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

How to Visualize Your Pieces

Very early on my guitar adventure, my teacher at the time said that he would never perform anything unless he could see it physically happen in his head. He had me read a few articles on visualizing and, because I tried to be a good student and wanted to be a good guitarist, tried his advice. It was hard work. I SO much preferred to “do”. Close my eyes and sweat mentally to “see” my fingers on the fretboard? No thank you.

But, I persisted. And, from reading enough about it, am convinced it has helped me in many ways. For one, I feel more secure if I can imagine everything. Two, it inevitably builds your ability to focus. Three, I’m not sure to what degree it helps but I like to think of it as a memory safety net, one of many safety nets (mental and physical) that come with mastering pieces and eventually performing them.

At this point in my playing, I enjoy doing it. When I close my eyes, it is nice to play and hear a piece unfold in my head. Visualizing frees my musical imagination in ways that are not confined by the physical struggles of the early stages of learning new music and cold fingers.

Here is a list of visualizing techniques that I have found helpful at some point or another, some are easier than others and can be used as training wheels until you get the hang of it. Or, you’ll find the ones that work well for you and that you enjoy doing. Like exercise, the best visualizing is the visualizing you’ll actually do. From easier to more difficult:

  1. Read through the score of your piece without the guitar in hand. Try to hear it all in your head and imagine your hands playing it as your eyes scan the music.
  2. Watch a video of your favorite player and play along in your head. This is light visualization.
  3. Listen to your favorite player or a good recording of yourself and play along in your head trying to stay with it. No backtracking. If there are spots or large chunks that are blurry, work on those carefully next time you physically practice.
  4. Close your eyes, imagine a stage and where you would sit. Perform the piece in as much detail as possible with extra attention to your left hand choreography as the piece unfolds. Try the same but with the right hand.
  5. Try doing the previous step with a metronome set to an ultra slow tempo and see the piece unfold, matrix-like. Try with an ultra fast tempo. How much can you keep up? What goes blurry?

Don’t forget to smile, breathe calmly, and to remain optimistic. Happy visualizing.

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How to Play Cross-Stringed Ornaments

A renewed Scarlatti obsession, hearing French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau, and a recent David Russell workshop posted by the Bolton Guitar Series have me thinking about ornamentation on the guitar more than usual.

It’s been about 25 years since I took several masterclasses with David Russell in a tiny Andean village in Venezuela. Besides being a tremendously talented guitarist, David is a wonderful teacher: clear, patient, and able to make you sound better almost instantly. I learned a lot from him there and fortunately have continued to learn from him over the years thanks to videos of him working with students throughout the world. In the video (linked below), David explains his approach to ornamentation very clearly and demonstrates every example with his guitar. If you have lots of time, watch it and extract as much as you can! Here I’ll summarize the points I took away after watching it this morning.

Here is a summary of the basic cross-stringed ornaments and the common (and maybe not so common) ways to execute them (the repeated right hand finger is a sweep):

And here are some of the points David mentions in the workshop:

  1. Most baroque trills begin on the upper neighbor.
  2. A brighter sound is better for ornaments. This can be achieved by attacking the string with less of a right-hand angle or by angling the right hand to a more perpendicular angle to the strings.
  3. Cadential trills are important but ornaments within the piece are more personal as to their inclusion, length, etc…
  4. Practice the entrances and exits of ornaments with turns.
  5. Mute the dissonance after the trill. This is usually done with a right-hand finger.
  6. Dynamics are important within the ornament and the musical line.
  7. A shorter trill is better than a longer out of rhythm trill unless it is cadential (where time is suspended to a greater degree)
  8. Cross-string ornaments allow baroque interpretations to vary stylistically from other periods of music.
  9. Have a higher wrist for trills.

Here are a few additional points that I cannot remember whether they are in the workshop but that I think about:

  1. The ornamented note should be in time. In order to achieve this a slight acceleration into the ornament or starting the ornament before the beat helps to achieve the correct feel.
  2. Play ornaments slower in slower melodic lines.

Check out the post I did a while ago: Cross-Stringed Ornaments, Part 1

Bolton Guitar Series: Ornament Workshop with David Russell

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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.

Tango en Skai – 5 STEPS TO MORE SECURE PLAYING

During a lesson last night, a musically talented young student played Roland Dyens’ Tango en Skai. He had played it a few years ago when he was 9 (!) and had been reworking it for fun. Like most young players excited about guitar, the desire to play is overwhelming to the point that it crowds out actual practice and more importantly, the crucial aspect of practice: reflection. A piece will get to a “pretty good” level and, while it may be pretty well played, it is not mastered or excellent. So, we addressed this by using the first run in Dyens’ Tango as an example of how to actually practice for marked improvement.

