Artist Spotlight and Interview: Jason Vieaux

A consummate soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, and teacher, Grammy Award-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux recently sat down to share some of his thoughts and insights with our readers. Hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did and check out Jason’s new recording, Bach Volume 2: Violin Works.

photo: Tyler Boye

Personal

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

Initially I was drawn to the guitar and drums through listening to my parents record collection, which was mostly my mother’s soul, R&B and rock records. Seeing the Bay City Rollers on TV as a 5-year old, eg, was a very exciting thing to me, and I regularly drew pictures of drum kits and guitars as a kid. Seeing Roy Clark and Buck Owens on TV regularly at 3-4 years old, Owens’ red, white, and blue guitar is an iconic image for me. I was also a big fan of The Beatles music from age 3, and I heard a lot of my Dad’s jazz records. This keen interest prompted my mother to buy me a 3/4-size classical guitar one day when I was 5; she might have known it as a “Spanish Guitar”. The Buffalo Guitar Quartet did an outreach program at my school when I was 7, and my mother’s secretary work happened to be in the school library during that time. So that summer I began classical guitar training with Jeremy Sparks.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

I don’t really have a preference for the style or period; just particular pieces that I’m working on at the time. It’s such a luxury for me when I get to actually work on something with any kind of regularity, since I professionally have always dealt in “volume”, if you will. With the way my career developed professionally, I don’t usually get to choose what or when, unless I’m preparing a recording. I just try to dive as deeply as I can into whatever I’m working on for live performance at the time – and I’ve enjoyed that rhythm or process. I’m very much geared/wired toward live performance, and so I feel blessed to have either performed or recorded some 60-70 hours or so of stuff. I perform a lot of pieces just once or twice every year, or every 5 years, like Castelnuovo-Tedesco Quintet, for example.

But Bach is the most satisfying when everything is going well, I’m almost always working on his music for something. And I never tire of playing Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez – mainly because I keep getting better every year at the passagework. Aranjuez is probably like Pebble Beach or Augusta National for a professional golfer, I suppose.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I only have one concert guitar, my hope is to acquire another. My guitar is by Gernot Wagner, who is based in Frankfurt. And I like Augustine Regal strings.

photo: Tyler Boye

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

As far as the guitar corner of things, the classical guitarists that had the biggest influence on me are probably Julian Bream, David Russell and Manuel Barrueco, mainly because I got to hear them live, although Bream’s records I enjoyed the most as a kid. And prior to age 15, “non-classical” guitar players like Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Andy Summers were influences, mainly because you couldn’t really escape Van Halen, The Police, Led Zeppelin on the radio or TV then, especially if you were a drums-and-guitar fan like me. And every kid then had a clock radio to wake up to, so many guitar solos from the Top 40 in the 80s are burned into my memory.

But even more so, it’s specific pieces or albums that were impactful before age 20: Bach Chaconne, 3rd Cello Suite, Villa-Lobos etudes, “Drei Tentos” by Henze, all Fernando Sor, Beethoven Symphonies, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Copland, Ravel, Debussy, so many Spanish and Latin American guitar pieces. Getting to know Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” especially was a real experience (and temporary obsession) for me.

Hearing Cleveland Orchestra often in college at CIM, and being exposed to way more live orchestral and ensemble music had a big impact, particularly latter 19th C, and tons of modern music (Erb, Carter, Ives, Varese, Stockhausen, Glass, Reich, Sessions, Boulez). Also certain early hip-hop albums (Public Enemy, ATCQ), certain albums by Miles Davis, Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, Beatles, Steely Dan, Pat Metheny. Attending Cleveland Orchestra performances of Strauss “Metamorphosen”, and Mahler 2nd Symphony, eg, were kind of life-changing experiences for me.

What recording/s are you most proud of? 

I’m kinda enjoying my latest Bach recording. It’s nice to hear what I was doing at the time (2019) with the ornamentation, and how my Bach playing is less stiff/stuffy on this record. It’s a more accurate representation of what my live playing is like.

