It is always wonderful to stumble upon a great young artist who seems to be doing everything right. An Tran has been praised for his incredible technique and magical playing enough to have won prizes in many international guitar and music competitions throughout the world. An has recently given recitals for the Bangkok Guitar Society, Austin Classical Guitar, Toronto International Guitar Series. This season 2019-20 will include An’s solo concert at the prestigious Segovia Classical Guitar Series in Chicago, USA in May 2020.
An is also a champion of Vietnamese music and has performed pieces written for him by Vietnamese composers on the international stage. He recently premiered the work, Ru Con (Lullaby), written for An by composer/guitarist Nguyễn Thế An in Toronto in March 2019. And his debut CD of an all-Vietnamese repertoire is to be released in early 2020. Stay tuned!
Meanwhile, An took some time from his busy schedule to share some of his experience and journey with Six String Journal. Enjoy!
SSJ: When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?
AT: I was really lucky to have my parents that helped me find my passion. When I was a kid, I was not good at school…so I think my parents saw that and let me try a lot of different things (from drawing to piano to playing tennis!). Our house was always filled with music, breakfast, lunch and dinner. I went to sleep listening to music. Until one day, my cousin started to play the guitar. I thought to myself, at 8 years old, “I need to try that out!”. It was one of the greatest decisions in my life.
What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?
It’s hard to say because I enjoy playing all kinds of music, but I definitely love to play Vietnamese music. The more I grow as an artist, the more I feel the connection to my home country, Vietnam. Now I always include Vietnamese music in my concert program. They can be either arrangements of Vietnamese traditional folk songs, or original compositions from Vietnamese composers. I get to share a little bit of who I am with the audience, everywhere I go.
What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?
I perform on Stephen Connor guitars. I currently have 2 of his guitars and they are extremely amazing instruments. Steve made my guitars with so much care and love that it is a joy to play every single time. His uplifting spirit is also contagious and inspiring as well.
For strings, I use D’Addario Carbon, Normal Tension. They sound beautiful on my Connors, and they hold intonation really well. Since I tour with only one guitar most of the time, due to my program with Vietnamese music, I have to change to alternate tuning between pieces. They have never failed.
Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?
I would say all of my teachers made a huge impact on me as a musician and as a human being. I have too many teachers to list them, but if they are reading this, they know who they are 🙂 I can also say that I learned so much from my guitarist friends as well. When I did a few competitions, I learned so much just by listening to my fellow competitors.
My classical guitar heroes are John Williams and David Russell. When I was a kid, I listened to their recordings on repeat almost every day. I also love Nguyen Le, a Vietnamese/French jazz guitarist. He has an amazing ability of blending traditional Vietnamese music with contemporary Jazz. I highly recommend checking him out, if you haven’t heard him yet.
What recording/s are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of my upcoming album “Stay, My Beloved”, which features all Vietnamese guitar music. This recording is like my life journey. Some pieces I learned when I was a kid, and some I learned not too long ago. It was a lot of work, but the music on this album stay very close to my heart, that’s why the whole process was so satisfying. It will be released on April 18, 2020.
What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?
I’m excited about the upcoming concerts in the US as well as my European tour in August. This will be my first time playing in Europe, so I am very excited. On top of that, I will premiere 2 works that were dedicated to me by Spanish composer Juan Erena in Cádiz, Spain. I’m also working with a few Vietnamese composers to write more works for the ever-evolving guitar repertoire. Even though my debut album is not even out yet, I’m already thinking about recording the next Vietnamese guitar album.
Technique and Performance
How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
I always aim to practice for about 4 to 6 hours a day. For me, it is important to practice every day well. I normally divide my practice to 2-3 different shorter sessions. I always try to prioritize practicing first, before doing anything else during the day.
Also, there are apps that could help with your practice schedule. I use this app called “ATracker” on my iPhone. I use its timer to keep track of every piece that I’m working on. This way, I can make sure that I don’t spend too much (or too little) time on 1 piece. By the end of the week, it would give me a graph of how much I practiced each piece. That gives me an idea of what to work on for the following week. I also normally take 1 day off of guitar. I find it helpful to get back to my practice freshly the day after.
Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?
I’m constantly working to improve my listening and musicality skills. For me, playing something musically well is very important and I try to improve on that. I also don’t have the perfect technique, so I do struggle with really hard passages sometimes. However, it is easier to improve on the technical side nowadays because there are so many good resources online and good teachers out there. For me, the metronome is crucial for learning new music and master the hard passages. I also use Tonebase, an online resource for guitarists, whenever I find myself struggling with something (either musically or technically). Nothing will replace a good teacher, but there’s always some good info online to support what you’re learning.
By the way, I am NOT “sponsored” by any apps/websites mentioned above, those are just apps that I personally use.
Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up?
Yes! Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 1 is always a go-to for me as a warmup before a concert. I also use some of Scott Tennant’s exercises from his Pumping Nylon book. So helpful!
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
I eat a banana before I play. I find it helpful to get some energy before a concert. I also do some meditation and make sure that I feel grateful for every single opportunity. For people to take their time out of their schedules to come see me perform, that is absolutely incredible! Definitely something to be grateful for!!
Advice to Younger Players
What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
One of the most important skills that I learned (and still trying to do) is to keep my focus at 100% while practicing. When I was younger, I practiced like a machine. Mindlessly ran my pieces as many times as possible. All I’m doing now is trying to fix all the problems that came from that!! It can create huge problems and bad habits to fix later. Thankfully, I’ve had amazing teachers who patiently sat with me to tell me what I’ve been doing wrong.
What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?
I think the most essential skill for a young musician is to cover all periods of classical music. To be able to teach and find your own “voice” in your playing, it’s important to go through all the essential “classical” guitar repertoire. I also think etudes are super important as well. For me, personally, I loved (and still play) the Giuliani, Villa-Lobos and Brouwer Etudes.
What is the last movie that you watched?
Parasite, that was crazy!
Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food?
Yes absolutely. I’ve been doing yoga lately and it really helps. I’ve had lower back pain in the past, so now I try to do yoga more regularly. Nothing fancy, just iPhone apps and Youtube videos. Also, my chiropractor told me that it is important to get up more often to stretch, and to not sit and practice for hours straight (which was my bad habit). I might have to give him commission for this piece of advice!!!
What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?
I love to cook. I think cooking is so similar to playing music. Other hobbies are watching movies with my wife, playing FIFA or board games with my family and friends, playing with my puppy Luna. My dad is a former photojournalist, so he taught me a lot about photography. I am now addicted to photography and I enjoy taking pictures of my travels.
Support An by pre-ordering his new CD: Stay, My Beloved