Playing in harmony: Tucson nonprofit Lead Guitar teaches music to students in need

One musician’s efforts to support a group of students is now a nationwide nonprofit that teaches guitar at underserved schools coast to coast. The Tucson-based nonprofit Lead Guitar fosters discipline and a love of art through guitar ensemble classes, partnering with dozens of schools in six states. 

Lead Guitar was founded in 2007, but the story begins in 1999 when executive director Brad Richter worked as a touring musician. In his work, Richter would occasionally visit local schools on tour to play a concert or host a workshop. During one trip, he visited Page High School in northern Arizona and met with five Navajo students who played guitar. Their music impressed Richter, but he saw how their craft could improve with more support and resources. 

“They didn’t know how to read music and their technique wasn’t very good, but they were fabulous players and their instincts were fantastic,” Richter said. 

The foundation of Lead Guitar began when Richter started writing a music curriculum to teach those students and guide the teacher. In the 20 years since, Lead Guitar has become affiliated with the University of Arizona and has worked with an estimated 35,000 students in more than 80 schools. 

The nonprofit’s teaching artists, often professional musicians, work with school teachers to develop guitar ensemble classes. The students learn how to read music, proper guitar technique, and a variety of acoustic songs. 

In particular, Lead Guitar works with underprivileged students. Richter says they look to help schools where more than 80% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and are lacking in other arts resources. 

“It’s a very high poverty standard, but it’s shocking just how many schools in Arizona qualify,” Richter said. “We’re simultaneously teaching the teacher while teaching the class, with the idea that after two or three years, the teacher can take over.” 

Richter has seen first-hand how the “social and emotional learning” of music training can change a discouraged or troubled student’s demeanor for the better. Often, their difficulties stem from living in impoverished areas with a lack of resources. He says 81% of students Lead Guitar works with qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 87% are students of color. 

“The way the lack of resources in schools is tied to poverty, and the way poverty is tied to race, is very upsetting,” Richter said. “In a way, this is something we bump up against, because we work with schools that have a disproportionate number of traumatized kids. We might get some adults that say we shouldn’t push the kids too much or let them do what they want in guitar class, but our point of view is that they’re craving structure and advice and input. If we can instill discipline and focus, and do it with love and patience, there’s a lot of value in that.” 

One of Richter’s favorite stories from Lead Guitar is that of middle schooler Christian Gomez from Colorado. Gomez had multiple behavioral issues, and struggled in English and Spanish. He also had difficulty hearing and required hearing aids. When Lead Guitar began working with the school, Gomez showed rapid growth.  

“He just took off and became one of our most exceptional players. He could do anything on the guitar and people gathered around him at the school. He was the star of every concert we had,” Richter said. “And now he’s a professional musician performing gigs as a singer and guitarist.” 

Richter has even seen a student go on to play guitar in a touring heavy metal band. However, he can still see the academic influence in the student’s playing. 

Over the years, Lead Guitar has moved away from the label “classical” guitar, and instead focuses on “guitar ensemble.” They still teach many classical skills, including music reading and ergonomic techniques, but have expanded to include more folk and blues songs. 

“We’ve sought out more composers that have reflected our students and their heritage,” Richter said. 

As with many nonprofits, Lead Guitar most needs support for operations. Their donors include the City of Tucson, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and many individuals.

“We see all these disparities, and it begins with the haves and the have-nots,” Richter said. “One of the things we’re seeing is that the need out there is so great, especially after the pandemic, and the gap between people in the community has grown. It’s just really helpful to be able to apply those resources to the schools we see that need it most.”

Locally, Lead Guitar works with students in the Tucson Unified School District, Amphitheater Public Schools, Sunnyside Unified School District, as well as private and charter schools.

 

For more information, visit leadguitar.org