Featured Artist Interview – Bokyung Byun

Praised by Classical Guitar Magazine as “confident and quite extraordinary,” Korean guitarist, Bokyung Byun​ enjoys a reputation as one of the most sought-after guitarists of her generation. Notably, she is the first female winner of the prestigious JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition. She has also taken first-prize finishes at the Frances Walton Competition, the Montreal International Classical Guitar Competition, and the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Competition. In recent seasons, Bokyung has performed as a soloist with orchestras, including the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Utah Symphony, West Los Angeles Symphony, among others. Bokyung’s debut recording has been praised as “a very beautiful disc. From the first notes of the “Gallarda” from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Escarraman, we are treated to extraordinary musicianship, technical assurance, and beauty of sound” (Soundboard Magazine). Fortunately for us, Bokyung recently sat down to share some of her experience with Six String Journal!

Personal

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

I started playing the guitar when I was six years old. One day I was watching tv with my mom, and a guitarist was performing on the tv. I was instantly fascinated by the instrument and loved the way it sounded. I told my mom I wanted to learn that instrument. We went to a local guitar school for lessons, and the teacher happened to be a classical guitarist so I began with the classical guitar.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

It keeps changing depending on what I’m working on at the moment. In general, I love and enjoy playing Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Dowland’s music. I feel closely related to the way their music speaks to me. 

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play the guitar made by Dieter Mueller paired with Paragon blue strings from Augustine. 

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

I recently released a CD with my all-time favorites. It includes compositions by Ponce, Walton, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Sierra. Each piece in this album is presented with a little bit of a twist. For example, I played one of Ponce’s most beloved pieces, Theme, Variations, and Finale, but I played the urtext version of it, which includes several movements that were not part of the Segovia edition, and all of the movements are presented in a completely different order. 

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

I co-founded a new music initiative called, the Sounding Board Project back in 2019. Our mission is to provide collaborative relationships between guitarists and composers to promote the creation of new music for the guitar. Each year we have produced and premiered innovative works for guitar in collaboration with a diverse group of guitarists and composers. This year we have invited guitarists, composers, and choreographers to collaborate and explore the inseparable bond between music and dance to create multidimensional works for guitar accompanied by choreographed dance. The premiere is set to be released in mid-August. I am very excited about this year’s project. If you would like to find more about the initiative, additional information and videos from the past projects can be found on our website (soundingboardfest.com).

Technique and Performance

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

I try to concentrate on the quality of practice rather than the quantity. I believe one hour of an organized and concentrated practice session is way more helpful than three hours of unfocused practice. I generally practice for about 3-4 hours a day. I prioritize the pieces that I have just started learning or will be performing soon. Then I practice the other pieces to maintain the general level of preparedness on them.

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

For me, I think it depends on how much time I have to learn a piece. For example, if I am given only a short amount of time before I have to perform the piece, I will try to intentionally memorize as I learn. On the other hand, if I have plenty of time between learning and performing the piece, I will let my muscle memory do most of the work first. Then I train to deliberately memorize the whole piece in my head as well. I sit down without the guitar and try to visualize in my head where the fingers need to go from the beginning to the end of the piece to check how much of the piece I have actually memorized. 

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

My go-to drills for warm-ups are Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 1 and Carcassi’s Etude No. 1. 

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not in particular, but I tend to wash my hands with warm water before going on stage to prevent them from getting sticky.

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

I wasn’t sure how to describe the shape of my nails clearly in words, so I’ve included photos which I hope will show the shape. Growing up I was very fortunate to have healthy, strong nails that I never had to use anything to help strengthen them. However, as time went on, and as I started practicing more vigorously for competitions and concerts, I realized my nails could no longer withstand hours and hours of strenuous practice sessions. I’ve tried different types of nail strengthening methods, but I settled on using gel nails. I find them to be soft enough that it doesn’t sound as harsh as artificial nails but strong enough to prevent the nails from breaking. 

Advice to Younger Players

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

I would like to emphasize the importance of mindful and organized practicing. I am also guilty of having unproductive practice sessions when I was young, playing a piece from the beginning to the end over and over again in hopes that it will eventually improve. Rember that the pace at which you will progress will be much faster if you practice more mindfully and in an organized manner. What I mean by that is to try to come up with a list of things you have to practice per session, set goals for each piece/exercise, and single out the sections that are troublesome for you. 

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

I would recommend learning all of the “essential guitar repertoires,” such as Brouwer, Britten, Bach, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Tarrega, just to name a few.  They have been the favorites for a reason! They are great music that you can always program in your concerts, and through these pieces, you will become familiar with the idiomatic writing style of each composer. These pieces also have numerous masterful recordings that students can learn from by dissecting and comparing different interpretations. 

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

The Julian Bream collection! I grew up listening to and being inspired by his recordings as well. His recordings are full of his unique humor and expressive interpretations that we can learn from. His repertoire includes such a variety of music that it will also help young guitarists expose themselves to all kinds of music from different eras, genres, and styles.

Tangent

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

I try to stay healthy. I find that I can focus better when I’m regularly working out. I love walking and yoga – it really helps relieve tension in my lower back and arms. 

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

I am a foodie! I love trying different cuisines from different countries. I also love spending time with my husband and watching comedy shows together. 


website – bokyungbyun.com

instagram – instagram.com/bokyungbyun

sounding board project – soundingboardfest.com

Nails!

davidrussell
David Russell’s nail shape.

Finding the right nail shape to express yourself on the guitar is an elusive science. To make the puzzle more complicated are the facts that nails are organic, are continuously growing, and are affected by variables like weather and diet. Because everyone attacks the strings with variable angles and tensions in the fingertips and because we all have an ideal sound we are after one shape may not be as effective as another. Some guitarists have a “sound” with little sonic variance while some use color and gradations of timbre to interpret their music. So, whether you are a beginner starting to experiment or an advanced player looking to expand your knowledge, the following videos are the best I’ve found so far to see exactly what the pros do and how they approach nail shape.

In french with subtitles, Six String Journal favorite Thomas Viloteau shows an ingenious method for adapting the shape of the nail to your stroke.

Here is a screen shot from a video of Spanish guitarist Ricardo Gallén checking his nails before his recording of the Bach lute works.

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Spanish guitarist Ricardo Gallén checking nails before recording.

Last but not least, Cuban virtuoso Marco Tamayo details the steps he uses to shape his nails.

Years ago, when Marco was visiting he drew this diagram out when I asked about nails.

Marco Nail Shape
Marco Tamayo’s nail shaping diagram.

Go shape then pluck!