Artist Profile and Interview – Gohar Vardanyan

Gohar Vardanyan

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Admired for her evocative and virtuosic interpretations, Armenian guitarist Gohar Vardanyan has taken some time off from her busy performing and teaching schedule to share some details about her life and her art. From her advice to practice slowly to her passion for pushing the limits in her performances, I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did about this young and phenomenal guitarist!

Personal

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

I started playing when I was about 5 years old. My dad is a guitarist and he started teaching me as soon as he could. I grew up with guitar being played in the house all the time, either by my dad’s friends, students, or on recordings.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

I tend to gravitate towards music that has beautiful melodies and is emotionally moving. Not really into cute pieces or contemporary music. I love to play Bach, but because of the time and maintenance required to perfect it I don’t program it in concert. I play it at home for my own enjoyment.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play on a 2012 cedar Jean Rompré guitar. Currently I use Royal Classic Recital strings (medium tension). I also love Savarez Cantigas and Knobloch Actives QZ Nylon. I only use normal or medium tension strings.

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

Growing up it was all about Paco de Lucia, I wanted to play just like him, but then I chose classical guitar as a career, so that didn’t quite work out. I listen to many different musicians, not just guitarists, but I can’t say there was one in particular. It’s a mix. All my teachers had tremendous influence on my playing now; Antigoni Goni, John Wunsch, Manuel Barrueco and Sharon Isbin.

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

I like all of David Russell’s later albums. I would love to have that kind of full and beautiful sound on my next CD.

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

I just started a new series on my YouTube channel called Guitar Etudes. I have been making videos for Strings by Mail for a few years now, mini guitar lessons we call Lessonettes and Unexplored Repertoire Series from sheet music in their collection. But for a few months now I’ve been thinking of doing something other than just my repertoire videos on my own channel as well. Something that would be beneficial for my own students and guitar students in general. So I thought that recording various guitar etudes and talking about their technical or music benefit would make for a good video series. I finally started it. I’m going to try to upload a video every Monday. As I write this, there are 4 out already and the 5th one is scheduled to go LIVE on next Monday.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice?

When I was in school I practiced about 4 hours a day, everyday. Now life doesn’t really allow for that luxury. Between teaching, making videos, answering emails, and all sorts of other little things, 4 hours of practice every single day becomes more of a chore. Whenever I have a break between concerts I slack off a little bit. I practice, of course, but it’s not 4 hours and some days I skip altogether. When concerts are lined up, then of course I prioritize practicing and practice as much as needed.

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

In terms of structuring, I personally don’t have a rigid structure. I don’t think I ever did. I work on whatever needs to be worked on and for as long as it needs to be worked on. Of course, I try to find the most effective and efficient way to do it, but it’s not a set structure like 30 mins of technique, 2 hours of rep, 1 hour of reading, etc… If I’ve been playing regularly, I might do a 15 minute technical warm up then dive right into what needs to be worked on. If I’ve been a little lax with practicing and I feel like my hands aren’t as in shape as they need to be, I might do 1 hour of different technical exercises for a couple days. I’ve tried keeping logs and practice journals both on paper and electronically. It would last for a few days then I’d drop it. So I decided instead of wasting time writing and planning, I rather just sit down and do it. I’m better off just remembering and going by feel. However, that doesn’t work well for everyone. For a lot of my students, keeping a log or having a specific structure to their practice is better. This also really depends on your level. When you are still in the developmental stage, you need to do technique everyday, because you are still building your technique and that takes consistency. After years of experience, you know what you need to do at that particular moment to improve your playing. I usually have some sort of goal, fixing a specific passage, or working on specific phrasing, or building my stamina for a particularly difficult or fast piece, etc… And that keeps me organized enough.

