What is Guitars Not Guns? How did it get started?
Guitars Not Guns (GnG) was founded in San Jose California in July 2000 by Ray and Louise Nelson. Ray was a lifelong musician; Louise worked for the California Department of Family Services. When Ray stopped traveling they became foster parents. It was their experience with foster children that lead them to start GnG; they saw the need for more opportunity for these kids. We are an all volunteer organization currently operating in 14 states, the District of Columbia and Canada – www.guitarsnotguns.org.
The National Capital Area (NCA) affiliate opened in Virginia in March 2006 as a memorial to Aaron Brown; an 18 year old North Springfield resident (Eagle Scout and guitar player) who was tragically shot to death February 25, 2006. In 2009 Guitars Not Guns of the National Capital Area (GnG NCA) expanded into DC and the neighboring counties in Maryland – www.gngnca.org.
What is the scope of your organization?
Guitars not Guns and GnG NCA are now equal in size. GnG NCA has 34 class locations and serves over 350 youth annually; we’ve served over 1,000 youth to date:
·53% are African American,
·8% Asian and
·55% boys and 45% girls;
·61% middle school and 39% high school age.
90% of our students are from low income households; the other 10% are at-risk youth who have problems at school or with law enforcement. Our teaching staff includes both adults and high school students who play guitar. We partner with community centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, special education schools, low income housing providers, foster care group homes and other nonprofit and government organizations serving the same demographic to ensure we are effectively addressing the need and to avoid any duplication of effort. We are also community based. Other nonprofits address music education in our schools; we are after those youth who for a variety of reason are not engaged in the opportunities at school.
What is the mission of GNG?
Our mission is to enable youth challenged by adverse circumstances – poverty, dysfunctional families, distressed neighborhoods – to succeed and become productive, caring and responsible members of society. We are a prevention program; we help prevent youth born into poverty from becoming adults living in poverty. We do this by providing them an after-school music and mentoring program in their communities. Our program teaches them about the benefits of a music education and music related career opportunities; and provides them the opportunity to learn how to play guitar. We offer both Beginner and Intermediate class sessions continuously throughout the school year. Learning music and how to play an instrument has both social and academic benefits; it instills discipline, builds confidence and self-esteem and it’s important to one’s cognitive development. Youth involved in quality music programs tend to do better in school; score higher on standardized tests; and be less inclined to engage in risky behavior.
Our classes run throughout the school year. Lessons are 1 hour per week. Each student is loaned a guitar; when they complete the program they are awarded that guitar to keep. Students who complete the program are encouraged to continue. They have the opportunity to learn more as well as help the new students entering our program. GnG NCA purchases about 300 hundred guitars, gig bags and music books as well as other related accessories annually; GnG purchase about the same as well.
How does the program affect kids?
Our short-term outcomes are increased awareness of the skills and discipline required to learn how to play an instrument; increased demonstration of basic guitar skills; increased awareness of music industry career opportunities; increased confidence; and students experience positive relationship/role-modeling with adults and older youth. Our long-term outcomes include increased academic achievement; increased self-esteem; increased understanding of potential career opportunities; and increased understanding and respect of individuals from different ethnic/social/racial backgrounds. To date we have recorded the following changes in our students.
62% pass the beginner’s class within one year;
36% continue with intermediate instruction and teaching new students;
87% show improved social interaction across gender and racial lines;
73% demonstrate improved confidence and interest in learning; and
54% are performing better in school.
Those are great results. You have already garnered a lot of support and some support from GAMA members; can you tell us more?
Guitars Not Guns Music Program has earned widespread recognition and support in the communities we serve. The value of our program has been recognized by both local governments and music organizations; our board includes experienced music educators; and we coordinate with accredited organizations like George Mason University’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts, George Mason University’s Nonprofit Management School, the Potomac Arts Academy, National Association for Music Education and NAMM to promote music and arts in the community and to ensure the quality of our curriculum. We are supported by several major manufactures of music equipment including Gibson, Fender, Saint Blues and Brazen Guitars; Wittner; FJH Music and Aurora Strings; by local clubs like Rotary International and Kiwanis; we are members in United Way, the Combined Federal, World Bank and Commonwealth of Virginia Campaigns.
We are both in the business of getting guitars into the hands of kids. Any other similarities or differences?
