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!

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

Artist Profile and Interview – Tal Hurwitz

ta-hu-01-0070b.jpgIsraeli guitarist extraordinaire, Tal Hurwitz, recently sat down to share some of his thoughts, philosophies, and experience through an interview for Six String Journal readers. From his thoughts on practicing and recording to his influences, this is a fascinating glimpse into the world of a true artist.

Tal is available for lessons via skype and can be reached at talhurwitz@yahoo.com.


Personal

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

There was always music in the house as I grew up. My father was a big rock fan, he used to play amateur bass and sing, and when I was 9, he took me to a concert of the legendary band Deep Purple. It left a huge impression on me. That is when I started taking guitar lessons. Every kid wants to be a rock star. I, too, was counting on becoming one. I also played a lot of jazz music as a kid until one day a friend said he had a free ticket to a classical guitar concert.

The performer was Aniello Desiderio. That concert completely blew my mind. The next day I started taking classical guitar lessons and since then, it has become an inseparable part of me.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing a variety of styles, but if I have to choose one, I go for Bach. We have to feel extremely lucky to have Bach as part of our repertoire. Unfortunately most of the great composers did not write for the guitar, or it is not possible to make descent transcriptions to their music, but the greatest one of all, Johann Sebastian Bach, is very playable and that is a blessing.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

Over my career, I have played and owned many guitars: Paco Santiago Marin, Daniel Friederich, Simon Marty, Jose Romanillos, Andreas Kirmse, and Andrea Tacchi. Since last year I am playing a beautiful Andrea Tacchi made of Birdseye maple back and sides and a gorgeous piece of cedar top. The quest after the perfect guitar is a journey of a lifetime. As a matter of fact, there is no perfect guitar, but the ongoing search always fills me with enthusiasm. I have always played Savarez strings. I use a mix of them: 1st string nylon, 2nd and 3rd carbon. All trebles I use normal tension, while the bases are high tension. I really like the balance this combination makes.

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

Wow, I could count so many names, but I’ll try to keep it short. Very naturally some of my teachers have had a great influence on me, Marco Tamayo, Carlo Marchione, Ricardo Gallen, Joaquin Clerch and Costas Cotsiolis and my composition teacher, Adam Stratyevsky. All of them are amazing musicians and have influenced me greatly in different ways.

From the non-guitarists, I think about two very special musicians to me. The violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the pianist Grigory Sokolov. Both make you completely forget that they are playing an instrument, they become music, and that should be the goal of all of us.

My great friend, Ariel Mann who is one of the most diverse musicians I have ever met. We grew up together in Israel, and since we were kids, were pushing each-other and explored music day and night. Today he is living in California and is composing music for Walt Disney.

I could think about at least 200 more names but I think we better stop here.

Being influenced by others is a most important thing. It helps you build up your own character, and if you are smart, you can take all this influence and make something original out of it. This ´something’ is you!

What recording/s are you most proud of?

To be honest, I am never really happy about my recordings. I always think to myself, “Oh, if I had another chance I would do this or that better.” This is just my nature. I feel that the fantasy in my head is always better than the outcome.  I prefer live concerts. What I am trying to say is, when you make a recording, you have to accept that in the eyes of your listeners, this is who you are – for good! You can’t change that. I love changing constantly my interpretation and that makes it difficult to live in peace with recordings.


Technique and Performance

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

I rarely practice more than 1.5 hours a day.  I believe that when a guitarist has explored the instrument enough to understand its anatomy and the relation between body-fingers-guitar,  namely developed a good technique, he should not over practice. In fact, over practicing can harm one’s development and eliminate the joy of making music. Music is a mirror of the soul of the artist, and should express feelings. If someone sits down to practice between four walls, eight hours a day, he can’t have much of a life outside of that room. If there’s not much living, there’s not much to express.

Also, I rather spend quality time with my guitar and give every note I play full attention and love. If I do that 8 hours a day, I don’t think I could focus my mind the same way. We as performers, have to educate our mind and fingers to always execute with full commitment, so that in a concert situation, we will feel just like any other day. If someone is used to practice without full attention, he should not expect a miracle to happen come concert day.

One of the worst ways to practice is in front of a TV!! My students know that it is absolutely forbidden. Practicing without focus will make you play concerts out of focus.

