Story by Roselle Tenorio. Photos courtesy of Jess Garland.
Jess Garland is a performing artist, harpist, guitarist, singer, and instructor. Her family is from East Texas, and later moved to South Oak Cliff and South Dallas, where she now calls home. Jess grew up in the family auto business where her grandfather remodeled and sold Ford Mustangs from his car shop on Lancaster Road in South Oak Cliff. Her family continued their entrepreneurial journey, venturing into real estate investing in properties in South Dallas and South Oak Cliff and its surrounding areas. Both her grandparents owned a piano and organ in their homes, exposing Jess to all types of music and instruments as a child. Jess became particularly interested in woodwind instruments as her grandmother loved the oboe, so she started playing its close relative, the clarinet. She played clarinet in elementary and throughout middle school. Jess turned to strings in high school, but did not learn how to play the guitar until she attended Eastfield Community College. At Eastfield, Jess studied classical guitar and voice before transferring to Southern Methodist University where she received her Bachelor of Arts. Through her family, she was exposed to entrepreneurship first hand, developing her own drive and determination, which she combined with her natural artistic talent and began teaching private guitar lessons in the Park Cities and White Rock Lake areas while in college.
Jess has 13 years of experience teaching guitar in Dallas, but in the last three years she has shifted her focus to the nonprofit sector. Jess founded Swan Strings in 2019, a nonprofit with the mission of providing free music education and sound therapy services to North Texas individuals without access. Jess Garland has provided approximately 210 hours of free music education and has served 166 children through Swan Strings.
Swan Strings all started around the time Jess began her career as an instructor with various Dallas arts organizations. One organization in particular, La Rondalla in Oak Cliff, opened the door to a crucial mentor, Dennis Gonzalez, who taught her the skills she needed to found Swan Strings. Once La Rondalla dissolved, Dennis donated all of the guitars to Jess for her to launch Swan Strings and expand the programming they were already doing together in arts education. Ever since, Jess has continued to serve underserved communities where she has lived like Oak Cliff and South Dallas. As a result of her leadership, she was selected for the Mayor’s Star Council, a civically-minded organization in Dallas focused on emerging leaders by developing a legacy of culturally diverse and connected young professionals who are committed to creating a collective impact approach to moving the needle of progress.
Jess’s part-time job during the week is as the Community Liaison for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She also sits on the Board of Directors for New Texas Symphony Orchestra, an all-volunteer, nonprofit performing arts group which enriches the greater Dallas communities by offering inspiration and entertainment through live symphonic music. Her remaining time and energy is spent developing Swan Strings. The skills she learned growing up in an entrepreneurial family have definitely aided her in managing a broad array of operations including teaching, coordinating with three assistant teachers, repairing instruments, purchasing materials, managing communications, and grant writing. Jess does it all for the young people that inspire her to persevere.
Jess’ greatest challenge as a teacher came the day she heard a past student had lost their life to suicide. Though the student was not currently enrolled in her program, as an educator, that was not a situation she had prepared to process. Jess was aware of the mental health concerns for her student and they had not taken lessons for some time, however, the family of the student still reached out to Jess to share what happened. The parents talked about how much of a positive impact Jess made on their child’s life. It was hard for Jess not to think that maybe she could have done more for her student, but she is grateful that they were able to find some relief in her classes. Her students are what keep her motivated to continue to provide arts education for those who would not otherwise have access.
Jess is now facing the challenge of COVID-19 across all of her work. Ordinarily, Swan Strings group classes would take place at community hubs like Top Ten Records, South Dallas Cultural Center, W. E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy, and Pan-African Connection Bookstore, but now, Jess has been working diligently to transition all of her classes online. Thankfully, Jess and her team of instructors have been successful in getting the virtual curriculum started, and the students are excited to have the enrichment amid the lack of in-person education. Understandably, the students and teachers miss the person-to-person social interaction and hands-on instruction of learning a new instrument. However, Swan Strings continues to provide crucial arts education access to youth and Jess is proud to be a resource to her community. Swan Strings has been a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization for a little over a year. If you would like to register your child for an individual or group class visit http://jessstrings.com/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up or learn more about Swan Strings.
Jess cannot do it alone. She relies on the support of her community—people like Dennis who donate instruments, volunteer instructors giving their time and knowledge, and financial supporters who give each month. Swan Strings is looking for more people to get involved as board members as well, especially those who have a passion for music education. Donations can be made on the Swan Strings Go Fund Me page.
If this story has inspired you to support the North Texas nonprofit community, visit our Support Nonprofits During COVID-19 page to learn how you can get involved!