William Ash

Bill AshWilliam "Bill" Ash is a Classical Guitar teacher at the Webster Groves branch. He has been a part of the Community Music School faculty since 1979. In addition to teaching guitar, Bill is the President of St. Louis Classical Guitar Society. Bill sat down to talk to me about how he came to music later in life, his time at the CMS, and the impact his work at the Guitar Society is making on our community.

What is your favorite part about teaching at the CMS?
BA: A number of things; for one the opportunity to teach motivated students who will follow a course of direction. I like the idea of being able to start someone young and see them grow, not only as a musician but also as a person. As music teachers, I think we have more influence than we realize. I like to model good behavior and good values, and relate musical progress to their life goals and life progress. There are some many overlaps, being persistent and consistent towards a goal and realizing it will take effort over a long period of time.

I know you came to music a little later in life. What made you decide to pick up the guitar?
BA: I think it was a suppressed desire that I never had a chance to realize and did not have any direction for. As an early teenager, I taught myself how to read music, play chords, and play through songbooks. But I did not have anyone around me to encourage me to take lessons. I did not start formally studying until I was 26 years old. I taught myself to appreciate classical music while spending the summer painting the interior of my grandmother’s home. I went to school for economics and graduated in 1969 from St. Benedict’s College. Then I went to the University of Missouri-Columbia with a teaching assistantship in economics and I did that for one year. I was teaching economics to undergraduate students. I was really into teaching but then I got drafted that year. The Vietnam War was winding down and I was in the lottery. I knew I was going to have to go in, but I stayed in school and completed my course work. The night before I went in to report, I completed my thesis for the master’s degree. I put my thesis in the mail and immediately reported to the recruiting station. While I was in the service, my master’s degree came in the mail. I was sent to Kansas and became a clerk for the Army. I was in for a year and half, it was the longest year and a half of my life. When I got out I had access to the GI bill and could complete a four-year degree for free. I went back to school and studied Philosophy at the University of Illinois. I heard a couple of the really good guitar students at the U of I and I continued my interest in the guitar. I started taking lessons in St. Louis with Michael Smith. Which lead to me auditioning at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music. I was lucky that it was the first year of the program and they let me in. I don’t think I would have originally been admitted had it not been the first year of the program. I was admitted into a class of three guitarists. I really wasn’t prepared for the shock of a conservatory.

Tell me more about your time at the Conservatory.
BA: I remember my first performance class, at the age of 28, and my right leg was shaking so much I could not control it. I had tremendous performance anxiety, and I had no technique to speak of. I had to spend the first two years refining the way I played. I think this really helped my teaching, because I did everything the wrong way and had to start from scratch. As a teacher, I am very conscious of the learning process because I went through that process as an adult. The other thing that was really hard for me was ear training. I realized this was one of my weak areas and if I was serious about becoming a musician, I had to do it and I took it serious. I use this story as motivation when I need to motivate someone. I truly believe if you want to do something you can do it, but you have to want it.

That is my core value system and how I approach my work with the Guitar Society. I think the guitar programs we are establishing can help kids to meet challenges and develop grit. Kids need challenges in school, to meet those challenges, and learn what it’s like to work towards those challenges. According to Paul Tough in How Children Succeed, we can predict a child’s success more so by the amount of grit they have than by their test scores. I think that’s true. These challenges are what we call soft landings; they are not challenges that are going to devastate a kid if they can’t do it. But if a kid is not pulling his weight in an ensemble, the student knows it and their peers know it. There’s an incentive for the student to up his or her game. Learning team work and learning how to do things together.

Tell me about the projects you are working on right now with the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society.
BA: We found that there are many public schools that would like to have guitar as part of their curriculum, but they did not have money for guitars. In 2010, the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society started soliciting donations towards purchasing guitars for schools and helping the schools get a guitar program started. We’ve worked with Music Folk to get the guitars at wholesale. To date we’ve given away over 250 guitars to local schools. Then we realized that we have to support these teachers with teaching and they needed a guitar curriculum. A sister society in Austin, Texas, the Austin Classical Guitar Society, has developed and implemented a guitar curriculum in over 50 Austin schools and more than 600 schools worldwide. They send their educators in to teach the teachers. We are modeling that program here in St. Louis.

We’ve received a grant from the Augustine Foundation in New York City to establish a guitar program at two schools in Ferguson-Florissant School District, Central Elementary School and Johnson Walbash Elementary. The funding includes their classroom teacher, our teachers, and supplies including guitars for up to 15 students per class for the upcoming calendar year. We will have a teacher working with their teacher to help implement the program. We hope to expand eventually into at least 8 more Ferguson-Florissant Schools. I am currently looking for funding to expand a program in the Normandy School District. These are once in a lifetime opportunities to do some good, to help support our community. I’m hoping to find local support for these School Districts.

We received a grant from National Endowment for the Arts for the guitar duo, Duo Noire, to visit the schools that have these programs established. Both members of Duo Noire are African American, graduates from Yale, and great role models. They are great teachers and players, and they really connected well with the students. 

Any final thoughts?
BA: I’ve really enjoyed being affiliated with the CMS. It fills such a great need in our city and does such a great job educating students. The teachers and staff are fabulous! It’s a family.