Artist Profile and Interview: Koen Claeys

One way to garner the attention of the guitar world would be to play Gershwin’s entire Rhapsody in Blue on one guitar. This has been exactly what Belgian virtuoso, Koen Claeys has done in his debut CD release “Paint Me Blue”. Smoothly navigating the music of Brouwer, jazz arrangements by Dyens, and his own ambitious and impressive transcriptions of music by Keith Jarrett, Koen’s projects and playing are capturing the interest of listeners across the globe. Luckily for us, Koen carved out some time to share some of his philosophies and details on his journey with the guitar so far. Enjoy!

Personal

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

The music I grew up with, was of course the music my father listened to. So I wanted to play the guitar because of Eric Clapton! I remember listening a lot to his unplugged album. And my mother had an old guitar in the house…

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

I don’t have any preferences. I love to play baroque, classical, romantic, jazzy tunes, …

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

Now I have 2 guitars: a cedar top Zbigniew Gnatek and a spruce Michel Belair. The guitars by Michel Belair are in the tradition and sound world of Friederich. And very comparable in quality! Gnatek is an Australian lattice build guitar.

I prefer nylon strings because of the timbre. Carbon fibre strings may have a little more sustain, but that is not worth (in my opinion) the loss of sound quality: it sounds a bit nasal or artificial. D’Addario and Augustine are my favorite brands.

201612_KoenClaeys_021.jpgWhich guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?

All my teachers! I was very lucky to have Geert Claessens as my first guitar teacher in music academy. To me he is still one of the best musicians on a guitar. Later I studied with Roland Broux at the Conservatory in Belgium. He is a great musical pedagogue. And I was lucky to study with Joaquin Clerch and Rafael Aguirre as well, in Dusseldorf (Germany). But I honestly can’t say who had the biggest influence on me.

What recording/s are you most proud of? 

My first CD! “Paint me Blue”

I always wanted to play and record the music that eventually made me become a musician. Of course, I loved music before, but only after hearing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I knew I wanted to be a musician. As a teenager, I listened to Bernstein’s recording so many times…

When I was 12, I got severely injured after a car accident. And my music teachers gave me a lot of CD’s to listen to. This music really helped me a lot, and I forgot all the rest, mostly when I listened to Gershwin. And when my friend Rafael called me in the summer of 2016, that his mother was injured after a car accident, I took the score again and started reading it with the guitar. I wasn’t seriously thinking of playing the whole Rhapsody at all, I was just trying to play it for fun, but 2 months later I played it in a recital and was quite happy about it.

Then came the plan to make a complete CD with all the music that was important to me, regardless if it was for guitar or not. But in the same musical genre, between classical and jazz.

The first CD my teacher Geert ever lent me, was of Joe Pass, Virtuoso 1. So, I included this version of Cole Porter’s Night & Day. Leo Brouwer is important to me in many ways, and I studied with another Cuban maestro (Joaquin Clerch), so as a Belgian I had to include his variations on Nuages by Belgian jazz legend Django Reinhardt. The version of Ne Me Quitte Pas by (Belgian!) chansonnier Jacques Brel was made by a friend I studied with in Dusseldorf (Marcelo Rosario).

And then there is Keith Jarrett… Always when I was struggling with music and/or the guitar, I listened to him. There is something absolute in his music. When you learn a new language, you translate everything first in your mind before/while speaking. You don’t yet think in that language. I think most musicians still translate in their mind an idea into a musical idea, then play it. But Keith probably already thinks in musical ideas. No translation stage extra. That’s why even his atonal passages sound so direct.

So I made transcriptions/arrangements of my favorite encores: his Köln concert encore (part IIc, known also as Memories of tomorrow) and 2 encores from his 2005 Carnegie Hall concert (My Song and Paint My Heart Red).

201612_KoenClaeys_029.jpgAre there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?

