Music is Universal and So is Learning

Sacramento Region, CA  |  Story by Jacqueline Fox
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For more information about upcoming concerts, to donate used guitars or details on workshops: Photo by Sacramento Preparatory Musical Academy

Sacramento County, CA (MPG) - Can teaching someone how to play the guitar deliver on the promise of overcoming socio-economic challenges?

Absolutely, says Lili Williams, president of Sacramento Guitar Society (SGS), which has, somewhat under the radar, been promoting and celebrating the art of the guitar for decades through its community classes, workshops, youth scholarships, public performances, and even onsite classes for prison inmates.

Originally founded in 1961 as a small group for guitar enthusiasts in the Bay Area, SGS has evolved into a full-fledged nonprofit dedicated to providing free and low-cost classical guitar workshops and performance opportunities to youth and adults from across a broad spectrum of cultural and economic backgrounds.

Guitar classes and performance opportunities are available to players of varying ages, abilities and backgrounds, Williams said, however, the focus of SGS’ community classes is moving more exclusively in the direction helping underserved youth and students in schools where funding for the arts is lacking.

“A lot of kids in the community have never been exposed to the art of classical guitar, or say a flamenco guitar performance,” said Williams, a former Intel engineer who came out of retirement to raise funds for SGS before becoming its president.  “Our purpose is to give youth of all abilities an outlet through classes and performance opportunities on the guitar, and we are deeply focused today on at risk and disadvantaged kids.”

Through its educational outreach programs in schools, community spaces and, most recently, two newly secured partnerships with the Carmichael and Rancho Cordova parks and recreation programs, SGS is working to expand its reach deep into the communities where access to musical education and instruction are needed most. 

Previously, SGS raised funds for outside organizations with similar missions, primarily the Sacramento Preparatory Musical Academy, which served to extend the SGS mission through its own workshops and performances.  Now, SGS, which currently runs on a $48,000 operating budget, is shifting its funding toward its own programs, primarily the new parks and recreation partnerships, as well as plans for extending services to targeted youth living in foster homes across Sacramento County.

“For the last few years we’ve been raising funds through grants for the Sacramento Preparatory Academy’s efforts,” Williams said.  “Now our focus will be on redirecting funds from our grantors and supporters back to our own agency in order to expand our own programs,” Williams said.

SGS students do not need to have any guitar skills.  They are given a safe, professional space in which to learn to play the guitar.  They learn to read chords and notes, finger pick and strum, and how to properly position the guitar in classical styles.

“Music is universal and so is learning,” said Williams.  “But not every kid out there has access to both of those things.  For many disadvantage youth, exposure to something like the history of classical guitar and how to play an instrument seems way out of reach.  So we are here to help change that.”

In addition to classes for youth, the SGS Community Orchestra, comprised of members of all ages, offers community concerts throughout the year, including its upcoming Winter Concert, slated for December 17 at The CLARA (E. Clare Raley Studios for the Performing Arts) in midtown.  Monthly rehearsals for the orchestra are also held at The CLARA and invitations to join are open to players ranging 10 and up, Williams said.

The “The SGS community orchestra is an amazing part of our agency,” said Williams.  “You’ll not only be treated to a concert of ensemble players if you come to one of its performances, you’ll see players from middle school on stage playing side-by-side with adults.  It’s truly a wonderful event and experience.”

SGS also supports music programs in the San Juan Unified School District by holding in-class performances by featured artists, including SGS teachers.  Also, SGS accepts donations of used acoustic guitars, which are restored, tuned-up and given to schools and music academies in need.

“A big part of our program is making sure that music programs in the schools across the districts that do not have the funds to purchase new guitars for their students get guitars,” Williams said.

Other community performances help support SGS programming.  In February, SGS will hold its annual Young Artists Showcase Concert featuring talented young artists from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Division and Yuri Liberzon’s Los Altos Studio.  The 2018 spring concert lineup includes An Evening with Alex De Grassi & Andrew York at the Harris Center in March, and Eleftheria Kotzia from Greece at The Sophia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts in April.

As a nonprofit, SGS relies on membership fees, concert ticket sales and the generosity of its corporate and individual donors.  Over the next decade, Williams said, SGS will be pushing to expand its operating budget to $1 million—a tall order, perhaps, but, says Williams, when you are driven by passion, everything is possible.

“It’s because of my passion for kids who are low-income or struggling in some way that I want to grow this program into one that brings our underserved youth more opportunities to gain exposure to music and learn to play the guitar,” she said.  “We want to reach the ones out there in our communities that don’t have those opportunities and see to it that they get there.”