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Catala: Getting a grasp on the arts, string by string, note by note

This is an article a local newspaper, "The Ledger" did about me and the guitar program I direct.



LAKE WALES — Samuel Ortiz can’t offer a name brand on their shoes, an upgrade on the car their parents drive into the school parking lot or the most current video game set-up to play when a student gets home.

But what he can offer hundreds of students who most likely otherwise wouldn’t have the resources is the chance to get in tune with music by slowly fostering an interest and the skills needed to play guitar.

Since 2015, Ortiz has taught and conducted McLaughlin Middle School & Fine Arts Academy’s guitar program for the students in sixth through eighth grad.

McLaughlin opened in 1964 as a junior high school before becoming McLaughlin Middle & Fine Arts Academy in 2007. Located at 800 S. Fourth St., it currently serves about 800 students, all of whom are on free or reduced price lunch program.

Ortiz, 37, a native of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, began playing guitar at 13. He has been the guitar instructor for the Professional Studies and Continuing Education Department at University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez. He has also served as a guitar instructor for Antillean Adventist University Music Academy in Mayaguez and Blue Noche Arts and Music Academy, Lakeland. In addition, he co-created the jazz group “Midnight Sun Jazz” in Puerto Rico.

And with his background, Ortiz – who lives in Lakeland with his wife, Tanisha Vazquez, and two daughters – has been able through his patience, knowledge and talents to transform lives through musical education, line by line, note by note.

Ortiz says he on a mission to instill pride and lifelong skills in students who have very limited resources.

“But at the same time, they’re very passionate and creative,” says Ortiz, who holds a bachelor degree in music education from Antillean Adventist with a major in classical guitar. “They have a push to succeed that you rarely see in students that have all resources and assets available to them.”

Although new acoustic guitars range in price from $40 to well over $1,000, McLaughlin students have 24 school guitars for their use. Ortiz said on their first day of class, some students aren’t even sure how to hold the guitar in the right direction, let alone play it.

“We start from square one and then teach how to read music, chords, song structure. Most come with no or very limited (music) experience and if they do, outside of school, it’s usually at church.”

Ortiz’s classes are divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced and each school year, students move up. If a certain student is excelling, he or she advances sooner. They’re graded on mostly performance-based criteria: finger placement, posture, quality of performances and musical articulation.

To build confidence, Ortiz starts students on Tito Puente’s 1963 hit “Oye Como Va,” also a 2008 hit by the band Santana. The song consists of two chords and he says it shows students playing guitar is “doable” and is “something within their reach.”

From there, Ortiz begins to add chords and keeps his students strumming along through a progression of musical styles and songs: folk, reggae, blues, rock, pop and classical. Along the musical journey, they learn popular songs in each genre, such as folk’s “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” reggae originals, blues such as the song “Royal Blues” in the book “Explore It” by Ed Prasse and Leo Welch, rock’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and pop-rock songs by Adele, John Lennon and Nirvana. Once they’ve accomplished those styles, Ortiz begins to introduce the classical and patriotic music – etudes by guitarists Mateo Carcassi and Mauro Giuliani, “America” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” for example.

They’re then eligible to join McLaughlin Guitar Ensemble, which travels to concerts and competitions.

The incremental achievement helps with other studies, says McLaughlin Assistant Principal Julie Fisher. In her 20th year at the school, she said guitar and music theory opens avenues of creativity, analytical thinking, mathematics and social growth.

“Some continue playing into high school and college and beyond,” she says. “For a lot of these students, it’s the chance to broaden their horizons in the fine arts they otherwise might not ever get.”

One of those students is Lake Wales’ Tyler Jowers, 13. An eighth-grader, he’s in his third year with Ortiz and is part of the Ensemble. He says the guitar program has been intense but fun and he’s learned everything from classical to White Stripes’ rocking 2003 hit “Seven Nation Army.”

“He’s cool and patient with us but gets more rushed around concert time. He’s always helping us and giving us tips for playing better,” he said.

As for his personal passion for playing and passing on the love of guitar, music, learning and school in general, Ortiz says he feels blessed and fortunate. He says he’s most moved when he sees students suddenly realize, “Hey, I can play this!”

“I’m most proud to know these kids developed a sense of accomplishment that boosted their level of confidence,” he said. “These kids basically don’t have anything; the fact they accomplished this musically is a big step into their futures.”

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