Spanish Legends by David Russell. For the sound of David Russell and for the recording quality: natural, direct, the right amount of echo, …

I am very happy with my own recording, but all these credits go to Geert Claessens. He recorded his own CD all by himself in his living room, and that was the best recorded CD I had. So I am very happy he recorded and mastered my CD as well. Just in his living room!

Most guitar recordings have the same problem: it is recorded from too far. When I play a good recorded piano CD, or a jazz CD, or orchestra recording… it sounds like the musicians are right in front of you. With most guitar recordings, the guitar sounds from a distance. Or recorded from too far and then used too much compression to level up everything, which makes you lose timbres and dynamics. And causes a rustling noise at higher volume.

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

 Since one year I have my project called “Rhapsodies”, where I play chamber music programs, with different collaborations. So far, I did one project with a great string quartet, the French Quatuor Hermes, and one with jazz trio (piano, percussion and double bass). But next year there will be even more special concerts.

 I can’t share all the details yet, but next year we will celebrate Leo Brouwer’s 80th birthday. I am very happy he accepted our invitation to come to Belgium and even more: he is writing a new chamber music piece for guitar and string quartet dedicated to me. We will play it in December in his presence. Also, Jorge Morel is writing new solo music for me, I can’t wait to read the scores for the first time!

Technique and Performance

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

It depends on the day, and the kind of practice. In general, I like to practice 5 hours per day. But of course (I also teach part-time), I am not always able to. When I am practicing a completely new piece, sometimes I play 8 hours in a day: reading the piece, trying fingerings, … But generally speaking: practicing more than 4-5 hours is not useful. One can only practice musically a limited amount of time. If you practice more, you will just be doing mechanical movements without purpose. So better use the rest of the time in a better way, that a musician also needs: go to concerts, listen to music, read a book, … try out a great restaurant.

foto k1.jpgDo you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

I always easily learned music by heart in an unthinking/unaware way. But maybe this helps: I practice also a lot without the guitar. Read the score and write your fingerings without guitar, take a paper and write down the score by heart, … Are you able to play only the right hand and imagine all the rest? If not, you probably don’t know what the right hand is doing. You should always use (and practice) all the memories: visual, auditory, procedural/motoric, …  On stage, you can’t rely only on muscle memory.

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

Yes: sight read “easy” music. I like to take a book with low level studies by Sor, Carcassi, Giuliani, … and just sight read pieces. It is fun, sometimes you discover a more unknown Etude that is actually nice music for a student, or yourself. And after 40 minutes you are completely warmed up.

But before concerts I do a short, maximum 30-minute round of technique exercises. It is a summary of coordination – scales.

Advice to Younger Players

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

I believe that when you play the guitar already 4-5 hours a day, you should listen to all the other music. I like to listen to the music that I can’t play (symphonies, chamber music for strings, piano, winds, …). It is weird to say, but my teachers won’t be angry if I say it: I learned more from pianist or violinists, then from guitarists. You should listen to Beethoven, not 5 recordings of Giuliani. Giuliani is the music you should practice, not listen to.

So a recording you should know: Caros Kleiber (conductor), Wiener Symphoniker, playing Brahms 4th symphony. A recording from 1980. Deutsche Grammophon. That is my favorite CD. Also: watch him conduct. With this conductor, I can follow the music, even on mute. Fabulous musician.

Or Radu Lupu playing Schubert. Or Trio Zimmermann: Mozart and Beethoven string trio’s. The best chamber music group I heard, live and on recording.

And listen to the old masters. They lived in a time where there was no Facebook, Youtube, … internet. I think that makes you play differently. Their phrasing is always from another world. Because they are from… another world. Well, era. Alfred Cortot, Arthur Schnabel, … Vladimir Horowitz, Richter, …

Tangent

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

I just read “Straight Man” by Richard Russo (but in dutch, “De Geluksvogel”). A hilarious book of a Monty Python-like character (a professor) that somehow became interim chairman of the English Department.

Favorite author: difficult, but Haruki Murakami. He writes phrases like Keith Jarrett plays phrases.

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

I just bought new speakers/studio monitors. Now I just sit in the sofa and listen to a complete CD.

