Artist Profile and Interview: Steve Cowan

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

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

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

Personal

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

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

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

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

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

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m very excited about a project that began last summer, when I recorded 12 separate guitar parts in an ambitious new piece by Canadian composer Jason Noble. The piece, fantaisie harmonique, is for double-guitar orchestra (6 classical guitar parts, 6 electric parts), and utilizes 6 different scordatura tunings to cover an extended microtonal range across the different guitars. It is an exploration of timbre on the guitar, relying mostly on harmonics, open strings, and percussive mutes as opposed to traditional playing techniques. This recording was engineered by Denis Martin at McGill University in Montréal, and uses new Dolby Atmos software to create a 3-dimensional listening experience. A new 360-degree video and is currently in progress and will also be premiered as part of the 21st Century Guitar Conference. There are some current versions available to listen to on the Soundboard Scholar website: https://www.guitarfoundation.org/general/custom.asp?page=SbS06-Noble-Cowan

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

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

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

Technique and Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any pre-concert rituals? 

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

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

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

Advice to Younger Players

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

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

“SLOW DOWN.”

– Steven Cowan

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

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

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

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

___________________________

Support Steven Cowan’s work:

Latest solo album on Apple Music (also available on other streaming platforms):

https://music.apple.com/us/album/björnsson-morricone-others-works-for-guitar/1466291274

Latest duo album: 

https://www.analekta.com/en/albums/contemporary-music-guitar-duo/

New Series: My Favorite Fernando Sor Etudes, Part 1

Fernando Sor (1778-1839)

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

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

Anyway, enough rambling!

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

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

Previous post about Fernando Sor:

Expanding Sor Etudes

New Publication of Three Fernando Sor Etudes

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Drew Henderson playing Domenico Scarlatti

Canadian guitar virtuoso, Drew Henderson, plays his six transcriptions of Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas in these two videos. The first video has three often played Sonatas (K.490, K.213, K146) and the second video has two more seldom played (K.99, K408) and a guitar favorite, K.1. Though I’ve heard masterful interpretations of these by other guitar greats, Drew’s elegant playing captures the magic of these sonatas particularly well. His playing is crisp, crystal clear, and fluid. The quality of the production, the playing, the interpretations, and Drew’s brilliance come together in true art here. Enjoy.

The scores to all of these Sonatas are available on his website!

Yuri Liberzon – New recording of Bach’s Violin Sonatas

Internationally acclaimed guitar virtuoso Yuri Liberzon is poised to release his third and most ambitious recording yet – Johann Sebastian Bach’s 3 Violin Sonatas (BWV 1001, 1003, 1005).

Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo violin works are familiar to most classical guitarist as transcriptions. In this instance, Yuri has chosen to record Manuel Barrueco’s transcriptions of the sonatas. These works pose countless complex challenges both interpretively and technically for the artist brave enough to tackle them. The slow movements require extremely refined technique to ornament and distill the beauty of the implied lines, the fugues demand the utmost skill in maintaining the subjects, countersubjects, and counterpoint, and the allegros and prestos push the interpreter to technical limits. All this while communicating Johann Sebastian Bach’s singular and perfect command of form, harmony, and lyricism.

Yuri meets every one of the demands with elegance and finesse, two aspects I admire in his playing. From the opening lushness of the first track, the adagio from the G Minor Sonata, Yuri sets the stage for the entire recording by slowly and calculatedly pulling the listener into a world rich with introspection and beauty. The strengths of this release are many but what perhaps stands out as a theme is how grounded Yuri’s playing is while moving you with a subtle forward momentum. For instance, the allegro from the A Minor Sonata was not taken at a blistering pace but somehow managed to convey a strong, steady energy, much like a tidal wave and the inevitability of its arrival. Another highlight was the monumental Fuga from the C Major Sonata. Again, it is Yuri’s calming but steady sense of structure that moves this movement forward and manages to bring out the overall arc of the piece. The counterpoint is crystalline and phrased beautifully. This does not happen unless it is intentional and that is what is fascinating about Yuri’s playing. It’s like magic – the sum is far greater than the parts. To achieve the effect of such a long line requires an architecturally gifted mind.

