On a Saturday morning at the Marina Teen Center, nine kids with acoustic guitars sit in a circle, their eyes trained toward sheets of music on the floor in front of them. They play a segment of music in unison as they warm up, but it sounds like a bit of a dissonant garble. Amy Novak Warren, the lead instructor, kneels down to assist a young girl who’s having trouble distinguishing the fourth string from the fifth. This class, a mixture of intermediate and advanced students, is learning the chords of “House of the Rising Sun.”
“If you can’t do a double-stop because your fingers are too small, do an A bar,” Warren advises, describing a technique for pressing multiple strings at once.
Each student gets one-on-one assistance from an instructor as needed. Glen Bell and Ben Bruce work alongside Warren, while Tim Patchin teaches the younger beginners in another room.
Later on, Warren requests the young guitarists play “Stand by Me.” They perform in near-perfect unison.
“I wish this existed 12 years ago,” says Bell, who channeled his passion for guitar into performing at open mics while growing up in Pacific Grove. “Me and my friend wanted to learn, but private lessons were – and are – expensive.”
Bell learned guitar at Pacific Grove High School and later Monterey Peninsula College, and now gives back as a volunteer instructor.
The program is run by the Monterey County chapter of Guitars Not Guns, a national nonprofit, with a local division that launched seven years ago. Since then, the group has given out some 1,650 guitars and taught 1,600 students. (Some students get instrument upgrades.)
The lessons and instruments are free to all GNG students. The agreement is that if they stick with it, students get to keep the guitars after they graduate. The Monterey County chapter supports lessons at eight locations in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula drawing on a $20,000 annual budget.
What sets the Marina program apart from other locations in the locat chapter – or those of the 27 chapters across the U.S. and Canada – is that students may extend their learning experience. While the standard for Guitars Not Guns is an eight-week course in guitar fundamentals, students in Marina meet weekly year-round, and can return year after year.
This lets students like 14-year-old Alex Carrillo of Seaside fine-tune the skills he started learning two years ago.
“Playing the guitar is both challenging and relaxing,” Carillo says. “With this program I’ve found that kids can follow each other in a positive way, unlike peer pressure and drugs.”
Carillo says he developed discipline from practicing and confidence from performing. He’s a case study for why chapter president Stephen Vagnini wanted to bring the program to the Monterey County.
Vagnini, a former music writer for the Weekly who’s since gone on to become the elected Monterey County assessor/clerk-recorder, has 40-some years of experience as a music promoter, and has leveraged those connections to get students on stage at events like the Monterey International Blues Festival and West End Celebration in Sand City.
Beyond the music, Vagnini says it’s relationships with volunteer instructors that really make the program successful: “They show students that people are willing to spend time with them and see potential in their abilities.”
Felix Miranda is 24, not all that older than some of the students, ages 8 to 18. He now has five years of experience as a guitar instructor, and teaches five days a week, alternating between Roosevelt Townhomes and Harden Ranch Apartments, both in Salinas. The repertoire he teaches is reflective of the nearly all-Latino students he works with. They practice songs in Spanish by rock bands like Los Enanitos Verdes.
On a recent day, six students in Miranda’s advanced class sit in the office of Harden Ranch Apartments. Miranda tunes two guitars strapped to his chest while chatting with students about a Bruno Mars song they recently mastered.
“I learned guitar when I was 9 at a similar program in Roosevelt,” Miranda says. “I’ve benefited so I’m sure it’ll help them. Some areas are gang-heavy here, and this guides kids on a better path.”
For 18-year-old Christian Guevara, the lessons at Harden Ranch helped strengthen his passion for music, something that was already an interest.
“Music has always been a part of my life, but through this I’ve gotten more serious,” Guevara says. “I used to take free classes as a kid too, but Felix is the best instructor I’ve had. He stays after class to let us jam until late. It inspires us to keep going.”