And then put on another.

With a glass of wine.

Artist Profile and Interview – Tal Hurwitz

ta-hu-01-0070b.jpgIsraeli guitarist extraordinaire, Tal Hurwitz, recently sat down to share some of his thoughts, philosophies, and experience through an interview for Six String Journal readers. From his thoughts on practicing and recording to his influences, this is a fascinating glimpse into the world of a true artist.

Tal is available for lessons via skype and can be reached at talhurwitz@yahoo.com.


Personal

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

There was always music in the house as I grew up. My father was a big rock fan, he used to play amateur bass and sing, and when I was 9, he took me to a concert of the legendary band Deep Purple. It left a huge impression on me. That is when I started taking guitar lessons. Every kid wants to be a rock star. I, too, was counting on becoming one. I also played a lot of jazz music as a kid until one day a friend said he had a free ticket to a classical guitar concert.

The performer was Aniello Desiderio. That concert completely blew my mind. The next day I started taking classical guitar lessons and since then, it has become an inseparable part of me.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing a variety of styles, but if I have to choose one, I go for Bach. We have to feel extremely lucky to have Bach as part of our repertoire. Unfortunately most of the great composers did not write for the guitar, or it is not possible to make descent transcriptions to their music, but the greatest one of all, Johann Sebastian Bach, is very playable and that is a blessing.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

Over my career, I have played and owned many guitars: Paco Santiago Marin, Daniel Friederich, Simon Marty, Jose Romanillos, Andreas Kirmse, and Andrea Tacchi. Since last year I am playing a beautiful Andrea Tacchi made of Birdseye maple back and sides and a gorgeous piece of cedar top. The quest after the perfect guitar is a journey of a lifetime. As a matter of fact, there is no perfect guitar, but the ongoing search always fills me with enthusiasm. I have always played Savarez strings. I use a mix of them: 1st string nylon, 2nd and 3rd carbon. All trebles I use normal tension, while the bases are high tension. I really like the balance this combination makes.

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

Wow, I could count so many names, but I’ll try to keep it short. Very naturally some of my teachers have had a great influence on me, Marco Tamayo, Carlo Marchione, Ricardo Gallen, Joaquin Clerch and Costas Cotsiolis and my composition teacher, Adam Stratyevsky. All of them are amazing musicians and have influenced me greatly in different ways.

From the non-guitarists, I think about two very special musicians to me. The violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the pianist Grigory Sokolov. Both make you completely forget that they are playing an instrument, they become music, and that should be the goal of all of us.

My great friend, Ariel Mann who is one of the most diverse musicians I have ever met. We grew up together in Israel, and since we were kids, were pushing each-other and explored music day and night. Today he is living in California and is composing music for Walt Disney.

I could think about at least 200 more names but I think we better stop here.

Being influenced by others is a most important thing. It helps you build up your own character, and if you are smart, you can take all this influence and make something original out of it. This ´something’ is you!

What recording/s are you most proud of?

To be honest, I am never really happy about my recordings. I always think to myself, “Oh, if I had another chance I would do this or that better.” This is just my nature. I feel that the fantasy in my head is always better than the outcome.  I prefer live concerts. What I am trying to say is, when you make a recording, you have to accept that in the eyes of your listeners, this is who you are – for good! You can’t change that. I love changing constantly my interpretation and that makes it difficult to live in peace with recordings.


Technique and Performance

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

I rarely practice more than 1.5 hours a day.  I believe that when a guitarist has explored the instrument enough to understand its anatomy and the relation between body-fingers-guitar,  namely developed a good technique, he should not over practice. In fact, over practicing can harm one’s development and eliminate the joy of making music. Music is a mirror of the soul of the artist, and should express feelings. If someone sits down to practice between four walls, eight hours a day, he can’t have much of a life outside of that room. If there’s not much living, there’s not much to express.

