Alex Bonilla, 15, strums his six-string guitar at his home in Sacramento. Bonilla is one of the youngest members of the Sacramento Guitar Society Orchestra.

Instruments of Change

Sacramento Guitar Society Orchestra encourages one young musician to give back to his community

Back Web Only Mar 31, 2017 By Willie Clark

For one local teenager, all it took was six strings to rope together funds for charity.

Those six strings are on Alex Bonilla’s guitar. Bonilla — 15, and a sophomore at Jesuit High School — has been playing in the Sacramento Guitar Society Orchestra for roughly five years, after his guitar teacher suggested he gain group-performance experience.  

The Sacramento Guitar Society Orchestra is one of several programs run by the Sacramento Guitar Society, a nonprofit that’s been around for more than 50 years. Among these programs, the Society also hosts concerts, offers scholarships for guitar camps and facilitates guitar donations for various music programs. The orchestra itself has been around since 2011 and is currently conducted by Sean O’Connor, who says the group provides an outlet for community members to be engaged in music.

“I think it’s important because people often participate in music only in a passive way,” O’Connor says. “In other words, they might go to concerts occasionally and just go and listen … this gives people who are not necessarily full-time musicians the opportunity to actually, actively participate in music, to create music.”

Bonilla says his young age was never a problem, either. He’s one of only two teenagers in the group. “They were completely OK with it and just said ‘Come on in, play guitar with us,’” he says. But Bonilla isn’t merely a player in the orchestra, he’s also using his guitar skills to give back.

Bonilla began playing his own shows three years ago, then in seventh grade, apart from his performances with the orchestra. He’s played guitar at Sacramento locales like Peet’s Coffee & Tea and the Crocker Art Museum, raising money for the Sacramento Guitar Society.

Bonilla mentioned the Society’s nonprofit work — such as helping fellow students who lack access to instruments — as the rationale behind his fundraising performances. To date, Bonilla estimates  he’s raised around $2,000. And Bonilla says the orchestra’s impact is even greater.

“To the community in general, I think it brings not just a sense of home, but it also brings music, and that’s something that a lot of places don’t have the advantage of having,” Bonilla says. “It’s just a really great thing to have.”

The orchestra also acted as a personal catalyst: Before he was a member, Bonilla lacked familiarity with performing. But now, Bonilla — who also performs in guitar competitions and volunteers at the Sacramento Preparatory Music Academy as a teacher — credits the orchestra, and its “open stage” shows, with providing a setting where he could perform in a situation devoid of stress, while also receiving feedback that has helped him become more adept at the instrument. The orchestra’s open stage shows happen directly after rehearsals, if there’s no guest performer scheduled.

“It’s really nice for me to see these players, to see them grow, you know, as a result of their work with the orchestra,” O’Connor says. “And to see them have a chance to connect musically with the community and to even just be able to show off a little bit for some of their family that they invite to the concert, that’s a real rewarding feeling.” And that feeling is in harmony with Bonilla’s gratitude, as well. “I’m just really happy that they were willing to welcome me right in despite my age, that’s a really great thing for me,” Bonilla says. “I really appreciate it from them.”