But it’s nice to see how particularly the Images of Metheny (2005), Ponce Sonatas (2001), Albeniz (2003), PLAY (2014), the 1996 Naxos CD, and the previous Bach record have been so well-received by people, and not just by guitar players. I’ve read so many notes over the years from people and musicians about how those records were influences or references for them.

I’m also really glad I got to make those ensemble and chamber recordings over the last 20 years with regular collaborators, like Gary Schocker, Julien Labro, Yolanda Kondonassis, the Eschers, and all the “one-offs”, like recording the Ginastera Sonata, Jeff Beal and Jonathan Leshnoff concertos, etc.

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

I don’t listen to many guitar records, unless I’m researching something, and that’s only because I’m always so “inside” of my own playing and musical work as a professional musician. And really I just prefer ensemble music or solo piano anyway, when I get free time to just listen for pleasure. But I have to say, especially since David Russell is now a label-mate on Azica Records, I recently heard his latest CD at their studios, and it sounds absolutely terrific – in my opinion, Azica has really captured the majesty of David’s sound. I did hear some early Bream Westminster LPs on a friend’s good stereo about 10 years ago, and that was kind of a revelation, the recorded guitar aspect. It’s like Bream playing in your living room.

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

I’m looking forward to getting my re-tooled BWV 1001 and 1007 on the road again. The pandemic halted what was just starting to really cook. Also my new record with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers is out this May, so we’re hoping to play that material over the next 2 years. My next San Francisco residency concert will be with mezzo Sasha Cooke at Herbst Theater. We’ve been trying to play together again live for a few years. Also, Avner Dorman is making a concerto version of his quintet that I premiered in 2016, “How To Love”, and I’m performing that with Gerard Schwarz and the EMF (Eastern Music Festival) Orchestra this July. We’ve always done a guitar concerto together every summer at my guitar program there, really due to Maestro Schwarz’s efforts and support – that’s a really great thing for the guitar. (link?) And playing concerts with the great Escher Quartet is always a blast, we’re good friends.

Technique and Performance

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

I’d love to practice 4 hours a day, but it’s just not possible with all the other responsibilities. I get about 2 hours most days, sometimes 3 in a day.

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

Not really. The experience and hours of different challenges and situations in all the repertoire I’ve played ended up adding aspects to my technique, mechanics, performance comfort, etc., that I wouldn’t have had if I were just playing solo pieces. We’d all like to have faster scales and arpeggios, etc. We all want more. I actually have gigs where I wish I was more nervous, where there’s no nerves at all, and still some where I wish I was more relaxed.

photo: Tyler Boye

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

Memorization came fairly easily to me, although once the repertoire crunches came, I was able to teach students how I made up the deficits in time through visualization techniques, repetition strategies, fingerings, etc.

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

Not really, mainly because I’m often discovering new things and thus changing fingerings, every time I come back to those core repertoire pieces. My fingerings are often “weird” anyway, which is why I prescribe (and demonstrate) 2-4 different fingerings per questionable passage to my Curtis and CIM students. I don’t hand out a score photocopy with fingerings on it to a student. We work on them together, guitars on laps, playing.

Do you have a favorite drill or set of exercises you use to warm up?

I mainly use passagework from approaching deadlines, that works great to develop your technique over time. The more puzzles you put in front of your hands and brain, the better.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I used to have no rituals for the longest time, because it was so often a disappointment to not be able to keep the ritual, if things went wrong or were disorganized beyond your control. So my takeaway from that in the early days was to have little to no ritual. I learned that from Gary Schocker. Nowadays, it’s better, more folks allow me to have some personal time. As long as I can have 90-120 minutes on everything I’m playing that evening, I’m happy.

Advice to Younger Players

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

Practice as much as you can, without burning yourself out, because you have to WANT to do this, for yourself; not for anyone else.