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

I wouldn’t really call it struggle, but I think there is always something that needs to improve. If we stopped trying to be better than before, then we give up and stop growing. Every time I learn a new piece, it’s a challenge. I tend to always choose pieces that are pretty difficult either because they are transcriptions or because I gravitate towards pieces that are passionate, emotional, sometimes fast paced and rhythmic. And to add to the fire, so to say, I like to push them to their limit. Usually, I already have an idea of how I want it to sound. I never want them to sound like they’re difficult, in other words I want the technique to be invisible. At the same time, making the technical execution seamless and effortless while keeping the energy and the passion of the piece alive, makes it way more difficult to play. It’s easier to take it down a notch and play things neutral and straight, but that sounds boring to me. I always end up pushing it to the limit in volume or speed, and that gets me if I’m not two hundred percent prepared. So I’d say my struggle is to take it down a notch.

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

I do make a point of memorizing the piece as soon as I can, but since usually I don’t have a set deadline for it I just let it happen naturally. Whenever I did have deadlines, I would break it down into small sections and deliberately memorize it, either by visualizing in addition to playing it, or playing and trying to actively make my brain understand what’s happening so I can repeat it without the music. If you do it in small enough sections then put it together, it becomes less of a daunting task. I think memorizing makes us play the piece better, we can connect with it better without being distracted by looking at the music. And from the technical point, when you have to fly around the fretboard, it’s a lot easier to land in the right place if you see where you’re going.

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

I have four books published for Mel Bay Publications, but those are instructional books. In terms of editions, I haven’t really made my own. Honestly, a lot of it is the time commitment. It requires a lot of time to transcribe something, and then to also put it into legible notation. The transcription of La Vida Breve that I did, I just memorized, because rewriting everything is a task I didn’t have time for.

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

One of my books is on warm up (Complete Warm-up for Classical Guitar), in it I share the main drills that I do to warm up. It’s nothing fancy, it’s short, but it covers all the bases I feel that I need.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not really, no. I like to keep it simple. I prefer to sleep in as late as possible and I prefer not to have to do anything else like teach that afternoon, that way my brain is fresh for the evening concert. I wouldn’t really call it a ritual though, because sometimes you won’t be able to do any of it and if I had something I relied on for a good performance, it would be like a crutch and who knows what would happen if I wasn’t able to get it. So aiming for some rest and peace is good enough for me.

Advice to Younger Players

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

Don’t just play, actually practice. And practice super slow, I mean painfully slow. It’s amazing how much you can see when you zoom into time like that and analyze what happens with fingers in between notes. I’m talking about 50 on the metronome, for each note you play (sometimes two notes, depends on the piece).

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

I don’t think there is a specific set of pieces everyone absolutely has to play. We’re all different and our tastes are different. However, I think it’s important to learn music from all different genres, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary. Learn them, even if you don’t like them, and when you leave school you can choose never to play them again but I think some familiarity with the different genres is important.

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

I think we should all be familiar with the guitar legends, Segovia, Bream, Williams… they are part of our history. However, we should also keep up with current times because guitar is constantly growing, better and better players are coming up every day. With YouTube and the Internet in general, we have incredible access to so much. We shouldn’t be stuck in the past, explore and find what you love.

Tangent

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

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is the last book I “read.” I say “read” because I didn’t actually read it, lately I’ve been using audiobooks on my commutes. And for authors – I loved all the books by Dan Brown and Alexander Dumas. They are fun to read.

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

I got into running about 2.5 years ago. For almost a year I did it regularly, 4 times a week at minimum and even ran a 25K trail race (took about 3 hours though, not much of a threat to everyone else on the trails). Now I go when I can for a 5K in my neighborhood or if I have a long enough chunk in my day, a 10K loop around Central Park (NYC).

I don’t have a particular diet. I usually eat pretty healthy, not into fast foods or fried foods. My weakness is sweets, but only chocolate, gelato and pastries (with chocolate), no random candies. So as a responsible human who cares about not eating too much unhealthy sweets, I try to limit those. I don’t always succeed.

No specific pre-concert food. I usually go for a late lunch of whatever that will carry my through the end of the concert. I try not to be high maintenance for the people who are hosting me or the presenters who invited me.

