Zachary Seifert-Ponce is an accomplished guitarist from Chico, California, with an interesting story. Follow this short interview to learn about his passion for making music.
Editor – Zach, tell us about your background and how you got into making music.
Zach – My devotion to music has everything to do with my journey into Adventism. I was raised in Santa Ana, California, in a community that was populated mostly by Mexican-Americans, Vietnamese immigrants, and my parents. Our community was a violent one, the epicenter of violent crime in Orange County, and was largely underserved. My parents, noticing some promise in my intellect, decided that our local public school system simply could not meet my needs and thus took up a collection within our family to enroll me in the nearest private school that set a standard for me to live up to.
That school, located in my very same neighborhood, was Orangewood Adventist Academy and I attended there from 4th grade until I graduated from high school there. When I arrived I was completely unfamiliar with Adventism,. My first week of school felt really foreign. Instead of barbed wire, metal detectors, and uniformed police officers, I were greeted by our principal and the registrar. Instead of fenced-in hallways that predetermined our paths, as if we were prisoners, we had open space. We didn’t just say the Pledge of Allegiance, we had prayer. On my first day there I stood for prayer while everyone else knelt, because I didn’t know what to do. All of this and much, much, more, were completely foreign to me.
The pinnacle of this experience, however, came on Friday of my first week in Academy. Although by this time I was aware that Adventists did things quite differently, it was at my first chapel that I realized these people were truly a part of something I wanted to join. I was shocked to be in that chapel room, because it was the first time I had ever been in room called an auditorium. And was the first time I had been in a large crowd of children that wasn’t sheer pandemonium. And it was there, for the first time, that I experienced the power of vocal harmony.
When you’re a new kid at a new school, it always seems like everybody else already knows each other. But that experience pales in comparison to being a new kid from a secular family at an Adventist Academy. Not only do they know each other and their entire lineage, they know the words to the all of the songs that I’ve never heard. And they know the melodies and the harmonies that go with those words. It would be another seven long and painful years before I would have an instrument in my hands. but I never forgot the feeling that I was in an elevated community, simply because music is an intrinsic part of the Adventist world.
The evidence that God does exist and is something we have to reach for was on full display for me that day, and I’ve never forgotten it. My wife always reminds me to perform every task or occupation as though I’m working for the Lord, and I try my best, but it’s when I perform my music that I feel that I’m closer to God on Earth than I could be at any other time or place.
Editor – At some point you joined the church and started making music. Tell us how that happened.
Zach – Well, music actually came first for me. I didn’t officially join the church until my Wedding Day, June 16, 2018, although I’ve been a Seventh-day Adventist for much longer. It was truly a blessed day. I took the Big Dip at 11 a.m. and said “I do” to a life with the woman I love at 6pm. My wife jokes that I was a bride and a groom all in the same day, devoting my life to God and to her within 8 hours of each vow.
Truth be told, although I had a fascination with music beginning in 4th grade, I had zero access to any instrument or musical instruction in school outside of choir class. Due to this my younger years were consumed with dedication to athletics, where my performance got financial and educational support. Thus, my fascination with music was satisfied by devouring every CD I could get my hands on. Instruments were expensive, so was instruction, and we had no concept of “saving” in my family. Growing up surrounded by poverty and debt, it seemed everyone’s philosophy regarding money was to spend it before it ran out.
After the separation of my parents and the death of a close friend, I began to isolate from my peers to try and figure myself out. I realized I had a different set of values than those around me, including my lifelong Adventist friends. They didn’t seem to understand the value of the community they were a part of, and they took it for granted. I felt like I was the most genuine person I knew, and somehow I had a difficult time representing myself to those around me. Anxiety consumed me and led to experience a general anger and cynicism that I couldn’t shake. Realizing something had to be done, my mother began quizzing me to try discover my interests. She believed that was where I would need to focus my energies.
