ECU Celebrates 20th Guitar Festival

Jul 11, 2016

ECU's Summer Guitar Festival was held July 6th through the 9th in Greenville with four days of concerts and workshops.  The event attracts students and experts from across the nation.   Chris Thomas has more on the festival's growth over the past 20 years and the vision for the future.

Credit Joe Pellegrino / The Daily Reflector

This is how things started Wednesday morning – the first day of this year’s ECU Guitar Festival. Back in 1996 just 12 people checked in for the first one. This year, 53 people registered for classes and gradually wandered into the lobby of the A.J. Fletcher School of Music.

Among the 53 participants this year is Henry Spencer, a graduate guitar student at the university. Mr. Spencer enjoys playing Bach transcriptions for guitar, and for him, it mingles naturally with more contemporary genres.

“Yeah, I just saw the Dead and Company play last weekend and that was a great show. John Mayer was filling in for Jerry (Garcia), but he still did a great job. RIP Jerry."

This is Mr. Spencer’s 4th year attending the festival and he said its reputation is growing.

“I think it’s picked up speed, a lot of people in the circle talk about it, how great of a time it is…there’s just good vibes being passed around, I think it’s attracted more and more people.”

People like Bradley Guerrant, who made the trip from Williamsburg, Virginia for classical guitar lessons.  

“I’ve been playing guitar for probably 50 years or so. And I just built a classical guitar, but I don’t really know how to play the classical guitar style very well. I played a steel string flat top for years so I was just hoping to pick up some techniques and maybe some songs and that sort of stuff to see how other people approach it and that’s pretty much the bottom line.”

In the morning, students go to classes based on age and skill level. Each student pays a fee, though a limited amount of scholarship money is available. A second set of classes are offered in the afternoon following lunch.

Guerrant came to the festival to learn about his craft and relearn the terrain of a university campus. This is his first year.

“One thing I hope to get out of this is getting back to a campus, actually. I’ve already felt it, getting lost. That’s obviously outside of this guitar workshop, but I think it’s a whole new experience, I know it’s a whole new experience to come back into something like this.”

While classical guitar is different in style, sound, and build – it relies on nylon strings, providing a warmer sound. Mary Ackerman is a professor at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta and a long time instructor at the guitar festival.

“I think a lot of guys got interested in classical guitar back in the day, you know – they would be interested in heavy metal, and a lot of heavy metal songs have a sensitive finger style introduction – think of “Stairway to Heaven.” That’s the template and there’s a lot of songs like that. So they would start studying classical guitar because they wanted to play those things and then they would become obsessed.”

This week, Ackerman worked with middle and high school students preparing for the pre-college competition, now in its 12th year. One of the contestants, Jan Marie Laman, is rehearsing one of her performance pieces. Ms. Laman is a high school senior from Loudon County, Virginia.

The next generation of guitarists is progressing at a faster clip, Ms. Ackerman observed. She believes it is, in part, because schools are investing in guitar programs.

“In my state, in the state of Georgia, there’s a lot more work in schools to teach guitar. It’s not just a matter of people happening upon it or trying it out for themselves in the privacy of their homes. They’re actually getting some classroom education, so that’s enabling us to have a much higher level of students at that level, coming to workshops like this and so we can work on a very high level. This is sort of the level I would expect from some of the college students I would have had in the past.”

Ms. Laman said her introduction to the guitar occurred after dropping the piano and learning her brother’s motivations for studying music didn’t prove strong enough to continue.

“When I walked into middle school my 6th grade year, my brother was enrolled in guitar and he was an 8th grader. He wasn’t really interested – he did it just to get girls. But, he brought his guitar home and I played on it and the first song I remember playing was the Super Mario Bros. theme song, so that’s when I fell in love with the instrument.”

She found out about the festival through her guitar instructor and said it’s been an enjoyable experience thus far.

“Oh, it’s so fun. This is a campus I’m considering going to college at because I want to study music, so I thought it’d be nice to stay here for about a week and see how it is and I like it so far.”

To walk along the corridor of the A.J. Fletcher Music Building between classes is like walking across bridges between multiple generations – from elementary school students too small to carry their instrument cases to lifers in their 5th decade of playing.

That diversity has been a feature and a goal of the guitar festival from day one, Dr. Elliot Frank said, and he wants that to remain as the festival proceeds in subsequent years. 

Dr. Frank is the festival’s director and founder.

“I learned so many things from so many different teachers that helped me to be the guitarist I am, and I kind of felt obligated to pass it along.”

You’re listening to Collin Fullerton of Winston-Salem, last year’s solo competition winner, performing as part of the festival’s concert series.

The Guitar Festival is over, but it is a yearly event. To find out more about it - visit the ECU School of Music's website or call their main office or e-mail Dr. Elliot Frank at franke@ecu.edu.