Israeli 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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org]. 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.