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Pursuing his vision Instructor races blindness to create studios that teach music.

March 4, 2005

Byline:THERESA WALKER The Orange County Register

Steve Strombeck’s sight is closing in on him like the final scene of a silent movie. His peripheral vision constricts the world he sees in an ever- tightening circle. Someone sitting three feet away is no more than a head floating in space. If he drops a pen on the floor, it stays there. He can’t see it to pick it He’s done embarrassing things like sit on someone’s lap in a darkened theater.


Strombeck was diagnosed with the degenerative genetic disease retinitis pigmentosa in his early 20s. At 32, he is legally blind, with just 10 percent of his vision remaining. Someday, Strombeck expects to be completely blind. He may have to stop teaching music when that happens. So he’s working hard to create a network of music studios to bring low-cost music lessons to children and adults through his nonprofit Performing Arts Guild of Orange County. He’s a kind man, boyish in voice and appearance — except for the pointy little soul patch beneath his lower lip. It gives him a cool look as he tunes the red Fender guitar Sarah Coffee, 10, got for Christmas. Sarah has taken lessons from Strombeck since August. He demonstrates the different sounds she can get with distortion and reverb, strumming the opening chords to “Smoke on the Water.” Later in the lesson, Sarah works on sight reading — a skill that the classically trained Strombeck stresses along with other basic techniques, despite his own struggles with it. He tells her it’s like playing a video game and not looking at the controller. Trust your fingers.


Strombeck is at his most relaxed when he plays a piece of classical music like Modest Mussorgsky’s “The Old Castle.” Head and shoulders sway behind his Russian-made guitar, blue eyes half closed, his breathing in sync with the slow, steady piece. Back when doctors first told him he would go blind, they said it might happen in five years, 10 years, 15 years. They couldn’t be certain. The news depressed him. Then it motivated him.


Realizing a dream The knowledge that he would go blind made him determined to master a discipline he could continue even after he lost his sight. He wanted to play classical guitar. So what if he had never taken a formal music lesson in his life? He did play rock guitar in high school — hair down to his waist and able to imitate bands like Guns N’ Roses. “Most people would look at his eyes as a bad thing,” says his wife, Thu, his sweetheart since ninth grade. “But I guess it is kind of in a way a good thing because it made him realize what his dream is.”Losing his sight gave him a vision. He found out, too, that you are never too old to have a teacher change your life. “I’m never going to be the great performer that some people are,” Strombeck says. “I wanted to do something that would offer hope. I had to find something. And I was so lucky that the teachers I found took me under their wing.” His worsening eyesight forced him to quit his part- time job as a stock clerk about a year after his diagnosis. But he managed to save money to take private lessons from one of the best teachers around, David Grimes, director of guitar studies at Cal State Fullerton. Five months after starting $60-an-hour lessons, he ran out of money. Grimes didn’t want to turn Strombeck away. He told him he’d keep giving him lessons and accept payment if and when possible. Grimes saw how hard Strombeck worked at it. Sight reading plays such a huge role in learning classical music, Grimes says, and Strombeck could only see a few notes at a time. He couldn’t go from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. He couldn’t look away from a sheet of music and find his place again. Grimes had taught blind students before. What they couldn’t see, they could hear — and immediately know where to be on their instruments. He never had a student in the process of losing his sight. “It might take him five minutes to work through a line of music,” Grimes says, “where normally he should be able to read that at sight.” Strombeck learned with painstaking dedication — asking a lot of questions, thinking hard about what Grimes told him, coming back the next week with more questions. He’d practice in the kitchen late at night after his baby son fell asleep. Other times, when neighbors in their apartment building complained, Strombeck went down to his truck in the parking garage and sat on the tailgate to play. “He was clearly very sincere and dedicated,” Grimes says. “It was very important in his life. You can’t just turn away someone like that.” Grimes thinks of the free lessons he gave Strombeck for seven years as a scholarship and calls himself just a teacher. To Strombeck, Grimes is much more than that — a mentor who inspired his decision to teach music.


