Artist Spotlight and Interview: Michael Kolk

Hailing from Canada, guitarist Michael Kolk has been praised by Liona Boyd as, “…one of the most brilliant and expressive guitarists I have heard in my time.” Known for his musicianship, his technique, and his interpretive abilities, Kolk is one of Canada’s top guitarists. Despite the quiet performance scene at this time, he has just launched a wonderful CD of 20th Century Guitar Sonatas. Fortunately, he had a bit of time to share some of his insights with Six String Journal. Hope this inspires you all.

Personal

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? strings? I perform mostly on a Martin Blackwell spruce/cedar double top from 2015. It’s a very rich, full, warm sounding guitar, but with ample tonal variety as well. I have a really nice Roberto de Miranda traditional cedar as well that was my main guitar since 2007, and I still play it, though not much in concert anymore – the Blackwell projects better. I used Savarez New Cristal/Cantiga for years, but I’ve recently switched to Alliance trebles. I had tried them and couldn’t ever get used to them, but recently I warmed up to them and figured out how to make them work for the sounds I want.

Which guitarists have had the most influence on you? Julian Bream was the first big influence – he was the guitarist that really excited me when I was a teenager (aside from Jimi Hendrix, but that’s a different story…) There are so many great guitarists these days, but I guess in terms of influence I’d say Fabio Zanon, Roland Dyens, and then two guitarists whom I’m very close with, my former teacher Jeffrey McFadden, and my long time duo partner Drew Henderson. I’ve learned a lot by playing with both of them and just sharing ideas about guitar,

Michael Kolk and Drew Henderson (HK Guitar Duo) playing Ravel

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about? Things are pretty quiet right now – as I’m writing we’re in the middle of the Covid pandemic, so concerts are not happening, and I haven’t pursued online performances. Last year, however, I was really busy with projects. I was playing concerts with the HK Guitar Duo, as well as a couple with a violinist named Laurence Kayaleh, and working on a solo recording of 20th Century Guitar Sonatas which I chose to edit and release myself. Laurence and I also recorded an album of violin/viola and guitar Sonatas by Ferdinand Rebay which was recently released on Naxos. So I’ve been taking a bit of a break from playing classical music and have been exploring creating music by recording rock songs and studying composition. Whether this work ends up seeing the light of day or not, I felt it was important to try writing my own music to develop my creativity, and gain a deeper understanding of music, from a composer’s perspective. I remember Roland Dyens saying in a masterclass that we should all be both performers and composers, and it makes a lot of sense to me. 

Michael playing ‘Round Midnight (Monk/Dyens)

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
These days I practice strategically, mostly. I don’t have as much time as when I was younger, to just sit down and play without a real structure. I usually practice in 30 minute segments. I put on a timer and make sure to get up and walk around a bit when the time is up. If I’m on a roll I’ll sit down right away and do another session, or I might take a break and do something else and come back to the guitar when I’m fresh again. The total amount of time depends on what’s going on in my life. If there are other projects that need attention I may not play much for a couple weeks. When I have performances or recordings coming up I aim for 3 solid hours of practice in a day. If I’m focussed during that whole time, I can’t really handle much more practice. I may play guitar beyond that, but it would be more messing around or playing for fun. 

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?
Tremolo has always been a struggle for me. It takes a lot of work to get it flowing and it never feels totally secure. I think some players have a very natural tremolo, and others don’t even though they may be good players. I have to train right hand speed in general much more than left hand, but I guess that’s fairly common.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?
I’ve recently self published an arrangement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, the 2nd movement Allegretto, for guitar duo. Earlier, Drew Henderson and I had our arrangement of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin (selections) published by D’Oz.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
If possible it’s great to have a walk during the day, and a nap. If I can fit those things in I feel pretty good come concert time. Then 15 minutes before the concert I have a banana, and at intermission I have an apple. To keep the blood sugar up.

HK Guitar Duo playing Michael’s Beethoven arrangement


Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
Well, I think everyone has to find what works best for themselves when it comes to improving at guitar. And it’s not always about drilling technique and being as efficient as possible. Make time to play for enjoyment to keep your enthusiasm. But when you’re feeling sharp and motivated, practice with deep focus and attention to detail. And try not to build up tension – form good habits of posture and relaxation and they will translate to performances. I guess that’s more than one piece of advice…

Michael playing the 1st movement of Cyril Scott’s Sonatina


What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate?
I think there’s a standard repertoire that classical guitarists should at least be familiar with, even if they don’t learn all of it to a performance level. Bach, of course, the 19th century guitar composers like Sor, Giuliani, Aguado etc…, the Spanish repertoire like Tarrega, Albeniz, Granados, Rodrigo, and the Segovia repertoire like Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Torroba, Turina, etc…, then music from the Americas like Villa-Lobos, Brouwer, Barrios, Lauro. There’s a lot, and it takes time to get through. At the same time, I think students should also play lesser known music and try to expand their repertoire beyond the classics.

Artist Profile and Interview: Mateusz Kowalski

When the words “spectacular” and “breathtaking” pop out in a review by Classical Guitar Magazine, there is something special afoot. It so happened that the review was for Mateusz Kowalski’s brilliant performance among brilliant performers during the EuroStrings Competition in London last year. He took first place. Mateusz’s playing evokes such a wide range of emotions – joy, melancholy, nostalgia, excitement, and I am ashamed to admit it as a fellow guitarist, envy is in there, too. His interpretations are alive with imagination and intuition and it is clear that he possesses absolute control of his fingers. His videos are binge-worthy if you have the time.

Mateusz recently sat down to share some insight with Six String Journal readers about his philosophies and his journey so far. Enjoy.

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Personal

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

I started to play when I was six. My older brother and cousin played the guitar, mainly rock and metal music. I wanted to be like them and play the guitar too. In addition, my mother worked in the office of the local philharmonic, so I had a constant contact with musicians, I could hear them practicing, rehearsing and performing.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing pieces which leave some space for the performer to show their personality through them. For me, it doesn’t matter which period does the piece come from. I find all the musical languages (styles of different epochs) to be interesting, effective and beautiful.

It’s also important for me to make every piece I play personal, I always try to put my feelings, my experiences into the interpretation. My aim is to never play “empty” notes.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I have two guitars I use on regular basis: 2015 Karl-Heinz Roemmich Model Exquisite Spruce Top and 2017 Sakurai Masaki Model Mastro RF Spruce Top. I string them with Savarez Cantiga Premium Basses, 3rd & 2nd Alliance and 1st New Crystal. All Normal Tension.

