As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Special Edition 2022 – I Belong
Swan Strings is a non-profit music organization run by the ethereal jazz harp-playing goddess, Jess Garland, also known as Jess. Jess is the founding director of Swan Strings, whose mission is to provide free music education and sound therapy services to North Texas individuals without access to music programs. Jess uses her gift as a multi-instrumentalist and educator to help provide her students with guitar, harp, and songwriting lessons. She has provided over 339 hours of free music education to over 226 children. Music education has the power to inspire and empower children and adults of all ages; it’s also the bridge to self-expression and creativity. Guitar Girl Magazine had the pleasure of chatting with Jess to learn more about Swan Strings and how the power of music education can help lift, encourage, and inspire communities. She takes us deep into her experiences as a Black woman in the classical music industry.
What is Swan Strings, and what is your mission? How did Swan Strings begin?
Swan Strings is a music non-profit that provides free music education, community concerts, and sound therapy services to North Texas individuals without access. It started as a program called Guitar Lessons by Jess in 2017. I had just received my first grant as an independent solo artist. I originally wrote the grant for La Rondalla, a program founded by my late mentor and bandmate Dennis Gonzalez. Since 2017, the program has provided approximately 679 hours of free music education and has served 308 children. Last year, we did 340 hours of free music and added 82 new students to the program.
How has your journey been as the founder and director of Swan Strings?
The journey has been incredible overall, and I receive much love and support from the community. I recently gave an artist statement to the Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition, an organization supported by the City of Dallas. I consistently receive instrument donations from WRR and features on KXT and KERA. Visit Dallas supports me, and Wild Turkey and Matthew McConaughey have recognized me as a local legend.
Where is your organization located, and who can benefit from the opportunities to experience the music education Swan Strings provides?
We are located in Dallas, Texas, and primarily serve North Texas of all ages. With the help of a few critical partnerships like She Shreds Media and Kyser Musical Products, I’ve reached audiences outside of North Texas. I think there are a lot of youth and adults that can benefit from the education that Swan Strings provides.
What types of music classes do Swan Strings offer?
We primarily offer guitar lessons. However, we also offer bass guitar, harp, songwriting, and voice.
Why is music education and giving back to the community so important to your organization?
The services that I offer cannot be found in most schools. I’m living the impact it made on me as a child. As an educator, I’ve seen how it changes the lives of many families.
What other programs aside from music lessons does Swan Strings offer?
We additionally offer free or low-cost concerts. We also want to expand to provide music in hospitals, retirement homes, and hospice care facilities.
When are lessons and sound therapy services available to students looking to join?
We offer year-round programming during and after school and on the weekends.
How can people donate and support Swans Strings’ mission to provide music education and sound therapy services?
We accept donations through our GoFundMe page at Swan Strings 501c3 – Free Music Lessons, fundraiser events, or by visiting our website jessstrings.com.
In what ways do you feel that Black women have been underappreciated in an industry that thrives on exploiting and appropriating Black Culture?
I think it’s intentional that people are taught that Black women are not innovators when we are the blueprint in all areas of music. From Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alice Coltrane, Sylvia Robinson, and Missy Elliott, we are the creators of rock, jazz, and hip-hop. We often create our own genres. I call my music Ethereal Jazz.
What has your experience been like as a Black woman in the classical music genre? In what ways do you feel there needs to be more representation of Black women in classical music?
I’ve worked in an orchestra for many years, and I don’t recall seeing any tenured musicians who were Black women. We have been educators and in guest services, but we do not have a seat on stage. We have also been students who often felt like pandering to a community not represented on stage. I have received a seat at the table. Still, there was always a lack of agency with the convenience of using my skin color and gender to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Whenever I tried to speak on these issues or questioned my skill set and talent, I was deemed insubordinate and physically intimidated. In these situations, I either resigned or was let go.
What advice do you have for Black women who want to get into classical music and the music business?
Get involved with various organizations within the community. Create committees and organize meetings to use your voice. Detach from the distractions and noise to protect yourself from those who will attempt to prevent you from fulfilling your mission. Most importantly, do not be afraid to start your own business and organization because we have something that most places cannot offer.