I’ve always enjoyed Yuri’s playing. It is similar to Manuel Barrueco’s for all of the perfection but Yuri’s caring and elegant sensibilities, and understated virtuosity, mark his interpretations as none other than his very own.

Overall, this ambitious project is wonderfully produced by both Yuri and Grammy Award-winning producer Nahuel Bronzini. The warmth and crispness that Yuri extracts from his Ruck and is captured in this recording are absolutely delightful to sink into. It may be his best recording yet.

Check out a great interview and technique talk with Yuri from the early days of Six String Journal.

Technique Focus – Boost Left Hand Efficiency

When working out the choreography to a new interpretation there are a few aspects of left hand technique that can dramatically improve efficiency. One of those aspects involves a similar idea often referred to as ‘planting’ for the right hand. For example, when playing a rapid and repeated pim arpeggio (like in Asturias), it is common practice to place all three fingers down in a group to stabilize the right hand and to create one efficient gesture instead of three separate actions. The basic rule is that as we move away from p and towards a across string we plant fingers down so the right hand fingers are prepared. Essentially, we stabilize the right hand as we move away from the grounding of p and i.

Applying this concept to the left hand is equally important but the ‘planting’ occurs as we move from finger 4 (pinky) towards finger 1. Theoretically, if only finger 4 is down on the fingerboard, the left hand is not as stable as it would be if another supporting finger were to place somewhere nearby. For example, if we had to play a descending group of chromatic notes 4321 on a string, placing all four fingers before playing reduces the motion to a relaxed gesture of releasing fingers away. If we were to place 4321 down in a sequential fashion, it is not necessarily ‘wrong’, but it would augment the motion of the left hand into many placements and releases, rendering it less efficient. A bit of a mess.

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Some related posts:

Six String Journal’s Complete Technique Course

Featured Artist and Interview – Tariq Harb

Tariq Harb, an acclaimed Jordanian-Canadian guitar virtuoso, is arguably one of the finest young guitarists to emerge on the scene these last years. Always polished, always musical, Tariq’s playing has been praised on many stages across the world and he’s been lauded as “Canada’s next classical guitar superstar” by CBC Radio’s NEXT! Fortunately, Tariq had time to spend sharing some of his journey with Six String Journal readers. Hope you enjoy this one!

Personal
When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?
With the classical guitar, my story is a bit unusual. It started at 26 years of age, having restarted my violin training 2 years prior, at age 24. I write “restarted” because I actually picked up theviolin at 6, for 2 years until I was 8, then I received an electric guitar as a Christmas gift from my mother, and all hell broke loose LOL! Anyways, what drew me to the guitar in general at first was Slash, the guitarist from the LA rock band Guns N’ Roses.What drew me to the classical guitar was the classical/jazz guitarist Roddy Elias, who happened to be my composition teacher during my undergraduate violin degree at Concordia University. Basically I left the violin twice for the guitar!

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?
Baroque, Latin American and Spanish repertoire. I also enjoy playing the blues quite a bit.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?
Currently I’m performing on a Douglass Scott, 2018 spruce top guitar and on a Martin Blackwell, 2019 double cedar top.I use Savarez CR 540 strings mainly, and I also like the La Bella 2001 and Argento series normal tension basses.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?
Slash at first, for sure. The lyricism in his solos on their records was an incredible ear-opening experience for me. The discovery of “goose bumps” even, happened first as I remember from his playing on those cassettes. What an incredible feeling! That same feeling was experienced at a high level of intensity later in my life, when I was listening to Itzhak Perlman, playing Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas on violin while I commuted to work, training to be a Mutual Funds Advisor, which prompted me then to pursue music as a full-time profession. Those two musicians have left a lasting impact on my musical character on the whole, I would say.Today I cherish recordings by many great artists. Classical solo recordings by Julian Bream, John Williams, Andrés Segovia, David Oistrakh, Glenn Gould, Hélèn Grimaud, Daniel Barenboim, Amandine Beyer, Itzhak Perlman, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifitz, Josef Hassid, Nigel Kennedy, Kazuhito Yamashita, Janine Jansen and Paco de Lucia come to mind at this moment.