When I mentioned I was interested in playing the guitar, she told my grandmother, Audrey. My grandmother said she always wanted a guitarist in the family and wanted to get me a guitar for my upcoming 16th birthday. Because my birthday was 4 months away from that very moment, I literally thought I was going to die.
The very next day, my grandmother picked me up from school and told me that it was pointless to waste 4 months of practice time. She informed me that we were on our way to purchase my first guitar and that I had to play her a song for my birthday. I gleefully agreed and Aud took the lead. She bought me the best guitar that money could buy for $380, left handed. Of course, I wanted a right handed guitar, but Aud insisted that I was special, insisted that I needed to show it, and insisted that embracing my left handedness was the very beginning to that. That one decision made by my grandma Audrey has affected much of my life and musicianship to this very day.
Eight months after I received my instrument, I woke to find that my mother had died unexpectedly in her sleep. When the firefighters arrived, we all knew that they were far too late. I felt disrespected as the firemen covered my mother’s body and made jokes in her bedroom. I wanted to physically throw them out of her room, but I knew they would overwhelm me. Helpless and defeated, I grabbed my guitar and made my way to the porch of my mobile home and began to play.
Immediately, the firemen left my mother’s room, sat at my feet, and just listened. When I finished, they asked me how long I had been playing. When I replied “eight months,” the younger fireman said, “if I thought I could play guitar like that in eight months, I probably wouldn’t be fighting fires.” It was at that moment that I realized the gift I had and the power it gave me. I felt as though I could finally represent my entire being with my instrument, and I had found my voice.
From that day forward I went out into the world knowing exactly who I was, and understanding the fragility and privilege of every single breath. Through bouts of homelessness and displacement, I pursued knowledge that could only be obtained through other peoples’ hands, by any means necessary. Although, it wasn’t until I got to Pacific Union College (PUC) that I began to “study music.”
Editor – That’s incredible, and heart-breaking about your Mom! So, you ended up at PUC where you took music! How did that go?
Zach – When I arrived at PUC, I didn’t begin studying music right away. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to get into college. I had a hard enough time paying for groceries, which made college seem beyond reach. Also I didn’t understand the power of student loans quite yet. But I submitted the obligatory applications to a few Adventist colleges, thinking that if I had a chance of getting into college, it would probably be Adventist. I say this because by this point I had learned the value of “Adventist Connections.” The power of knowing someone seemingly everywhere in the world, and having friends when you get there, was something that was really importance to me. If I were to go to college, it would be an Adventist one.
Music was an afterthought for me at this point. It took up the same amount of brain space as chewing does for most everyone else. My guitar was strapped to my body constantly and I would just play and play. I played on the bus, I played in school, and I played in my neighborhood. But raw talent never got anybody paid or into music school, so I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think anything about it until high school graduation.
I had a big send off planned for myself at graduation. Everything I had been through in my life to that point was commonly known by all the people I knew (and their entire lineage) in the school. In my mind, I was “that poor, poor boy.” So I wanted to let them know who I really was, to wear my heart on my sleeve, and give them something to remember me by. To put it lightly, I brought the house down with a simple nylon string classical guitar and every bit of my being. The audience, the staff, and my peers were all amazed. I was amazed, and God was pleased.
After our final march out of the auditorium I had to find my way back onto the stage to retrieve my guitar. On the stage I felt at home. I always wanted to be able to “hold it down” like I had seen so many others do, and I believed God was in it.
I quickly packed up my guitar and turned to leave when I was stopped by the organist, Mr. Devon. He marched up to me quickly and said the only words he’s ever said to me: “Hey, I want to talk to you before others get a hold of you and I don’t have my chance. I want you to know that people your age aren’t supposed to be able to play that good. God has given you a gift and you need to follow it. Believe in your gift. I hope to see great things from you.”
