Artist Spotlight and Interview with Colin Davin

Praised for his deeply expressive musicianship, his musical intelligence, and virtuosic technique, Colin Davin seems to have it all. Colin is an active international soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, and teacher, with projects and performances from Aspen to Afghanistan to the Alhambra.

Colin took some time recently to sit down and share some of his insight, philosophies, and advice with Six String Journal. Hope it inspires you all.

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

My study of the guitar began fairly early – I was 7 years old, and my father, himself an amateur guitarist, signed me up for lessons. In a way, it was not so different than the many other things I was doing as a kid, like little league or cub scouts. Taking advice from an interview with the folk-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, it was determined that classical guitar would give me the best chance at being able to play a wide range of styles. And while I’ve since branched out from time to time, at that early age, classical struck a chord with me, and I’ve never lost that enthusiasm.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play a guitar by Andrea Tacchi, from Florence, Italy, his model “Coclea Thucea”, made in 2004. For those who don’t know Andrea’s instruments, they are both of the highest quality in sound and craftsmanship, and a bit unusual. The name Coclea Thucea refers to the inner ear (coclea), both for its obvious connection to hearing music, and for its spiral design, in the ratio of a Fibonacci sequence. Andrea incorporates aspects of “sacred geometry” connected to this ratio in his design and construction. And the “thucea” is a portmanteau of the Latin names for spruce and cedar, as the top is a three-piece construction using both materials (two outer panels of cedar with a central panel of spruce). For years I’ve played Hannabach Silver 900/200 trebles, med-high tension…a perfect balance of warmth, color, and clarity, in my opinion. I have less devotion when it comes to basses, but most often settle on high tension Augustine or D’Addario.

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

My influences have been pretty wide ranging over the years, but early guitar heroes of mine were Julian Bream, John Williams, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, and Django Reinhardt. When I was 10, I heard Jason Vieaux play for the first time, and that pretty much cemented my desire to make music my life. A few years later, I was Jason’s student, and now I’m his colleague on the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music!

What are some up and coming projects you are excited about?

I play in a duo with the brilliant harpist Emily Levin, and we’re planning a live-concert recording in New York this February. The combination of guitar and harp is absolute magic, and deeply under-explored (they might be the two most intimidating instruments for composers, which explains the lack of repertoire). We’ll be recording transcriptions of ours of de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” in its entirety, Ravel’s “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose) and Philip Glass’s “Etude no. 6”, originally for piano. In addition, we’ll feature world premiere recordings of works we commissioned, by Dylan Mattingly and Will Stackpole.

Practicing and Performing

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

Practice hours are variable day to day, and week to week. Such is the nature of a performing and teaching musician – the lack of a consistent schedule presents unique challenges to getting in the hours. I’d say I reliably get in 20-25 hours a week, possibly in a steady stream of 3-4 hours a day, possibly in a disjointed alternation of heavy days and light days. Because of this irregularity, it has become very important for me to structure my practice with specific goals in mind. I always start with some light warmups, then slurs, arpeggios (often selections from the Giuliani 120, or Villa-Lobos’ Etude no. 1), tremolo, and scales. I always have an eye on what projects are coming up, and try to balance my repertoire practice so that I stay on top of the varied things I have coming up at any given point in a season.

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

The way I approach learning a piece, with an extremely deliberate approach using metronome charts and lots of repetitions, often results in memorization by default. That said, I do sometimes get hung up on a passage, or even an entire section….typically in music that is either very rhythmically complex (and thus requires a different approach than the typical metronome work), or music that is rather easy that I end up learning a bit too fast! For the former, I often break the piece down into digestible sections, trying to memorize, say, one line of music in a day. The next day, I’ll work on the next line, reviewing the previous day’s memory work, and seeing if I can string the two together…and so on. For an easier piece, I use some off-guitar techniques like visualization, singing/solfège, as well as forcing myself into practicing the piece in small- to medium-sized sections, more than I might think I need in order to successfully execute the piece.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

On concert days, I do try to keep a certain routine. The night before, I actually try to get a little less sleep than usual – for some reason, being just a little tired works for me, combining with natural performance adrenaline (what some might call “nerves”) to bring me to a nice level of focus and calm. Late morning or early afternoon, I tend to go for a walk; easier to do in certain locations and certain times of year than others! And I general try to eat light throughout the day. I arrive at the hall a little over an hour before showtime, play on stage for about 10 minutes, then head to the dressing room where I’ll intersperse light practicing/warmups with a snack (usually a banana) and some herbal tea (usually turmeric). I think everyone should establish some kind of consistent practice on concert days, whatever might work for a given individual; it really helps put your mind and body into the right space, focusing the energy toward inhabiting the performance space.

Advice to Young Players

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

Be patient, and be thorough. The easiest way to practice is to run through pieces in their entirety, as best you can, flubbing through the hard parts, but kind of getting through it. But this merely reinforces bad habits, and gets you nothing but extra repetitions of mistake-filled playing. More repetitions will bake in those problems, the same way that repetitions of clean, musical playing will bake that in! So, take your time when learning a piece, don’t rush through the process; be deliberate, thoughtful, and careful. When all that early work happens, the final product will be far superior, easier and more enjoyable to play, and far more satisfying for your audience.

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

There’s a whole library of Julian Bream recordings everyone should know. “Popular Classics for Spanish Guitar”, and “Twentieth Century Guitar I (from the Julian Bream Edition)” are two favorites of mine. Beyond that – I always tell students to listen well beyond the realm of the guitar. Some of my best musical lessons have come from listening to non-guitarists, classical or otherwise. A random assortment of influential artists: Toumani Diabate, Punch Brothers, Rachel Podger, Hilary Hahn, Mitsuko Uchida, Alfred Brendel, Joanna Newsom, Leonard Cohen, Roomful of Teeth.

Tangent

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

I tend to read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Probably my favorite author is the late Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. His “Death with Interruptions” is among my favorite books; a fable that is funny, sad, and sweepingly beautiful. I’m also a devoted reader of the New Yorker magazine, especially the long-form investigative pieces, profiles, short stories, and arts writing. And of course, the cartoons.

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

When I’m not in the midst of working on music, I honestly just enjoy “being” wherever I am. Hiking is among my favorite activities (though the elevation changes in Northeast Ohio are a bit mild to qualify anything here as “hiking”); and it’s the ultimate in doing something that is very nearly doing nothing: walk, climb, look, smell, listen. Beyond that, I enjoy cooking, coffee, and the occasional night out with a good game to play; lately, I’ve been working on my pool game, though I have a long way to go before anyone would accuse me of actually being good!

***

For more information on Colin Davin visit his website: www.colindavin.com