Also, I rather spend quality time with my guitar and give every note I play full attention and love. If I do that 8 hours a day, I don’t think I could focus my mind the same way. We as performers, have to educate our mind and fingers to always execute with full commitment, so that in a concert situation, we will feel just like any other day. If someone is used to practice without full attention, he should not expect a miracle to happen come concert day.

One of the worst ways to practice is in front of a TV!! My students know that it is absolutely forbidden. Practicing without focus will make you play concerts out of focus.

It is important for me to clarify that as a kid and as a music student, I used to work much more every day. I wanted to play cleaner, faster and just to push myself. However, as I grew older, I realized, I could never be the cleanest player on earth, nor the fastest… but what I could do the best, is be myself. Bring out my expression which is unique to me, the best I can. This concept lowers your stress levels and allows you to be a happier person and actually a better artist.

I do however spend much time with the score (no guitar at hands). This helps me to understand the music better and to develop an interpretation. It also definitely increases a musical fantasy. I think that in general, we guitarists, are too preoccupied with the fingers, and too less with the mind. The music comes from the mind and not from the fingers.

I also spend much time thinking of the music and visualizing my repertoire, while on trips, a flight, a train, and also before falling asleep.

Do I structure my practice? I used to do it as a student. Actually writing a diary, and write down times that are devoted to any material I was working on at the time, for example: warm up, scales, arpeggios, and individual phrases that I had trouble with.

Today I can tell you with all honesty, I haven’t practiced anything like scales or arpeggios for more than 10 years. I rather devote my time to the interpretation. I sit down with the score, read it once or twice, thinking on how I would like to play it, visualizing it in my head, and then I take the guitar and try find ways to execute ideas. That procedure really saves time, and make you more confident in your interpretation.

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

Basically there are three main ways to memorize music. Fingers (muscle memory), inner hearing (hear the music in your head) and photographic memory. I try to devote time to each, and each of them is kind of a back up plan for the other. If you work on all of them, you are basically covered.

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

I haven’t published any editions. If someone is curious or interested enough in my opinion, they can always take lessons with me [Tal teaches over skype and can be reached at talhurwitz@yahoo.com]. However, some of my own music as a composer, is published by Berben editions.

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

When I am at home, sometimes before starting to play, I’ll do a a very short warm up, that includes very slow rasgueados. And single notes for the left hand with vibrato. All in a slow tempo, just to get the blood flowing into the fingers. That does not take more than 2 minutes.

For concerts, I do need more than that of course. Before concerts I perform an exercise I learned from a pianist friend. He claims that this exercise was invented by Franz Liszt. It is practicing on extremely slow and consistent movements of each of the joints on each finger. I imagine that a weight is tied to my finger and I have to lift it in an upwards movement. On the down movement, I imagine that the finger has to push a heavy weight down. This is an amazing warm-up exercise, that takes quite long to complete, but when I am done with it, I feel fire in my fingers.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I do actually. Like many other musicians I find it very difficult to go on stage without having a banana before. It calms down my mind as well as my stomach. I also do half an hour of the Liszt warm up mentioned above. I have another habit that is quite terrible: over-polishing my nails until they are too short!

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

Each of us has different nail form, different technique, and different sound preference. That means that each guitarist has to find his or her own nail shape that suits him or her better. With that said, I am following the tradition of creating some kind of a ramp on the left side of the nail. That allows a point of grabbing the string, sliding a bit on it like a bow, and then the point of releasing the string. I do try to give attention to both sides of the nail, and use the qualities of both of them. An important rule of thumb for me is not to have them too long to play rest strokes OR not too short for free strokes. It is a delicate balance!



Advice to Younger Players

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

Train your mind, at least as much as you train your fingers. Don’t let your fingers lead you, the fingers are your servants not your boss.  Be more curious about the music you are working on. And most importantly, Practice with full concentration and passion. Once you feel you are not at your best, just take a break. More general advice would be: choose your teachers carefully. There are no excuses. In this era, we can even study  with teachers from other continents. I teach guitarists from different parts of the world on Skype and it is very useful.