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

19th century stuff, especially Sor. He was the best musician we know of in that century that played guitar, except maybe Regondi, and he wrote almost entirely in parts/voices. His music is solvent, and it really isn’t all that “idiomatic” in terms of ease. So it prepares you for everything else written by a proper composer, except ornate Baroque transcriptions, or modern/dissonant textures. But when I hear guitarists joke about “easy Sor studies” it makes me laugh. Most guitarists play Sor very poorly, because you have to play his music with your ears, not your fingers. Your fingers have to follow.

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

OK, this is a long answer. Classical Guitarists seem like they are already very familiar with Dyens, Morel, Assad, which is great, and important, but they should also at least familiarize themselves with player-composer-arranger-improvisers like Rabello, Yamandu, Lagrene, etc. And in jazz you can’t go wrong with Christian, Green, Montgomery, Pass, Hall, Bertoncini, Benson, McLaughlin, Metheny, Scofield. I lost track of almost all of the newer “cats” due to my professional and family life, but Rosenwinkel, Kreisberg, Hekselman, Monder – heavy. I love it.

In classical playing, can’t go wrong with the usual suspects, but it’s important to hear their best stuff: Segovia, Barrios, Díaz, Yepes, Presti, Bream, Ghiglia, Williams, Starobin, Barrueco, Russell, Fernandez, Galbraith, Holmquist, Tanenbaum, Isbin, Fisk, etc etc (maybe leaving out like 20-30 players). 

For me, Galbraith and Barrueco were crucial players for me to hear conceptually, and quite possibly had the biggest impact on me as a guitar player right now, even though many would rightly say I sound nothing like them at all. As many know already, my favorite contemporaries that are well-known are Micheli, Dukic, Dylla, Vidovic, Gallen, Desidrio, Azabagic, maybe some others I can’t remember now. But too many people are absolutely sleeping on Colin Davin, Petra Polackova, JiYeon Kim (Jiji), Hao Yang, and Jordan Dodson.

photo: Tyler Boye

Tangent

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

The autobiography of Larry Rivers, “What Did I Do?”, the Keith Richards autobiography.  

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

I try. Getting better each year. I walk a lot. My weight is optimal, but I have to remind myself to strengthen my core. No real pre-concert foods (again, the road plus my background sort of taught me to not get too particular.)

Do you meditate in any way? 

In some different ways, even if it’s for 30 seconds. It’s like practicing an instrument, it’s often better to practice 45 minutes 6 times a day than to practice 4.5 hours in one stretch. Same with meditation. Unless you’re independently wealthy.

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

Walking long distances in our neck of the woods or on the road. Watching sports, especially NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, PGA – in that order (I almost never get to do this anymore). Being with my kids, helping them with school work, answering questions, board games, listening to their stories/musings. I take them to the park a lot on the days I’m home. Listening to music, although that’s mostly now during making school lunches and/or breakfast at home. That’s about it. I really need to see that Beatles “Get Back” Peter Jackson thing.

Any things else you’d like to add?

Bach Volume 2 is finally out. Go to live concerts if you love music; there’s no comparison between live and virtual, just like anything else in life. Don’t kid yourself.


Bach Volume 2: Works for Violin is now available on most music streaming and purchase services!
Spotify: buff.ly/3IXMTJd
Amazon: buff.ly/3iWqHok
Apple Music: buff.ly/3tYaxAV

Gohar Vardanyan plays Bach

Armenian guitar virtuosa, Gohar Vardanyan, just released a wonderful video playing the Prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Lute Suite Nº3, BWV995. From the rich sound she extracts from her guitar to the precision of her playing, Gohar proves that in addition to playing Spanish music with great passion and elegance, her Bach is crafted on the same level.

Hopefully, she will put up videos of the remaining movements but in the meantime, enjoy. And, if you would like to support her recording project, visit her indiegogo page: Grand Solos.

Also, check out an interview with Gohar here: Artist Profile and Interview – Gohar Vardanyan..

Artist Profile: Denis Azabagic

“Denis Azabagic demonstrated his unbelievable guitar playing skills, sincere love for music, professionalism and passion…” – CHICAGOTRIBUNE.COM

A GFA winner, seasoned concert artist, accomplished chamber musician and recording artist, Bosnian guitar great Denis Azabagic, needs no introduction to the classical guitar world. But, what often escapes even the most devoted afficionados may be the hidden gems among the pile of guitar videos on youtube.

