Wednesday, Mar 05 2014 10:15 AM

Teacher charts new beginning

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    By Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

    Matt Sarad credits playing the guitar with aiding his recovery from a devastating cycling accident last year.

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    By Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

    Guitar instructor Matt Sarad — shown with students, from left, Issac Tejeda, David Moreno Garcia and Mary Carrisler — says his class is a way of giving back after recovering from a cycling accident.

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    By Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

    Guitar instructor Matt Sarad teaches student Issac Tejeda the proper finger placement on the strings to play a chord.

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    By Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

    Guitar instructor Matt Sarad offers lessons on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 5 to 6:50 p.m. at Beale Memorial Library.

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    By Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

    Matt Sarad shows his students how three chords are enough for a classic tune. The students are, from left: Issac Tejeda, Mary Carrisalez and David Moreno Garcia.

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    By Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

    Guitar instructor Matt Sarad helps one of his students Issac Tejeda how to hold strings by showing him to hold his hand like a clam and also learn the chords

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    By Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian While first timer Mary Carrisalez practices learning the beat, Guitar instructor Matt Sarad helps another one of his students Issac Tejeda how to hold strings by showing him to how hold his hand like a clam and also learn the chords

    While first-timer Mary Carrisalez practices, guitar instructor Matt Sarad helps Issac Tejeda how to hold strings by showing him to how hold his hand like a clam and learn the chords.

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    By Rod Thornburg / Specal to The Ca

    After hearing that the Beale Library had stopped guitar classes, Matt Sarad volunteered to lead them twice a month. Here he shows Issac Tejeda how to hold strings and learn the chords.

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BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Californian staff writer

He's played guitar most of his life, is a teacher by profession and loves the Kern County library, so it's no wonder that Matt Sarad chooses to give back to the community by offering free guitar lessons at Beale Memorial every other Tuesday.

But Sarad would tell you it's also a kind of miracle that he's teaching guitar -- can even play guitar -- at all. He's preparing to observe an anniversary no one would care to celebrate: the day he almost died.

On March 22 of last year, Sarad -- a lifelong member of the local music scene -- and friend Paul Webster were biking along trails through Black Hill Mountain near Morro Bay. Coming back down, they took an alternate trail that would bring them closer to their campsite.

"I went through a grove of trees that were shady, I looked down and saw a bump and pot holes," Sarad said. "I knew what was going to happen."

Sarad was thrown more than 20 feet. Landing on the road, he broke five ribs, fractured five vertebrae, broke his right collar bone and scapula. A lung collapsed. He had multiple bruises and deep scrapes. And he hit his head on the right side, suffering a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

Sarad only remembers "episodes" from what happened next; the rest, someone had to tell him.

"I woke up when I heard someone call my name," Sarad said. "I woke up in the hospital in San Luis Obispo, then in Health South in Bakersfield."

Sarad's partner, Darie Wright, recalled the grim prognosis.

"The first thing the doctor told me is he might not make it," Wright said. "Then the possibility of long-term rehabilitation."

Sarad remembers the confusion he felt and the bleak discovery that he couldn't do a lot of things he used to, nor recall the names of people he loved or everyday objects, a condition known as aphasia.

"I was given a small blue cylinder to hold," Sarad said. "I couldn't tell the doctor it was a pen -- I knew what it was, I knew what it was used for, but I couldn't tell him what it was called."

Sarad spent three and half months undergoing therapy at the Centre for Neuro Skills. Therapy helped him coordinate his vision and deal with hearing loss -- he still suffers from chronic tinnitus in his left ear. Sarad had to relearn the names of objects, like common kitchen items, and how to navigate everyday tasks. He also had to learn to process multiple stimuli such as what one would encounter while driving.

"I started to advance very fast," Sarad said, making a "J" with his hand to indicate the steep climb in his progress. "I would see other people come in with far worse injuries -- unable to speak, in a wheelchair; I'm really lucky."

One thing that Sarad credits with his recovery is playing the guitar. Wright reminded him she brought him a ukulele while he was still in the hospital -- something he doesn't really remember. But he does remember daily guitar practice and the benefit of coordinating his fingers and the developing of a routine. But playing is different now.

"I used to be able to play by feel," Sarad said. "I've had to relearn where the chords and inversions are on the neck and improvise over chord shapes instead of just 'knowing.'"

Sarad's recovery will probably never be complete, but it has been strong enough to allow him to go back to teaching his fifth-graders at Richland Elementary in Shafter, after missing more than seven months. He credits school administrators -- the principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent -- with the support he needed to come back and develop new routines at school.

Co-founder of groups including Large Wooden Matches, Blarney Rubble and Dwarf Rat, Sarad is back to playing, rehearsing and occasionally appearing with Dwarf Rat on First Fridays. He also has a new group, Riff Cats, a blues-based band rounded out by drummer Mike Clark, brother Mike Sarad on keyboards, Brent Hicks on bass and Melinda Konya on vocals.

Sarad knows he's lucky to be alive and lucky to be able to do so much after suffering a TBI. So he sees the guitar class as a way of "giving back."

"I'd go to the library and see these guys there playing guitar," Sarad said.

He was shocked to learn from library staffers that the classes had stopped.

"I told them, 'I play guitar, I'll do it,'" Sarad said. "I got a call later that day."

Sarad said enrollment is growing slowly, by one or two people at a time, and acceptance is based on a first-come, first-served basis. The classes are free, and are held on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 5-6:50.

"Everybody has to answer the question, 'Have you ever played guitar before,'" Sarad said. "And then they have to show what they've got!"

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