Eleven-year-old Ross Pennington came to East Carolina University with no experience but was playing the guitar by the end of his first class at the annual summer Guitar Festival and Workshop.
“He went home and started playing and showed his sister and dad what he had learned,” said Hazel Pennington, the mother of the Tarboro seventh-grader. “It has piqued his interest to continue. I can tell when he comes out of the class, he’s more confident.”
In its 20th year, ECU’s four-day festival offers targeted instruction for all age and skill levels, solo competitions and public performances by the world’s best classical guitarists– who also teach workshop classes. This year’s festival was held July 11-14.
“This is an opportunity for people even who don’t play the guitar to experience guitar at the highest level and to realize that the instrument has capacities and a range that are not conceived by most people,” said Dr. Elliot Frank, director of the festival and professor of music at ECU.
Pranab Mitra, left, and Ross Pennington listen to instruction during the ECU Guitar Festival.
Hazel Pennington learned about the festival after contacting ECU to see if there was a summer guitar camp for children.
“This has been very hands on,” she said. “After the first class, he walked out two hours later being able to play, and he was familiar with notes and the placement of his hands.”
On top of the known benefits of playing music, including better memory and math skills, the guitar will give Ross an outlet for expression, she said. “It’s a conduit to express himself and find camaraderie with other musicians,” she said. “I’m just glad it lit a fire.”
While it was Ross’ first time at the festival, veteran Mike Salmon has attended for more than 10 years.
“I’ll be back every year as long as I’m breathing,” Salmon said. “The bottom line is my playing has improved and it’s because of the instructors.”
The 77-year-old marine biology professor at Florida Atlantic University joked that although you can’t tell, he’s been playing guitar since he was about 10. He took lessons in high school, but stopped playing when he was in college and graduate school.
“About 15 years ago, I started going back to it,” Salmon said. “I came here because I needed instruction and I liked the way the festival was organized.”
ECU master’s student and graduate assistant Jacob Brown, left, and Elina Chekan, classical guitar teacher, practice techniques on the guitar.
The festival annually draws a large number of older participants. Many workshops across the country are geared to younger performers or aspiring professionals, Frank said. “There are not that many opportunities for this experience,” he said.
This was the first year that the festival offered a guitar orchestra, which allowed guitarists of all ages and skills to play in a large ensemble.
“Guitarists need that experience. They don’t get to play with other people that much,” Frank said.
Participants like Eliza Balmuth and Sean McCrary, a duo who traveled from Fort Worth, Texas, were able to get one-on-one instruction with Matteo Mela, who performs with Lorenzo Micheli as part of SoloDuo, considered one of the finest guitar duos in the world.
“It provides exposure to artists they normally would have to travel to Italy to study with,” Frank said. “It brings it all here.”
This year’s festival had more than 65 participants and 17 guest instructors from across the United States and world.
Pictured below, left to right, Sean McCrary and Eliza Balmuth work with SoloDuo guitarist Matteo Mela. McCrary and Balmuth traveled from Texas to participate in the festival.