I recently came across Denis’ Mastering Guitar Technique Series [scroll down a bit after linking]. Though you have to pay for each video, the lessons range from slurs to tremolo to scales and in my opinion are worth hundreds time what he is charging ($1.99!). Each video has a tremendous amount of insight and practical advice. If you’ve not heard Denis play, check out the video below of him playing brilliant renditions of standards by Sor, Bach, and Asencio, and then check out his technique series!

Guitar Talk with Yuri Liberzon

Here is the transcript of our guitar chat. Lot’s of great advice in here.

Leo: So we were going to talk about common mistakes that guitarists make. Do you have any that you could offer us as tips?

Yuri: Maybe we should break it down into young guitarists, beginning guitarists… Actually, among all ages and especially beginners, if they do not have a great teacher or are self-taught, a most common mistake I see in the left hand is flat or inverted wrists.

Leo: Hyperextended?

Yuri: Yeah, they don’t have the correct arch. So the way I think about wrists, the right and left hand should have similar arches. I also personally prefer a little bit of arch in the right hand wrist. It gives me more power and gives me more control rather than the straight wrists. But I think it also varies with the ratios and proportions of someone’s hands. In general I do think I can get more sound. It also changes the angle with which you attack the string. So another issue related to the left-hand is that many students keep the inside the knuckle or the inner side of the palm too close to the curled first finger and to the bottom of the fingerboard. That shortens your potential reach and it actually puts a lot of strain on your pinky because then you end up using the [the tip] joint.

Leo: The furthest joint instead of the near one?

Yuri: Yes, the knuckle joint, and that can lead to injury. Or what I often see is people bend right at the tip joint. So I see a lot of calcium buildup right here [points to left hand pinky tip joint], I’ve seen guitarists that have that, and that has to do with a not ideal position of the left hand. I view each finger as an equal, so they all should kind of follow each other’s shape. So when you see something out of balance then it deserves attention. Another issue is the inability to play on the tip of the finger. Instead, beginners tend to use the pad. So what I usually recommend for my students is starting with a very simple exercise where you don’t even have to play. So you just start with one, you add two, and try to keep exactly the same shape, and then the same thing backwards. So just one, two, three ,four but what’s important is when you release your fingers you don’t do this [fingers splay away from neck]. You stay controlled and that really helps you learn to control the movement. [Exercise is simply placing finger 1 on a fret, then 2 in the adjacent fret, then 3 in the next, and then 4 in the next. The hand stays still.]

Leo: So that’s a good one for just general left-hand hygiene, right?

Yuri: Yeah, and I like to start it around 5th position or 7th, and the reason is because right here there is no[right arm pronation] like when you play in the lower positions. You are not coming at an angle like this, your forearm is actually more perpendicular to the fingerboard. And actually the 7th fret is probably … 7th or 8th, where you can really have arm at 90 degrees [to the neck].

Leo: And also there’s much less extension, too.

Yuri: Right, so it requires less work from your left hand. And you can just do it on one string, or you can do it on all strings. Also, another exercise is something as basic as putting one finger down and taking it off, and putting another finger and taking it off, that’s not as easy as it may seem. Having that isolated movement is also important, to kind of analyze how the finger moves. Because it has three joints, and I like to think of it as distributing the energy over all the joints, rather than overusing one of them. Like you don’t want just one joint and keeping the other one like this … it’s kind of all of them working together.

Leo: Would divide the energy evenly through all three joints? Or would the proportion shift to primarily come from a certain joint depending on what you were doing, like slurs?

Yuri: I do think the knuckle is the primary joint, and the power should come from … well actually that’s a whole other topic, where a lot of people press with the thumb and they don’t use a lot of the knuckle muscle. Because you pretty much don’t need your thumb to play. It’s just there to …

Leo: It’s like a balance or pivot somehow.