It is important for me to clarify that as a kid and as a music student, I used to work much more every day. I wanted to play cleaner, faster and just to push myself. However, as I grew older, I realized, I could never be the cleanest player on earth, nor the fastest… but what I could do the best, is be myself. Bring out my expression which is unique to me, the best I can. This concept lowers your stress levels and allows you to be a happier person and actually a better artist.

I do however spend much time with the score (no guitar at hands). This helps me to understand the music better and to develop an interpretation. It also definitely increases a musical fantasy. I think that in general, we guitarists, are too preoccupied with the fingers, and too less with the mind. The music comes from the mind and not from the fingers.

I also spend much time thinking of the music and visualizing my repertoire, while on trips, a flight, a train, and also before falling asleep.

Do I structure my practice? I used to do it as a student. Actually writing a diary, and write down times that are devoted to any material I was working on at the time, for example: warm up, scales, arpeggios, and individual phrases that I had trouble with.

Today I can tell you with all honesty, I haven’t practiced anything like scales or arpeggios for more than 10 years. I rather devote my time to the interpretation. I sit down with the score, read it once or twice, thinking on how I would like to play it, visualizing it in my head, and then I take the guitar and try find ways to execute ideas. That procedure really saves time, and make you more confident in your interpretation.

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

Basically there are three main ways to memorize music. Fingers (muscle memory), inner hearing (hear the music in your head) and photographic memory. I try to devote time to each, and each of them is kind of a back up plan for the other. If you work on all of them, you are basically covered.

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

I haven’t published any editions. If someone is curious or interested enough in my opinion, they can always take lessons with me [Tal teaches over skype and can be reached at talhurwitz@yahoo.com]. However, some of my own music as a composer, is published by Berben editions.

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

When I am at home, sometimes before starting to play, I’ll do a a very short warm up, that includes very slow rasgueados. And single notes for the left hand with vibrato. All in a slow tempo, just to get the blood flowing into the fingers. That does not take more than 2 minutes.

For concerts, I do need more than that of course. Before concerts I perform an exercise I learned from a pianist friend. He claims that this exercise was invented by Franz Liszt. It is practicing on extremely slow and consistent movements of each of the joints on each finger. I imagine that a weight is tied to my finger and I have to lift it in an upwards movement. On the down movement, I imagine that the finger has to push a heavy weight down. This is an amazing warm-up exercise, that takes quite long to complete, but when I am done with it, I feel fire in my fingers.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I do actually. Like many other musicians I find it very difficult to go on stage without having a banana before. It calms down my mind as well as my stomach. I also do half an hour of the Liszt warm up mentioned above. I have another habit that is quite terrible: over-polishing my nails until they are too short!

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

Each of us has different nail form, different technique, and different sound preference. That means that each guitarist has to find his or her own nail shape that suits him or her better. With that said, I am following the tradition of creating some kind of a ramp on the left side of the nail. That allows a point of grabbing the string, sliding a bit on it like a bow, and then the point of releasing the string. I do try to give attention to both sides of the nail, and use the qualities of both of them. An important rule of thumb for me is not to have them too long to play rest strokes OR not too short for free strokes. It is a delicate balance!



Advice to Younger Players

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

Train your mind, at least as much as you train your fingers. Don’t let your fingers lead you, the fingers are your servants not your boss.  Be more curious about the music you are working on. And most importantly, Practice with full concentration and passion. Once you feel you are not at your best, just take a break. More general advice would be: choose your teachers carefully. There are no excuses. In this era, we can even study  with teachers from other continents. I teach guitarists from different parts of the world on Skype and it is very useful.

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

I consider the music from the classical period, like Giuliani and Carcassi, well suited to learn and develop one’s guitaristic abilities. These composers offer a bit of everything: melodic lines, simple tonal harmony, arpeggios, scales, a little bit of polyphony, and so on. The music from that period is usually very idiomatic to the instrument, too. Music from the Baroque period, for example, is often too complicated for beginners to establish a healthy connection to the guitar. However, I think it is also important that the pupils are attracted to the music they learn, so that they want to put the effort and the work into it.

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

Every guitarist should know the historic recordings of Segovia, Bream, and Williams. From the modern guitarists, just to name a few, I like the recordings of Carlo Marchione, Marco Tamayo, and Ricardo Gallen. I think it is more important to focus on recordings from the great pianists, violinists, orchestras, and opera. Learning from them will be the only way to raise the classical guitar to the level of true classical music.

