Artist Profile and Interview: Steve Cowan

The Canadian virtuoso and award-winning guitarist, Steve Cowan has graced stages throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. Steve’s beautiful playing is highlighted by a dark sound, rich nuance, and wondrous clarity, placing him among the elite guitarists of his generation. His debut album of Canadian music, Pour guitare (McGill Records, 2016), helped to establish him as ‘one of Canada’s top contemporary classical guitarists’ (Classical Guitar Magazine). In 2018–2019, Steve made his concerto debut with Ensemble del Arte in Germany, his New York solo recital debut, and released his second solo recording Arctic Sonata (EMEC discos).

Active both as a soloist and chamber musician Steve performs regularly with Forestare, a Montréal-based string ensemble; in 2022, he will be a Chamber Music New Zealand touring artist with flutist Hannah Darroch, as well as a Prairie Debut touring artist with guitarist Adam Cicchillitti. The Cowan–Cicchillitti duo has premièred 15 new works and released an album of Canadian music titled FOCUS (Analekta, 2019); their next recording, Impressions intimes (Analekta, 2021), features original arrangements of Debussy, Ravel, Mompou and Tailleferre.

Fortunately, Steve recently sat down to share some detail about his journey with guitar. I hope it inspires everyone!


When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? 

My music education growing up consisted of piano lessons when I was very young, and drum set lessons in my teenage years. While I was (and still am) obsessed with rhythm, which is what drew me to drums initially, I envied the beautiful chords and melodies I would hear in guitar playing. I began to self-teach myself electric guitar at around 15, and I took it very seriously, playing in progressive and experimental rock bands in my hometown for the next 7 years. At 18, I wanted to study music at my local University (Memorial University of Newfoundland), and figured whatever was described as “classical guitar” on the website was my best shot to get admitted. I had never been exposed to much classical music or to this style of guitar playing before, so I went to a performance class at the University and heard some great renditions of pieces by Brouwer and Villa-Lobos. I was incredibly inspired and went out the next day and bought a classical guitar, found a local teacher to instruct me and prepare me for the audition, and I haven’t really stopped playing since.      

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

For the past five years I have definitely been mostly a “new music” player, as many of my album projects, academic pursuits, and concert programs have been largely focused on new commissions and premieres. This is something that will always excite me, and I’m lucky to have worked with composers that understand my musical sensibilities and write pieces that feel perfect for my tastes and my hands. I do still appreciate the standard repertoire and music from different periods, and often include portions of renaissance, baroque, or 20th century repertoire in my programs as well. Lately, many solo and ensemble projects have been centered on early-mid 20th century French music (Debussy, Ravel, Mompou and others), both arrangements and original guitar works, and this is another broad stylistic period that really resonates with me. 

In recent years, I am often seeking out music that is slow in tempo, and intimate in character. I spend a large portion of practice time searching for that perfect legato, dynamic nuance, or temporal manipulation in order to create the long, beautiful phrases that I hear come so naturally to instruments such as the piano or bowed strings. It is difficult to achieve on the guitar, but so satisfying when it works. In my opinion, this can be equally as “virtuosic” as playing extremely fast, and I really enjoy searching for these magical moments in different repertoire.  

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings? 

I play on two guitars by Québec luthier Bruno Boutin: a traditional spruce top and a cedar double top. I’ve played on his instruments for nearly a decade, and have never found another instrument that seemed to fit my playing as well as these instruments do. Balanced, rich, projection and clarity. I always went for carbon strings from various companies, as I found traditional nylon strings did not work as well with my plastic nails. However, I recently fell in love with Augustine Regal Blues (nylons!), and they seem to have everything I need. 

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you? 

There’s a very long answer to this question, but in short I believe that my time as a drummer and progressive rock musician largely shaped how I hear and feel music, and could explain why I’m so drawn to contemporary guitar repertoire in particular. To give a few names, my father was constantly spinning King Crimson or Pink Floyd albums during my entire childhood, and I don’t know if I would play guitar the way I do if I had been exposed to classical music from a very young age instead. 

With regards to my classical guitar playing specifically though, my biggest influences would certainly be my three principal teachers. My first teacher in my hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland was Sylvie Proulx, and she pushed me very hard. She was rigorous with refining my technique, and introduced me to all of the great repertoire and players that I had never been exposed to. She also encouraged me to pursue graduate school in the United States, and I went on to study with David Leisner at the Manhattan School of Music. David taught me an incredible amount about musical depth and nuance of interpretation, as well as how to connect with my instrument in a more relaxed, healthy, and musical way. His well-known ergonomic techniques are an integral part of my playing and teaching. His well-known ergonomic techniques are an integral part of my playing and teaching. Jérôme Ducharme was my instructor at the doctoral level, and further deepened my relationship with the instrument itself. He knows the fretboard inside out, has an endless amount of tricks up his sleeve for both hands, and always applied them with a deep musical intelligence. As a former GFA winner himself, he doesn’t let anything slide and really took me to the next level.