Yuri: Right. But you don’t hold the guitar. I’ve had students say, “Well if I don’t press here I feel the guitar is going to fall off.” Sometimes it’s psychological. From playing power chords and not doing them the right way. Usually what I do when I warm up, I combine left hand and right hand. So for example … maybe we should talk a little bit about right-hand exercise [see first video in previous post]. So actually that’s the last step of that exercise. So the parts of it are using one finger [see 2nd video] and then doing the same with a [see 2nd video] and then the same exercise except using m and a.

Leo: Do you do ia as well?

Yuri: No, I find that i and a have really good separation.

Leo: Just by doing the two other pairs [im and ma] they seem to …?

Yuri: Well, in general I find that I don’t have to work much on ia. I think i and a are separate joints anyway. But I do find that making even pinky stronger is helpful. It really helps me actually when I start playing with one finger. And then eventually when I get to the end of my warm up I start doing im. So I start with the hardest thing possible. One finger, m and a, sometimes pinky. And then eventually I get to im and it feels so easy.

Leo: Natural.

Yuri: Yeah. Like I started working on [Villa-Lobos’] Etude No. 7. And I would just play the scale with i and then I’ll play it with m and only at the very end will I play it with im. So that feels much easier at the end. Oh, and also, I work on extensors [see 3rd video]. That helps, too. Like you can do the same exercise. [playing] Or maybe not that on the 6th string…

Leo: Yeah, it’ll destroy your nails.

Yuri: This really does help too. [see 3rd video] Also I like to do ami scales. So, for example, any scale, always going ami.

Leo: So a does all the crossing? Or does it just depend on the …?

Yuri: No it’s just always that pattern: ami. And you can start with whatever finger you start. And in the beginning once you start developing this technique it’s difficult to keep track of which finger is next, but over time it becomes so automatic.

Leo: Great. What great advice.

Yuri: Well, you know, I know pretty much all of us—all guitarists—want to develop better scales, have more accuracy, play faster. How do you push that? How do you consistently get better at that? I think these exercises are pretty much it, not the secret, but the way, to get better at it.

Leo: And do you do this using a metronome?

Yuri: Yeah, sure. I mean, the more you do it the better, of course. The more precise you are the better it is. I mean, there’s a danger of course of doing too much of it. You don’t want to injure yourself. So you’ve got to build it up over time. And you’ve got to be very disciplined about doing it every day, a little bit, and seeing how you feel. Because if you overdo it … that’s the major mistake I find by many teachers, who are just like, “ Oh, just do these exercises and you magically will start playing better.” Or, “The more you do the better you play.” I don’t believe in that, I think there is a sweet spot of how much you have to do before you start feeling fatigue in your hand. And when you do start feeling tired you do have to take rests. Stretching is very important. I mean I have some experience from getting injuries, but now I know, basically, that’s red zone, don’t cross over there.

Leo: They say the same thing with running mileage. That you can’t go out and run a marathon, right? You have to slowly build it up, and never increase mileage by more than 5 or 10% a week or 2 weeks.

Yuri: Well, I’ll give you a perfect example. I have a trainer, I work out with him for an hour a week. And I’ve worked out before, but it wasn’t with a trainer, it was all by myself. And I would find myself getting frustrated. I would work really, really hard one day, and my whole body would ache for another week, and then I’d be like, “Well, I can’t do anything because my body hurts.” And then you come back and you’re just not motivated. And so, with the trainer, he would give me just enough so that I would feel some fatigue, but not to the point where I didn’t want to come back. But over time he started increasing and increasing …

Leo: the physical demand…

Yuri: the intensity, yeah. And I think that playing should be exactly the same way. Taught the same way.

Leo: But it’s difficult, because you’re often training yourself. And so, if you don’t have a teacher or you’re a professional, you have to have this fine understanding of what you’re doing.

Yuri: Yeah, and often if you don’t have a good teacher it’s very difficult I think, to gauge. Because we all think the more the better. But not always. There has to be the right amount.