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

Among musicians who have influenced me the most, I find my two guitar teachers to be the most important. Dariusz Schmidt taught me for 12 years and then Ryszard Bałauszko taught me for 5 years after that. They showed my the musical path I should follow and provided me with the principles which I stick to to this day when interpreting music.

When it comes to famous guitarists – I grew up listening to Assad Brothers, Julian Bream, Andres Segovia, and John Williams. Among non-guitarists the most important ones who have influenced me are: Arthur Rubinstein, Maxim Vengerov, Frans Brüggen, Giovanni Antonini (as a conductor), and Il Giardino Armonico (Ensemble).

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

So far, I have recorded one CD album “Mateusz Kowalski Classical Guitarist” and, of course, this is the one I’m most proud of. It was premiered in September 2019. The album comprises a collection of pieces important to me, reimagined and interpreted anew. The track list features compositions by Bach, Giuliani, Tárrega, Barrios, Piazzolla, Ponce, Assad and Schubert. The album published by CD Accord is available via Naxos Classics Online store, on Spotify, Amazon Music and iTunes.

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

I have just finished my online social media project (FB + IG)  “A week with Guitar Salon International”. I premiered eight videos recorded with them on seven different guitars. I described every guitar from the player’s perspective and wrote a couple of thoughts about the pieces themselves.

The next big project will be recording my second CD for the National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin. It’ll happen this year, in September. The CD will contain Chopin’s Mazurkas op. 6 and 7 transcribed by J. N. Bobrowicz (first ever transcription of these mazurkas) and the most important compositions (a couple of world premiere recordings) of the greatest Polish guitar virtuosos of the nineteenth century  – Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz, Felix Horetzky, Stanisław Szczepanowski, and Marek Sokołowski. Extremely hard but also extremely beautiful pieces.

Technique and Performance

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

The time is spend on practicing is dependent on many different factors, but it is usually somewhere between two to six hours. Let’s say it’s four hours on average. I try to spend at least an hour to 90 minutes working on my technique every day, which is about playing various exercises, drills, or speeding up fast parts of pieces I play – gradually, with metronome. It’s basically trying to exceed my limits, push my technical boundaries every day.

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

It’s making sure, that at all times, it’s the technique which serves the music and not the opposite. I believe that’s an aspect of the guitar every guitarist should be working on, all their lives.

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

The fastest way for me to memorize a piece of music is to practice it having the sheet music put somewhere else, in the other room, for example. Then you are forced to remember as many bars as possible, otherwise, you’d have to stand up and walk to the place where the scores are at.

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

I have plans to publish my edition of Franz Schubert’s Musical Moment No. 3. Many guitarists ask me to do that, so I will, very soon.

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

I love to warm up with arpeggios from Tarrega’s The Complete Technical Studies.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

A one light meal only, playing through all my program with scores and a lot of coffee.

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

I shape them by placing a nail file over my strings, then I imitate how I hit the strings, which always gives me the same, rather round shape, with the length of the nail not exceeding the flesh of my finger (only thumb is exception from that rule).


Advice to Younger Players

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

Structure your practicing. Practice technique separately – with scales, drills, exercises, arpeggios. Sight-read a lot – that’s one of the most useful skills.

Remember that the most important thing is to make your interpretation interesting and valuable for the audience. And when I say audience – I don’t mean guitarists, competition jury members, etc., I mean regular people, who look for sincere feelings in music, who want to experience something beautiful during the concerts. Your job is to make their lives better.  Bearing that in mind, you’ll never lose motivation and you’ll always see meaning in what you’re doing.

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

I believe that young/conservatory students should play pieces from all the epochs and they do that in most of the cases. In my opinion they miss one very essential skill – being able to realize a figured bass. It takes some time to be fluent at it, but even spending some time on understanding how it works is very beneficial. It makes you understand harmony better, which is strictly connected to better understanding music in general.


Tangent

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

Homo Deus, written by Yuval Noah Harari. Favorite author – Bruno Schultz.

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

I ride a mountain bike and exercise regularly. 😊

Do you meditate in any way?

For me listening to the music is  way of meditating, contemplating.

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

Eating out with my wife – finding new places with delicious food and coffee.

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Featured Artist and Interview with Thomas Athanaselos

Hailing from Greece,  guitar virtuoso Thomas Athanaselos recently took some time to share his thoughts about his journey with guitar. Equally comfortable playing jazz arrangements, his own evocative compositions, and classical repertoire, Thomas’ playing is musical, fluid, and direct. I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about him here.

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When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?
I started playing the guitar at the age of 11. My influence was a teacher in primary school who always accompanied the school choir with his guitar and he really seemed to enjoy it. Next year my parents just signed me up for a Music School. As time went by I realized my passion for the guitar and music generally.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?
I have always loved playing various music styles from different music periods. The last years my repertoire includes music from the 18th-19th Century but also contemporary compositions of mine and other composers.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?
Over the last years I’ve performed on a guitar built by Vassilis Sigletos (GR) and I use Knobloch Actives (Carbon) high tension strings.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?
Throughout the years I have also played the electric and acoustic guitar, so my first influences were guitarists like Steve Vai, George Benson, Robben Ford and Al Di Meola. At the age of 16 when I focused on the classical guitar, guitarists and musicians from 18th to 21th century like J. S. Bach, Augustin Barrios Mangore, Fernardo Sor, Isaac Albeniz, Joaquin Rodrigo and the great Paco de Lucia had a big impact on me. Of course, I can’t dismiss Astor Piazzolla’s music.

If you have recordings, which recording/s are you most proud of?
I recorded my first album ‘In Memoriam’ in 2018, which received very good reviews so I could say for sure that this is the recording I am proud of. Recordings are always hard to satisfy you 100% so I hope the next one will be even better.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?
Right now due to the situation Covid-19 caused, we are facing a different routine and lifestyle which is something new for everyone. That makes it difficult to arrange concerts so I am focusing on composing and studying new repertoire.

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
I am always careful to keep my mind and my fingers in a good condition. When I have arranged concerts I practice every day 2-3 hours.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?
I don’t have any specific way to memorize music. Sometimes the harmony and the melodic line of the piece makes it easier to memorize it. In any case I try to be careful and concentrated when I first study a piece. Many repeats and slow playing also helps me to find the details and deeply understand the score.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?
Yes, I have published four compositions of mine through Bergmann Editions.
You can find the scores here: Bergmann Editions.publications.jpg

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
For sure, I always try to take some time to relax on my own and not to get in touch with many people. This helps me to stay calm and concentrated on my program. I like to play some scale exercises or some slow tempo parts of the pieces. To me  these are the essentials. The ideal preparing for me is maximum 45 minutes before the concert.

