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'Guitar found me': Teenage virtuoso Damian Goggans' journey to Oberlin

Amanda Rabinowitz
Damian Goggans began guitar lessons in 2016 at an after-school program with the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society. Now, he is enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music to study classical guitar on a full scholarship.

It’s been five years since Damian Goggans first picked up a guitar during a lesson with the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society at Citizens Leadership Academy.

After less than a year of playing, Goggans became one of only two students accepted into the Musical Pathways Fellowship at Cleveland Institute of Music.

The organization provides free instruction through senior year of high school for talented young Black and Latinx students.

“When I first walked into the class, I didn't think I was going to even enjoy playing the guitar, let alone continue to play it and play it in high school and end up going to college for it,” Goggans said. “It's already been five years of playing and graduating from high school and from the Musical Pathways Fellowship, so a lot has happened.”

Goggins graduated from high school at Cleveland School for the Arts this past spring.

Now, he’s enrolled at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music on a full scholarship.

He will also tour New York and Spain in summer 2022 with the U.S. Guitar Orchestra.

A non-profit arts organization is turning inner-city Cleveland kids into classical guitarists. It's a growing outreach program started by the Cleveland…

Gaining new opportunities as a guitar player
Goggans’ journey from classical guitar novice to virtuoso began as a participant in an after-school program for inner-city students and has led to multiple opportunities to advance his music career.

Goggans and cellist Evan Rowland-Seymore were chosen as the first recipients of the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Minority Artist Fellowship in 2017.

The program provided opportunities for young musicians to perform and participate in mentorships, private instructions, workshops and masterclasses.

Three years later, while Goggans was still in high school, he was among 14 students chosen from seven countries for the Guitar Foundation of America’s 2020 mentorship program.

He participated in virtual lessons with French guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre and U.S. guitarist Chris Mallett.

On Nov. 13 of this year, Gifted Guitars, a new non-profit from California, flew to Cleveland to present Goggans with a free guitar.

The organization gifts professional-level instruments to young, talented players, and Goggans was chosen as their first recipient.

Goggans said he fell in love with the guitar the first time he played it in 2016, but it took some convincing for him to even get started.

“So, first off, I didn't even know what a classical guitar was,” Goggans said. “And I definitely didn't want to play it. The Guitar Society had brought the program to my old middle school, and my arts director was like, ‘You know, you should do the program. It's after school, and it's classical guitar.’ And I said, ‘no.’”

Worried that he would receive a lower grade in his middle-school arts class if he didn't sign up, Goggans decided to enroll in the after-school program.

He met with other students each week at the City Life center, where many picked up instruments for the very first time.

Erik Mann, director of the Classical Guitar Society, said during a Shuffle interview in 2018 that these opportunities to play instruments can be life-changing for young people.

"One-on-one lessons are expensive. Their schools don’t have any opportunities to teach them any instruments. It’s even unsafe or expensive for them to travel somewhere to take lessons," Mann said.

Cleveland Classical Guitar Society started the outreach program in 2016 after receiving a grant to provide lessons for students in the Clark Fulton neighborhood.

Mann said he had been working with kids in Cleveland-area schools since 2012 to help them create something special and make a difference in their lives.

Working with Goggans exceeded his expectations.

“This was sort of beyond our wildest dreams,” Mann said. “When we started the program back in 2012, we would have never guessed that we'd have someone just as brilliant as Damian is.”

Goggans quickly excelled beyond basic guitar lessons and began performing around Cleveland.

"It's like there's a connection between me and the audience, and I really like that aspect of performing."
Damian Goggans

From the first lesson to composing his own music
Cleveland-area composer Rob Thorndike instructed Goggans and other children enrolled in the after-school guitar program.

The first lessons taught the young players the basics of guitar.

They learned rhythm by tapping the instrument, counting together while plucking notes, then eventually putting a song together at the end of an hour-long lesson.

Goggans picked it up quickly and started staying up all night playing his guitar.

“Ever since the first class, I just kind of fell in love with guitar. I would go home and, like, be up like in the middle of the night learning pieces,” Goggans said.

Since his early days learning the instrument, Goggans said one of his biggest moments was performing the first piece he composed, “A Ballad of a Mother,” at Severance Hall.

His mother was in the audience for the performance and had an emotional response to the song when she first heard it.

It was amazing,” Goggans said. “Like, I was probably the second year of playing, I think second or third year of playing. It was almost like I was connected into the universe, which was like a weird experience that I've only had a couple of times afterwards.”

Goggans said the performance was particularly special to him because his mother had been in and out of jail and wasn’t able to attend most of his concerts.

“So for her to be able to make it to that one and be able to play the piece and be like, I wrote this for her, like, it was amazing,” he said.

Goggans said one aspect of performing he loves most is connecting with the audience.

“If it's a good day and I've practiced good enough and I'm really prepared and I go out there and I perform, it's like there's a connection between me and the audience, and I really like that aspect of performing,” Goggans said.

Getting a full ride to college
Goggans enrolled at Oberlin this fall to major in classical guitar on a full scholarship.

After auditioning with the college, he met with Mann and applied to several other schools.