To make this long answer even longer, there are also some very young players that have influenced me profoundly. I feel there is somewhat of a revolution happening in guitar technique right now, particularly with regards to the left hand, and watching players like Xavier Jara do incredible stretching and finger gymnastics in order to achieve that perfect legato has been a great source of inspiration. I also can’t get enough of Lorenzo Micheli and Matteo Mela, as soloists or as SoloDuo.   

If you have recordings, which recording/s are you most proud of? If not, are you planning to record a cd? 

I have 2 solo albums, a duo album, and another duo album to be released in March of this year. My first solo album (Pour guitare, 2016) and first duo album (FOCUS, 2019, withAdam Cicchillitti) feel particularly special, as they both consist of new Canadian music, most of which was written for either me or the duo. My second solo album, Arctic Sonata (2019), features the title track by young Icelandic composer Gulli Björnsson, as well as a lot of overlooked 20th century gems. Arctic Sonata is an incredible piece, and has been a staple of my concert programs since 2016. It’s a total crowd pleaser and I’m happy with the performance we captured on the album.  

Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar? 

I’m lucky to have a close working relationship with the fantastic guitarist and producer Drew Henderson, and have always been immensely satisfied with the results he produced in both my videos and the duo albums. It’s no surprise to me that he is in such demand in the guitar world these days. I am pretty open with regards to these things though, and am by no means a purist; it doesn’t need to be a big reverberant church sound, though that certainly works for some repertoire. Florian Larousse’ latest Bach album sounds more like a studio recording to me (I could be wrong), and the clarity is striking. Patrick Kearney’s latest album was also done in a studio, and with his playing and the repertoire on the album, the sound really “pops” and it works better for him than if it were done in say the Naxos style, I think. 

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

My next duo album with Adam Cicchillitti, Impressions intimes (Analekta, 2021), features original arrangements of Ravel, Debussy, Mompou and Tailleferre and will be released on March 26th. I will also be premiering several new works in solo and duo at this years 21st Century Guitar Conference ( – March 22-26), which was scheduled to take place in Portugal, but due to COVID-19 will occur entirely online. 

I’m very excited about a project that began last summer, when I recorded 12 separate guitar parts in an ambitious new piece by Canadian composer Jason Noble. The piece, fantaisie harmonique, is for double-guitar orchestra (6 classical guitar parts, 6 electric parts), and utilizes 6 different scordatura tunings to cover an extended microtonal range across the different guitars. It is an exploration of timbre on the guitar, relying mostly on harmonics, open strings, and percussive mutes as opposed to traditional playing techniques. This recording was engineered by Denis Martin at McGill University in Montréal, and uses new Dolby Atmos software to create a 3-dimensional listening experience. A new 360-degree video and is currently in progress and will also be premiered as part of the 21st Century Guitar Conference. There are some current versions available to listen to on the Soundboard Scholar website:

Listening to the binaural mix of this with headphones on is a wild ride!

I also have some pre-recorded and livestreamed performances coming up for the Cambrian College concert series (solo – February 5th), Triangle Guitar Society (solo – February 20), Montreal Guitar Society (solo – March 21), Guitar Alla Grande (solo – March 27), and Prairie Debut (duo – March 28). While I miss playing for live audiences, I’m grateful to have these opportunities during this difficult period.  

If international travel can happen this summer (fingers crossed), I am currently scheduled to tour as part of the EuroStrings platform, which would take me to Finland, Estonia, Italy, Spain, and Romania… I guess we’ll see!

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way? 

I was never someone who practiced a crazy amount of hours, and probably peaked during my master’s degree at about 4-5 hours a day. These days, there are so many other things to manage other than practicing, so it’s really all over the place. I practice when I can, and some days I won’t play at all, while other days I will have to overcompensate and put in more hours than I would normally feel comfortable doing. Ideally, it involves a slow morning warmup, followed by focused and analytical work on new repertoire or difficult passages, and then time away from the guitar to do some other things. Later in the day or evening I’ll have another session that involves more “playing” and full run-throughs of pieces as opposed to sectional and analytical practice. I do a lot of recording myself, listening back, and score study, so “mental practice” is a also a large part of my regular routine. 

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on? 

