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Augustine Strings and Stephan Connor Help Bring Solace to Puerto Rican Musicians

Victoria Wasylak • FeaturesJune 2019 • June 5, 2019

There are no words that are can sufficiently comfort the victims of natural disaster. That’s why luthier Stephan Connor and Augustine Strings chose to speak with music.

Following the devastation that Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico in September 2017, the New York-based string company embarked on a special project with one of their endorsing luthiers to bring the healing power of music to the island.

Starting just one month after the hurricane, Connor came to Augustine with a very specific plan: to handcraft two guitars for two outstanding musicians affected by the damage. Seeking financial assistance for the project, Augustine hopped on board and provided monetary support, so that Connor could afford to build two of his meticulously crafted models to donate to deserving musicians.

“I just felt that I had to do something to shine rays of hope for these people and their families,” Connor says. “I decided the way I could ‘give back’ and help was by donating two guitars to aspiring, talented guitar students who dream of being professional classical guitarists.”

“Each of his guitars is a total labor of love. It takes months to build a guitar,” Elias Blumm, marketing director for Augustine Strings, tells MMR. “And the fact that he was going to be giving away these instruments that usually sells for, you know, upwards of $10,000, he was going to give them away for nothing other than out of the goodness of his heart, he just wanted to be able to recoup some of the funding on his materials and all the labor accounted for him, and cost.”

When Connor came to Augustine with a fully-formed proposal that fall, he already had two young women in mind as the recipients of the models he planned to build: Leonela Alejandro, the winner of the 2014 Boston GuitarFest Youth Competition, and Frances Karim Chiroque, who longed for a concert guitar to play at her master’s degree recital at Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico.

“They have the talent and need better instruments, but with the economic situation from the hurricane it would no longer be possible for them to acquire them,” Connor says. “So I let them know that as a symbol of support from the classical guitar community, I would build each of them a special guitar.”

“Part of what took us or what convinced us in terms of the pitch was what his description of the recipients of the guitar,” Blumm adds. “Him, describing their passion and some of their accomplishments and some of the things that they hope to accomplish, we were very inspired by that and certainly made us want to help all the more. While it was significant for us, it felt like it wasn’t just going towards two guitars, it was going towards the entire community of Puerto Rico, and all the people that Frances and Leonela would be able to touch with their music.”

After six months, Connor finished the custom guitars, both with buds adorning the rosettes as a symbol of the new growth in the young women’s lives. The red flower of Puerto Rico on both models, “reflect[s] the soul of the island,” he explains.

“The idea was, while they are rebuilding, I will be working hard from my workshop – along with them, in a way,” Connor said.

The large investment is particularly impressive coming from a rather small company; with only 26 employees, Augustine is a boots-on-the-ground operation and can easily see the difference a few acts of kindness can make.

“As a small, sort of family operation, we understand that sometimes a little thing can actually spread a really wide distance, so we hope to make an impact like that,” Blumm says. “That’s why picking our spots in terms of philanthropic endeavors is important to us. This one arose and was just what we were looking for.”

Augustine’s philanthropic track record extends far past just this one Puerto Rico project. Perhaps most notably, at Travis High School in Texas, the company has provided guitars and other necessities for traveling in their community to make music.

“We actually have close ties to a classical guitar organization out of Austin, Texas called Austin Classical Guitar. Through them, we’ve found some amazing opportunities to support local schools who have sometimes very new or burgeoning music programs and are catered towards underprivileged kids,” Blumm notes. “You think of the classical guitar as not super popular, and, you know, dorky. But we’ve gotten to see through some of the amazing teachers that are hooked into this program some of the amazing effect of being able to provide music to the schools. And in a lot of ways, guitar is a perfect instrument for programs like this because unless they’re $10,000, you can find ones that are inexpensive and affordable. They’re easy to store for high schools. And instead of having a full, you know, marching band or symphony orchestra, you can just hook up to 25 kids with guitars and make music that way.”

Looking forward, Blumm and the rest of Augustine Strings are eager to see where each guitar will bring Frances and Leonela in their careers as musicians.

“I believe this will not only be a lift to their families but could also help with the trajectory of both Frances and Leonela’s careers,” says Connor.

Frances, for instance, is currently working in Chicago on both her career as a classical guitarist and her efforts to give back in the realm of music education.

“I was recently interviewed and accepted by Denis Azabagic to work on an educational classical guitar project called Lead Guitar Program who teaches low income schools and supports classical guitarism,” she explains. “It is my intention to stay in Chicago to prepare myself in every professional aspect, while working on building a sustainable music school in Puerto Rico. My first dream after the hurricane was finishing my master’s degree. Now, my second dream is Puerto Rico Guitar Project.”

The gift from Connor and Augustine also helped her to financially sustain herself and get the final credits needed to finish her degree.

“I express my gratitude to Steve Connor and Augustine Strings for all the good things I’ve experience after the hurricane in Puerto Rico. It is my responsibility to create a music school for future guitarists,” she adds.

Likewise, Leonela is ready to finish her first school year at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, which she was also able to complete with the help Connor’s special-made guitar.

“I’m currently about to finish my first school year at UW Milwaukee, where I transferred to last fall to study with Rene Izquierdo,” she tells MMR. “It’s been an incredible year, and I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to continue growing and developing as a guitarist. Being here at Milwaukee has given me so many performance opportunities, I’ve been able to participate in a number of recitals and masterclasses given by guest artists. Having a Connor guitar has definitely facilitated the process, playing such an amazing instrument lets me appreciate every performance and helps me not take any for granted. Steve built a beautiful instrument and I feel very lucky to be able to make music with it. His generosity is admirable and I’m very fortunate to say I’ve been able to experience his selflessness firsthand through this incredible gesture. Although I’m not completely sure where yet, I plan on continuing my studies outside of Puerto Rico for now. I hold Puerto Rico very close to my heart, and I know I’ll always return to it.”

If and when the time comes, Blumm says there’s two spots in the Augustine artist roster for the young women, should they choose to pursue music in the coming years – although realistically, they have quite the familial bond already.

“We look forward to tracking their careers. And hopefully, if they push through and want to become, full-time performing artists, we want them to join our family in the same way that many of our other outstanding artists do,” Blumm adds. “But even if they don’t, this was something that, no pun intended, we hope was instrumental in their personal healing and the fact that they could use music to help heal their communities. The guitars went to two people but we feel like the gain will reverberate… We think it’s special enough that we would love for everybody to find out about it, and hopefully it would inspire some other people in the industry to follow our lead on good deeds.”

Stephan Connor’s work can be viewed at www.connorguitars.com

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