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
I think young players should first start training their brains. They should try to create their own personality in music generally and this will lead them to new paths of playing.

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food?
As our ancestors used to say ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’. So I always try to exercise because it also affects positively my mood and my playing and I have healthy lifestyle in general. I don’t have a specific pre-concert food. A good meal for sure and maybe a bar of chocolate just before the concert!

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?
Running, cycling, watching movies, listening to music, and spending some time walking around with my dog!!

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Artist Spotlight and Interview: Katarzyna Smolarek

The brilliant Polish concert guitarist, Katarzyna Smolarek is becoming known for both her breathtaking virtuosity and her magnificent interpretations. In addition to studying at the Mozarteum in Austria and concertizing throughout Europe, Katarzyna has been awarded over 20 international competition prizes over a very short period of time. The silver lining to sheltering in place in Europe is that she was able to find time to sit down and share her experience, philosophies, and wise advise with Six String Journal readers. Enjoy!

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Personal

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

I started playing the guitar when I was 8 years old. My parents just signed me up for a music school and I think at the time no one was expecting that I would become a professional musician in the future. With time, I developed a love for playing music and I decided to dedicate my life to it.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing all kinds of repertoire from baroque to contemporary music. I think every style has its own proper charm, and I always seek to discover the beauty in each new piece that I learn.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? strings?

At the moment I perform on a guitar built by Jacek Łozak from 2010. My favourite strings are Savarez Alliance Premium medium tension. Since last year I’m proud to be a part of the Savarez artists family.

Which guitarists have had the most influence on you?

Definitely all of my teachers. Lidia Przyłęcka, Ryszard Bałauszko and Marco Tamayo – they have had a huge influence on my progress, for which I will always be grateful. I consider all of them amazing musicians, dedicated teachers and wonderful people. I was extremely lucky to have them along the way.

What recordings are you most proud of?

I actually haven’t done a lot of recordings in my life (but I’m working on it!). I’m certainly most proud of my recent videos made in Siccas Guitars. They are my most professionally done recordings so far.

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

Unfortunately, because of the epidemic of coronavirus a lot of my events have been cancelled. If everything is back to normal soon, I will be able to go to Portugal in June to perform a concert with an orchestra as a part of the International Guitar Festival in Amarante. I am sure I will enjoy it a lot after having such a long break from traveling.

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Technique and Performance

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

The duration of my practice varies depending on many factors. I usually practice around four hours per day, but this amount increases before concerts or competitions (or now, because of the quarantine). On the other hand I practice less when I spend time with my family or when traveling. I’m also no stranger to taking days off to relax and reset. I don’t think I structure my routine in some special way.

Usually after I have finished practicing in the evening, I make a plan for the next day so that my practice sessions are balanced and I don’t neglect anything. When I have a whole day for myself I like to break it out into two sessions: morning and afternoon, 2-3 hours each, with a break for lunch and some other activity.

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

I think there is always room for progress, so in that sense I can say I’m working on every aspect of the guitar performance. I don’t imagine that I will ever have a feeling that there is nothing else to work on and I think it’s a good thing. The constant pursuit of artistic excellence is what brings innovation and life to art.

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

It depends on the piece and the situation. I usually try to learn a piece by memory as soon as possible, so that I can entirely focus on the music. Sometimes the music demands deliberate memorization, and other times the memorization comes naturally after just a few days of playing it. Nevertheless, every now and then I would revise the score, because with time some details might slip away. I also make sure that it’s not only my fingers that remember the piece, but also my brain, in other words that I remember the notes and not only the movements. In order to do that, I play it extremely slowly focusing on every note, or I go through the piece in my mind without touching the guitar at all.

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

I like to play through a couple of slur and scale exercises before I start practicing pieces. However, I’m not a fan of spending a lot of time warming-up, as for me the ultimate goal is to be ready to perform without having to go through a series of technique exercises. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we do not have the possibility to warm up before a concert, and I believe the quality of our performance should not be compromised in those situations.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not at all. Obviously, it’s important to have a good rest and a good meal, but I wouldn’t call it a ritual. Again, I feel like it’s dangerous to have specific pre-concert routines. In situations when we are not able to perform the routines, we might then lose our confidence on stage as a result.

Advice to Younger Players

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

Solve the problems instead of getting discouraged! I get the impression that a lot of young players don’t really know how to practice. They think that repetition is key and when a passage still doesn’t work after having played it 100 times they start thinking things like, “this piece is too difficult”, “I’m not good enough”, or “I need months/years to play it well”. There is nothing worse than having this sort of approach. Practicing should be all about constructive problem-solving. If something doesn’t work we should be able to exactly tell why and the more precise our answer, the better. We should be extremely conscious of our movements and of our choices. This way we can make progress way faster than by mindlessly repeating.

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

I wouldn’t say that there are any specific pieces that one really must play during his education, although I think that it is essential for a student to be familiar with the concepts of all the historical styles. The more repertoire we already know, the more tools we have for our next interpretations. I would also say that it is important to play the standard guitar repertoire; such as Villa-Lobos’ studies, suites by Bach, sonatas by Ponce, pieces by Barrios, Tárrega, Rodrigo, Turina and so on and so on. Nowadays we tend to look for unknown pieces, we make our own transcriptions and we commission new music. I find it wonderful, however as students we need to familiarize ourselves with traditional repertoire first. This will properly facilitate our lives as performers and teachers.

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

I think all recordings, no matter good or bad, have their value. Exactly what we listen to is not so important; the crucial part is that we are able to develop an informed opinion and discern what is of high quality and what’s not. What I find extremely useful is listening to a lot of recordings of the same piece and focusing on the differences between them. This helps me understand many possible ways of thinking about the same piece of music.

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Tangent

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

The last one would be Fahrenheit 451. I love Márquez, Llosa and Murakami for their out-of-this world storytelling.

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

I really like learning new languages. Currently I’m working on my Portuguese. Apart from that I enjoy cooking, reading, dancing salsa and just recently I got terribly hooked on the series “Breaking Bad”.

Artist Profile and Interview: An Tran

An Tran

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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!

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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.


Tangent

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

 

 

 

 

Gohar Vardanyan plays Bach

Armenian guitar virtuosa, Gohar Vardanyan, just released a wonderful video playing the Prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Lute Suite Nº3, BWV995. From the rich sound she extracts from her guitar to the precision of her playing, Gohar proves that in addition to playing Spanish music with great passion and elegance, her Bach is crafted on the same level.