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Are You Practicing Productively?

Psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama is now my favorite resource for all things related to performance issues and practice strategies. His blog, Bulletproof Musician, is loaded with interesting articles that are applicable to both musicians and athletes. Here are some important points gleaned from one of his productive practice talks.

1) Set Goals

Practice with a specific goal. Take time to plan what you would like to accomplish (i.e. figure out right hand fingerings to a movement, master a particularly hard passage from a repertoire piece, memorize 16 bars of a new piece, etc…) during your practice session.

2) Impose Time Limits

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Limit the amount of time for achieving the goal/s. This is not a problem for most of us with limited hours to practice but the key is to set a time limit or to perceive that there is one. This not only boosts productivity, it will, in the long run, save you time.

3) Record Yourself

I have to admit that I’ve been told this from every single great musician I know and yet my fingers resist pressing the record button like my life depended on it. However, Dr. Kageyama suggests shifting your post-listening assessment not to how many things went wrong to turn this potentially demoralizing activity into an assessment of how long you positively remained in performance mode. So… turn off the self-assessment mode, the inner critic, the frustrated musician, the nit-picky super charged inner ear, and just play. Whether it is what you worked on in your session or whether it’s a repertoire piece that is part of your current program, flipping the switch from practice mode to performance mode is essential if you indeed want to feel like you are training to perform. Otherwise, it is a skill that remains in its infancy until too close to the performance.

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4) Keep a Practice Journal

Take consistent notes during your practice sessions. Tedious? Perhaps. But, without doubt, it will lead to better practice hygiene. Goals that are trackable are attainable. Invest in a sweet journal if you aren’t inspired to write in a cheap notebook.

Hope this to helps Six String Journal readers extract more juice from their practice sessions!

 

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.

SUPPORT JACOB’S MUSICAL JOURNEY:

Interview with Thomas Viloteau

French guitar superstar, Thomas Viloteau, is one of the finest guitarists on the international scene these days. From winning the world’s most prestigious competitions to searching out the finest beers, Thomas recently sat down to share some details about his life and what he is currently up to with Six String Journal readers.

Personal

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

I started playing at 12. There was a music school in the small town I lived in at the time with my parents, in southern France, and we decided it would be good for me to take music lessons. I got to choose which instrument I wanted to play, and since I already had a harmonica and saw a guy on TV play the guitar and harmonica at the same time, I thought I really needed to have a guitar. I wasn’t even really thinking about playing it at this point, just owning a guitar sounded cool to me. I had already tried learning the violin with my dad but that didn’t go well at all, I had no idea where to put the fingers. I remember when my dad told me the guitar had frets, I thought that was like cheating. To me that was just a matter of putting the finger at the right fret and plucking the string.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

The ‘classical’ guitar is a unique instrument in the sense that we have repertoire ranging from the Renaissance to modern days, but there isn’t truly enough repertoire in each style to specialize yourself in a certain style of music—it would be hard for example to say you’re a Romantic guitar specialist and spend a lifetime only playing guitar music from the 19th century without getting bored at some point. This almost forces us to play music from all eras, which can be a little surprising for audiences who are used to hearing certain players perform a certain kind of repertoire. But in the end, even if I could choose to spend my life playing only one repertoire, I’m not sure I would. I enjoy playing Bach just as much as I enjoy playing Sor or a Brazilian piece by Assad. To me, style is everything when it comes to music, and I try as hard as I can to become a totally different player from one piece to the next, which makes any repertoire fun to play.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I’ve played on my Smallman since 2006 with Savarez Alliance strings on it. I’ve also acquired a Bastien Burlot guitar a few years ago which I love.

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

I think my teachers were mostly my source of inspiration when I was growing up. It was before Youtube, so knowledge was much more localized back then! When I moved to Paris in the early 2000s, I met a huge amount of amazing players and teachers. There are too many to cite them all, but every one I met and heard at some point has been an influence on some level.

What recording/s are you most proud of?

Hopefully the ones I haven’t done yet!

