Chilean Master's student Pablo Gonzalez first picked up a classical guitar when he was 8 years old. The Spanish guitar stayed with him through his early education and finally swept him north to the University of Arizona as a Fulbright scholar, where he joined the roughly 25 undergraduate and graduate students in the UA's Bolton Guitar Studies Program.
"You can find it in almost any home in my country," Gonzalez said of classical guitar music.
Students in the UA program hail from countries around the world, including France, Chile, Philippines, China, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Norway, Turkey and many others, drawn by the reputation of a music program like no other.
Many elements of the Bolton guitar program are found in no other classical guitar program in the world such as four endowed guitar competitions supported by the D'Addario string company and by donors, said professor R. Thomas Patterson, who heads the program.
With boons such as artists in residence David Russell, a world-renowned musician and recording artist, and Grammy Award winners Sérgio and Odair Assad, it may not be surprising that UA classical guitar students regularly win at national and international guitar competitions.
"The Assad Brothers come for a week in the fall, and David Russell comes for a week in the spring, and they teach for a week and give concerts," said Julia Pernet, chairman of the Tucson Guitar Society. "I think that's a very unusual asset to have, to have that class of performing guitarists come and spend a week, and really know the students."
Patterson, who joined the UA faculty in 1980, is credited by many for making the guitar program what it is today. "I wanted to make it a flagship, a model for other programs around the country, around the world," Patterson said.
"If you ask other guitar professors what are their greatest achievements, they say, 'Well, I published this book, or that book,'" said Misael Barraza, a first year Master's student in the program, who recently won the Montreal International Competition. "If you ask Tom, he'll say, 'See this guitar champion, or that champion? This was my student.'"
"One of the great things that Tom is able to do is assist students to get to these international competitions and to try themselves out against the world," Pernet added.
"We've seen people make extraordinary moves within our program," said Patterson. "It's exciting to see a high-end person achieve an international prize, but someone who maybe you're taking a risk with, to see them succeed is absolutely amazing."
Pernet brings world-renowned performing artists to Tucson every year through the Tucson Guitar Society. "Part of the agreement that I sign with them is that they will give master classes for the UA guitar program," she said.
In 2011, Sanford and Phyllis Bolton, lifelong music lovers and supporters of classical guitar, gave $2 million to establish the Sanford and Phyllis Bolton Endowed Chair for Classical Guitar, a position held by professor Patterson. Shortly after, Bolton gave an additional $1.1 million, establishing the Sanford and Phyllis Bolton Endowment for Guitar.
"This was the largest gift of its kind in the history of fine arts," Patterson said, a gift that has enabled the program to support talented students who otherwise may not be able to pursue their dreams with acoustic guitar. In honor of the support, the program changed its name to the Bolton Guitar Studies Program.
The reputation of the program, its calendar packed with events and activities, and the supportive student community have attracted classical guitar talents from many nations. "I'm here because of the reputation of the guitar program," said Ivar Fojas, who is from the Philippines and also a Fulbright scholar, entering the third year of his doctoral studies.
"Normally, other guitar programs would have one or two recitals each semester," Fojas said. "We have them every single week. I've learned how to listen, to really be critical of myself."
"That's really what makes the difference between players," Barraza added. "Is how well you can listen to yourself."
The guitar program curriculum engages students in the community, with a public performance every Friday at 11 a.m. in the UA Museum of Art, and many other concerts and recitals throughout the year.
Patterson said he also makes effort to engage the community through concerts and working with children, to get them involved with guitar and music at a young age.
"It really pushes you to have higher standards for yourself," said Leandra Hubka, who is finishing her Master's degree. "There are so many opportunities to play for the public," she added. "You get better by playing for people."
Barraza said he aims for a concert career, and that the UA guitar program has "been a huge influence on me. I wouldn't be able to do without it."
"We have an enormously supportive group of people," Patterson said. "I have friends who have traveled all over the world; I ask them if this happens anywhere else, and they say no."
"We have four in-house competitions each year," Hubka said. "It would be really easy to get competitive with each other, but we're not at all." Perhaps competition is out of the question among a group of people unified by the sound of an instrument they can't put down.
"It has that effect sometimes," Barraza mused. "The guitar just grabs onto you, and that's it."