In Music

Stropes helped develop Milwaukee into finger-style central

Where Milwaukee sits in a valley of artistic prominence, with the cosmopolitan mountains of Chicago and Minneapolis on either side, there is one art form in which Milwaukee claims supremacy. In recent years, Milwaukee has become the major hub of solo acoustic guitar playing.

Since the 1980s, Milwaukee has more or less cemented itself as the unofficial capitol of classic American finger-style guitar.

Finger-style composer and educator John Wunsch refers to Milwaukee as "the center of the American guitar universe."
One cornerstone player in the development of this supreme reputation is John Stropes. A UWM professor, Stropes is a longtime guitar teacher and historian.

Solo acoustic guitar heavyweight Michael Gulezian calls Stropes the "papal authority of American finger-style guitar." Today, he stands at the top of the pyramid within the guitar program at UWM -- a program unlike any other in the world.

I had the fortune to spend a part of my Wednesday morning with Stropes. He gave me the grand tour of the then still unfinished Kenilworth building, the home base of the guitar program.

We took a giddy glimpse at all six floors of the complex and awed at the eventual guitar recital venue at the top, envisioning the glorious Lake Michigan view from the veranda.

Finally, we settled down in his fifth-floor office and Stropes indulged me with the history of American finger-style guitar, and its marriage to the city of Milwaukee.

Until the 1980s, the title finger-style guitar had not yet come about. There was a community of players and composers within the genre as we know it today across the country. They were, however, all without a real classification.

Legendary players such as John Fahey, Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke had already established their own names, but their style had no formal name. These are some of the most celebrated composers of our time. Nevertheless, they were riding on the back of the bus to Guitar Town, behind the more highly defined styles of classical and jazz.

Then, Stropes, along with all the heavy-hitters of the genre, would convene in Milwaukee to try to establish a solid community. Festivals were held to showcase their talent and vision. Meetings were called to assemble a patchwork of ideas on how to propel this style into legitimacy.

They played and they brainstormed. They had a sound and now they gave it a name. From this point in history, these people were playing "classic American finger-style guitar." Through these meetings and festivals, Milwaukee grew into what Stropes says is the major "hub of activity for finger-style guitar" today. It is, in essence, the birthplace of an art form.

Stropes realized that one major issue standing in the way of the development of this art form was the lack of an educational outlet.

"My initial goal," Stropes says, "was to provide accurate transcriptions."

Before he applied himself to this goal, there were flawed and overly challenging books sold in music stores. He felt that these faulty publications were discouraging for young players. If he could correct this problem, Stropes felt people would, "stay with it and understand the great joy" of the music.

For 12 years, he worked with the legendary performer and composer, Michael Hedges to hammer out this dilemma. The late Hedges was the perfect teammate for this expedition, being perhaps the most revered figure within the genre and one of the most highly regarded composers of his time.

The two sought to develop a notational system that would be capable of codifying Hedges' music. This work culminated with the publication of the book, "Michael Hedges: Rhythm, Sonority, Silence."

Stropes also realized that there were no college-level finger-style programs that, in his words, "could add legitimacy" to the genre. From this idea, his vision has since grown into a reality that is just starting to take shape.

UWM professor, and "teammate" of Stropes', Rene Izquierdo shares the vision.

"The scholastic world has been constricted to classical music, which is a terrible mistake," Izquierdo attests. He believes that the guitar program at UWM is "a new road for finger-style guitar."

The program, now in its third year, is unlike any other in the entire world. UWM currently offers the only bachelor's degree in a student's choice between classical, jazz, flamenco or American finger-style guitar. It is also the only university in the world that offers a degree in finger-style performance.

"The unique thing about this program," Izquierdo says, "is that it takes many resources and styles and puts them into one program."

"We want to have a positive influence on the future," Stropes insists, "…so that the music can flourish."

The program is propelling this art form into an extremely bright and promising future.

"When I look at this bunch of students, I am delighted," Stropes says, with a glowing sense of serenity written all over his face. "They share a vision…it's a stand up group."

This program has acquired qw new students each year since its birth, now claiming 36 majors. The seeds have been planted for something quite profound. A program such as this one gives these students an asset that past generations of performers were never exposed to.

Painting the ultimate picture, Stropes compares these students to the ancient Roman god, Mars. He fervently sold the image that these players are, in a sense born with a full suit of armor -- being born into a sort of advantage that should set a new standard.

Stropes' work has intrigued the finger-style world. Aside from the master tutelage of this "papal authority," the guitar students at UWM have been graced with the presence and embrace of more than a handful of the greats. Just this academic year, the program has hosted such names as Gulezian, Billy McLaughlin, Andy McKee and Kottke, among others.

The program is clearly catching on within this circle of artists, and being accepted quite heartily. As Stropes tells iy, Kottke called him up and assertively posed the question, "Don't' you think it's about time that I come in to talk to your students?"

Last fall, standing in the living room of an Appleton home, where Gulezian gave a private performance, the artist took a moment to soak in the picture of what he believed to be something truly marvelous.

"This is the future of American finger-style guitar!" Gulezian exclaimed, part awed, somewhat humbled and with complete enthusiasm.


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