Leo: And intellectually, too. Not just physically, right? You only have … or at least I know I have limitations in terms of how much I can focus. I can go strong for an hour or two and then I need a break, and another hour or so. But if I hit 4 hours, I think that’s about the limit of the psychic energy that I have available for intense practice.

Yuri: Yeah. And sometimes you will be practicing and you’re not really accomplishing anything, you’re just simply playing the piece. Which in itself, yes, it’s beneficial, but I think if you compare it to concentrated and focused practice, it’s much, much better to do that rather than just noodle on the guitar.

Leo: Right, I feel the same way. You’re better off going to do something completely different.

Yuri: Yeah. Because sometimes in half an hour you can accomplish more than in two hours, if your head is not in it, your mind. Yeah, it’s like, the secret is just consistency and regularity in practice.

Leo: Do you take days off?

Yuri: I do, when I’m overloaded with teaching (laughs). I still try to at least play somewhat. I try not to skip days.

Leo: If you have a limited amount of time, like just one hour, say, what do you tend to focus on?

Yuri: What I would sometimes do, I would pick a small passage or I would pick a small scale, or even just do one of those exercises I was doing, reconnecting with myself, with my hands, with the guitar, with the feeling. It’s very, very important I find, to connect with the mechanics of playing, and if you have that connection you can pretty much play anything. So I try to maintain that. Not necessarily a specific piece.

Leo: But just the feel of what it’s like to be mechanically on…

Yuri: Yeah, at the end of my practice I want to feel that, yes, I can play anything right now, my hands are capable. Well, it’s also interesting if you don’t play for a while, and I don’t know, it happens to me, I start thinking, “I just don’t know how to play anything. I forgot how to do this.” It’s like when you lay in bed for a day, and you start wondering, “Can I still walk?” But the fact is, yes, we, I mean certainly professional guitarists or musicians, we’ve been playing for so many years, for so many hours, the chances of us completely forgetting something are very, very low. But I think there’s something psychological about the daily practice that makes us feel that we can do this. Yes, better or worse, but if you don’t do it for a few days you start really thinking, maybe I just …

Leo: I lost it, right?

Yuri: I think there’s an element of magic to playing. It’s not all completely clear to us what is … how it’s happening. That’s what I think. When you sit with the guitar it’s like “Oh, wow, this is incredible.”

Leo: It’s a box of wood and some … it’s like a drum in some ways. What about, you know, common mistakes, just to come back to that. You were mentioning a couple of things for beginners. What about for conservatory students, or students that you’ve taught master classes to?

Yuri: Oh, sure. You know, one of the most often mistakes that I see … or, not mistakes, just underdeveloped ability to be able to play evenly. And that evenness could be developed. I like to think of it as a clean slate. So being able to play on the beat. So playing in time. The other part is having control of volume, and having the control of tone, having consistent tone. Being able to change your tone when you want to, as much control as possible. That’s why fingerings are extremely important. I often think of fingerings as … each finger has a different position on the string. Of course you can move your hand as a whole, but i will always be more towards the left, m will be towards the middle, a will be more towards the right. So ideally people’s i finger should have the warmest tone. Because it always happens to play near the soundhole unless there’s some problem with the nail of course. But generally, i should always be the one that you should look for to get a nice tone. m for me is the power finger. It’s longer, it’s also a little brighter. And a is like the third wheel [laughter]. It’s like it’s there to help you reverse the fingering, or it’s there to play the arpeggio or play tremolo. So it has a very different function. And I know some players actually never use a, or try to minimize the use of a. I don’t know if I completely agree with that. I think a is a good finger, and it definitely has to …

Leo: It deserves to be part of the game [laughter].

Yuri: Right, right. [laughter] But it has its own function.

Leo: So overall you would say that controlling your volume and balance and rhythm, that should be something that students should focus on?

