GREENSBORO — Brandon Walker arrived at the Eastern Music Festival five summers ago with guitar in hand, shy and unsure of his talent.

The Ragsdale High rising junior had been accepted into EMF’s new classical guitar program. Kami Rowan, who directs guitar studies at Guilford College, had created the intensive two-week program for EMF, the school and concert series based on Guilford College’s campus.

Walker had studied guitar since elementary school.

“All I knew was that I loved music,” he recalled. “But I didn’t have a career vision at all.”

Now 19, Walker studies guitar and double bass at Guilford College during the school year. Each summer, he has returned to EMF’s guitar program.

At EMF, he has won competitions and met guitar students from around the country.

“I feel much better about performing,” he said. “It’s almost a complete 360 flip.”

From Sunday through July 27, Rowan and other EMF faculty members immerse 24 guitar students in long days of lessons, performance-development classes, practice and rehearsals to prepare for public concerts. They all perform in a guitar orchestra and in smaller ensembles.

They get in-depth training and experience playing music on a classical nylon-string guitar. That music ranges from Renaissance lute music to that of living composers.

They study not only with Rowan but also with Grammy Award-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux from the Cleveland Institute of Music and Julian Gray of the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

This year, Rowan also recruited guest artist Thomas Viloteau, a French guitar phenomenon who won the Guitar Foundation of America competition. She aims to bring in a different young artist each year “to keep it fresh and keep it new,” she said.

The program has grown from 13 students in 2015. This year’s 24 students range in age from 13 to 26.

It has drawn students from guitar programs not only at Guilford, but at Weaver Academy and New Garden Friends School in Greensboro, Penn-Griffin School for the Arts in High Point, Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in Kernersville and UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

“There are probably 10 places in the country that are hotbeds for classical guitar, and we are one of those,” Rowan said.

Because guitar students don’t grow up playing in full orchestras, they don’t have the same exposure to other young musicians. At EMF, “they have a much broader exposure to classical music outside the guitar,” Rowan said.

Although most of EMF’s 270 students come from outside North Carolina, nine guitar students come from the Triad: Walker, Wright Chandler, Tucker Gamble and Connor Brady from Guilford College; Reuben Akins, Beckett Clarey and Theo Perkins from Weaver; Casey Balser from UNCG; and Nicolas Mayers from UNCSA.

The rest come from other parts of the country and even London. In the first class in 2015, six of 13 students came from the Triad.

“We have been successful in that we are drawing students from a broader geographical area,” Rowan said. “When you can get something happening where the West Coasters are coming … you are bridging a lot of miles and a big gap.”

Rowan is the president of the Piedmont Classic Guitar Society. She serves on the board of the Guitar Foundation of America, the world’s largest multinational guitar organization.

This summer, she arranged a performance tour of the U.S. Guitar Orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall and in France. The Aaron Shearer Foundation sponsored it.

EMF helped open the door for guitar students and alumni who wanted to participate. Among 41 orchestra members, 15 have attended EMF, Rowan said.

Walker, Chandler, Helen Wyrick, Noah Dabney, Tucker Gamble and Connor Brady finished the tour shortly before arriving at EMF.

EMF students without scholarship assistance pay $1,000 tuition, $150 in fees and $746 room and board if they live in a campus dorm.

For Chandler and Walker, who live in Greensboro, it’s just a 10-minute drive from home each day.

Kane Getsug barely read music when he arrived at EMF from the Baltimore area for the first time three years ago.

He played guitar using tablature, a form of musical notation that indicates instrument fingering rather than musical pitches.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I came here,” Getsug said. Guitar “was more of a hobby, kind of for-fun thing.”

Rowan, Gray and Vieaux helped Getsug learn to read music and get serious about guitar as a career.

Come fall, he will major in classical guitar performance at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland.

“It changed my life,” Getsug said of EMF.

At 16, Gwenyth Aggeler of Denver is considered one of the country’s top classical guitarists of her age, Rowan said.

Aggeler first attended EMF at age 14, then returned this year.

She plans a career in guitar. Although her technique is classical, she likes other styles, too. She arranged the song “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie for guitar duo to be performed at EMF.

“One thing I like is that there are four different teachers, and they have different backgrounds in music,” Aggeler said. “They also have really different perspectives.”

Chandler, 26, took a few years off after high school to travel. He performed in a metal band, The Alexander Effect.

This year, he entered Guilford College to study classical guitar. He is spending his first summer at EMF.

“I see myself developing my skills and my theory with classical guitar,” Chandler said. “But careerwise, I see myself being a composer-songwriter. I don’t see myself as being a professional classical soloist player, although who knows what can happen? I think my classical skills will help me pursue songwriting or performing or being in some kind of band, whether it be jazz or rock.”

For the past three years, Rowan has commissioned a new work.

On Sunday at EMF’s open house, the student guitar orchestra will premiere “The Blacktop Truth Through Samarcand,” written by local composer Steve Landis.

This week, students focused their morning rehearsal on the Landis work.

“You guys are rocking it,” Rowan said as she conducted. “Let’s work the front half of the piece one more time.”

After rehearsal, students head to a master class with Vieaux.

Reuben Akins played Milan Tesar’s “Four Ballad Stories.” Helen Wyrick of Arkansas played Fernando Sor’s Etude in A Major, Opus 6, No. 6. Aggeler played the Funeral March of Sor’s Opus 59.

Vieaux offered compliments and suggestions for each.

“Very well-performed,” he told Aggeler. “We’re going to work on the mood of the piece.”

Aside from the musical experience, students all praise the camaraderie. That’s just what Rowan wants to see.

“These are people who have the same kind of passion,” Walker said. “You always want to see who’s here and meet new people.

“These two weeks,” he added, “motivate me for the rest of the year.”(tncms-asset)bc7d1e3a-a7ee-11e9-a7a7-00163ec2aa770 —(/tncms-asset)

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Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.

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