Ronald Radford

School Tour Gives Master of Flamenco New Audience

*James D. Watts Jr. - _Tulsa World_ *

Guitarist Ronald Radford sat on the stage of the Monroe Middle School auditorium, warming up his hands with some fiery flamenco chords, watching as the students filed in.

He didn't seem to mind the near deafening roar of young voices celebrating a few moments’ freedom from the classroom. Nor did it bother him that some of the students found the sight of a grown man sitting with one foot propped up on a tiny folding stool absolutely hilarious. One guy and one guitar against an auditorium full of boisterous sixth and seventh graders, most of whom recognized only two forms of music - rock and rap. It hardly seemed a fair match-up.

And it wasn't. Radford was barely 10 bars into his first tune - a joyous dance number called "Alegrias" - before the youngsters were nodding to the rhythm, tapping their sneakers in time with Radford's percussive thumps on his guitar's body and all but dancing in their seats.

"That," Radford said, "is the power of music - specifically, flamenco music.”

Radford, a former Tulsan who now makes his home in St. Louis, is the acknowledged American master of flamenco guitar. He's the only person ever to be awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study flamenco, one of only two guitarists ever to be private students of the legendary Carlos Montoya, the artist who brought this music created by Spanish gypsies to mainstream audiences.

He has played everywhere from Carnegie Hall in New York City to... well, to the auditorium of Monroe Middle School in Tulsa, where he performed Wednesday. Radford has spent the past week giving performances at schools in Tulsa and Bartlesville [concluding with the Saturday formal concert].

Radford's "public schools tour" is made possible by The Arts Foundation, a Tulsa-based non-profit organization. Additional funding was supplied by the Mid-America Arts Alliance with the State Arts Council of Oklahoma and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with support from the Language and Fine Arts departments of Tulsa Public Schools.

During the course of his 45-minute Performance Radford described some of the techniques of playing flamenco music (coating the fingernails of the right hand with several coats of Super Glue to keep them from breaking), talked about the times he went to Spain to learn about flamenco music from the people who originated it, and told how his interest in music progressed from strumming tunes on a ukulele, to playing classical piano and cello, to experimenting with all sorts of guitar-based music from country to jazz to blues to rock (demonstrating every phase with an appropriate riff or tune).

Then, one day, his mother brought home a Carlos Montoya record and he fell in love with flamenco.

And the students took it all in, peppering Radford with questions and hanging on to every note, even shouting out "OLE!" every chance they got.

"I've always done school concerts like this, but I find I'm enjoying them more and more," Radford said, after the program finished. "Today's show (at Monroe) was particularly enjoyable. The kids here were the best audience I've had so far on this trip. They were really getting into the music — you could just tell there was a connection."

But Radford's purpose is more than entertainment. His stories and his answers to the students' questions, all are designed to make a point — that each person is in charge of his or her destiny.

"What's important," Radford told the students, "is not what you say NO to, it's what you say YES to that counts. Say yes to your talents, to your abilities, to the things you love. Things don't just happen to you. What happens to you comes from the things you choose throughout life."

Radford offered himself as living proof of that philosophy — a self-described "Oklahoma kid" who grew up to be a world-class artist.

"I realize I get a little philosophical — maybe even metaphysical — toward the end, but the kids always get it," he said. The same thing with the music. They get it, almost instinctively. The flamenco pieces I play in these concerts are not excerpts, or watered down in any way. It's the same sort of music I would play if I were playing Carnegie Hall again.

"And occasionally I get some indication that I've made a difference with some kids," he said. 'I was recently in Blytheville, Ark., and one of the high school teachers there told me about three of her students that had gone on to college, and all of them cited the performance I had given there a few years ago as a motivation for them.

"Of course, you can't expect to get that sort of feedback every time. It takes a commitment, and I'm very committed to doing these sort of shows.

The school concerts also are important, Radford said, because they demonstrate the efficacy of agencies like the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts. Enrichment programs like the ones Radford and other artists present under the auspices of these organizations will be lost once national funding for the arts is abolished, as Republicans have promised to do.

"Right at the time when youngsters need programs like this more than ever, the government wants to cut the funding, abolish the agencies," he said. "We're going to need more individual and corporate support if we hope to have any kind of outreach program, to bring the arts to children who ordinarily might not be exposed to a wide range of culture."

Radford recalled a time. a couple of years ago, when the Missouri State Arts Council was in danger of being wiped out, and it took a great deal of effort for its supporters to convince the government of the arts' economic impact.

"For every dollar spent on arts funding, something like $6 in tax revenue was returned to the state," Radford said. "Like Will Rogers said, 'It ain't not knowing things that makes you ignorant, it's knowin’ so many things that just ain't so.' And that's the case of people who say there's no public benefit from the arts."

Radford said those interested in helping The Arts Foundation in its work supporting his school programs should contact President Margaret Vandever at 918-742-0028.