What he said was moving, and it changed my life! But it doesn’t necessarily look good on a college application, so I entered PUC as an English Major. Through building relationships and remaining persistent, I was able to force my way into the Honors program. This opened up credit space in my schedule that enabled me to take the necessary courses I needed to beef up my academic music background. I knew how to play guitar, and if I couldn’t read music, or prove any proficiency in music theory, they would just send me on my way. So I spent the first semester immersing myself in music culture, learning the ins and outs of what it takes to be a musician.
Every class was a competition for me because, unlike my peers, I was competing for every aspect of my college experience. I was competing for a space in the program. I was competing for the attention I needed to advance, and competing to be the best musician in the school. At the end of my first semester, I was finally awarded a space in the program as a music major.
Editor – Wow! That’s impressive! So did you eventually graduate from PUC with degrees in Music and English? Clarify that for us, and tell us what you are doing now—post college.
Zach – Actually, I only made it through PUC with a degree in Music. That was the area of my study that I felt I needed to work on the most. I was able to make money while in school pursuing that path. I remained active in the English program and I do believe my ability to write is one of my most advanced talents. But I was utterly consumed with music and used my time for that alone.
While landing a spot in a Master’s Program is still a goal that I’m working toward, I have continued my education through participating in competitions, such as Indiana University’s Classical Guitar Competition, where I made waves in my own way, although I didn’t win. I’m sure they will never forget me, as well as Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival’s International Finger-style Competition.
In addition to this I’ve continued my studies through private lessons with world class guitarists. These include the Nashville based Bluegrass ambassador, Tim May, the Oakland based master of Flamenco Guitar, Jason McGuire, and Brazilian Guitar innovator, Felipe Coelho. Also, I was the very grateful recipient of a scholarship awarded by PUC’s music department (post graduation) to attend the Mendocino Guitar Workshop. There I was able to immerse myself in a week of study with like-minded guitarists under the tutelage of two of the Acoustic Guitar Community’s finest musicians: Alex DeGrassi and Andrew York, the latter becoming a great mentor and friend. That was a very important experience for my career, and I am eternally grateful for that opportunity.
Post college, with the vision and support of my wife alone, I’ve opened ZSP Guitar Studio. This is a lesson studio that is mostly serving students online in the discipline and joy of making music. Although my area of expertise is the Guitar, as the name of our business implies, I also teach Bass and Ukulele, as well as beginning piano, song writing, and music theory. My wife takes vocal students and various woodwind and brass students, such as Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute, or Trumpet, and Trombone. After moving to Chico, I was able to keep most of my students from other locations through my online studio. Given the restrictions in California due to the pandemic, most of my California students also utilize the online studio as well.
Like most of my U.S. based colleagues, the COVID-19 Pandemic has eviscerated my performance schedule, with a Summer tour planned from the Midwest to New York/New Jersey, to the Carolinas and back to the West Coast. Unlike many of my colleagues, however, having an active studio has served me well during the pandemic. It has also provided a valuable service to families who are, otherwise, tired of each other.
In addition to all of this, I have recently added another service to my studio: commissions for original music. Although I’ve only had one taker on that front so far, I think this service will begin to pick up steam.
I’ve been very fortunate to link up with a peer from PUC who is as ambitious about film as I am about music. Based on this connection, I composed, “Together and Then…” the sound track for a romantic short/silent film of the same name. I am very pleased with the result, and am excited with the possibility to be able to collaborate with Kingsley Pascal more in the future.
Another project I am currently working on is an album of original music for Classical Guitar which I plan to release this winter. This project is, in a sense, a resume/portfolio that will encompass many of my abilities as an artist. From my technical abilities to my compositional techniques, as well as my ability to notate complex music clearly. I plan to use this project to advance my career. The music will be sold in audio format as well as in written form.
Editor – Thank you for sharing your journey with inSpire. It’s a great story of God’s guidance through the twists and turns of your life, and out of it He has chosen to use you to brighten our world with new music. We wish you well and encourage our creative community to check out your online links.
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