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

I consider the music from the classical period, like Giuliani and Carcassi, well suited to learn and develop one’s guitaristic abilities. These composers offer a bit of everything: melodic lines, simple tonal harmony, arpeggios, scales, a little bit of polyphony, and so on. The music from that period is usually very idiomatic to the instrument, too. Music from the Baroque period, for example, is often too complicated for beginners to establish a healthy connection to the guitar. However, I think it is also important that the pupils are attracted to the music they learn, so that they want to put the effort and the work into it.

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

Every guitarist should know the historic recordings of Segovia, Bream, and Williams. From the modern guitarists, just to name a few, I like the recordings of Carlo Marchione, Marco Tamayo, and Ricardo Gallen. I think it is more important to focus on recordings from the great pianists, violinists, orchestras, and opera. Learning from them will be the only way to raise the classical guitar to the level of true classical music.

ta-hu-01-0504a.jpg

Artist Profile and Interview – Andrea González Caballero

Spectacular Spanish guitarist, Andrea González Caballero, recently sat down to share a few personal details and thoughts on guitar. In addition to several videos showcasing her wonderfully musical and solid and sensitive interpretations of music by guitarist and composer Joaquín Clerch, Manuel Ponce, and Joaquín Malats, I’ve linked to her debut CD with Naxos. Hope this inspires all of you loyal readers!

Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? I started playing guitar when I was 7 years old, maybe because my mother is guitar teacher and I saw her with a guitar.
What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? I love playing Spanish music because I feel it is part of me.
What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings? I have a Fernando Mazza spruce guitar and D’addario strings.
Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you? The biggest influence for me has been (and still is) Joaquín Clerch, who has been my teacher since I was 12 years old.
What recording/s are you most proud of? I think my last CD recorded with Naxos has been a great opportunity to show my work of the last years.
Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for
guitar? It is difficult to say that. I think that on the old recordings we can admire a more pure sound of the instrument and feel it closer to us.
What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about? I have concerts in different countries but one of the most exciting concerts for me will be to be back in Mexico, after 5 years and perform there!

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way? It depends a lot on the time I have but I try to practice 4 hours a day. I don’t have a particular way, I just think of a goal I want to achieve each day and try to do it. In this way I think that my work is done.
Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on? When I start a new piece, I always find things on which I have to work harder. Difficult passages or even a simple phrase which has to be played legato and expressive can be very difficult because of the guitar limitations.
Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory? I usually don’t force myself to learn the music but sometimes, I don’t have time and have to learn pieces very fast so I try to find the similitudes in the music and patterns that are repeated or to see what the different voices are doing to have a wider perspective of the music…I think there is no one way to do that.
Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future? I haven’t published anything yet, but who knows in the future…

 

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? I like stretching and warming up my hand and arm muscles before taking the guitar. 
Do you have any pre-concert rituals? Nothing special..I usually arrive one hour before to the concert hall, I play in the hall and the most important point is to find a chair that I like.

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players? I think the most important thing is to be persistent and have a regular plan of practicing. 
What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why? I love the “Estudios sencillos” by Leo Brouwer because they help to know the guitar, the positions, articulation…and Fernando Sor’s Etudes are very nice and we can practice the phrasing, legato, sound…
Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why? I remember when I was a child I listened to David Russell a lot and his recording of the complete works for Guitar by Francisco Tárrega. I loved his playing!

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s? Last book I read was “Patria” by F. Aramburu.
Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? When I am at home and not traveling I try to go three times a week to a fitness studio and do some exercise. I don’t follow a diet…this is difficult for me (haha).
Do you meditate in any way? No
What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing? I love painting or going out to find nice places, restaurants, and meeting my friends and family…

Andrea González Caballero playing Rodrigo and de Falla

I just came across some inspiring videos of Spanish guitarist Andrea Gonazález Caballero playing Joaquín Rodrigo’s En los Trigales and Joaquín Clerch’s fingerful arrangement of Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve. Both videos display a brilliant and natural technique paired with deep musical sophistication.