Hopefully, she will put up videos of the remaining movements but in the meantime, enjoy. And, if you would like to support her recording project, visit her indiegogo page: Grand Solos.

Also, check out an interview with Gohar here: Artist Profile and Interview – Gohar Vardanyan..

Artist Spotlight – Rafael Aguirre Interview

Spanish guitar phenomenon, Rafael Aguirre, is likely the most acclaimed guitarist of his generation. With an incredible tally of 1st prizes from the most important international competitions to collaborations with conductors and musicians across the globe, Rafael’s guitar playing speaks for itself – technically perfect, captivating, dazzling, and full of fantasy and introspection. Fortunately for Six String Journal readers, Rafael found a bit of time between concerts and practicing to share some of his thoughts and philosophies with us. Enjoy!

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Personal

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

I started to play when I was 8 years old. Basically I could choose between piano and guitar and my older brother started the piano earlier so I didn’t want to fight with him sharing the piano like we did with video games. I wanted to finally have a tool only for me and I didn’t know it was an important decision. Probably the music education by my mother was crucial since we used to listen to “Peter and the Wolf” by Prokofiev before we went to school every morning and it was then that I started to have a connection with classical music and felt it was beautiful. My mother probably noticed or knew I had a musical ear. I should ask her… ; ) Nice memories…

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I think every repertoire could be enjoyed if you feel completely free from technique barriers, because it is like every person in life. Every person has its uniqueness that you can enjoy. But probably Spanish music, transcriptions and Latin American music is what I enjoy a lot if I analyze my youtube videos for instance. But what I really enjoy is to sight read music from Dowland and Da Milano to Berio and Ianarelli, and even pop songs or cinema music. I like to “eat” music and nourish my soul through sight reading. So in the end I choose very carefully what I play on stage after having played a lot of music. You should see my library and the room where I practice. I have all kinds of music from the most intellectual to the most banal, but for me not only is it important the quality of the music but also if you like it for a reason. I like Gran Jota even if it has not the richness of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, but I feel a strong connection with the piece, an attraction. So sometimes I play a piece because I realize it’s a masterwork and other times just because of that. In the end, we are all humans and musical attraction also exists. ; )

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

Currently I perform on guitars built by my father. I am performing already on a fourth one. They are built in Málaga, Spain following my advice and taste and I am very happy with the result. Sometimes I still play on my Gnatek from Australia. I always use D’addario hard tension strings since I am a proud  D’addario artist and still find them irresistible.

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

Early on, Narciso Yepes and John Williams. And later, musicians like Daniel Barenboim, Karajan, Krystian Zimerman, Anne Sophie Mutter, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein, Placido Domingo, Pavarotti, Radu Lupu. My favorite guitarist nowadays is Paco de Lucía. Also Chucho Valdés, Paquito d’Rivera, Diego el Cigala, Caetano Veloso, Yamandu Costa or fado singers like Ana Moura influence me a lot when I listen to them.

What recording/s are you most proud of?

I have difficulties listening to my own playing because you would like to change things that are impossible to change and it is very frustrating, but sometimes I listen to them. I guess it is a problem when you know yourself. I also prefer much more the concert stage than the recording studio. But I would say I like my first Naxos Recording in 2008 (Rautavaara, Ibert) and the “La vida breve” Cd with Nadège Rochat, cello. But also the “Classica brasiliana” Cd for Dabringhaus Grimm label, where I was a guest artist. The “Transcriptions” cd I am very proud because of the music selection, but I would play it differently today probably. Very challenging music on the guitar.

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

Listen to Koen Claeys “Paint me blue” cd [Koen Clays Six String Interview]. I love that sound! Loud and clear! The problem of classical guitar recordings is that they don’t sound loud enough and when you listen to them in a car you can’t recognize anything. They only work with a very high stereo sound system at home. So I rather enjoy recordings by Yamandu Costa or even flamenco players because of that reason. I think we have to think about this. We are afraid of getting noises from the strings and we put the microphones too far (they also did on my recordings) and the guitar sounds from far away, and that doesn’t go with the status quo of a very penetrating sound in today’s recording industry where people listen with their iphones and tablets. The great thing about the guitar is when you listen to it as a player and the guitar sounds like you are in a cave in el Sacromonte in Granada, this is magic! Unfortunately because the lack of projection of the instrument we cannot get this magic putting the microphones far away. Now I would record with the mics very close. Listen to my video of Cinema Paradiso with bandoneon. I started to experiment there and I am very happy with the result. 

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

There is a famous opera singer that I admire that invited me to record with her on her debut album for Warner Classics some songs. Very excited about this! Also about my debut at the “Auditorio nacional” in Madrid next year. Also my Japanese debuts with orchestra in Kyushu and Tokyo (Tokyo Symphony). In general I want to show the guitar to new audiences or to audiences accustomed to Segovia and they stopped since he died. Also to continue to play for guitar audiences where I can share my latest discoveries for a more comprehensive reception since they know what I do better. But I am still excited to have joined one of the best agencies in the world in London last September, Intermusica. All the projects that will follow from our collaboration already excite me. Imagine, they just signed pianist Yuja Wang who is one of the superstars of the circuit of classical music. Representing the guitar in such an agency is a blessing and I only can give my best.


Technique and Performance

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

Something between 3 and 6 hours maximum a day. I like to sight read a bit, practice a bit of flamenco for my technique and fun and I have a list with my upcoming repertoire and I write down every time I practice it complete or in sections or difficult parts in order to have like a diary and control it. But I can be also a mess and just play for fun instead of practice but always very focused on playing as perfect as I can.

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

Yes. Some flamenco techniques and in general the way I practice is always different because my goal is to play with the brain and completely free of effort. So I am working a lot on that right now. Controlling everything from the brain like a Macintosh computer in order to enjoy. It is a lot of work particularly for the right hand but it is showing some results which excite me already!

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

I have to repeat a piece a lot of times. Also I have to be able to play the piece a tempo. I have tried many things and techniques from famous musicians, but in the end I do it very instinctively. I also record myself to understand why I fail on the same spots and what has to be worked out. And it works! Also being patient and going for a walk or a good restaurant to rest the brain and give a little bit of time to absorb the piece works well.

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

To be honest I am a very lazy person writing music down and I cannot use any computer program to write music. I am very ashamed of that, but one day I hope all my arrangements will be written and I will be more modern. Let’s do another interview in 25 years, hahaha.

