Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Herald Of Monterey County Touts Guitars Not Guns

Herald Correspondent Fred Hernandez wrote this article that appeared on January 28, 2012:

Better lives via music: Guitars Not Guns a fun, positive outlet for kids

Herald Correspondent
Updated: 01/28/2012 05:58:25 PM PST

Click photo to enlarge
(DAVID ROYAL/The Herald)
Steve Vagnini has a vision for helping stem youth violence in Monterey County. It starts with music.

Vagnini, a longtime music manager and the county's tax assessor, is president of the Monterey County chapter of Guitars Not Guns, a national nonprofit organization that gives young people free guitars and lessons to encourage their creativity and help divert them from the negative influences of drugs, alcohol and gangs.
Vagnini first heard about the group several years ago and was so impressed that he formed the local chapter.

"We bring in kids 8 to 18 years old, teach them to play guitars in eight one-hour classes," Vagnini said, "then we give them the guitars to boot."

And it's all free.

"All the instructors are volunteers, and there's virtually no overhead," he said. "Our only expenses are buying guitars and maybe the cost of a pizza party at the end of the class."

Vagnini said five classes are now in session: one at the Seaside Boys and Girls Club, two at Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas, one at Harden Middle School in Salinas and one in Marina.
He said the group's greatest need is volunteer instructors.

"They don't have to be great pickers, but they must be patient with their students and be willing to show up for one hour once a week," he said.

Classes have two instructors for 10 students.

Vagnini's long-term goals are to establish classes in the Salinas Valley and perhaps at the county's juvenile detention center.

"Those kids especially could use more self-respect. But those instructors will have to be experienced," he said. "Guitars Not Guns has tremendous potential."

Todd Kruper, a city councilman and sculptor in Sand City, is vice president of the Monterey chapter.

"This program gives the kids social support and dignity. Some of them have never even picked up a guitar before. And let's face it, they're not going to be Jimi Hendrix in eight weeks," he said, "but if they sense more creativity within themselves, they can practice at home, maybe come for the next set of classes, maybe share their newfound skills with a sibling, with a friend."

He added, "They have found a new connection to their community — and what's better than music?"

A recent visit to the Seaside Boys and Girls Club found instructor Joe Braun leading a class of seven 8- to 10-year olds. With the other teacher absent, Braun had to be patient.

First step: tuning each of their guitars, challenging the students to call out the strings as he went along. When everyone was in tune, he set up a rhythm for C and G chords. Some of the students put chord charts on the floor for reference.
When the group became ungainly, he split it up, asking an advanced student to teach part of the group to play "Happy Birthday." Braun took the other students through the chords.

"This is hard!" one student complained.

Braun chuckled. "This isn't hard," he said. "Walking is hard. Do you remember how many times you fell?"

The group reunited to play "Jambalaya." Then it was time for class to end.

"I like to start them with tunes they already know, like 'Happy Birthday.' That reinforces the familiar," Braun said. "Some of these kids play in school orchestras, some play other instruments, and they like the challenge of a new instrument."
About 60 students have passed through the local Guitars Not Guns since it was founded two years ago. Vagnini said he has bought about 100 guitars in that time.

Though musicians sometimes donate used guitars, it becomes a problem, he said. It's important that all students have identical guitars and cases.

So he uses the donated guitars in fundraisers, asking well-known guitarists to autograph the instruments and then raffling them off. So far, signers include Los Lobos, Chris Cain and Jackie Greene, and he hopes to get the signature of Rusty Anderson, who played lead guitar for Paul McCartney. (Vagnini's biggest autograph goal is rocker Ted Nugent, who sits on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association: "We have several mutual friends.") On the national level, perhaps the most notable guitar was signed by Slash, of Guns N' Roses.

Vagnini said he gets funds from the Arts Council for Monterey County and the West End Celebration, an annual event in Sand City that helps support Guitars Not Guns. He also gets grants periodically and is hoping to have a grant writer soon.
"But I can't stress enough how much we need instructors. Every two new instructors means another class can open up," he said.

Guitars Not Guns operates in 17 states and in Canada, Latin America and Great Britain.

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