On Oct. 3, Elizabeth McQueen performed at Austin City Limits Music Festival with an unusual accompaniment. A group of five high school girls made up the horn section of McQueen’s act, playing just as well as any professional. This is because the girls were trained by professionals.
The girls were part of Anthropos Arts, a charity that connects professional musicians with kids in Travis County who can’t afford lessons. ACL provided a space for the organization as a part of ACL Cares, an area of the festival where select organizations can set up booths and provide information about their missions.
Dylan Jones founded Anthropos Arts in 1998 when he was coming into the Austin music scene. He founded the charity in response to his own experience of taking lessons as a kid. Jones said his teacher was a lifesaver when he was going through a troubling time.
“When I was a kid, my parents were able to pay the 20 bucks, or whatever it was, for a lesson back then, but I did a little bit of research in schools and realized that in the vast majority of Title I schools, there are literally zero kids taking private lessons,” Jones said.
Title I schools have a high percentage of low-income students, whose families typically would not be able to pay for private music lessons. Jones said the Anthropos Arts booth at ACL Cares allows the students to come to a festival they otherwise would not have been able to afford to visit on their own. For five girls, being allowed to perform with McQueen, one of Anthropos’ newest teachers, was just the cherry on top. McQueen said the girls were not intimidated in front of the huge crowd.
“It was exactly what I wanted to happen,” McQueen said. “Most of the girls are drum majors at their school, so they’re just total badasses to begin with, and they just totally nailed it.”
McQueen, a vocal teacher at Anthropos, said she thinks Anthropos Arts is a great way to take advantage of the high-quality, professional musicians in Austin.
“We are flush with musicians in Austin,” Jones said. “Between the University and the music scene, we never lack teachers. We’re connecting that resource with the unfortunate surplus of kids living in poverty.”
Anthropos communcations director Viviana Kennealy said the program does more than just teach kids to play instruments; it’s teaching them to take commitments seriously and be self-motivated. For the past 10 years, 100 percent of seniors in the program have graduated in schools that have average graduation rates of 65 to 70 percent.
“We pick kids based on their willingness and desire to do it, and, from there, we stay on them a lot about grades,” Jones said. “Having the extra two or three people in their lives through the Anthropos program that can be checking on them about their grades has been the biggest turning point.”
McQueen, who recently stopped touring after eight years as a vocalist with the band Asleep at the Wheel, said she signed onto Anthropos Arts when Jones asked her to join without really knowing what it was. But, after one semester, McQueen said mentoring the kids has become the highlight of her week.
“There’s a lot to learn, and there’s a lot to be inspired by,” McQueen said. “A lot of these kids are not going to become professional musicians, but they are going to see that you can follow your passion and thrive and also have time to give by watching their teachers do that.”