As he grew more proficient, Strombeck began offering his time as a teacher’s assistant to Les Merrill’s beginning guitar class at Santa Ana College. He was working toward an associate of arts degree in music and met Merrill when they played together in a guitar ensemble. For three years, Strombeck arrived early at Merrill’s Saturday workshop. He could still see well enough to dart about the room, tuning guitars and showing students how to sit and hold their instruments correctly. Merrill often turned the class over to Strombeck, recognizing his expertise. Strombeck earned a scholarship to the Cal State Fullerton guitar studies program but was too overwhelmed to continue. His family has grown to four children, ages 8 years to 5 months, the two oldest home-schooled. He teaches guitar six days a week and spends the rest of his time seeking grants and donated space for studios — ideally in old movie theaters because of the acoustics and to get a place to hold the OnStage rock shows that kids with the Performing Arts Guild do for fun. Building up the Performing Arts Guild has been a slow process. He found a place, Planet Sound in Santa Ana, that supports his effort with subsidized space. Instructors teach private lessons in piano, guitar, voice, strings, brass, woodwinds and drums. Strombeck looks for teachers who have compassion to go along with their abilities. He wants them to pay attention to an individual student’s needs, the way Grimes did. One instructor, professional drummer and Berklee School of Music graduate Melissa West, has known Strombeck since junior high. West was born with one leg. Having instructors like her and Strombeck can show students what’s possible, she says. “It lets them know that just because somebody might have something different about them doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to achieve the same goals,” West says. “I think it kind of pushes them a little more.” Sometimes, the student inspired by a teacher becomes a teacher inspired by a student.


Last year Strombeck gave lessons to Daniel Cruz, a teenage boy with a brain injury that compromises his ability to remember things. Daniel, who is from Hawaii but attended a special school in Orange County, had once played ukulele and guitar. Strombeck didn’t push him to memorize notes from a music sheet. He’d get him to visualize his fingers on the neck of a guitar instead. If Daniel wasn’t up to a regular lesson, they would play hangman with music terms on a whiteboard. He was scared to teach Daniel at first, he admits. But it turned out to be the most pure teaching experience he’s had. “That kid made it all worthwhile. He was the one I could give something back to.”


Kids are rock stars at House of Blues


As the crowd screamed, they took to the stage, donned their instruments and played their hearts out in front of about 800 people. After the show, fans begged for autographs. Then the musicians, ages 8 to 15, hit the after party on the terrace at House of Blues in Anaheim, where the OnStage 2012 Rock Fest concert took place.. The Performing Arts Guild of Orange County holds an OnStage Rock Fest annually, usually at Old World Village in Huntington Beach.


This year, for the 10th anniversary, the concert included laser lights and fog at House of Blues. The set list included “Welcome to the Black Parade,” by My Chemical Romance, “Someone Like You,” by Adele, and “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin. The seven bands that took part in the concert with 35 performers practiced for four months. Instructors place students into groups based on ability and personalities, said Performing Arts Guild Director and guitar instructor Steven Strombeck.


The bands choose a name and songs, have a professional photo shoot and record an album before each annual show, Strombeck said. “It’s no different from if they were in a real band,” Strombeck says. “You don’t forget that. They’re going to come in 15 years to Disneyland with their kids and say, ‘I performed there.'” Strombeck was diagnosed with a degenerative genetic disease that causes blindness. As he began losing his sight, he signed up for guitar lessons, later teaching music. Then he founded the Performing Arts Guild of Orange County to bring music to others. About 300 students study with the nonprofit, taking low-cost lessons in instrumental music, vocals, dance and martial arts. Over the summer, enrollment increases to around 750 as the center offers free classes taught by 25 instructors at a discounted rate. “I want to have a one-stop facility for parents,” said Strombeck, who has five children of his own.


The nonprofit started at Planet Sound in Santa Ana. Three years ago, the Guild moved to a 5,000-square-foot space with about 12 rooms at 1505 E. 17th St. Suite 122 in Santa Ana. Most of the students are from Tustin Unified School District. “When I set up the school the idea was I wanted to make available instruction for physically and financially challenged students and I didn’t want to exclude anyone,” Strombeck said. As the program grew, students came from all different economic backgrounds. “I have some kids who come from families of privilege and other kids who take the bus 45 minutes to get to the program,” he said. “When you put those kids in a group together, they’re all the same. They’re just kids.” The payoff, for Strombeck, is when the students stick with music after they leave the program. Doing the rock concert, he says, teaches them how it all comes together. “It’s kind of like being back stage at a magic show, where you see how it all works,” he said. “It’s all layered together and it’s collective, and that’s where the magic happens.”


To find out more about the Performing Arts Guild of Orange County, call (714) 604-6851.

(714) 796-7793 or


Steve Strombeck

Copyright 2005 The Orange County Register