Tango 1.jpg

 

STEP 1 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE SLOWLY

Tango RH.jpgThis step is easy to spend the most time on because it will make you question right hand choices if you have not thought about them in this context. Actually seeing the open strings is different than seeing the original score and imagining the right hand. New patterns are optically sought out and if you are a visual learner, seeing a map is easier than imagining it. We chose to stick with the student’s right hand choice but it was interesting to watch such a talented player struggle to play it very slowly (sixteenth = 60 bpm). We lingered luxuriously in this stage playing at different tempi until we were convinced the right hand’s sense of rhythm and pulse had tightened up.

 

STEP 2 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE WITH DYNAMICS

Tango dynamics.jpg

 

STEP 3 – SEARCH FOR STABILITY POINTS

We answered some key questions. Where is thumb? Working out when and where thumb plants on the strings between strokes or in anticipation of strokes greatly increases right hand stability for the rest of the fingers. Where can I plant other fingers? Because the right hand movement is continuously ascending towards string 1, planting helps control dynamics and insures that the fingers are in place before their turn is up. Then, of course, we spent time practicing the incorporation of planting into the right hand choreography. After a few minutes, the right hand was behaving like a true champ: strong, secure, comfortable, happy!

Dyens plant.jpg

 

STEP 4 – ADD LEFT HAND BACK IN

This is where most students who are hyper-focused on left hand and playing are astonished by what they sound like. The playing sounds crisp, exact, musical, and free. Hopefully, at this stage, the aural and physical reward is strong enough to convince the student to start truly practicing and instill the desire to play everything at a level approaching mastery.

*We can go further here by applying rhythms, pushing the tempo to build a reserve, practicing left hand alone, but for now, this is where we left it.

STEP 5 – Take a new passage, and go to step 1!

Hope this helps!

Heitor Villa-Lobos Etude Nº1 – Bursts

To conclude our video series covering right-hand technique development in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude N°1, I’ll explore how to use the concept of bursts (another rhythmic manipulation) to develop speed and further strengthen right-hand rhythmic precision, right-hand preparation, control, and clarity.

Heitor Villa-Lobos Etude Nº1 – Rhythms

To continue with our video series on Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude N°1, I’ll explore how to use various rhythms to develop rhythmic precision, right-hand preparation, control, and clarity.

Hope this helps!

Heitor Villa-Lobos Etude Nº1 – Right Hand Fingerings

After repeated requests for more videos, I’m eager to share this post and upcoming video series on Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1. In this first part I’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of the standard fingering that Andrés Segovia wrote in the published edition. I’ll then offer some options for practicing the Etude. In Part 2, I’ll go through some options to overcome the disadvantages and finally arrive at my preferred fingering.

For a reduction of this, check out my first post on Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1.

 

Advanced Left Hand Training, Part 1

Need something new to add to your slur studies? Try this series of advanced exercises for the left hand that combine compound slurs and accents. Use them to build endurance, control, and precision. For each of the three levels illustrated keep the following points in mind:

  1. Practice on various strings in various positions.
  2. Practice slowly with great rhythmic intent.
  3. Keep movements efficient and clean.
  4. Play accents clearly.
  5. Keep left hand wrist and fingers as relaxed as possible.
  6. If at any point your hand and fingers feel like they are going to fall off, consider stopping.

 

Level 1

For these exercises use the following left hand finger patterns: 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14. The example below uses 12.

Exercise 1

slur12 accent 1 August 2018.jpg

Exercise 2

slur12 accent 2 August 2018.jpg

Exercise 3

slur12 accent 3 August 2018.jpg

 

Level 2

For these exercises use the following left hand finger patterns: 123, 321, 134, 431, 124, 421, 234, 432. The example below uses 124.

Exercise 1

slur124 accent 1 August 2018.jpg

Exercise 2

slur124 accent 2 August 2018.jpg

Exercise 3

slur124 accent 2a August 2018.jpg

Exercise 4

slur124 accent 3 August 2018.jpg

 

Level 3

For these exercises use the following left hand finger patterns: 1234, 4321, 1324, 4231, 1423, 4132. The example below uses 1234.

Exercise 1

slur1234 accent 1 August 2018.jpg

Exercise 2

slur1234 accent 2 August 2018.jpg

Exercise 3

slur1234 accent 3 August 2018.jpg

If your left hand has not been challenged or you’d like to expand the exercises a bit or you DO want your hand and fingers to fall off, use a bar or fix a left hand finger that is not in use to another string and nearby fret.

L

“Il re della chitarra” – L’Stampa

“The king of guitar.” – L’Stampa

If there ever was an argument for practicing rest stroke scales, I think Marco Tamayo would settle it. Though the video below is casually shot by a student asking about fingering solutions to Joaquín Rodrigo’s Aranjuez and Joaquín Turina’s Soleares, there is gold in it. Just observing the complete ease and extreme mastery of Marco’s approach reveals how much care and thought has gone into every single action.

Here is another valuable video where Marco gives us details on nail shaping and filing. Again, probably one of a handful of videos that are worth watching on the subject.

Check out his newly published Principles of Guitar Performance. Or, if you are looking for a start into building a technical routine check out the Technical Workout Workbooks on Six String Journal’s publications page!