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

Yes. Being conscious of every note I play with the right hand and so I warm up my brain. I don’t believe in warming up your hands, because you can warm up your hands also playing baseball, and anyway if you are nervous on stage it doesn’t help a lot. I believe in brain warm up. Your brain works every minute faster because you are aware of all the movements and notes you play. Paco de Lucía said “The scales are in your brain” this is something that is difficult to explain on an interview without the guitar.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Sleeping and eating something. I hate playing hungry. I read yesterday that Federer likes to eat two hours before every match. I totally understand him. Sometimes I like to do a bit of meditation and basically play a little bit and do my brain warm up with the guitar.

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

I put on some lacquer. It is a nail hardener. I shape them with the half moon form.


Advice to Younger Players

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

Never practice faster that you can think. Also practice playing softly and in a relaxed manner, until you feel you can increase the volume.

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

Brouwer, Sor and Villa Lobos Studies. These are the basis of our technique. Also I would encourage students to learn a few flamenco pieces to extend the fingers “out”. We only do inside or flexing movements as classical guitarists.

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

Is nice to listen to guitar, but you pay attention to the “guitaristic” things. I would recommend listening to old guitarists like Segovia, Alirio Diaz, Lagoya, Barrios, Yupanqui, until Barrueco or Gallén and the young players but try to listen to Mahler Symphonies, Schubert Lieder and Juanita Reina (for Spanish music). There you pay more attention to the musical aspect, and we need to cultivate our fantasy as musicians. A guitarist without fantasy is missing all the possibilities and magic of our instrument, It is more complex than it appears.


Tangent

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

Right now I am reading Plato’s Dialogues. I don’t have favorite authors since I am always changing the writer and I haven’t read yet five or more books of the same author to have this opinion.

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

Oh yes,  swimming, biking on the gym. I work with a nutritionist and try to divide the food during the day in particular order, but since I love eating and going to restaurants, I eat everything I like. Favorite pre-concert food is a good meat or fish.

Do you meditate in any way?

I do Vipassana meditation at the moment. I love it and recommend it everyone!

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

Traveling, walking, trying restaurants and nice cafés, spending time with family and friends, reading, movies, going to concerts exhibitions (sounds like the typical answer of somebody trying to be cool but is truth).

Any things else you’d like to add?

Remember that music is more important than the guitar and think outside the box.

Connect with Rafael Aguirre

https://www.rafael-aguirre.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Rafael-Aguirre-126632647534649/

https://twitter.com/aguirreguitar

https://www.instagram.com/rafael_aguirre_guitar/?hl=es

Young Artist Interview: Leonora Spangenberger

Winner of the Youth Division of the Guitar Foundation of America’s 2017 International Competition, Leonora Spangenberger has started to grace more and more stages with her talent. A few months ago I posted some videos of this exceptionally talented wunderkind performing three of twelve etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. To follow up that post, Leonora took some moments from her busy schedule to share some details about her life with guitar so far. From swimming as a hobby to preparing what sounds like a monumental program for an upcoming concert in Vienna, Leonora seems to have a wonderful world of music making in front of her.

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

At the age of six, my older sister and I met a Spanish lady in our
neighborhood once a week. We sang Spanish songs and had a lot of fun
learning some Spanish words and expressions with her. One day I found a
guitar at her house and was curious about how to play it, although I
hadn’t listened to a guitar before at all. I started lessons and that’s
how everything began.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I really love to perform pieces written in the Baroque period. Most of
the time and especially at the moment I play works by Bach. Besides, I‘m
also interested in finding new contemporary pieces like ‘Four Images of
Japan’ by Jana Obrovská and Serenade and Toccata by Sofia Gubaidulina.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on?

For about two years now I’ve been very happy with my Robert Ruck guitar
that was previously played by Tilman Hoppstock. It’s a brilliant
instrument and I’ve been discovering new colors almost every day.

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

The Pepe Romero version of the Aranjuez concerto is the most inspiring
recording to me.

What are some up and coming projects that excite you?

I’m very honored to have the opportunity to perform in the Konzerhaus
in Vienna in April 2019. There I’m going to play the first and sixth
keyboard partita by J.S. Bach and also contemporary works. I’m very much
looking forward to giving this concert and I’m already really excited.

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

Probably like everybody: scales, slides, slurs, trills, etc.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not really. To me it’s important to have enough sleep before the concert
in the evening. I like a rich meal in the morning and snacks during the
day. And of course warming up is part of my pre-concert preparation.

Could you offer any advice to other young players?

Have fun. 😉

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

I think doing sports is the best way to stay healthy. There are lots of
kinds of sport you could do and to me swimming is a great chance to
relax from daily stress and to keep my body healthy.

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

Swimming, as I mentioned before, and meeting friends.



Special thanks to Stefan Schmidt for facilitating the interview and to Siccas Guitars for the video of Henze’s Drei Tentos.

Artist Spotlight and Interview with Colin Davin

Praised for his deeply expressive musicianship, his musical intelligence, and virtuosic technique, Colin Davin seems to have it all. Colin is an active international soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, and teacher, with projects and performances from Aspen to Afghanistan to the Alhambra.

Colin took some time recently to sit down and share some of his insight, philosophies, and advice with Six String Journal. Hope it inspires you all.

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

My study of the guitar began fairly early – I was 7 years old, and my father, himself an amateur guitarist, signed me up for lessons. In a way, it was not so different than the many other things I was doing as a kid, like little league or cub scouts. Taking advice from an interview with the folk-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, it was determined that classical guitar would give me the best chance at being able to play a wide range of styles. And while I’ve since branched out from time to time, at that early age, classical struck a chord with me, and I’ve never lost that enthusiasm.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play a guitar by Andrea Tacchi, from Florence, Italy, his model “Coclea Thucea”, made in 2004. For those who don’t know Andrea’s instruments, they are both of the highest quality in sound and craftsmanship, and a bit unusual. The name Coclea Thucea refers to the inner ear (coclea), both for its obvious connection to hearing music, and for its spiral design, in the ratio of a Fibonacci sequence. Andrea incorporates aspects of “sacred geometry” connected to this ratio in his design and construction. And the “thucea” is a portmanteau of the Latin names for spruce and cedar, as the top is a three-piece construction using both materials (two outer panels of cedar with a central panel of spruce). For years I’ve played Hannabach Silver 900/200 trebles, med-high tension…a perfect balance of warmth, color, and clarity, in my opinion. I have less devotion when it comes to basses, but most often settle on high tension Augustine or D’Addario.

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

My influences have been pretty wide ranging over the years, but early guitar heroes of mine were Julian Bream, John Williams, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, and Django Reinhardt. When I was 10, I heard Jason Vieaux play for the first time, and that pretty much cemented my desire to make music my life. A few years later, I was Jason’s student, and now I’m his colleague on the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music!