While GnG has not had a formal connection to GAMA we share a commitment to promote music education; it certainly makes sense that we should recognize one another as complementary organizations sharing a common objective.
GAMA and others are focused on keeping music education opportunities alive and well in our public schools; most of the focus is on early education in elementary and some middle schools. That’s certainly a worthy cause which I support but there is also another underserved population which deserves equal attention. Putting a music program into a school does not automatically equate to providing opportunity for low income students; and while early education is important it is not enough, the opportunities must remain through high school. Many low income students, particularly those in middle and high school, do not participate in school music programs or other electives; they tend to do only what’s mandatory and get out of the building as soon as possible; many don’t complete high school. There are many reasons for this; lack of confidence, self consciousness, lack of hope for a successful future, lack of resources to fully participate, peer pressure, etc. This is the demographic GnG is after. We want to give those kids the confidence and initiative to fully participate in school; we want them to receive a good education and become self sufficient in life. Music education is the vehicle we use to get these kids on a path for success.
I know that we have at least one teacher in common.
(GAMA’s) Teaching Guitar Workshops trained Scott Gosline how to set up and run a guitar program at his school. Scott came away with the skills and passion but the school did not have the resources to implement one. Instilled with the passion, Scott reached out to GnG NCA for those resources and the program became a reality. The value of your program was not just training Scott; it was also inspiring him to get creative and make it happen. Your story should not just be about who you trained and what they did; it should also include how your efforts are enabling relationships with organizations like ours who are also furthering the same cause; you’re not only training music educators, you’re enabling them to leverage other assets which can be employed to further your goal.
Where do you see GnG in 5 years?
In 5 years we envision a GnG with much greater brand recognition and triple the student capacity that we have today. In 2010 we began an initiative to transition from an all volunteer, local grassroots type organization to one that has national recognition and relevance; GnG NCA is taking the lead on this initiative. Our all volunteer model served us well to get started but it is limiting our growth rate; we’re not able to recruit administrative volunteers in sufficient numbers to keep pace with the opportunities and number of teacher volunteers that are available. Since 2010 we have been steadily increasing both the breadth and depth of our fundraising base; we are now at the point where we can afford to pay some administrative staff. Over the next 5 years we will use this administrative capability to significantly expand our student capacity.
Can you give us a case study from GNG?
Mark (name changed) was constantly in trouble in school and with the law; the court sent him to a boarding school for troubled youth as a last chance before jail. GnG is the music program at that school. Mark signed up for our music program that summer. His attendance record was a spotty; he didn’t focus on what was being taught. He had a very large chip on his shoulder and was more interested in causing disturbances than learning about the guitar. We were patient with him and he continued with our program; the following spring he finally passed our beginner’s class and earned his guitar; that success was the turning point for him.
During the intermediate program sessions Mark’s attitude changed significantly. He was attentive and acted very interested in learning all about the guitar; one could not have asked for a more attentive, energetic student. He practice daily and was anxious to expand his new found expertise. He was like a sponge—he just couldn’t absorb enough information. By the time he
finished the intermediate program Mark had gone from a kid who could not form a simple D chord to a skilled beginning blues guitarist playing 9th chords (rhythm) and two modes of the pentatonic scales (lead). What a transformation!
Mark successfully completed the boarding school curriculum and enrolled in college in downstate Virginia. He joined a band and continues to learn everything he can about music in general and the guitar in particular.
Following is a letter from a mother serving on the Fort Belvoir Army Base in Northern Virginia; her son participated in a Guitars Not Guns class at the base Youth Center.
“As a parent of a child who is currently in enrolled in one of the “Guitars Not Guns” programs in Virginia, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you and your organization. This program has given my son a unique opportunity to not only learn guitar, but develop a skill that is building his self esteem. This year has been a particular struggle for us in that my son has had 2 surgeries that have kept him on crutches for a long period of time. Guitars Not Guns has been a terrific outlet that has allowed him to stay active as he has faced physical challenges…….. In closing I would also like to share how much I appreciate the insight you have to offer this class on a military installation. Although we are not currently dealing with deployment at this time, the memories are fresh enough to emphasis how this program brings a much needed positive experience to children in the thick of deployment. Thank you for reaching out to a group of kids that greatly need positive learning opportunities and mentorship! I can only imagine how “cool” it would be for a teen to be able to share their new skills they’ve learned to a returning parent…or even over the internet with a web-cam!”