Shuffle: Teaching Classical Guitar in Inner-City Cleveland

May 10, 2018

A non-profit arts organization is turning inner-city Cleveland kids into classical guitarists. It's a growing outreach program started by the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society, that began working in the schools about six years ago. This past spring, they got a Cleveland Foundation grant to expand to an after-school program in the Clark Fulton neighborhood. 

'My vision is a world in which classical music is not defined by race or economic status.'

Learning the basics
The kids meet each week at the City Life Center, where they pick up a guitar from a storage area and grab some sheet music. Classical Guitar Society Director Erik Mann says that for many of these kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever held a guitar -- or any instrument.  

"One-on-one lessons are expensive. Their schools don’t have any opportunities to teach them any instruments. It’s even unsafe or expensive for them to travel somewhere to take lessons."

Mann, who teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music in addition to running the guitar society, took up guitar when he was 14. He says it changed his life.

"By being able to play music and play it at a fairly high level, I earned respect from my peers and I got to engage in music-making with them when I didn’t know how to really interact socially."

During the lessons, the kids start with the basics. They learn rhythm by gently tapping the guitar like raindrops. Then, they start counting together while they pluck notes with their fingers. By the end of the hour-long session, they've put together a song. 

Their instructor, Cleveland-area composer and teacher Rob Thorndike, says it’s rewarding.

"It’s like the look on their face. You just know they’re enjoying it. Even if they’re not talking about how much they like it, there’s no denying their body language when they’re getting something out of it."

Damian Goggans was named to the Cleveland Institute of Music's new Minority Fellowship program this past year.
Credit CLEVELAND CLASSICAL GUITAR SOCIETY

A 14-year-old prodigy
While the kids in Thorndike’s class are learning the basics, 14-year-old Damian Goggans is already performing all over Cleveland. Goggans picked up a guitar just a year and a half ago, during one of the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society’s classes at his middle school on the city’s east side.

"After I went home that day, instead of being a normal child and going and getting candy or whatever, I stayed up until 4 o’clock the next morning playing guitar and figuring out new songs."

In the last year, he’s performed at the Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall and with renowned guitar duo, Les Frères Méduses. And he’s writing his own songs.

CIM's first minority fellow
Goggans was selected as a minority fellow at the Cleveland Institute of Music this year, where he gets one-on-one-instruction and performs in ensembles. He’s also transferred to the Cleveland School of the Arts, where he’s a freshman. And, twice a week, he goes back to his old middle school to teach lessons.

As for the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society, Erik Mann says he hopes to continue developing young talent like Goggans'.

"My vision is a world in which classical music is not defined by race or economic status. Until that’s the case, we always have work to do."

Mann says they were able to give 28 kids one-on-one lessons this spring, nearly triple what they offered last year.