Artist Profile and Interview: An Tran

An Tran


It is always wonderful to stumble upon a great young artist who seems to be doing everything right. An Tran has been praised for his incredible technique and magical playing enough to have won prizes in many international guitar and music competitions throughout the world. An has recently given recitals for the Bangkok Guitar Society, Austin Classical Guitar, Toronto International Guitar Series. This season 2019-20 will include An’s solo concert at the prestigious Segovia Classical Guitar Series in Chicago, USA in May 2020.

An is also a champion of Vietnamese music and has performed pieces written for him by Vietnamese composers on the international stage. He recently premiered the work, Ru Con (Lullaby), written for An by composer/guitarist Nguyễn Thế An in Toronto in March 2019. And his debut CD of an all-Vietnamese repertoire is to be released in early 2020. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, An took some time from his busy schedule to share some of his experience and journey with Six String Journal. Enjoy!


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

AT: I was really lucky to have my parents that helped me find my passion. When I was a kid, I was not good at school…so I think my parents saw that and let me try a lot of different things (from drawing to piano to playing tennis!). Our house was always filled with music, breakfast, lunch and dinner. I went to sleep listening to music. Until one day, my cousin started to play the guitar. I thought to myself, at 8 years old, “I need to try that out!”. It was one of the greatest decisions in my life.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

It’s hard to say because I enjoy playing all kinds of music, but I definitely love to play Vietnamese music. The more I grow as an artist, the more I feel the connection to my home country, Vietnam. Now I always include Vietnamese music in my concert program. They can be either arrangements of Vietnamese traditional folk songs, or original compositions from Vietnamese composers. I get to share a little bit of who I am with the audience, everywhere I go.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I perform on Stephen Connor guitars. I currently have 2 of his guitars and they are extremely amazing instruments. Steve made my guitars with so much care and love that it is a joy to play every single time. His uplifting spirit is also contagious and inspiring as well.

For strings, I use D’Addario Carbon, Normal Tension. They sound beautiful on my Connors, and they hold intonation really well. Since I tour with only one guitar most of the time, due to my program with Vietnamese music, I have to change to alternate tuning between pieces. They have never failed.

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

I would say all of my teachers made a huge impact on me as a musician and as a human being. I have too many teachers to list them, but if they are reading this, they know who they are 🙂 I can also say that I learned so much from my guitarist friends as well. When I did a few competitions, I learned so much just by listening to my fellow competitors.

My classical guitar heroes are John Williams and David Russell. When I was a kid, I listened to their recordings on repeat almost every day. I also love Nguyen Le, a Vietnamese/French jazz guitarist. He has an amazing ability of blending traditional Vietnamese music with contemporary Jazz. I highly recommend checking him out, if you haven’t heard him yet.

What recording/s are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of my upcoming album “Stay, My Beloved”, which features all Vietnamese guitar music. This recording is like my life journey. Some pieces I learned when I was a kid, and some I learned not too long ago. It was a lot of work, but the music on this album stay very close to my heart, that’s why the whole process was so satisfying. It will be released on April 18, 2020.

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

I’m excited about the upcoming concerts in the US as well as my European tour in August. This will be my first time playing in Europe, so I am very excited. On top of that, I will premiere 2 works that were dedicated to me by Spanish composer Juan Erena in Cádiz, Spain. I’m also working with a few Vietnamese composers to write more works for the ever-evolving guitar repertoire. Even though my debut album is not even out yet, I’m already thinking about recording the next Vietnamese guitar album.

Technique and Performance

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

I always aim to practice for about 4 to 6 hours a day. For me, it is important to practice every day well. I normally divide my practice to 2-3 different shorter sessions. I always try to prioritize practicing first, before doing anything else during the day.

Also, there are apps that could help with your practice schedule. I use this app called “ATracker” on my iPhone. I use its timer to keep track of every piece that I’m working on. This way, I can make sure that I don’t spend too much (or too little) time on 1 piece. By the end of the week, it would give me a graph of how much I practiced each piece. That gives me an idea of what to work on for the following week. I also normally take 1 day off of guitar. I find it helpful to get back to my practice freshly the day after.

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

I’m constantly working to improve my listening and musicality skills. For me, playing something musically well is very important and I try to improve on that. I also don’t have the perfect technique, so I do struggle with really hard passages sometimes. However, it is easier to improve on the technical side nowadays because there are so many good resources online and good teachers out there. For me, the metronome is crucial for learning new music and master the hard passages. I also use Tonebase, an online resource for guitarists, whenever I find myself struggling with something (either musically or technically). Nothing will replace a good teacher, but there’s always some good info online to support what you’re learning.

By the way, I am NOT “sponsored” by any apps/websites mentioned above, those are just apps that I personally use.


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

Yes! Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 1 is always a go-to for me as a warmup before a concert. I also use some of Scott Tennant’s exercises from his Pumping Nylon book. So helpful!

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I eat a banana before I play. I find it helpful to get some energy before a concert. I also do some meditation and make sure that I feel grateful for every single opportunity. For people to take their time out of their schedules to come see me perform, that is absolutely incredible! Definitely something to be grateful for!!