If you have recordings, which recording/s are you most proud of?
I am actually most proud of two of my latest releases: my album “Copla”, an all-Spanish repertoire recording, and my “Harb Plays Carcassi Studies” recording and educational DVD. The latter is an educational DVD first, made possible through a collaboration with Diego De Oro, owner of De Oro Music Publications. The performance tracks from the DVD have been compiled and released as a separate album. I’m also happy about a recent YouTube video recording I did of Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565 arranged by Edson Lopes and recorded by Drew Henderson in a beautiful church in Toronto.

Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?
I really like the sound on Florian Larousse’s Laureate Naxos album. There is something magical about the sound there! I also like the sound on John Williams’ “The Great Paraguayan” album. Even though I’m not a big fan of the Smallman sound, somehow Williams makes it sound regal.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?
I’m very excited about a tour that I got selected for next year’s season, which I can’t really share the details of because it hasn’t been officially announced yet! I’ll share all the concert dates on my website (tariqharb.com) once they’re made public. Prior to that I’m looking forward to officially getting back on stage, November 2020 in my second home Montréal, at the Chapelle Historique du Bon Pasteur, a gorgeous church that is perfect for guitar, and that I’ve always dreamt of performing in after attending some concerts there. I also can’t wait to perform concerts that were postponed due to the pandemic, including an Aranjuez concerto performance with the Orchestre Symphonique de l’Isle. Next year will be their 20th season anniversary, so it worked out even better!For new records, I’m planning on recording an album consisting of my original compositions (the score to “Spirit”, a five-movement work for solo guitar is now available via Les Productions d’OZ: https://productionsdoz.com/product/8769-spirit) and pieces that are dedicated to me by other composers (like “Hyperion” by Harry Stafylakis: https://productionsdoz.com/product/936-hyperion). I’m also planning on recording an all-Bach album, sometime in the near future!

Technique and Performance
How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
40 hours a day, à la Ling Ling! (@twosetviolin reference) Jokes aside, a morning practice session is important for me to maintain a healthy routine, which usually lasts between 3-4 hours. After that, anything goes; I can play through pieces in the evening, which sometimes turn into performances if I am outdoors (!),or not play at all, because of teaching or other tasks. The morning session is quite consistent so that would be the real practice time that I do.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you are still working on?
Oh, I’m working on it all the time! I don’t think there is such a thing as not practicing at all yet still having a polished technique, unless one is on tour. What is also true, I find, is if I practice well, say during one full winter season, the coming spring and summer seasons I often find myself just playing, and not really practicing methodically, which is ultimate fun as you may know! Then however, come the fall season, I start feeling certain aspects of technique need maintenance, and so on the cycle goes. It’s a way of life more than something separate from one’s life, at least in my experience. Having said that, there is no real struggle pertaining to playing the instrument. It is more of incorporating it in one’s life, if one chooses, in a way that enhances the quality of one’s life and improves it. I guess reaching that point and finding a working balance might be considered a struggle at first.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?
For me the more complicated the music the easier it is to memorize. But that doesn’t apply to the music of J.S. Bach! Simpler or easier repertoire is easy to sight read ‘a tempo’ and does not require special attention allotted to either hand. So my eye doesn’t have to leave the page and therefore I’m not encouraged to memorize it. In general, playing a piece, reading it multiple times usually imprints it in my memory. If there are tough spots I tend to use visualization, both visualizing the score and both hand movements on the guitar.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?
Yes. I have several editions published via my online store (tariqharb.storenvy.com), including my most recent edition of the Carcassi 25 Melodic and Progressive Studies, Op. 60. Arrangements of music by Vivaldi, Albinoni, Bach and others are also available. I have an arrangement of Britten’s first Cello Suite that I am excited to publish once the royalties are sorted out. I also have some compositions published via my store and via Les Productions d’OZ, mentioned above.