Do you meditate in any way? 

No, I can’t sit still for that long.

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

I like walking around the city or going on hikes.

Expanding Fernando Sor’s Etudes

images-1.jpgI have to admit that I may be enjoying Fernando Sor’s etudes too much these days. Many of them conjure a nice summer walk in the countryside with the occasional mildly adventurous detour. A set of favorites that I’m editing will be published soon but I thought I’d post a lesson on one of them and how I have been using it to warm up and build technique. His etudes are ideal in many ways to integrate musicality into technique because listening to the subtleties and manipulations of Sor’s familiar but often charming harmonies is so pleasurable.

Once you master his etudes, there are many possibilities for expansion but I’m going to use Etude Op. 35, Nº9 to illustrate how I like to use it to develop right hand technique. Here is a read-through for those of you not familiar with it.

First Step

Try to build flexibility into your right hand by playing the etude as written with the following right hand patterns:

piai, pimi, piâi

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Variation 1

Once these are reliably developed, you’re ready for some fun. Use the following pattern to help develop the weaker alternation with these patterns:

piaiaiai, piamamam, pimimimi

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Variation 3

Or, another option could be to explore moving out of a right hand arpeggio position into a more right hand scalar position with:

piaiamim, piaiaimi, piaiamia, piaiamam

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Variation 4

Or, if you are feeling musically creative, explore adding a note to complement the melody within the key:

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Variation 5

Change it up a bit to get in your triplets:

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 6.jpg

Or, if you prefer:

pimamiamiami, piamipamiami, etc…

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 5.jpg

There are so many places to go with these little gems. Fun!

Download the edition of my score for free: Fernando Sor Etude Op. 35, Nº9

Precise Left Hand Finger Placement

The ability to place the left hand in a position to give equal opportunity for each and every finger to fret precisely is essential for playing well. Pinching a fret precisely means pinching a fret while avoiding contact with any adjacent string/s.

There are many instances where the ringing of adjacent strings is necessary.  Think of your Bach fugues!

So here are two exercises I like to show students who are struggling with placing left hand fingers precisely. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Listen! Keep your ear on the open string to make sure it rings continuously while you play the chromatic notes around it.
  2. Play really slowly to insure absolute legato.
  3. Keep right hand fingerings simple. Try using and or m for the open string.
  4. Pay attention to your wrist placement. It should remain relatively flat. Do not push your wrist out in front of the guitar. To create a tunnel for the open string take the bend across the joints in the finger. Think of creating a semi-circle with the finger.

Exercise 1

Chromatic Linear Scale with open 1.jpg

Exercise 2

Chromatic Linear Scale with open 2.jpg

Hope this helps clean up those sloppy pinches! : )

 

Intervals, Part 1 – Chromatic Octaves

If Mauro Giuliani’s works are in your repertoire, or those of 340px-Mauro_Giulianiany classical period composer, you will know that interval runs of octaves, sixths, and thirds are used to great effect. Think the fourth variation of Giuliani’s Folias Variations (Op. 45) or the grand finale to his 1st Rossiniana (Op. 119)! Interval runs are everywhere in our repertoire and it’s worth studying them either through repertoire or through scale practice.

The two chromatic octave exercises below should get you started. They are useful for warming up, coordinating the hands, independence and opposing movement in the left hand fingers, and can even serve as a vehicle for right-hand development, too. Here are a few ways to focus on them:

  1. Start very slowly and pluck both notes with simultaneously. No rolling!
  2. Keep the wrist relatively still so that the fingers of the left hand are extending and contracting vertically (i.e. often moving in opposite directions from each other).
  3. Keep the left hand fingers soft and close to the fretboard.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpapm pipi pm, pa pm, pm papa piand pi pa.

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Once this feels comfortable and in control, explore some variations like the one below.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpa, pm pipipm, papm, pmpa, papi, and pipa.

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Let me know if you find this helpful. Part 2 coming soon!