What are some up and coming projects you are excited about?

I play in a duo with the brilliant harpist Emily Levin, and we’re planning a live-concert recording in New York this February. The combination of guitar and harp is absolute magic, and deeply under-explored (they might be the two most intimidating instruments for composers, which explains the lack of repertoire). We’ll be recording transcriptions of ours of de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” in its entirety, Ravel’s “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose) and Philip Glass’s “Etude no. 6”, originally for piano. In addition, we’ll feature world premiere recordings of works we commissioned, by Dylan Mattingly and Will Stackpole.

Practicing and Performing

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

Practice hours are variable day to day, and week to week. Such is the nature of a performing and teaching musician – the lack of a consistent schedule presents unique challenges to getting in the hours. I’d say I reliably get in 20-25 hours a week, possibly in a steady stream of 3-4 hours a day, possibly in a disjointed alternation of heavy days and light days. Because of this irregularity, it has become very important for me to structure my practice with specific goals in mind. I always start with some light warmups, then slurs, arpeggios (often selections from the Giuliani 120, or Villa-Lobos’ Etude no. 1), tremolo, and scales. I always have an eye on what projects are coming up, and try to balance my repertoire practice so that I stay on top of the varied things I have coming up at any given point in a season.

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

The way I approach learning a piece, with an extremely deliberate approach using metronome charts and lots of repetitions, often results in memorization by default. That said, I do sometimes get hung up on a passage, or even an entire section….typically in music that is either very rhythmically complex (and thus requires a different approach than the typical metronome work), or music that is rather easy that I end up learning a bit too fast! For the former, I often break the piece down into digestible sections, trying to memorize, say, one line of music in a day. The next day, I’ll work on the next line, reviewing the previous day’s memory work, and seeing if I can string the two together…and so on. For an easier piece, I use some off-guitar techniques like visualization, singing/solfège, as well as forcing myself into practicing the piece in small- to medium-sized sections, more than I might think I need in order to successfully execute the piece.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

On concert days, I do try to keep a certain routine. The night before, I actually try to get a little less sleep than usual – for some reason, being just a little tired works for me, combining with natural performance adrenaline (what some might call “nerves”) to bring me to a nice level of focus and calm. Late morning or early afternoon, I tend to go for a walk; easier to do in certain locations and certain times of year than others! And I general try to eat light throughout the day. I arrive at the hall a little over an hour before showtime, play on stage for about 10 minutes, then head to the dressing room where I’ll intersperse light practicing/warmups with a snack (usually a banana) and some herbal tea (usually turmeric). I think everyone should establish some kind of consistent practice on concert days, whatever might work for a given individual; it really helps put your mind and body into the right space, focusing the energy toward inhabiting the performance space.

Advice to Young Players

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

Be patient, and be thorough. The easiest way to practice is to run through pieces in their entirety, as best you can, flubbing through the hard parts, but kind of getting through it. But this merely reinforces bad habits, and gets you nothing but extra repetitions of mistake-filled playing. More repetitions will bake in those problems, the same way that repetitions of clean, musical playing will bake that in! So, take your time when learning a piece, don’t rush through the process; be deliberate, thoughtful, and careful. When all that early work happens, the final product will be far superior, easier and more enjoyable to play, and far more satisfying for your audience.

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

There’s a whole library of Julian Bream recordings everyone should know. “Popular Classics for Spanish Guitar”, and “Twentieth Century Guitar I (from the Julian Bream Edition)” are two favorites of mine. Beyond that – I always tell students to listen well beyond the realm of the guitar. Some of my best musical lessons have come from listening to non-guitarists, classical or otherwise. A random assortment of influential artists: Toumani Diabate, Punch Brothers, Rachel Podger, Hilary Hahn, Mitsuko Uchida, Alfred Brendel, Joanna Newsom, Leonard Cohen, Roomful of Teeth.

Tangent

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

I tend to read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Probably my favorite author is the late Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. His “Death with Interruptions” is among my favorite books; a fable that is funny, sad, and sweepingly beautiful. I’m also a devoted reader of the New Yorker magazine, especially the long-form investigative pieces, profiles, short stories, and arts writing. And of course, the cartoons.

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

When I’m not in the midst of working on music, I honestly just enjoy “being” wherever I am. Hiking is among my favorite activities (though the elevation changes in Northeast Ohio are a bit mild to qualify anything here as “hiking”); and it’s the ultimate in doing something that is very nearly doing nothing: walk, climb, look, smell, listen. Beyond that, I enjoy cooking, coffee, and the occasional night out with a good game to play; lately, I’ve been working on my pool game, though I have a long way to go before anyone would accuse me of actually being good!

***

For more information on Colin Davin visit his website: www.colindavin.com

Jacob Cordover Interview

With reviews praising his superb interpretations, his flawless technique, and his virtuosic mastery of the instrument, Spanish-based Australian guitarist Jacob Cordover‘s performances speak for themselves. He recently sat down for an interview with Six String Journal where he enthusiastically and generously shares details about his journey with guitar, the way he prepares for concerts, how he warms up, advice for younger guitarists, and even why he gave up on pre-concert rituals.


Personal

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

JC: My mother has told me that I first started asking to play the guitar when I was only three or four years old. As there was no guitar in the household, but there was a piano, it was suggested I start by playing piano. When I was about 10 years old however, my parents bought me a guitar and signed me up for Suzuki guitar lessons.

It was around this time that my father took me on a trip to the Philippines. One calm, balmy evening in Manila we went to a classical guitar concert. There, sitting in the open-air-theatre – or rather an old Spanish-style interior courtyard, two classical guitarists took the stage. It was whilst listening to this concert that I first had the realisation that I would be a musician, that the classical guitar would become my “voice”. I don’t know what it was specifically, but the sound of the classical guitar entered my ears and truly captivated me. As a child I also learned clarinet, saxophone, piano and sang in choirs, but for reasons beyond my knowledge, the guitar never felt like work, I always found great satisfaction playing the guitar.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

JC: I don’t think there is any one – in fact, what excites me most about the classical guitar repertoire is the variety offered. I go through a lot of repertoire and change programs several times a year. Besides my solo work, I also play a lot of chamber music; with string quartet, as duo with guitar, oboe, violin, cello, voice and even once with cornett. I am equally happy playing music from the Spanish Renaissance as I am working with composers on new works, I love the music of Spain and South America, Bach and Giuliani equally. Life is full of differences and the music I play reflects that. There is so much variety in life and I like that there is always a piece of music to reflect, or emote, or console any possible mood or feeling. There is a time and a place for beauty, for pain, for virtuosity, for ugliness, for chords, for counterpoint, for the avant-garde and everything in between.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

JC: I have been playing Smallman guitars since 2002. All 5 of my CDs (three solo and two duo) have been recorded on either a 2002 or my 2006 Smallman guitars. However, in recent years I’ve been lucky enough to have multiple beautiful instruments at my disposal. I have been performing more and more on a fabulous guitar by the young Spanish luthier Elias Bonet. I bought one of his spruce topped instruments in 2015 and fell in love with the sound. It has much more of a traditional sound than the Smallman and is full of colours, fabulous clarity and a bell like projection in the trebles. I also play on a romantic guitar built by the Famiglia Vinaccia in 1915. The family continued building their guitars in the 19th Century style right through the middle of the 20th century, so this guitar has all the wonderful characterises of an original period instrument, but is only 102 years old.

