Program Offers Free Guitar, Drum Lessons to Dallas Youths

The young musicians on the stage at Bishop Arts Theater in Oak Cliff are new to the guitar, yet the 7 to 11 year olds already feel the music that comes at the touch of a fingertip.

"We're learning to play songs and I'm strumming a lot of notes," 8-year-old Ivanna Gamez said. "My mom says it's going to help me when I go to another school because she wants me to play in band."

Third grader Martin Blas, also 8 years old, would rather be here playing guitar than sitting at home.

"It sounds good when you play it," he said. "If you play good, and that you can make songs with your chords."

The children are enrolled in La Rondalla, a music education program that offers free guitar, bass and drums lessons to youths between 7 and 18 years old, 96 percent of whom are Hispanic.

Jazz musician Dennis Gonzales started the program with 12 students six years ago. This year, there are 85. They come for an hour after school every Tuesday through Friday.

“I walk in and I see they're serious," Gonzales said. "Just watching them play, watching the gleam in their eye is really a wonderful thing."

“I struggled so much just to play that one chord,” Aaron Olivares recalled. "I started off at zero and now I'm advanced and pretty good, I think."

Olivares hit that first chord five years ago. Today the 17-year-old senior at Molina High School is in the advanced class and strumming under the watchful eye and discerning ear of his long time instructor, Kenny Withrow.

"Best teacher ever," Olivares said of Withrow, a longtime member of Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.

"I grew up in East Dallas and was living in Oak Cliff when this program started," Withrow said. "I love the fact that it's a free program for the kids. And guitars are provided."

The day NBC 5 visited, the students played on new electric guitars donated by the Grapevine-based Texas Music Project. La Rondalla exists because of such donors. The City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, the House of Blues Forward Foundation, businessman Jorge Baldor and Sammons Enterprises, Inc., pay the $70,000 annual cost so the kids can take lessons for free.

"It's the best thing that's happened to me," Olivares said. "It will be my hobby for the rest of my life. I don't plan to stop playing guitar."

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