By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Tamayo House staffers Israel Saenz and Gerardo Penuelas both discovered guitars as kids and found joy making music.
Today they reach back to those early experiences when they were immersed in teen bands or plucking away in self-soothing solitude as they teach the young men at Tamayo how to pick, strum and otherwise rock out in their own way.
For Saenz, who came of age in the 1980s and loves roots and rock and the blues, everything from Robert Johnson to Stevie Ray Vaughan, his guitar was his trusted boyhood companion.
“I tell these boys that when I was growing up, my guitar never let me down, whether I was sad or not. I could always express my feelings with it.”
As a left-hander from a household where money was tight, Saenz had to restring the acoustic guitar his mother found for him at a rummage sale. Paid lessons were out of the question. But he found inspiration in the music and life story of the great Jimi Hendrix, a fellow leftie and self-taught guitarist, who not only mastered the instrument, but shook up the world with his reverberations.
Back in the ‘80s, long before YouTube instructional videos, Saenz listened to local musicians at restaurants and Quinceañeras. He picked the players brains, if not also their instruments. Then he returned home to dwell in the peace of working out tunes on his broken guitar that bullies teased him about.
By age 15, he played by ear so well that “of course I was in a band,” Saenz says with a knowing chuckle. Who wasn’t in a band at 15!
His ensemble played the cover songs everyone wanted to hear. And Saenz greatly enjoyed entertaining people. But he later broke away to create his own music.
“I love to write music. A lot of people like to play cover songs, but to me, someone already did that.”
At the age of 11, Penuelas was also searching for a way to take the music lessons he couldn’t afford. He found the solution at his Catholic church, where he picked up both the guitar and the art of barter and trade.
He asked the church elders if he could receive guitar lessons. He could, replied the priest, though he drove a hard bargain: Penuelas could get lessons in exchange for playing at masses.
“I ended up playing at the 9 and the 12 -- and the 5 on Sundays -- and the 5 on Saturday,” Penuelas recalls. He played four masses each weekend, for many weekends, adding up to many masses -- and he became a young master guitarist.
By 13, Penuelas was himself instructing a passel of younger kids at the church. He was allowed to use a classroom for the lessons -- $1.50 a pop per student – as long as he kept playing guitar, that’s right, at mass.
Soon, he was also teaching adults at the church and this time devising the deal. He gave guitar lessons in exchange for piano lessons for himself.
He joined a teen band, expanded into vocals, and took everything he learned at the church out into the wider world. His band played paid gigs at parties and TV stations, and once brokered a plan where they watched movies for free at a local theater in exchange for performances.
“At intermission, we’d rock and roll!” Penuelas says.
Though they never “made it big,” his band enjoyed cranking out covers of popular Eagles and Doobie Brothers tunes.
Penuelas kept with music, performing with his high school choir and in musicals like The Music Man and South Pacific. Later he studied voice at Pan American University in Edinburg (now the University of Texas at PanAm) and as adult, joined various community bands and chorales, while building his daytime career in social work and public safety.
Paying it forward at Tamayo House
Today, Saenz, a Youth Development Coach, and Penuelas, a caseworker, bring their decades of knowledge to their work at Tamayo House, a halfway house in Harlingen, where they relish the opportunity to help youth find the emotional lift music can provide.
“Music can open a lot of doors for them, even if they’re very passive about it, it can release a lot of stress. They can write a song about how they’re feeling, and play the guitar at the same time. Without using any drugs or alcohol, they can lose themselves playing guitar and at the same time it creates a discipline,” Penuelas said.
For youth who’ve suffered traumatic childhoods, as so many at TJJD have, and may be slow to trust, playing music can be both quell social anxiety and provide a bridge to connect with others.
“It’s the universal language,” says Saenz, who’s worked at TJJD for 23 years, the last 12 at Tamayo.
He began teaching guitar to interested youth more than a decade ago, alongside Youth Development Coach Derek Rivera, a former music teacher who then led the lessons at Tamayo. They taught mainly on weekends, when the schedule allowed, but with the support of Tamayo leadership, now helmed by Superintendent Eduardo Garza.
Last year, Garza and TJJD leaders boosted the program by adding three new guitars and several rhythm drums.
“This program exemplifies what we’re trying to do with the Texas Model, helping youth to feel empowered and extend themselves and try new things,” Garza said. “That works so well when they have caring role models like Saenz and Penuelas.”
Saenz, 49, teaches the boys as he learned, not reading music, but playing by ear and feel. He stresses four key aspects to keep progressing: “I tell them, first picture it in your mind; then feel the music; then express it through the instrument and four, the most important part, is to share it.”
Sharing is important because it builds human connections and commitment to the music, Saenz said. He’s written music for relatives including a song for a cousin who lost his son. “It was like his soul was speaking to me. I think it’s a beautiful song. It’s about his son and his relationship.”
Saenz works in inspirational stories about musicians, recounting, for instance, how legendary guitarist Eric Clapton “went through a dark time when he lost his 7 year old son.”
“He went through a depression. But he expressed all those feelings through his music and he gave us a gift -- that song, ‘Tears in Heaven’. You can really feel what he was expressing and we can also feel for a loved one or a friend,” Saenz said.
He encourages the boys to express themselves and not worry about matching what others can do. He tells them there’s no “bad” music, if a person is expressing their feelings.
Once he sees a Tamayo student is striving to learn, Saenz tries to provide the music the young man loves, whether its blues, rock, country or Tejano. Recently, he helped a young man learn a Hendrix-style version of the Star Spangled Banner, a song the youth wanted to learn to share with his father.
“I try to simplify the music they’re liking and once they see it’s possible to play the songs they like, it just encourages them to want to play more. I demonstrate what you can do, but from then on it’s about them and what they want to do.”
Penuelas, 61, who’s been at TJJD for 15 years, teaches guitar and drums to Tamayo youth. The drums appeal to young men who’re working out rap rhythms or lyrics.
Like Saenz, he’s motivated to spread the happiness music brings and help the youth learn something they can take with them, whether it’s the start of a hobby, vocation or just positive memories.
“They can play guitar wherever they go and they can also teach their kids the guitar. It’s a fun instrument to play,” Penuelas said.
“I tell them it’s like riding a bicycle, you never forget, but if you don’t practice you cannot be doing those wheelies,” Saenz said.
Both men say they’re glad that the program is stronger than ever, with a better equipped music room that tempts youth to try the strings.
“There’s been a lot of youth who’ve taken advantage of this and learned a lot,” Saenz said, “and when I see how excited they get that’s just a great feeling.
(Photos: Top - Israel Saenz works with a student in a private lesson. Bottom - Gerardo Penuelas poses with three of his music students.)