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

All the recordings made by Norbert Kraft are magnificent. When I master my own CD’s, I’ll compare them with the recording I did with him for Naxos when I won the GFA. Apart from those, ‘Nuages’ by Dyens was always a gem to me.

You seem to have a cinematographer in you, too. Would you share your set-up and process of recording casual but high quality videos for the world?

I have a couple camcorders by Canon I got a few years back. The biggest one is a xha1, which is a great 1080p camera. Technology is always moving though and with 4k now I’ll have to switch gears at some point. I record the sound with two AKG’s C414 which I love. With good placement and a good room, they sound great. I edit audio into Cubase, and video with Premiere pro.

Technique and Performance

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

It really depends about deadlines for me. If I don’t have concerts and don’t need to learn a new piece, I’ll practice very little. I can even spend weeks without touching the guitar. If I have to learn a new program and a concert is coming up, then I’ll practice up to 6-8 hours a day, although I haven’t done that in quite a while. If I’m touring, the first few concerts require work, but after that I’ll stop practicing altogether. I’ve practiced a ton when I was younger, for many years, and I think that allows me to slow down a bit now. Of course, I can always tell I play better after I practice a lot, still!

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

The tremolo has been a long time enemy of mine, so I’ve started practicing it, just to prove myself I could do it. It’s still not as good as some other players I see on Youtube, but I don’t think I’ll have the patience to take it much farther. To me it’s just a special technique and it should never get in front of the piece and the music. I’ll probably record a few more pieces that use it and let it go!

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

I always had a good memory when it comes to music, but I also try to understand the score as much as I can. If I understand the harmony, the global shape and the details of form, the structure of the phrases etc., I usually can memorize something after a couple read-through’s.

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

Me and Gabriel Bianco have published a set of Scarlatti Sonatas a couple years ago. I’ve done my own version of the BWV1004 partita, too, but since I like changing things around I always find it difficult to print something and tell people this is the way I play it—because it’s mostly never true. When people ask me for the scores of my arrangements, I always advise them to work on their own transcriptions from the best possible source available for a given piece.

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

I’ll confess I don’t warm up. It takes me a bit to get the fingers going, but I’ll just play the pieces slowly if I have to warm up.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I like to do a bit of stretching and breathing exercises (pranayama). I also feel better on the stage if I’ve played each piece of the program at least once the day of a concert. This is true only of the first couple concerts in a tour, if I haven’t played for more than a month. If I’m playing regularly, I can literally do anything I want pre-concert.

Advice to Younger Players

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

I think there’s a thing going around that says you don’t need to practice a lot, just a couple of very focused hours can be better than six hours not focused. It’s true. Although I don’t see why we can’t play for six hours focused. The more you practice the better, that’s the short answer. As long as you fix problems of posture when they occur, to make sure you don’t hurt yourself, go and practice all day. It becomes second nature. There’s no short cut.

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

Young players are developing their musical technique, and ears. On a purely musical level, there is so much to do in the Baroque repertoire or the Renaissance repertoire that it can be a little complicated for students to get into those. The 19th century repertoire is closer to our own traditions that it can feel more natural for students to play it. As far as learning technique, it’s also a very important repertoire to get into. 20th century music is also very important and will teach you the new, weird techniques. Basically I’d stay away from too many transcriptions, and stick to repertoire from the 19th and 20th centuries. When students know more about performance practices for the 16th to 18th centuries, then they should get into this repertoire. To me, playing Bach’s Chaconne when I was 18 was a great experience musically speaking, but I can’t say I learned a lot technically speaking. Sor studies are much more valuable in the regard.

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

I can’t name a few that are vital to know, but I’d advise students to listen to all types of music in general, not just guitar. It’s a little limited to listen to other players when you learn a piece; you want to get to the source, and listening to other players will only give you an interpretation of what you’re seeking. It’s a bit like reading a book review; you’ll understand it much better if you read the actual book yourself. If you’re faced with a Rossiniana, go listen to some Rossini; that sounds stupid but lots of students will base their version on what they’ve heard other players do. If you’re playing some Assad, go listen to popular Brazilian music, singers, bands, not just what other classical guitarists make of this music. Get to the source.

Tangent

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

I’m studying for the comprehensive exams at Eastman here in Rochester, which will be the end of my doctoral studies, so I haven’t read anything else than music theory and history related books in a while. Before that, when I had a normal life, authors I loved were Kundera, Vian, Sartre, Camus… but that was before!

