Artist Spotlight and Interview: Zaira Meneses

Known as Mexico’s “First Lady of the classical guitar”,  Zaira Meneses, has been praised by the New York Times as “an arresting performer full of colorful touches” and has built a stellar reputation for her dark sound, powerful technique, and superb musicality. As a performer, she has graced the greatest stages of the world including New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Boston’s Jordan Hall, Salzburg’s Wiener Saal, and the Great Hall of the Shanghai Conservatory. As a recording artist, she has released the CD Latina and is releasing three new CDs on the Centaur label. Zaira is also active in the contemporary music scene and has had works dedicated to her by the great American composer, Robert Beaser, and by award-winning composer Stephanie Ann Boyd. Besides her collaborations with prominent musicians, like her husband Eliot Fisk, the flamenco virtuoso Grisha Goryachev, flutist Viviana Guzman, among others, Zaira is active  as educator at the New England Conservatory’s Preparatory Division and as an outreach coordinator for the Boston Guitar Festival.

Here she is performing a beautiful voice and guitar piece followed by a stunning 3rd movement from Leo Brouwer’s Sonata.

When I mentioned featuring Zaira on Six String Journal, we thought it might be nice to add some personal details in a short magazine style interview so here it is:

What’s the most recent news in your guitar activities?  I’ve become a baroque guitar soloist. I’ve also created a new guitar performance art approach with Latin American Collages where I combine guitar, poetry, acting, and singing. Another thing I’ve been enjoying lately is improvising with my requinto and jarana “jarocha” instruments from native Veracruz Son Jarocho music. I’ve also performed in some great venues this year: Carnegie Hall, Jordan Hall in Boston, and at the Mozarteum.

When did you start playing? At age of 7 years old.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? Music that is rich in counterpoint, and that has interesting harmony, rhythms, and phrasing, such as Bach , Santiago de Murcia, Gaspar Sanz, and latin american music especially from Mexico and Cuba.

How much do you practice? It depends, if I have a performance coming up I don’t notice the time. On regular days I practice two to three hours.

Do you structure your practice? Yes. For concerts I prioritize memory reinforcement, sound projection, and how to connect with my audience.

Do you have a system or favorite drills you use to warm up? I start by playing the song I can’t wait to play because it will bring the best out of me. Then I practice the passages that I need to be improve.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals? I always meditate but before a concert I meditate to specific passages of the concert.   I also do mind/rehearse [visualize] the music in the sauna and steam room a week before concert. Sometimes I run with the music I will be performing. I fall asleep reading the music. It really depends what performance I’m presenting but more or less I breath music as much as I can.  

What is the last book that you read? Or the greatest book you’ve read this last year… Oh my gosh! I love the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. He’s a great writer and his books are full of imagination and detail. My favorite book is his short stories of “Forgotten Dreams”.

Any advice about practicing to younger players? Practice only if you want to practice. Practicing should come from your gut. Practicing is not a labor, it’s a need. It has to become your need otherwise its not worth doing it.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? I use a guitar built by Stephan Connor and a Spanish baroque guitar.

Which guitarists have had the most influence on you? Oscar Ghiglia, Eliot Fisk, Joaquin Clerch.

Are there any recordings of guitar music that you think every young guitarist should be familiar with? Alirio Diaz’s Venezuelan Waltzes, Andres Segovia playing Spanish composers, any of Oscar Ghiglia’s Manuel Ponce recordings, Eliot Fisk’s playing Bach, Latin American guitar music, and his recordings of music by Robert Beaser.

Do you exercise? Do you think it helps your playing? YES absolutely! I run outdoors when it’s super cold and when it’s super hot. This helps me adjust my body to any hall circumstances.

What do you eat before a concert? If I can, my daughter Raquel’s best shake for performances:   banana, almond milk, oatmeal, and chia seeds. If I’m in a hotel, I eat turkey or white meat and avocados. If I’m in hotels I also like to order Chinese steam ed vegetarian dumplings.

Post #50 – Learning Resources


Santa Ana, Táchira

One afternoon after a long day of masterclasses in the little Andean town of Santa Ana in the state of Táchira, Venezuela, Maestro Alirio Díaz emphatically shared a list of what he considered essential reading for all of us young, bright, and bushy-tailed guitarists. I thought it was an odd list because the first book, Psycho-Cybernetics,  was written by plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz (1889-1975). In it, he discusses creating and developing an ideal self-image and he recommends many visualization ideas to achieve this. Alirio mentioned how he used it to visualize himself in front of audiences before performances.