 

Coordination and Right Hand Arpeggios

One of the easiest ways to improve right-hand arpeggio studies like Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Etude Nº1, Leo Brouwer’s Etude Nº6, or Francisco Tárrega’s Estudio Brillante, or the parts of pieces where arpeggios occur for an extended time is understanding when exactly the left-hand fingers must place or release to prepare for the next note or chord formation. Often, fingers are placed too early or too late, and both situations either overexert the fingers, the nerves, or worst of all, the musical intent. Arpeggios are, after all, broken chords. It is very rare that all fingers should place at once if they come in ‘broken’.

Sequential planting of the left-hand fingers is a skill that choreographs left hand movement to a deeper and more subtle level than simply grabbing at the next chord frantically at the start of a measure.

Here is a simple but effective exercise to help develop the principle of timely left-hand finger placement. The key is to time the placement of the new finger in relation to the meter and when it is due to enter and to avoid arbitrarily placing it at the beginning of the measure.

Go through each exercise a few times plucking every single note of the arpeggio. Once this feels comfortable and the timing is starting to feel synced with both hands, slur the entering note in time to develop a sense of pulse in the left hand, too.

Exercise 1

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Exercise 2

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Exercise 3

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Exercise 4

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There are infinite ways to expand this concept but one of my favorites is to move into cross-rhythms with accents. My idea of fun!

Exercise 5

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Explore your arpeggio pieces to see if you can apply this concept and let me know if it helps!

Francisco Tárrega’s Technical Studies

francisco-t-rrega-recording-artists-and-groups-photo-1My usual morning consists of a good warm-up (a combination of left hand movements and slurs, right hand alternation movements and arpeggios, and scales), before moving on to practicing spots in pieces, and finally playing through pieces and working on new pieces. However, there are periods of the year where I have more time to extend my technique practice and to learn new pieces. I’m approaching that period now (yeah!) so I’m experimenting with new finger gymnastics to address weaknesses in my technique and building a hearty list of new repertoire to absorb over the summer.

To this end, I was rummaging through my boxes and shelves of music and found a well-worn copy of Francisco Tárrega’s Complete Technical Studies. I pulled it out and went through it again for fun. If you’re looking to shake up your routine, I highly recommend some of his studies.

Below are two of Tárrega’s left-hand exercises that will surely make your left hand sweat. Tárrega notates using im alternation for the right hand but I prefer to simply assign i, m, and a, to strings 3, 2, and 1, and have p play all the bass strings to preserve my nails.

Exercise 1

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Exercise 2

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Try going from 1st position all the way to 9th and back. Also, try the same concept with other sets of left hand pairs: 14 and 23 or 13 and 24.

Hope that gets your left hand going!

 

 

 

Want Speedy Scales?

Want to feel more accurate when playing through your pieces? Want speedy scales? Want fluid arpeggios? Want to be a guitar superhero? Work on basic movements. Hard work on the very basic movements of technique allows an inner exploration of our limits and abilities while giving us a bit of a roadmap for quantifiable and steady improvement.

Below are some very basic right hand drills that find their way back into my warm-up and finger routines often. It’s not that I need to practice them much anymore but rather they allow me to continually refine the most important movements necessary for pleasurable music making. They also allow me to set both short and long term tempo and endurance goals.

Try going through each of these three drills with the suggested fingerings. If you are more of a beginner, spend time on the bold faced fingerings, if you are more advanced, go through all fingerings in search for what does not work well, then focus your energy there. Don’t neglect the basics, though!

Follow these guidelines:

  1. Use a metronome and start slowly (quarter = 50-60).
  2. Go through each drill at least 3 times (I do 5 if I have time) with each fingering. Increase tempo slightly for each one.
  3. Do not sacrifice clarity and movement efficiency.
  4. Focus on the quality of the movements and the sound.

Fingerings

Rest-stroke fingerings: immi, amma, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam

Free-stroke fingerings: immi, ammapipm, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam, pa, pami, pmi

For patterns involving three fingers play three repeats to hit all permutations.