Everything needs regular maintenance, even the things I consider myself good at. So it’s not like we can stop practicing technique after a certain point, unfortunately. I struggle with fast scales, and certain left hand slurs in particular. I practice scales regularly as they are great for synchronization of the two hands, but guitarist’s obsession with extremely rapid scale playing has always puzzled me. Perhaps it’s because I don’t play a lot of Spanish repertoire, but it never really seemed to be that important for the pieces I was learning. That said, it does still come up, and I feel like a slouch in my duo when Adam is blazing through his scale passages while I’m clunking and sweating and failing. I’ll get there one day! 

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

Analyzing the music with regards to form and harmony greatly speeds up the memorization process for me. It’s not always easy, depending on the style of the music, but really studying the score without a guitar in your hands just helps you understand things on a deeper level. My practice approaches of working on very small sections (more on that later) also helps things stick a little easier, I think. 

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

A guitar duo arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine that I worked on with Adam Cicchillitti will soon be published by Productions d’Oz. Hopefully, our other arrangements from the album (Debussy, Mompou, Tailleferre) will be published as well. This piano music works great for guitar duo!

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 

I have a ton of warm up drills that I vary on a regular basis, but if I’m short on time I would prioritize Brouwer’s Etude No. 6 to get my right hand going, and some of Scott Tennant’s left hand finger independence exercises from Pumping Nylon in order to get my left hand going. 

Do you have any pre-concert rituals? 

I eat 2-3 bananas in the 90 minutes before the concert, I slowly warmup, and I try to trick my brain into thinking that I’m “excited” and not “nervous” (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t). I also like to listen to music in the 10-15 minutes before going on stage. If I’m feeling particularly anxious, I have recordings that I know will calm me down and get me in the zone. If I’m feeling fatigued or low energy, I’ll do the opposite – listen to something that will pump me up! 

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?

My nails are I guess what you would describe as a slightly curved ramp upwards. They are relatively short, though I like the A finger to have a slightly longer length.  

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

SLOW DOWN. Time and time again, I realize that my student’s perception of practicing something “slowly” is maybe only 5-10 bpm’s slower than performance tempo. I have learned to actually enjoy playing music at 25% of the performance speed, and it not only helps solve technical problems but also speeds up the learning and memorization process. I also advise against the temptation to play through an entire piece over and over again, trusting that eventually things will fix themselves. I usually learn things a passage at a time, or a small section at a time. I might spend 45 minutes on 4 measures, but those measures are then technically and musically secure, and I don’t need to worry about them any more, David Leisner sums up this idea wonderfully in his book Playing With Ease (highly recommended), referring to this practice as working in “bite-size sections”, and the importance of varying “analytical” versus “soul” work. “Soul” work refers to understanding the “big picture”, and largely occurs at the very beginning (finding that initial inspiration, hearing how your own musical personality could work with the piece), and the very final stages of learning a piece (polishing for performance). Most of the time in between should be hyper focused and analytical, otherwise you are likely wasting time and probably building bad habits that will be hard to fix later on. 


– Steven Cowan

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why? 

While I encourage students to find their own niche and repertoire specialization eventually, I do agree that the bachelor’s level should try to check all of the boxes. Contrapuntal music demands a different skillset in the hands, and just sounds so good on guitar when it’s done well. I don’t play a lot of 19thcentury music, but this is perhaps the best music for students to learn how to integrate phrasing, rubato, and how to decide on dynamic shape based on the melodic or harmonic content of the piece. 20th century repertoire from the Segovia or Bream era makes up the bulk of our guitar “masterpieces”, so there’s no escaping it!  

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why? 

To follow up on the previous answer, I think it’s important for guitarists familiar with the history of our instrument, particularly the last 100 years. The big names are big names for a reason, and so listening to some of the greats in chronological order (Segovia, Bream, Williams, Parkening, Ghiglia, Barrueco, Russell, etc.) will introduce you to the important pieces of the times as well as the evolution in playing style. This can continue with the young concert artists and competition winners of today, of which there are too many great albums for me to even mention. It’s all easily accessible online these days – go out and find it!


Support Steven Cowan’s work:

Latest solo album on Apple Music (also available on other streaming platforms):örnsson-morricone-others-works-for-guitar/1466291274

Latest duo album:

Artist Profile and Interview: Julia Trintschuk

If you have not heard the brilliant young guitarist Julia Trintschuk you are in for a treat. Hailing from Germany, Julia has been on stages all over the world and performed Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez at age 16 to launch her career. With a seemingly endless amount of technical skill, a refined and elegant sound, and a natural musicality, her interpretations transcend the guitar. Fortunately for Six String Journal readers, Julia recently took some time to share some of her experience, tips, and advice! Enjoy.