From first picking up a guitar in 2016 to graduating from the Cleveland School for the Arts this year, Damian Goggins was offered full scholarships at five different colleges he applied to. He's pursuing a major in classical guitar this fall.
Amanda Rabinowitz
From first picking up a guitar in 2016 to graduating from the Cleveland School for the Arts this year, Damian Goggins was offered full scholarships at five different colleges he applied to. He's pursuing a major in classical guitar this fall.

I applied to like four other schools, and they all accepted me,” Goggans said,

He said he told the other colleges that Oberlin offered him a full ride, and they offered him the same.

“We sat down and we went through the college applications, and we met on Zoom, many a late night trying to figure out financial aid and how to pay for this and how much things cost,” Mann said. “And sweating over these decisions of, which of these five great schools that he got into that are fighting over him should he choose?”

Goggans said his mom told him to choose between one and 100 to decide which school he wanted to enroll in.

“I don't recommend this for any high school student looking for college,” Goggans said. “It was like the day before we were supposed to pick the college. I had a lot of great choices."

Oberlin’s Classical Guitar area of study offers students coaching and mentorship from professional musicians to help them hone their skills and find their voice as artists.

Goggans continues his relationship with Mann, who was one of his first mentors in the world of music.

I see him more as like a father figure who just so happens to teach guitar,” Goggans said. “He's been there for me for so many different moments in my life.”

Goggans said Mann has been there for him through family struggles and calls him “the greatest person I know.”

“Damian is just such a special, humble and inspiring person,” Mann said. “I think some of my proudest moments have been when Damian's come in for a lesson and something really awful has happened. And the first thing he says is, ‘How are you today?’”

Mann said Goggan’s concern is always for someone else, even when he is facing his own personal challenges.

“So as much as he's achieved on the guitar and inspiring others, I think it's those moments that just speak to who he is as a person that makes me the proudest,” Mann said.

Becoming an advocate as a Black musician in the classical field
Goggans said he wants to use his music skills and experiences to give back to others.

Going back to the idea of me being able to use music to help others—so whether it be teaching, or whether it be playing a piece of writing, a piece about some type of injustice in the world,” Goggans said.

He played the piece “Beyond Ferguson” by Thomas Flippin as part of a quartet with the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society.

They filmed a video, which premiered for the Guitar Foundation for America.

“It was right after George Floyd had been murdered. So it was a very profound piece, to say the least,” he said.

Goggans said another important piece he performed was called “The Covenant” about a Black soldier returning home from war and moving his family into a white neighborhood.

“But they didn't want him,” Goggans said. “And so we had to do that piece, and it allowed me, and the other students that was in the guitar quartet, to use our music as like a weapon against injustice.”

He said music serves as a way for him to express himself when he’s upset—it’s a language everyone understands.

“When I'm upset, I'm not good at [expressing myself]. When it comes to music, I can use that language instead,” Goggans said.

When Goggans first learned guitar at the after-school program in Cleveland, he didn’t think much about diversity being a concern in classical music.

He has had a few experiences since where he recognized the perception of Black artists in the classical space.

One example is another musician asking Goggans if he knew how to play his instrument.

He was offended and wanted to tell the person they all had to audition to get where they were.

“So instead of like saying all of that to him, because that's what I was thinking in my head, I just played the piece that I wrote and left him shocked,” Goggans said. “And I was like, ‘yes, so I do know how to play. Thank you.’ But I have had a couple of experiences where I realized that like, there isn't too many people that look like me in this field.”

Goggans said he only knows of three or four professional Black classical guitarists, including Mallet, Flippin and Justin Holland.

“[Holland] is from the 19th century. Do you see where that’s a problem? So I kind of feel like it's almost part of my job—like once I get out of college—is to kind of help give more people that look like me the opportunities that I have,” he said.

Mann said Goggans is one of the “most extraordinary people” he’s ever met.

“You know, if I had to choose a young person that I wanted to see as president someday, I think I'd probably pick him,” Mann said.

What’s next for the young guitarist
Goggans started a GoFundMe to help get him to Spain with the U.S. Guitar Orchestra in 2022.

He surpassed his initial goal of $3,500 and is now able to pay for his trip in full.

“I like to think that it was kind of chosen for me. Once I found a guitar, or once guitar found me, I should say, I knew it was what I was supposed to do.”
Damian Goggans

“I didn't expect the guitar to take me to even bring me to graduation, like I didn't expect to still be playing guitar during graduation. I didn't expect to be going to go to college for guitar in general, and I definitely did not see guitar taking me outside of the country,” he said.

Goggans said while driving around recently, he saw several abandoned buildings and felt inspired to someday open a classical guitar college on that street.

“I think I would want to do something like that. In the case that that is like a stretch and I don't get it, then I would like to just teach and perform,” Goggans said.

Classical guitar has opened new doors for Goggans since he first picked up the instrument at age 14, and he plans to stick with it.

“I like to think that it was kind of chosen for me,” Goggans said. “Once I found a guitar, or once guitar found me, I should say, I knew it was what I was supposed to do.”

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Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.