I enjoy playing on a variety of guitars as the instruments are so unique. I like to try each piece on the different instruments to see what qualities the different guitars bring out in the music. My Smallman has a resonance and richness that makes melodies sing whereas the clarity and colours of the Bonet brings out the intricate textures and rhythms. The Vinaccia obviously suits the 19th century music with its rich vibrato and velvety sound, but also lends an intimacy to many more contemporary works.

I play exclusively on Knobloch Strings and use them on all my guitars. Depending on the concert, the stage, and the repertoire, I change between Knobloch Actives Q.Z. (nylon) Double Silver and the Q.Z. Sterling Silver strings, and always Hard Tension.

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

JC: There have been so many over the years, but my biggest musical influence was my undergraduate teacher in Australia, Timothy Kain. I also had a couple of lessons with the bassist Edgar Meyer and the violinist Lorand Fenyves which left a lasting impact on my playing. They both said things that I still think about to this day, even if it was only a simple impactful sentence. In addition, listening to some of the great players of today – like oboist Nicholas Daniel, cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, or the Assad Brothers – has influenced me by pushing me to always express the music beyond the limits of one’s chosen instrument, in my case, the guitar. For me, the Assad Brothers do this extraordinarily well; their articulation, sense of line and rhythm and their fluidity have always captivated me. I love the way they always make music, that happens to come from a guitar, that is to say, I never get the impression that the musical decisions were made because of the guitar, but often in spite of the guitar. As a duo, the Assad Brothers have found a way to go beyond the difficulties and technical limitations of the guitar and always play with singing lyrical melodies, a strong rhythmic pulse and a seamless rubato.

What recording/s are you most proud of? 

JC: That’s a tough question as I’m equally proud of all my CDs. Each of them for me represents a time in my life and playing, and each CD is the culmination of the long process of getting to know the pieces intimately, internalizing them and then recording a version of each work in my voice. Now, when I listen back to these discs they carry with them the memory of the process and artistic decisions from the point in my career when they were recorded and I am proud of having created an honest and true interpretation of each piece across my 5 CDs.

I’ll give you my highlights from each CD. From my first CD, Stélé, the title track carries with it the many conversations with the composer of the work, Philip Houghton who just passed away. I am still proud of this recording of his beautiful work.

My duo CD Songs from the Forest by the Australian Guitar Duo (with Rupert Boyd) includes many more Australian works, in which I think we capture the essence and colours of the Australian musical language.

An example from my second solo CD, Blackwattle Caprices is J.S. Bach’s Suite BWV 997, which was the culmination of years of studying this piece, listening to many interpretations, delving into performance practice and being especially influenced by the interpretation of Robert Hill.

In my Zoco Duo CD Historias (with Laura Karney, oboe/cor anglais), I am proud of the arrangements we made. Although the oboe / cor anglais and guitar is an unusual combination, we were able to highlight the colours, timbres and variety of the instruments and give a wonderful representation of the sultry power of this combination.

In many ways, my most recent CD, Expresivo, was the most difficult to record. Expresivo is an album full of the classical guitar favourites and the music that first captivated me when I started to learn the guitar – works by Tárrega, Albéniz, Granados, Barrios, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla and others. I tried very much to play this music honestly, and the way I hear it, rather than trying to capture or imitate older recordings of this repertoire from the ‘greats’.

The result is something I’m immensely proud. I think my own arrangements and interpretations are different enough to be captivating, but familiar enough to do justice to the legacy of the greats. In fact, Ken Keaton wrote in the American Record Guide “Even if you already have these pieces in other performances, Cordover’s have such a distinct and attractive personality that it will be worth finding.” (ARG Nov/Dec 2016)

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

JC: Whilst I always have chosen to record with John Taylor because I love the sound he captures in his recordings, I would be hard pressed to mention any one as ‘the finest’. Again, I like the variety. For me it’s interesting to hear how different engineers and different performers want to capture the sound of different guitars and I believe these differences in the recorded sound are just an extension of the great variety of interpretation that makes each performer unique. I have always felt I can learn so much listening to a recording and trying to answer why someone played a phrase the way they did, or why they use that guitar, or those strings, or that recording engineer with that sound. What were they striving for and why?

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

JC: My next project will be returning to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s breathtaking setting of Platero and I for guitar and narrator. Back in 2015 I toured Platero with my brother Gideon. Early next year we will record a CD of Platero and I am excited to be developing this project further; not just as a CD, but a live staged production and other multi-media collaborations as well. These stories are just spectacular and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical setting, in my mind, borders on the divine. Here’s a link to a video I recently made of one movement (without the narrator) and here’s a link to a movement, Ronsard, with narrator.

I am also excited to be heading into the studio to record some of the contemporary works for guitar and oboe / cor anglais that my ensemble Zoco Duo have premiered over the last decade. We will be recording works by composers from Australia, Norway, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.A.

As for live performances, I’m very much looking forward to performing an arrangement of Enrique Granados’ Valses Poéticos for guitar and orchestra in the closing concert of the Art Llobet Festival here in Barcelona on November 5th.  The waltzes are little gems and the orchestration gives adds so many new colours to this wonderful work.


Technique and Performance

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

JC: I practice each and every day and aim for between 4 – 5 hours. I have the luxury of being exclusively a concert artist so can focus all my energy on honing my performance. I start each day with at least 40 minutes of warm-ups which include scales, slurs, RH cross-string exercises and tremolo study. On concert days, I like to be well warmed up and will usually aim for at least two hours of practice before a concert. Travel days are more difficult but I generally manage to get my warm-ups done as well as playing through some pieces or working on tricky passages, even if this has to be done at the airport, bus station, or at my hotel – before breakfast, after dinner, or whenever I can squeeze it in.