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 
I usually try to visit what I like to call ‘the five pillars of technique’ when I warm up: scales, arpeggios, tremolo, left-hand slurs and some rasgueados. I do a bit of each at a comfortable pace and try to enjoy the feeling of gravity helping me out executing each of them.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
I try to relax on the day of the concert and do minimal practice. Back stage however, I do some breathing exercises and usually like to have an orange or a clementine; they hydrate really well and therefore help with the talking part during a concert, as I do like to say a few things to the audience about the pieces I perform!

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?
I like to file my nails to a blunted shape with a bit of a ramp on the index and middle fingers (pictures attached). I also attach a piece of a ping pong ball under my thumbnail to re enforce it.

Advice to Younger Players
What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
Revisit the basics often and apply variety in your playing. By that I mean be creative with the way you practice, the way you handle the guitar, the way you warm up. Don’t do the same thing over and over again, especially if it’s not yielding consistent positive results. If possible, learn another instrument well, especially one that is not from the immediate family of the guitar. By doing that you are providing enough variety for your brain to stay healthy and encourage plasticity, which in turn improves your learning abilities when you go back to the guitar.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?
All the simple and advanced studies and lessons by Sor, Aguado, Carulli, Giuliani, Carcassi and Coste are important for young students to play well, because they will help in understanding and learning to navigate the guitar’s interface successfully. They will also teach, by osmosis, sort to speak, the idiomatic nature of the guitar and it’s idiosyncrasies.

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?
The recordings of the great old masters: Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams are essential for every classical guitarist to know well, simply to become aware of the coloristic and expressive possibilities of the instrument early on.

Tangent
What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?
“Music in the Castle of Heaven” by John Eliot Gardiner was the last book I read.Two of my favourite authors are Paulo Coelho and Clive Staples Lewis.

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? 
Yes, I exercise 4-5 times a week doing either a run outdoors, or engaging in High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which has become a game changer as to how I can incorporate exercise after guitar practice. Exercise usually happens in the afternoon after my morning practice session. I don’t follow a particular diet as I do pretty much eat everything (thankfully no allergies). But I do prefer a more protein based meal before performance. I find if I have mainly carbohydrates before a performance, I tend to feel heavy overall and a bit lethargic. A high-protein meal gives me sustained energy, and a clementine or an orange before going on stage keeps me hydrated and keeps my mind sharp.

Do you meditate in any way? 
Not so much, every now and then I do meditation. But it has never become a steady routine.

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?
Spending time with close friends and family, cooking, swimming, enjoying the outdoors, watching thought-provoking movies and space documentaries, and occasionally annoying my cat through forced affection LOL!

For more info on Tariq check out the links below:

Website: www.tariqharb.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/tariqharb

Instagram: www.instagram.com/tariqharbmusic

YouTube: www.youtube.com/teeharb

Online store: tariqharb.storenvy.com
Faculty profile at Concordia University: www.concordia.ca/faculty/tariq-harb.html

Artist Spotlight and Interview: Michael Kolk

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

Personal

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

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

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

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

Michael playing ‘Round Midnight (Monk/Dyens)

Technique and Performance

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

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

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

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

HK Guitar Duo playing Michael’s Beethoven arrangement


Advice to Younger Players

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

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


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

Spanish Virtuoso Rafael Aguirre’s Tremolo Tips

Spanish virtuoso Rafael Aguirre just shared five useful tips for improving your tremolo technique.

Rafael discusses and demonstrates these five key points:

  1. Study tremolo as if it were not tremolo.
  2. Work on retaining consistent tone and color from each note.
  3. Make your tremolo sing.
  4. Make sure each finger maintains equal proximity to the strings after plucking.
  5. Don’t let the thumb stroke displace your hand position.

Check out Rafael’s Six String Journal Interview for more brilliant insight from one of Spain’s finest guitarists.