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Classical guitar Southeast teacher’s passion

BRADENTON

“Let’s go. Let’s go. Get your heads screwed on right.”

Imagine a music teacher channeling a football coach.

That was Joseph Downs the other morning at Southeast High School.

Tardiness by two members of his classical guitar quartet had gotten practice off to a slow start.

So Skyler Banfill, Nestor Guillen, Victor Herrera, Romanos Rizk and Connor Milstead — the quartet’s first sub — got busy tuning up their guitars.

“Do it again,” Downs said, listening intently. “Easy. Do it again. Now go through and check your harmonics.”

There was plenty to do and not enough time to do it.

They had the school’s international festival to get ready for, a performance at Ringling Art Museum, and the planned CD on Romantic Era music from the 1800s.

“The (dry erase) board is filled with performance dates and stays full all year round,” said the 54-year-old.

Not that Downs, who also teaches orchestra, was complaining.

Music has been his life and breath, teaching off and on since 1974, including the last 13 years at Southeast.

Classical guitar is his baby.

“He puts his whole heart into it,” said Guillen, a sophomore.

Trumpet was his first love, but classical guitar changed Downs’ life.

“It’s that other instrument for a kid who doesn’t want to be in band or orchestra,” he said. “Guitar is the way.”

Downs was born with polio which disabled the deltoid muscle in his left shoulder.

He lived two blocks from Manatee High and, as a boy on fall Friday nights, he could hear the marching band’s halftime shows.

Two older friends who played in the band had an old trumpet.

Voila!

Downs was ready for old Walker Junior High.

“I had to find something, because I couldn’t do phys ed due to my arm and I just got into doing that,” he said.

As a teenager, Downs talked his dad into buying him a guitar.

“Then a family moved across the street, the oldest girl played guitar, and I asked her for lessons,” he said, smiling at the memory. “That was the start of physical therapy for my left arm and left hand and gave me a taste of guitar I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Over time Downs would play trumpet in jazz bands, circus bands and country bands, even at Disney World during his days at the University of Central Florida.

“You name it, I’ve done it,” he said.

Yet what Downs said he found so absorbing about classical guitar is its history and its versatility.

The term classical, he said, actually refers to “a musical history period back in the 1500s and 1600s. Classical guitar is a style, a certain type of music that’s played.”

Flamenco is the first that comes to mind — the classical guitar is also known as the Spanish guitar — but Downs said the classical guitar’s styles embrace influences from Argentina, Brazil and Italy to name a few.

“The classical guitar is its own miniature orchestra,” he said, quoting 19th-century French composer Hector Berlioz. “It can be played by chords, by doing accompaniments, by playing single-note melodies. It can play everything.”

His students have come to share his passion for the classical guitar.

“It’s been around so long, been processed through so many artists over the years,” Guillen said. “Something about it makes it sounds so wonderful, its different parts, its melodies, it makes you think. It sounds better than what people play today.”

“Most people think of the guitar as the electrical guitar,” said Rizk, another sophomore. “But the classical guitar is … a lot more moving, more melodic, more emotional. The guitarist has to feel his music.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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