Julia Trintschuk


When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?

Actually I first started playing piano at the age of four. As my mother was teaching me the piano and my father was always playing the guitar, soon I also became interested in playing guitar and started having the first guitar lessons with my father at the age of four as well. From then on I continued playing both instruments.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

In general I’m only choosing pieces I enjoy playing and working on, to join my repertoire. But it also depends a lot on my mood and the piece itself. What I like a lot is to have a big contrast and variety between the different pieces, for example a couple of technically very demanding and virtuosic pieces, some musically difficult pieces and a few very beautiful and simple piece.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

Mostly I’m playing on my guitars by Fernando Mazza with a cedar top and my Antonio Marin with spruce and satin wood. It’s a very colorful guitar and makes it easy to create a tender way of making music and not focusing on the technical issues too much. Apart from that I like to use my other guitars with a cedar top for a more powerful repertoire or chamber music.

As for the strings I am very happy to be a part of the Savarez family since 2017 and I’m using the Savarez 510 MJP Cantiga Creation Premium High Tension.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?

My teachers Prof. Mario Sicca, Martin Wiedmann, Mateus de la Fonte and Prof. Joaquin Clerch definitely had the biggest influence on me. Musically speaking also my long-term piano teacher So-Ryong Chuoa had an immense influence on me and led me to two of my biggest inspirations Evgeny Kissin and Sergej Rachmaninov.

Are you planning to record a cd? What are some up and coming projects you are excited about?

There are a few projects ahead, that I’m excited about, but they’re still in the process of making, so I’ll be happy to share them soon, when things will get more precise.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

Usually I practice around six hours a day, sometimes more, sometimes a bit less. But structure in the practice is one of the most important things in my opinion. I think it is very important to have an overview on all projects that are going on and to set deadlines.

Another benefit that structuring your practice brings, is that with the time you get to know how much time and which precise steps it requires for you to refresh old pieces, which can be a big help, when you have several programs you have to prepare. All in all I believe a structured practice plan is the key to a good time management that saves you from wasting both time and energy in the wrong way.

What has to be included in every practice plan in my opinion is a warm-up/technique session, a few sessions for working on new repertoire, and one session where you refresh old pieces or keep current pieces “alive”. The most important is to separate these blocks by breaks, in order to keep focused and be able to go through all of these parts daily.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?

As we change our perspectives and points of view constantly during the process of development, I don’t believe it is ever possible to achieve the state of an absolutely controlled, constant total perfection and be “completely done” with the work with the instrument. It’s just that the focus on what you want to improve, lies on different aspects in the different phases on top of the basic feeling of a general comfort with the guitar.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

In most cases the memorization comes while I’m practicing the piece, but sometimes if I want to support or accelerate the process I like using the technique of mental practice (without guitar) and also to analyse the harmonic progressions.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

I have done a few arrangements, that I didn’t publish yet, but I’m definitely planning to do that in the near future.

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up?

My favourite parts from my usual warm-up routine are minor and major scales through all tonalities and the 12 etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Apart from that I also like warming up on the piano by practicing different technical exercises, before practicing the guitar.

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?

Apart from the usual filing and smoothing with a common nail file and nail papers I don’t use any specific products.

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

Practice slow with a lot of patience and love what you’re doing.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

Apart from the classical “competition repertoire” that every ambitious guitarist goes through, in my eyes the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos and the 20 Etudes simples by Leo Brouwer are essential, because it doesn’t only include all technical difficulties that one learns to master during the process of learning these pieces, but these pieces also give a perfect fundament for deepening the understanding of harmony and finding a personal way of applying music to at first glance seemingly technical studies.

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

I believe especially in a young age it is very important to get familiar with the recordings of the most important, diverse legends of the guitar such as Paco de Lucia, Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, Manuel Barrueco, going through all generations and “schools”, to be able to understand and develop your own taste and style. In order to evolve a personal style of musicality in my opinion it is even more important to listen to meaningful other instrument, chamber music and orchestral recordings.


What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?

The last book I read is “The Prophet” by Khalil Gibran. Among my favorite authors are Paulo Coelho, Jane Austen and Bernhard Schlink.

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food?

I like to stay active in my free time and try to do different activities and I do some home exercises and yoga. I also like cooking a lot, but I don’t follow a specific diet. Everything just has to be fresh and tasty 🙂

Do you meditate in any way?

To me focus and concentration, mental health and spiritual development are very important, so I try to keep it up in different personal ways, also including meditation.

