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Austin Scelzo’s love of music and community leads to recognition as a 2023 Connecticut Arts Hero

Austin Scelzo
Austin Scelzo
Austin Scelzo

DANBURY, Connecticut — Since his freshman year at Sheehan High School in Wallingford, Austin Scelzo knew he wanted to be a musician and music teacher. To advance those goals, he participated in every possible club, group, ensemble and opportunity to collaborate in the creation of music. In the 11 years since he graduated from Sheehan, Scelzo not only has lived his dream of performing and teaching, he also has accrued a number of awards and accolades – the most recent of which was being named a 2023 Connecticut Arts Hero.

The path to Scelzo’s selection as a Connecticut Arts Hero that started at Sheehan High School wound its way through Western Connecticut State University’s Music Education program.

“Many of my high school music teachers were WCSU music graduates,” Scelzo said. “I also knew the university was completing the new Visual and Performing Arts Center, and it was promised that it would be ready for my sophomore year there. Plus, all of my family is in Connecticut, and I really wanted to stay in that Connecticut ecosystem for college.”

Scelzo auditioned at several universities that offered a Music Education degree, but his audition experience at WCSU confirmed his choice. “While the audition experience was similar in many of the schools, what I remember about my day at WestConn was that it felt like a community. Everyone was warm and inviting and I was made to feel welcome.”

That strong belief in community is, in part, what led to Scelzo’s Connecticut Arts Hero award in January.

Enrolled at WCSU as a Music Education major studying classical violin with operatic vocal classes on the side, Scelzo found himself intrigued by the local bluegrass, folk and fiddle music scene. “I started fiddle playing and spent my summers camping at music festivals where I fell in love with that music and that community,” he recalled. Scelzo joined two bluegrass bands. One was On the Trail, an Americana acoustic quartet that features three WestConn Music Department alumni: Matt Curley, Tom Polizzi and Charlie Widmer. And, he was invited to join a traditional bluegrass band out of Rhode Island, the Rock Hearts, that performs at the International Bluegrass Convention, now has three albums out, and can be found on XM Radio.

When Scelzo graduated from WCSU in 2017, he said he was “plugged into all the right job opportunities and interviews,” thanks to the connections he’d gained on campus. He was offered the job of orchestra teacher at Darien Middle School – his dream job. For four years, he juggled performing with On the Trail and the Rock Hearts, being in the studio recording until 2 a.m. and then getting up to commute from Danbury to teach in Darien. It was difficult to maintain, he admits.

He found a mentor in jazz violinist Christian Howes, and when Scelzo told Howes he was considering pursuing a master’s degree in music in Nashville, Howes advised him that if he studied there, he should stay there. Scelzo wanted to stay settled in Connecticut to be near his family and music community, so he passed on grad school. Then the pandemic hit, and school went virtual. Scelzo began recording music lessons for his middle school students and Howes suggested he post them on YouTube for anyone to see. Scelzo soon noticed that it wasn’t just his young students who were accessing his instructional videos, it was people who wanted to learn more about music technique. More than 70,000 of them, to be exact.

While performing with the bands and teaching at Darien Middle School, Scelzo also taught a six-week bluegrass jamming class on weekends. Most of the students were adults, and he started a weekly bluegrass jam near Danbury – the only one in this part of the state. He thought, “What if I combined my love of bluegrass performance with my desire to teach?” With an already established online presence thanks to YouTube, Scelzo decided to “try something else that’s more compatible with this community that I love.”

So, with an entrepreneurial spirit, Scelzo found a way to merge performing and teaching bluegrass music with technology, and founded the Connecticut Bluegrass Association. His goal was to create connections between people to grow the bluegrass scene in Connecticut. He enhanced his web presence, AustinScelzo.com, and launched The Bluegrass, Country and Roots School, which offers video instruction in bluegrass, country and roots; sheet music; video; harmony; bluegrass guitar; mandolin and fiddle tips and inspiration; music fundamentals; multi-style string workshops; creative strings school; camp and festival classes and a youth club. Between these endeavors, hosting or teaching at music camps/retreats, and his ongoing live performance schedule, Scelzo made the decision to leave Darien Middle School.

Looking back, Scelzo said some of the things he learned as a WCSU Music Education student still serve him today. “WestConn’s Music Ed is a cut above,” he said. “I’ve met so many people in the field who didn’t have the same opportunities I had for student-teaching. I benefitted from the variety of classes available to me as a classical music student, such as learning jazz improvisation skills in my classes with Jimmy Greene. A standout for me was Dr. Cory Ganschow, who built community and loved her students.”

It should come as no surprise that Scelzo was nominated for the Connecticut Arts Hero Award by someone who enjoyed his efforts with the Connecticut Bluegrass Association. “I was buried in the work and focusing on the mission and didn’t even know about the award until I was notified,” Scelzo said. “I’ve been working hard at networking, leading and building connections in the bluegrass community, and it’s gratifying to see that my strengths and passions are appreciated and needed in the Northeast,” Scelzo added. “I’m turning 29 soon and want to get people connected enough to move forward the work I’ve started. By the time I’m 30, I want to have created a strong enough foundation so that others can take over the newsletters, promotion and other tasks associated with the Connecticut Bluegrass Association.”

These days, the bulk of Scelzo’s time is spent teaching online. “Online teaching is superior to explore creativity, take risks and grow in your musicianship,” he explained. “There is much less fear of judgment.” In addition to the freedom it offers his students, it also allows Scelzo the flexibility to be in Nashville recording with Rock Hearts by day and teaching from his hotel room at night.

Scelzo’s vision of what he wanted to be doing and what his day-to-day life would be like are proving to be true. “So many things are more impactful than ‘I want to be famous’ or ‘I want people to know who I am,’” he said. “I always encouraged my middle schoolers to dream big while they were young. Connect with your community, find support and intentional mentorship, and discover where your greatest passion and talent meet. It will make the big sacrifices worth it when you make your dream come true.”

For more information, visit austinscelzo.com or contact WCSU Communications and Marketing at pr@wcsu.edu.

 

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high-quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals and leaders in a global society. Our vision: To be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.