Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Building a Young Guitarist Community 

Building a Young Guitarist Community 

Fret Fest on February 26
The Peabody-Levine ensemble brings together guitar students from Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Young guitarists in the Baltimore/ Washington, D.C., region have new opportunities for musical growth and community with the launch last October of the Peabody-Levine Guitar Ensemble Collaboration Project. The collaboration between Peabody Preparatory’s Guitar Performance Academy and Levine Music’s Artist, Advanced, and Intermediate Guitar Ensembles includes a combined ensemble from the two schools, as well as coaching from acclaimed musicians and multiple performance and learning experiences.

“It was really important to us to create a larger community of young guitarists between the Baltimore and D.C. areas, so they could get to know each other socially and really be inspired together,” says Zoë Johnstone Stewart (MM ’05, Guitar), Guitar Department chair for the Peabody Preparatory, which offers private instruction to around 100 guitar students, ages 4 to adult. Ten of these students, ages 13 to 18, are participating in the Peabody-Levine project.

This collaboration began when Levine secured funding for the guitar project through the Augustine Foundation. Risa Carlson (BM ’96, MM ’99, GDP ’00, Guitar), then chair of the Guitar Department at Levine Music and recently appointed Assistant Director of the Peabody Preparatory, wanted to partner with a high-quality, preparatory-level guitar program. Having completed her education at Peabody, she knew the Preparatory would be an ideal fit. Only a few months into the program, Carlson has already noticed tremendous gains among the participants.

“Students are holding themselves to a higher standard, feeling more motivated about their music in general, and developing a deeper sense of belonging as they create friendships with other young musicians,” says Carlson, who taught at Levine for 24 years and has 14 students from the school participating in the guitar project.

The combined Peabody-Levine ensemble is a cornerstone of this collaboration, and in the spring, students will participate in two joint performances, one in Baltimore and one in Washington. Peabody and Levine students practice the same repertoire on their own campuses, then get together once a month for a combined rehearsal. To promote community, they also have lunch afterward, then go on social outings to local attractions.

Renowned musicians will also visit the program as guest coaches to offer training opportunities that enhance the musical growth of students. These coaches include classical guitarists Zoran Dukic and Isaac Bustos, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, and composers Clarice and Sergio Assad.

Guitarist and composer Benjamin Verdery—an associate professor at the Yale School of Music and one of Johnstone Stewart’s private teachers when she was in high school—also leads a composer residency, offered via Zoom, which covers some basic elements of composition. Participating students will ultimately write a piece of music for the classical guitar, and then Verdery will select themes from these student compositions to write his own piece of music for the Peabody-Levine ensemble to perform.

“The residency is really opening the kids’ minds to the possibilities of music and the idea of engaging with your guitar in a creative way,” says Johnstone Stewart, who taught classical guitar to young musicians for 18 years before joining Peabody.

Rounding out the project are invaluable educational opportunities. In February, students performed and attended workshops and master classes at Peabody’s Fret Fest, a day-long celebration of the guitar, and in June, they will participate in technique classes and attend concerts with world-renowned musicians at the Guitar Foundation of America’s 50th anniversary convention in New York City.

“I can see the students are really supporting each other and are having fun together,” says Johnstone Stewart, adding that Peabody also received funding from the Augustine Foundation in early 2023 for this project. “As they grow older and enter adulthood, I hope they’ll carry with them this love of guitar that they’ve nurtured through this project.”

— Jennifer Walker