Yuri: Right, well I can give you a little example [see 4th video]. Let’s say Etude 1, Villa Lobos, right? So obviously the pattern is this. [playing] Now what I often hear is unevenness, let’s say [playing]. It’s a little chaotic. Now what I would like to start with is having all notes even. [playing] Then we can start talking about shaping the phrase. The way I see it is, it’s going up, it’s going down. There are also little accents on every other note, where you hear this … actually, the fingering that is chosen, pi in the beginning automatically adds a little weight to the first, third note, every other note [playing] right? So not a lot is needed to be added to make it sound …

Leo: Musical and controlled.

 

Yuri: Right. So we can use whatever is already in the pattern. If I don’t do anything, if I simply play notes evenly, it will still be there. [playing] So that’s the beginning step, where you try to make everything even rhythmically, even in terms of accents and having control, and then you decide on the interpretation. The other problem with this piece is really interesting. When you play it, the higher you play, the further down you press the strings. So what ends up happening for the right hand is the strings get displaced. And on top of it there is another issue of pressing hard with the left hand, so having tension in the left hand transfers to the right hand, and that’s when the right hand gets confused and starts making errors. So, keeping left hand in check, tension in check, also practicing right hand alone, making sure it will be able to sustain the changes of the left hand, the misplacements … not misplacements, but being able to adjust to the …

Leo: The slight adjustments of the strings. The depressed strings.

Yuri: Right, right. Keeping in mind that the higher you play, the more careful you have to be. Of course when you play here [lower positions], the changes over here are not very significant. Yeah, I discover all these things actually from teaching.

Leo: Yeah, you notice it, and you try to solve it for a student, and then you’re like, oh, good to put that into practice.

Yuri: Actually another issue … well it’s not an issue, but it’s a quality of guitar. The higher you play, the more on the sharp side the note will be. That’s what the compensation is for in the saddle and the nut. But yeah, the higher you play the more out of tune you’re probably going to be.

Leo: Do you use etudes as warm-ups? Or do you tend to focus on very basic but perfect movements, and then you move on to your repertoire?

Yuri: I usually take elements out of etudes. I don’t think I get much out of just playing them but it depends on the etude, of course, but generally I try to save time by playing just shorter passages.

Leo: So you wouldn’t, say, play through an entire piece to gauge your mechanics? You know, to sort of touch base with where you are physically, or …

Yuri: I think if I’m really practicing a lot, I would do that, because I want to also feel my stamina, how am I feeling, because if yesterday I was able to play a whole piece, I should be able to do it today as well.

Leo: That’s a lot of very, very good advice. Just to shift gears a bit, one of the questions that I imagine most guitarists would be interested in knowing is what steps you take or that are very clear to you when decide to learn a new piece?

Yuri: Steps in learning them?

Leo: Yeah, in absorbing a new piece.

Yuri: Well let’s say if … it also depends on the piece. If it’s a piece that has been played before, if I’ve heard it before, or if it’s a new piece that nobody else has played, I think the approach is a little bit different. If it’s a more traditional piece, I will usually try to listen to the original. Say it’s written for a different instrument, if it’s a transcription or an arrangement I will usually listen to the original. And more than one performance. If it’s a piece by Bach, like a violin sonata I will listen to it on violin. If it’s a new piece I can’t do that, so you have to live with a piece for a while. You have to perform it, you have to see what works, what doesn’t work. But at some point you do have to take it on stage, and take the risk, and see how it goes. But generally the process for me is always … my fingerings have to be defined. So I never leave a single fingering up to chance.

Leo: Right. You have to know exactly what each hand is doing at all times.

Yuri: Right, and I have to also know, why is that fingering there, what’s the purpose of that fingering and not the other finger on that note. So there are many, many decisions that have to be made before I can even play the piece. Now, the decisions about making those fingerings, they’re very … they’re not an easy thing to explain, and every guitarist has their own way of thinking about fingerings, different experience, different hands, different nails, different experience with discovering what works for them, different repertoire … so of course everyone has different preferences. But there are some things that are not up for discussion for me. So that has to do with posture. There is not that much variation in regards to posture, or how the fingers should move in a way to minimize chance of injury and to optimize efficiency. So there’s really not that much room. And there used to be, you know, the Segovia right hand, today nobody really plays that way. So that went away, and I think many other things eventually will also fade out, because they will prove that they’re not efficient. But with the guitar being a new instrument, it will take some time to get to that place. Unlike piano or violin, where it’s not up for discussion. The teacher will basically not work with you, and say, well, study with somebody else …

Leo: You can’t develop your own technique on piano.