Exercise 1

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Exercise 2

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Fingerings

Play the following drills using free-stroke and by relegating each right hand finger group across the three strings (for example, with ima, place i on string 3, m on string 2, and a on string 1).

Play each of the seven movements for at least 4+ repetitions or set a timer for 30-45 seconds.

All free-stroke: ima, pim, pma, pia

Exercise 3

Technique Cheat Sheet 3.jpg

Try dedicating 60 days in a row (or with as much consistency as possible) to these movements and you will see results. Also, if you want a simple goal. Try to get each movement up to quarter = 126 over the course of the 60 days. Or, shoot higher! Why not?

Motivation from David Russell

Though the following video is in Spanish, David Russell offers a bit of an intimate motivational talk after a festival in Ecuador.

What I love hearing from him and what I hope students take away from this is the key and central point of hard work. As David says, “There are no shortcuts.”

Other bits of wisdom from the talk:

“Demand the most from yourself without losing sight of why you started in the first place.”

“Like compound interest, the hard work you do now will pay you back many times over in the future.”

And, this is where dedicated hard work gets you:

David Russell Technique Talk

David Russell is a guitar hero for many reasons but one of them is for his ability to make everything he plays look effortless. Here is another masterclass snippet where he provides insightful guidance on the importance of a proper warm-up routine. He makes the analogy to sports, where warming up the muscles for practice helps to refine the motion and muscles necessary to perform efficiently. If muscles are not warmed up, larger muscles take over causing imbalance and tension.


Even if you do not speak Spanish, you can follow David’s crystal clear and carefully conceived approach to warming up. Nevertheless, I’ll summarize a few key points:

  1. Start with very simple movements in the left hand like ascending slurs with all the pairs of fingers (12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14).
  2. Move on to the right hand and work on perfecting a single finger free-stroke with each finger (i, m, a, p)
  3. Go back to the left hand and work on descending slurs (21, 32, 43, 31, 42, 41).
  4. Back to the right hand to work on alternation between pairs of fingers (im, mi, ma, am, etc.). During this time, focus on the effort and resistance it takes each finger to pull through the string. Adjust nails as necessary to create equal resistance. Otherwise, there is imbalance and this will compromise your fluidity. Also, moving from i to m may be easier than moving from m to i. Your job is to make both directions feel as equal as possible.
  5. Move on to imimim, ama, mam, etc., then incorporate slight accents imi, imiama, ama, etc…
  6. Back to the left hand to try compound movements (121, 212, 232, 323, 343, 434, etc…)
  7. Back to right hand to work on imim, mimi, amam, mama, etc… then try doing these movements cross-string.
  8. Then bring the warm-up to a close by spending 10+ minutes coordinating both hands with scale fragments: im with 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14, mi with 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14, etc…

If you’d like a bit more detail and a program that follows this approach please check out my recent publication, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar.

Pavel’s Left Hand Technique Fun

I think I’ve now scoured most of Pavel Steidl‘s masterclasses on youtube. What a treasure trove of advice. I absolutely love him, his creativity, and his masterful ability to teach in such a fun way.

Here is a left hand technique progression that roughly matches what he demonstrates in one of his masterclasses. Pavel recommends at least 30 minutes a day of work for the fingers. Among his bits of advice and reflections, there is a moment in a masterclass where he talks about left hand choreography and how it is connected to the part of our brain that is responsible for, as he puts it, “fantasy and imagination.”

Here is the sequence to explore:

Step 1

Play the top voice as a continuous slur.

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs.jpg

Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns:

02/1343, 03/1242, 04/1232 (slur/counterpoint)

Step 2

Now slur the counterpoint or fixed note as well.

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs 2.jpg

Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns (see above).

Step 3

Add in a coordinating movement in the right hand (try something simple first).

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs 3.jpg

Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns (see above).

Step 4

Explore a more challenging coordinating movement in the right hand (try pami on string 5).

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs 4.jpg

Be creative and have fun just like Pavel!