In recent years, I have tried to give myself a couple of “rest days” a year where I don’t worry about practicing, but I still enjoy playing guitar so much that even on my days off I often end up playing guitar for its own sake – either reading through new music or playing some old favourites. Always after doing my warm-ups of course!

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

JC: I still pretty much work on everything because, well, as Pablo Casals once famously said “because I think I’m making progress”.

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

JC: Often memorization just happens organically, but if I’m pressed to memorize a piece quickly, or especially when memorizing Bach (or other complex contrapuntal music) I try to use every possible technique. I will try to make sure I have the muscle memory (which I prove by trying to hold a conversation whilst letting my fingers play on their own), I try to visualize the score in my head, I try to visualize the left and right-hand fingerings, and if I really want to make sure I know a piece, I’ll get a piece of manuscript and write it out from memory – not just notes, but left and right hand fingerings as well. If there is one thing I’ve learned about live performance is that you never know what might distract you at any moment, and it’s nice to have the security that I really, really know a piece inside and out.

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

JC: I have made lots of arrangements, not just for solo guitar but also for guitar and oboe for my ensemble Zoco Duo. Publishing is certainly on my list of things to do as I’d love to have these arrangements publicly available, but for now, you can just hear them on my CDs.

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

JC: I have a fairly consistent set of warm-up exercises which I change up (for my own sanity) a couple of times a year. The first thing I always start with is a couple of cross-string RH exercises that were once shown to me, one by Pavel Steidl and the other by the Argentinean guitarist Lautaro Tissera. I then play through that month’s selection of Aaron Shearer LH slurs exercises, a rotating selection of Giuliani RH exercises, scales – starting with three repetitions of each note accenting the first of each grouping (mim imi or ama mam) then duplets (mi, im, am, ma) and if I feel I have time with the little finger as well (ca, cm, ci, ai etc). I also do repetitions of 4 then 2 on each note with ami (amia miam iami etc) – this way you’re always changing which finger you start the grouping on. I’ll then change it up to starting each new note with the same fingering. I do these right-hand variations whilst playing two octave scales from C to Eb, then three octaves from E to C (My Bonet guitar has a 20th fret!).

I then practice tremolo – starting slowly and most often whilst playing Recuerdos or Barrios’ Una limosna por el amor del diós . I always start p and a finger together (i.e. p&a mia, p&m iam, p&i ami, etc), then a 5 tremolo  tremolo  (piami) then the regular tremolo  but either changing up the order, or putting accents of different RH fingers (i.e. pami, pami, pami, pami, etc.).

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

JC: I learned over 10 years ago to abandon any pre-concert ritual. My teacher had once told me to try and think of a concert day as any other day so that you can get on stage and play as calmly as you would in a practice room, or on any given Tuesday. That really hit home at a series of concerts I did in the mid-Pyrenees back in 2006 or 2007; performing each night in a different ancient church. Often, there were no bathrooms, no places to wash your hands, no regular eating schedule, no guarantee of a chair at the ‘right’ height and so on. I learned that having a ritual could be dangerous, so learned to perform regardless of the situation.

This has been great when having to get off a long flight and go straight to a live TV or radio interview or if there is traffic and you arrive later to a concert than is ideal. The only thing that stays consistent is I always play at least a 10 minute expurgated version of my warms-ups backstage, and I try to carry a bag of cashew nuts in case I need an energy boost. Oh, and a nap. I always squeeze in a nap if it’s possible, even if it’s a short 10 minutes on the couch in the Green Room.


Advice to Younger Players

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

JC: To practice actively and not passively. It’s amazing how much more productive a practice session is when you’re actually listening to what you are playing and thinking about what you’re doing. If you’re not paying attention, you’re not practicing you’re just playing. There is a time and a place for this “playing” too, but it’s not practice.

I also think it’s essential to practice performance. If I have a recital coming up, and especially if I’m perfomring a work for the first time, I will try to replicate the performance experience as much as possible. I give myself some time for a warm up, I walk to my chair, bow, and start to perform. Sometimes I do this in my living room to a tape recorder, sometimes to an audience of friends. I will often (more often than not) do this in performance clothes too. In my mind nothing prepares you for a concert more than playing concerts, so even if I don’t have an audience I will practice the performance aspect. I will practice my spoken introductions to the pieces, practice playing the pieces in the program order with no breaks, practice the tuning peculiarities between pieces. This can be as essential as practicing the notes.

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

JC: I would say that variety is actually very important. Young students need to learn that there are differences, both stylistically and technically, between playing Bach and Barrios, or Walton and Weiss. Studies are also essential. It can be nothing but beneficial to slowly and carefully work your way through all the Sor, Villa-Lobos, Brouwer or Dodgson studies, to name just a small handful. Studies are a great way to train oneself to play music, and to play musically, in spite of technical difficulties.

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

JC: Again, I’d say variety. The differences between Segovia, Bream, Williams, Russell, Diaz, Presti/Lagoya etc. are so vast. I think guitarists should actively listen to the same piece played by as many guitarists as possible, then decide not just which one they prefer, but why!?! There is no right or wrong way to approach a piece, it’s just a matter of taste. Listening to the infinite possibilities can only strengthen one’s own conviction and reasons for playing the way one does.


Tangent

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

JC: I just re-read Albert Camus’ short story The Artist at Work. A wonderfully satirical yet poignant story of an Artist who battles with the will to work and the distraction of ‘fame’ – a concept that is both curious to the artist and at the same time irrelevant to his work, but nevertheless something that dominates all. I also recently re-read Music of Chance, a fabulous book by one of my all-time favourite authors, Paul Auster.

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

JC: I swim a lot; when I’m not on tour I try to swim 3 – 4 times a week. I also have a series of Yin Yoga postures and stretches that I do regularly, if not daily. With all the traveling and guitar playing I do, I’m finding it more and more important each year to keep the body moving and healthy, and in positions that are as antithetical to guitar playing as possible!

Do you meditate in any way?

JC: I don’t mediate in a traditional sense; however, I do find swimming laps concentrates my mind and allows me to focus only on my breath alone which clears out anything else.

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

JC: I like cooking and all things food related. Nothing makes me happier than having a group of friends around, lighting up the grill and spending the day chatting, cooking, eating and drinking. To be honest though, a guitar usually makes its way out of the case at some point!

Any things else you’d like to add?

JC: Thank you for your interest in my music and for listening to my answers! I hope your readers enjoy listening to my music as much as I enjoy making it.

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