Another book from his list, Piano Technique, was written by Karl Leimer (1920-1974), a concert pianist and pedagogue much admired by Richard Strauss. Leimer was drafted into Germany’s Wehrmacht during the end of World War II and subsequently imprisoned in Italy. He composed a Piano Concerto for Left Hand after he learned of a college friend who had lost his right arm to an explosion during the war. This book talks mostly to pianists and is written in a charming old school voice but it has very compelling chapters on slow practice and visualizing.

This next book was not recommended by Alirio. It is a personal favorite and since I’m recommending recommended books on learning, I will recommend it to top off the list. This one was introduced to me by “the Superman of Silicon Valley” Tim Ferriss whose books and podcasts are outstanding for dissecting high level performers across every discipline. This book in particular, The Art of Learning, is written by the great American chess player and martial arts master, Josh Waitzkin. There is so much great information in this book that we can apply to our pursuit of musical excellence, from beginners mind to visualizing to inner peace.

I’ll be back with more soon…



Mini Masterclass – Natalia

Brought to public light by the great maestro Alirio Diaz decades ago, Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro’s beloved Natalia (aka Valse Criollo and Valse Venezolano Nº3) has become one of the most widely played pieces on our instrument.

There are so many thoughts to share on this piece with students that I thought I’d do a short (which is now looking long) post about a passage in the first part of the piece that most students wrestle with as they begin to enjoy their discovery of Venezuelan guitar music.

To begin, the initial published edition by Broekmans & Van Poppel B.V. and the more recent edition published by Ediciones Caroní differ in several ways. It is important to note that both were revised by Alirio Diaz who over the decades has probably played this piece thousands of times. And, over the course of Alirio’s history with the piece, he has undoubtably made changes simply to keep the piece evolving in a creative way. Is the latest version better? Not necessarily. However, students should become intimately familiar with both and with alternate fingerings that may help them achieve their own musical goals.

It is important to mention that scores are often a very close approximation of the intent of the composer. In guitar scores, because of the fact that composers are cramming everything onto one staff, short hand helps musicians see through the clutter of notating all voices accurately. So with that caveat…

Here is the passage we’re studying from the first two editions for comparison:

Broekmans & Van Poppel B.V.

Natalia 1.jpg

Ediciones Caroní

Natalia 2.jpg

The differences are interesting to say the least. The fingering has evolved which, of course, is a natural thing to occur after years of playing the same piece. But, of note, notice the rhythmic changes with the beaming. Antonio Lauro’s music is always full of the dueling time signatures 3/4 and 6/8 which makes his and other Venezuelan music so alluring on a rhythmic front. There is a very different feel when playing the first measure of this passage.

When I initially learned Natalia decades ago, like most students, I used what was available. For the most part, I followed Alirio’s fingerings closely. However, as my hands have come into their own over the years, my version has evolved quite a bit to suit my strengths, technique, fingers, and musical ideas. Here are two ways I tend to play it these days:

Natalia 2 (Leo).jpg

Natalia 2a (Leo).jpg

The differences have evolved to help me feel more secure as I play the piece. Notice the guide fingers throughout.

As students uncover their own interpretations, I often make sure that they are aurally aware of as much as possible so that if they wanted to draw attention to a particular voice for any reason, they could do so. As much as I like the groovy and energetic way Alirio plays the piece, I often like hearing a more legato version so I try to keep my ear on the following voice:

Natalia 2a (Leo) melody.jpg

Despite the fact that they are written as eighth notes, I often try to connect the line. Did Lauro intend to break the line? Not sure. Can I play it both ways? Yes. Which do I like best? Depends on how I feel.

Another voice I like to draw attention to is this one:

Natalia 2a (Leo) inner voice.jpg

This was intended to be a MINI masterclass so I’m going to wrap this up. The bottom line is that pieces evolve in the musician’s hand. Spend time exploring the history of the pieces you are playing, and specifically with Natalia, the possibilities, fingerings, and seeing which rhythmic version feels right, and you will be on your way to crafting a meaningful interpretation that you can stand behind when sharing it with others.