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I love searching for inspiration, when I’m not practicing. That doesn’t only include all the activities that are connected to being a musician like listening to music, reading, playing other instruments, but also visiting theaters, art galleries, dancing, spending time with family and friends, meeting interesting people, cooking, trying different activities, visiting saunas and spas, enjoying the beauty of nature – so shortly: discovering all the beauties of life itself. 🙂


Julia on Facebook

Julia’s website

Julia on Instagram

New Series: My Favorite Fernando Sor Etudes, Part 1

Fernando Sor (1778-1839)

Every now and then, I find myself in a sight-reading mood and will pull out the complete Etudes by Fernando Sor. I could spend hours enjoying their perfect structure, their ingenuity, or the wonderful musical moments where Sor charms you by introducing a key or harmony you did not expect. Like a calm path in the forest, there may be something out of the ordinary to draw our attention but just enjoying the path in and of itself is reason enough to be there.

Though many of you are probably familiar with the 20 Etudes by Sor that were curated and published by Andrés Segovia, there are many, many more etudes that he wrote that range from simple to profound. Covering so many musical and technical concepts, they are valuable pieces to those fortunate and patient enough to study them. One great joy as a teacher is to introduce one of Sor’s etudes to a student and have them react with excitement or anticipation that they’ll someday extract their beauty from the guitar.

Anyway, enough rambling!

I decided to start pressing the record button while sight reading to eventually compile a series of videos so that younger and less experienced players get to hear some of the etudes I find particularly nice. I’ll include pdfs below and maybe I’ll even make a video or two demonstrating how I like to play them to develop technical flexibility.

I hope these videos help you discover some new nice little gems.

Previous post about Fernando Sor:

Expanding Sor Etudes

New Publication of Three Fernando Sor Etudes

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How to Improve your Tremolo

Happy New Year! If your New Year’s resolution is to improve your tremolo, you are in luck!

The Bolton Guitar Series just posted its workshop on tremolo with David Russell. Before summarizing it for those of you who like to see the main points listed as a reference, I thought I’d repeat what I expressed in the recent post about David Russell’s ornamentation workshop: the generosity in sharing absolutely everything he knows about his journey with guitar in such an enthusiastic and articulate way is extremely inspiring. David Russell is a great teacher, even through zoom!

Here is the video of the tremolo workshop:

David Russell Tremolo Workshop Main Points

  1. Each finger/nail should feel and sound the same.
  2. Tremolo is a good diagnostic technique for other technical issues.
  3. Maintain a regular rhythm.
  4. Bass should be balanced. Gentle bass/medium or strong treble.
  5. Stiffness in the right hand fingers makes noise. Looseness in the right hand equals a less “clickly” sound. Straighter fingers also help with lessening the “clicky” sound of nails.
  6. The a finger introduces a new tremolo/melodic note and requires attention.
  7. Sympathetic motion between a and m can lead to rhythmic irregularities. Lengthen a finger duration to insure full value of note.
  8. Shift metronome beats to each finger when practicing to “think” with each finger and especially a.
  9. What you do musically with tremolo is at least as important as mechanical perfection.
  10. Practice contrasting Slow/fast, dark/bright, soft/loud practice.
  11. Certain pieces require slow tremolo, some require faster tremolo.

Tremolo pieces:

  1. Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Sueño (Francisco Tárrega)
  2. Zafra and Simancas from Castillos de España (Federico Moreno Torroba)
  3. Una limosna por el amor de Diós, Un sueño en la floresta, Contemplación, Canción de la Hilandera (Agustín Barrios Mangoré)
  4. Invocación y danza and Junto al Generalife (Joaquín Rodrigo)
  5. Reverie and Air Varié (Giulio Regondi)
  6. Now and Ever (Bejamin Verdery)
  7. Shenandoah (Robert Beaser)
  8. Capricho Diabolico (Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco)
  9. Variations on Las Folias (Manuel Maria Ponce)
  10. Campanas del Alba (Regino Sainz de la Maza)

Tips from Questions and Answers:

  1. Play with energy and the necessary tension but more than that is wasted energy and effort. Poise and posture to maximize energy.
  2. Practice tremolo with two fingers (pimi, pmim, pama, pmam, etc…)
  3. Do not bounce hand!
  4. Planting a stops the tremolo. Join all the notes for a better tremolo.
  5. Try playing paaa tremolo to assess tone, movement of a.
  6. Finger movement remains mostly within the span of string space (i.e for tremolo on string 2, a, m and i do not extend beyond strings 1 or 3).
  7. Raise your expectations of yourself. Do not accept bad playing!

For more learning resources:

Mastering Tremolo for Classical Guitar