Yuri: Right, right. This is a hundreds-years-old tradition, and there is a reason why things are the way they are. The chances of you coming up with something really new related to how we use human body on these instruments is very low.

Leo: Exactly. Unless you don’t have the usual human body.

[laughter]

Yuri: Unless you are an alien…

Leo: And so once you have fingerings and you’ve gone through that process, what’s the next …

Yuri: Well the fingerings process is also …

Leo: That almost makes you learn it, right?

Yuri: Yeah, but at the same time, fingerings and interpretation are so connected. So that when I make decisions about fingerings I also think about, what is this music about? What is this phrase, what am I trying to do with this phrase? Should it be rest strokes or should it be free strokes? It’s not only the ease of playing, it’s also, what is the gesture I’m going after? Is this intense gesture, or is it a light gesture? Should the phrase end with a rest stroke, is the last note important of a scale or of a passage? How fast does it need to go? Is this arpeggio pattern going to allow me the easiest way to play it fast, that passage, at the tempo that’s required? And sometimes you say, I will give this a try, I’ll play it for a while, see if it works, or eventually you may replace it with a different fingering. Many, many masters will change fingerings as they get more experience.

Leo: I almost feel like fingerings are really never set in stone, except at the beginning, when you first learn the piece, and then as it evolves you perhaps will adjust, or if you re-learn a piece you’ll come back to it and choose to do different things.

Yuri: You know, that’s a really interesting topic, talking about when we get a piece of music, it already has some fingerings, right? Now, the publisher doesn’t know the player’s experience. And the player, if it’s an advanced player, most likely they will take some good things out of the fingerings that are on the page and they will maybe change them as needed, or not … but then, if the player is not advanced, what happens then? Should the music have all the fingerings or not? And I’ve had … well when I do my arrangements, I finger every single note, every single finger. And the reason why I do that is because for a not advanced player, this is a way that works. This is one suggestion that has been given thought, that’s been tried. For an advanced player, they can erase whatever doesn’t work, they can change it, but at least they have hours and hours of thought already on the page. I also understand that a lot of publishers don’t want to spend time putting the fingerings on the page, but …

Leo: Well, there are also plenty editions out there that have horrible fingerings, that aren’t well thought out. There was a time where I was watching a master class by David Russell a long time ago in a tiny little town in a little village in the Andes, and this great player played Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, played it very well, but was playing mistakes because of the edition. So David Russell told the player, “I could have helped you more, but we have to fix the mistakes of the editor instead of yours.”

Yuri: Well the other interesting story is Segovia’s masterclass, have you heard that? Of course. Where, “Oh, you’re not playing my fingerings? Just, that’s not going to work, come back later.” [laughter] So I don’t know.

Leo: It’s a different era.

Yuri: Well it’s a controversial topic. Especially when the ego gets involved.

Leo: Then there’s no hope. [laughter]

Artist Spotlight: Yuri Liberzon

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Russian born and Israeli raised classical guitarist, Yuri Liberzon, is certainly carving out a name for himself in the rising generation of gifted classical guitarists. Watching Yuri play elicits incredulity at his extreme level of control. And once you get past the impressiveness of it all, you realize that what holds your attention is both the beauty, subtlety, and intensity of his musical interpretations.

A graduate of the most elite conservatories in the world, Yuri’s time with acclaimed guitarist, Manuel Barrueco, is most noticeable in his playing and in his repertoire. In a recent concert, he played through Scarlatti, Bach, Piazzolla, and Brouwer with an abundance of elegance and refinement. Active as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist, he also spends time teaching and publishing very detailed editions of his repertoire.

Stay tuned for one of Yuri’s favorite warm-up exercises and an interview!