When Associate Professor of Social Work Anna Escamilla heard about Austin Soundwaves, a program that brings music education to more than 200 underserved students across the city, she knew she had to get involved. As a teenager growing up in Corpus Christi, she’d once been one of those at-risk kids — and music had offered her a glimpse of all the world could offer.

When a favorite teacher suggested she join choir, Escamilla initially shrugged off the idea. “Music? Singing? Me?” she remembers. “But by the time I graduated, I was president of the choir. For the first time, I had been given access to something that made me feel like I could be successful.”

Associate Professor of Social Work Anna Escamilla

Through Soundwaves, Escamilla is helping bring that sense of possibility to others. She and Assistant Professor Adam McCormick first collaborated with the group last year through a Hispanic Alliance grant that funded faculty interviews and student resiliency testing across the Soundwaves program. This year, as part of a second grant, Escamilla is evaluating the effectiveness of Soundwaves’ smaller and more targeted Advanced Skills and Mentoring Program, which offers one-on-one instrument lessons in everything from violin to euphonium, along with leadership training and help with college and scholarship applications. “The anecdotal evidence is that the kids love it,” says Escamilla, who conducted seven focus groups with participants and presented her findings to the Hispanic Alliance earlier this fall.

Students of Austin Soundwaves playing music.

Before the second grant ends in February, she’s planning more in-depth focus groups and targeted questionnaires. “We’ve really got to ask questions that reflect the concerns affecting this group of kids,” she says. “They are a big part of what makes Austin Austin — they are motivated to overcome their lack of privilege, to find a way to go to college, to be agents of change in their communities.”

Ultimately, she hopes her work will showcase both the qualitative and quantitative outcomes that can help Soundwaves secure more funding and reach more students. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking with these kids and observing their lessons,” she says, “and there might be nothing more hopeful and gorgeous than the sound of brand new musicians scratching out a tune on their violins. I could stay and listen all day.”

High-school students at East Austin College Prep who participate in Austin Soundwaves take private music lessons, as well as participate in the advanced music groups at the school, including orchestra, band, mariachi and philharmonic. Their first concert of the year was in October. From left to right: Eric Maldonado, Barbara Reyes, Leslie Jaimes, Samuel Olmos and Miriam Manzano.


By Stacia M. Miller MLA ’05
Photography by Whitney Devin ’10