Make sure they are reliable with the resources and materials that are given to them (do they maintain their computers, vehicles, and other materials, etc.?)

If they have interest in starting a guitar education program, you need to look at whether the organization has adequate space for a guitar classroom and whether they can keep their instruments safe, clean, and well-maintained. Also make sure they have success with their own fundraising so that what you build there will last.

Then raise money or find a donor to provide instruments for the organization. Basically you need a class set of guitars, plus the chairs, footstools and blackboard or whiteboard necessary for teaching. A set of music stands is also extremely useful. Once the guitar classroom is ready, you can start the whole program off with a month-long workshop using the GuitarCurriculum.com system and repertoire. Then see about raising funds for a long-term teacher, ideally also able to continue the GuitarCurriculum.com program!

If you would like to see more events like Guitar Teachers' Conferences in other places, or even in your own community, I would recommend meeting with as many guitar teachers as will talk to you. Get their basic statistics, how many students, sizes of classes, ages of students, weekly schedules, etc. Ask them what their needs are. Get to know each teacher, then propose the idea of a conference for all teachers in the country or region. If there is a good response to your idea, see if you can find volunteers to do the on-the-ground organizing (which really means a lot of phone calls and emails for as much as a year in advance!).

Don't expect to make this a conference where you, or people you know personally, are going to tell the attendees how to teach. Let go of the idea that you know best. Encourage the attendees to figure it out for themselves and share their own ideas and experiences regarding what works and what doesn't work in their respective programs. You may introduce a subject during the conference, but your primary role should be as facilitator, allowing the teachers attending to network and discover new ideas and approaches from each other.

One unexpected delight we discovered in the 2014 Congreso was the inclusion of guitar students as well as teachers. Since the very first invitations were sent out, teachers were asking us about bringing their students. And the students themselves were showing a lot of enthusiasm toward attending an event dedicated to learning about the guitar. So, of course we said, "yes, bring your best students," and that was a phenomenally good decision. The students participated in most of the teaching training (which they themselves will use some day in their own studios), and they brought their enthusiasm and excitement to play and to ask extremely relevant questions. Their involvement was deeply inspiring to the teachers as well.

This being said, I would encourage all guitar society or festival organizers to try to include students in every event they organize. In fact, I would encourage all guitar festivals to be re-designed to put guitar education, and especially education of youth, as the primary focus. When you educate the educators, and the future educators, you are really spreading the seeds of sustainability of guitar education into the community and out into the world that will continue to be passed on for years beyond the event itself.

GuitarCurriculum.com: Is there any thing else you'd like to add?

Edward Grigassy: If anyone would like to contact me about this or other guitar education related topics or events please email me at guitar@texas.net.

I would also like to deeply thank the staff and leadership at ACG and GuitarCurriculum.com who gave us hours of free consulting time in addition to permission to present their methods and techniques. You guys have shown the world that using arts education to serve the community, instead of serving a single individual or small group, creates such a field of goodness and cooperation that continuously expands to touch many more people than a single teacher or artist could ever do alone.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story and I hope we can all continue serving our respective communities with guitar education for years to come!