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

I try to exercise and work out as much as I can, although these past years have been quite busy with studying. A special diet of mine is going around trying all kinds of good beers whenever I can, as well as drinking lots of espresso. All very healthy.

Do you meditate in any way?

I’ll spend a little bit of time relaxing before concerts if I feel I’m a bit nervous, but I don’t do it on a regular basis.

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

I love to cook, make coffee, drink beer, watch movies, and play with my cats!


Check out Thomas Viloteau’s latest technique book and CD on itunes:

In-the-Black-Box-1-1website

 

The Science of Practicing Effectively

Annie Bosler and Don Greene’s TED-Ed talk “How to Practice Effectively” provides a great summary of how to get the most from your practice sessions.

Here are the tips given for more effective practice:

  1. Focus on the task on hand. Minimize distractions (turn off screens and phones!).
  2. Start slowly or in slow motion. Coordination is built with repetitions. If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions you have a better chance of doing them correctly.
  3. Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers. Many divide their time for effective practice into multiple daily practice sessions.
  4. Practice in your brain in vivid detail. Visualize everything. Once a physical motion has been established it can be reinforced just by imagining it.

 

Concert Preparation 101

Greater confidence leads to stronger performances. There is a great difference in the confidence of a runner who approaches the start of a marathon having done the bare minimum training and that of the runner who has trained with variety, intensity, creativity, and persistence (and supplemented that training with a healthy diet, careful recovery, and mental preparation).

As a concert approaches, vary your study approach, take notes, and explore as much as possible to gain a better understanding of what yields the best results on stage and what makes you perform at your best. Depending on how well I know the music, I may start preparing months ahead of time or a few weeks from the date. Here is a checklist of actions that start to occur during the preparatory stage that are true confidence builders:

  1. Warm-up with a focus on relaxation.
  2. Befriend your metronome. Play all your pieces at a very slow tempo (for example, the Allegro from Barrios’ La Catedral at 1 sixteenth note/second, or a tremolo piece 1 note/second). I pick a quarter of the program and make sure that by the end of 2-3 days, I’ve practiced everything at a VERY slow tempo. Manuel Barrueco thinks slow-practice may be the best way to practice.
  3. Build a list of troublesome passages or excerpts that do not feel effortless. Practice right hand and left hand alone going from very slow to as far beyond concert tempo for repetitions, practice in rhythms, analyze the space between notes, watch youtube videos of someone wonderful playing them to glean possible modifications, exhaust your resources to make the passages in question effortless. Before increasing tempo, try to nail 5 repetitions in a row. Keep a record of tempo and tally how many repetitions you’ve successfully done.  When focus fades, move on to a different excerpt or take a little brake.
  4. Record yourself. I’m not a fan of this but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to improve. If you truly want to assess what you sound like, it is necessary.
  5. Exit practice mode and enter performance mode by performing run-throughs. Play a run-through of each half of the concert at least once every two days over the course of the month preceding the actual concert. Two weeks from the performance, videotape the entire concert or perform it for a friend, a student, or colleague. Several full-length run-throughs always help to improve concentration. If you have time, experiment with performing run-throughs when you are tired, not warmed-up, or cranky. Perform it while the radio is on, perform it in the dark, etc… Learn to turn on your performance mode.
  6. Break up your practice into several sessions a day. For example, instead of one large chunk of time (9AM – 1PM), try 9-11, another session 1-3, and then another 9-10. Don’t go more than 12-14 hours without touching that guitar.
  7. Visualize the performance before falling asleep. Imagine the stage, imagine yourself on it, imagine every piece from the first note to the last. If you can’t ‘see’ what your fingers are doing, you probably do not know the piece as well as you think you do. If you have trouble visualizing, create a playlist of your favorite guitarist/s or of your best performance of the pieces and listen to it while you play along in your head. The music will serve as a bit of an anchor for your mind’s inner ear while you try to visualize along. Another technique is to watch someone play it and play along in your head.
  8. Meditate often. A simple focus on your breathing for 5-10 minute periods throughout the day is a good start. I’ll write more on this in the future, but as a long time practitioner of yoga, pranayama, and other modes of meditation, meditation is one of a few things that always improves my day and centers my mind.

Good luck!