Brad Richter never made it into Guinness World Records, one of his early goals, but the classical guitarist from Tucson is achieving something more important through Lead Guitar, the nonprofit program he founded to bring high-quality music instruction to at-risk students in Arizona schools.
© John Burcham
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By Matt Jaffe
As guitarist Brad Richter enters the music room at Tucson’s Pistor Middle School, he walks into the barely contained chaos of more than 40 restless adolescents settling in before class. There’s jostling and joshing, combined with clanging music stands and the tuning of guitars while teacher Jonel Lauver readies her students for Richter’s workshop.
Richter is here as part of Lead Guitar, the nonprofit program he founded to bring high-quality music instruction to at-risk students in Arizona schools and around the country. After gently cajoling the last few stragglers, Richter plays How Death Came, his song based on a Native American origin story, uncannily re-creating a rattling rattlesnake with a staccato tapping against the guitar.
The raucous room falls silent. Even the most fidgety kids remain focused, and after Richter finishes, the class sits quietly for several seconds before applauding. Then Richter takes advantage of this genuinely teachable moment. “I practiced that rattle for hours before I could do it fast enough,” he tells the students. “That’s the way it goes with guitar. Even things that might seem unimportant take a lot of time.”
As the students play, Richter encourages them to use proper wrist position and posture before they battle their way through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the clearly more popular Iron Man.
When class ends, most students run off to lunch. But six stay behind for a rare opportunity — personal instruction from an internationally acclaimed musician and composer.
“Lead Guitar gives the music teachers and me a way to do some higher-level teaching. The kids are all in a good mood, and you really have their attention,” Richter says. “There’s so much evidence that music classes positively affect student performance and can help with the rest of the curriculum. And I think that’s because we really turn their brains on; then, they carry that into their next class.”
Growing up in Enid, Oklahoma, with a self-described “strong obsessive streak,” Richter certainly never had anything like Lead Guitar. Instead, he committed himself to winning a place in Guinness World Records, whether by running a marathon, playing video games or pogo-sticking. That last record-setting attempt ended disastrously, as Richter dug thousands of divots in his driveway when the pogo stick’s protective rubber tip wore off and he continued jumping on the bare metal point.
“The driveway ended up looking like modern art,” he says. “So that wasn’t very popular.”
Richter also endlessly played air guitar using a tennis racket because his parents, having watched him cycle through one pursuit after another, resisted buying him an instrument. When he finally did get his guitar, at age 12, Richter taught himself, drawing inspiration from such groups as Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and the Beatles.
“What was different about guitar, as opposed to all of those other ridiculous things I was doing, was the depth to which I could take it,” Richter says. “There were so many layers, whole new worlds to master. And that just kept happening and happening, and the opportunity to dig deeper and deeper kept me going.”
His musical odyssey included stints in rock bands (“really unsuccessful ones,” he clarifies), even as Richter increasingly concentrated on classical guitar, eventually taking his first formal lessons at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. From there, he received a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he earned his master’s studying with celebrated guitarist Carlos Bonell.
Richter moved to Tucson in 1997 when his wife, Kerstin, a native of Germany, took a job at the University of Arizona. He performed around the state, and while visiting Page, he participated in a high-school outreach program that helped launch Lead Guitar.
“I was blown away,” he says. “They were all Navajo kids who had taught themselves to play classical guitar and heavy metal. They were very, very good and showed up doing every-
thing right. There’s a really well-supported community tradition of playing guitar on Navajoland. One person learns a song, and they pass it along to their friends. The kids there have an uncanny ability to observe and absorb.”
Determined to work with the students, Richter applied for a grant and returned to Page for two-week teaching sessions and guitar camping retreats on Lake Powell. He also wrote a curriculum guide to help teachers continue with Lead Guitar’s methods throughout the year.
Richter hoped that guitar would give the kids a sense of purpose and discipline that could enhance their school performance, while also providing the self-esteem to navigate the challenges of growing up where dropout rates at some schools exceed 50 percent and substance abuse is pervasive.
Sherwin Sheppard, a Page student who committed suicide, remains a major inspiration for Richter. He says that Sheppard was by far the best guitarist at the school but struggled with alcohol. Richter worked with Sheppard’s family to help the youth overcome his problems, and the two grew close. Richter explored the Navajo Nation with Sheppard, and they took memorable hikes above Paria Canyon and into Marble Canyon.
After Sheppard’s death, Richter wrote a tribute called Leaving Marble Canyon, then recorded the composition while playing high above the Colorado River as part of The Traveling Guitar, a YouTube series featuring his music in natural settings.
“I really felt Sherwin’s presence, and this playful breeze came up at the end,” Richter says. “Then, when I watched the video, there was a beam of light going right through me. Maybe that’s all just silliness, but a part of me definitely thinks that it was something more.”
Richter frequently hits the road for his busy schedule of concerts and Lead Guitar workshops, and he hikes into Arizona’s landscapes to clear his head and simply play guitar.
“I spend as much time as I can practicing while looking at something beautiful,” he says. “My normal life goes in so many directions each day, so I really like remote places with no phone, TV or radio, and where no one can get hold of me. It allows my mind to wander freely. And in that first hour I’m playing, I let old thoughts finish and go away. Then I can be present and really focus.”
For more information about Lead Guitar, visit www.leadguitar.org.
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