Advice to Younger Players

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

One of the most important skills that I learned (and still trying to do) is to keep my focus at 100% while practicing. When I was younger, I practiced like a machine. Mindlessly ran my pieces as many times as possible. All I’m doing now is trying to fix all the problems that came from that!! It can create huge problems and bad habits to fix later. Thankfully, I’ve had amazing teachers who patiently sat with me to tell me what I’ve been doing wrong.

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

I think the most essential skill for a young musician is to cover all periods of classical music. To be able to teach and find your own “voice” in your playing, it’s important to go through all the essential “classical” guitar repertoire. I also think etudes are super important as well. For me, personally, I loved (and still play) the Giuliani, Villa-Lobos and Brouwer Etudes.


What is the last movie that you watched?

Parasite, that was crazy!

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

Yes absolutely. I’ve been doing yoga lately and it really helps. I’ve had lower back pain in the past, so now I try to do yoga more regularly. Nothing fancy, just iPhone apps and Youtube videos. Also, my chiropractor told me that it is important to get up more often to stretch, and to not sit and practice for hours straight (which was my bad habit). I might have to give him commission for this piece of advice!!!

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

I love to cook. I think cooking is so similar to playing music. Other hobbies are watching movies with my wife, playing FIFA or board games with my family and friends, playing with my puppy Luna. My dad is a former photojournalist, so he taught me a lot about photography. I am now addicted to photography and I enjoy taking pictures of my travels.

Support An by pre-ordering his new CD: Stay, My Beloved





Artist Spotlight – Rafael Aguirre Interview

Spanish guitar phenomenon, Rafael Aguirre, is likely the most acclaimed guitarist of his generation. With an incredible tally of 1st prizes from the most important international competitions to collaborations with conductors and musicians across the globe, Rafael’s guitar playing speaks for itself – technically perfect, captivating, dazzling, and full of fantasy and introspection. Fortunately for Six String Journal readers, Rafael found a bit of time between concerts and practicing to share some of his thoughts and philosophies with us. Enjoy!



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

I started to play when I was 8 years old. Basically I could choose between piano and guitar and my older brother started the piano earlier so I didn’t want to fight with him sharing the piano like we did with video games. I wanted to finally have a tool only for me and I didn’t know it was an important decision. Probably the music education by my mother was crucial since we used to listen to “Peter and the Wolf” by Prokofiev before we went to school every morning and it was then that I started to have a connection with classical music and felt it was beautiful. My mother probably noticed or knew I had a musical ear. I should ask her… ; ) Nice memories…

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I think every repertoire could be enjoyed if you feel completely free from technique barriers, because it is like every person in life. Every person has its uniqueness that you can enjoy. But probably Spanish music, transcriptions and Latin American music is what I enjoy a lot if I analyze my youtube videos for instance. But what I really enjoy is to sight read music from Dowland and Da Milano to Berio and Ianarelli, and even pop songs or cinema music. I like to “eat” music and nourish my soul through sight reading. So in the end I choose very carefully what I play on stage after having played a lot of music. You should see my library and the room where I practice. I have all kinds of music from the most intellectual to the most banal, but for me not only is it important the quality of the music but also if you like it for a reason. I like Gran Jota even if it has not the richness of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, but I feel a strong connection with the piece, an attraction. So sometimes I play a piece because I realize it’s a masterwork and other times just because of that. In the end, we are all humans and musical attraction also exists. ; )

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

Currently I perform on guitars built by my father. I am performing already on a fourth one. They are built in Málaga, Spain following my advice and taste and I am very happy with the result. Sometimes I still play on my Gnatek from Australia. I always use D’addario hard tension strings since I am a proud  D’addario artist and still find them irresistible.

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

Early on, Narciso Yepes and John Williams. And later, musicians like Daniel Barenboim, Karajan, Krystian Zimerman, Anne Sophie Mutter, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein, Placido Domingo, Pavarotti, Radu Lupu. My favorite guitarist nowadays is Paco de Lucía. Also Chucho Valdés, Paquito d’Rivera, Diego el Cigala, Caetano Veloso, Yamandu Costa or fado singers like Ana Moura influence me a lot when I listen to them.

What recording/s are you most proud of?

I have difficulties listening to my own playing because you would like to change things that are impossible to change and it is very frustrating, but sometimes I listen to them. I guess it is a problem when you know yourself. I also prefer much more the concert stage than the recording studio. But I would say I like my first Naxos Recording in 2008 (Rautavaara, Ibert) and the “La vida breve” Cd with Nadège Rochat, cello. But also the “Classica brasiliana” Cd for Dabringhaus Grimm label, where I was a guest artist. The “Transcriptions” cd I am very proud because of the music selection, but I would play it differently today probably. Very challenging music on the guitar.

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

Listen to Koen Claeys “Paint me blue” cd [Koen Clays Six String Interview]. I love that sound! Loud and clear! The problem of classical guitar recordings is that they don’t sound loud enough and when you listen to them in a car you can’t recognize anything. They only work with a very high stereo sound system at home. So I rather enjoy recordings by Yamandu Costa or even flamenco players because of that reason. I think we have to think about this. We are afraid of getting noises from the strings and we put the microphones too far (they also did on my recordings) and the guitar sounds from far away, and that doesn’t go with the status quo of a very penetrating sound in today’s recording industry where people listen with their iphones and tablets. The great thing about the guitar is when you listen to it as a player and the guitar sounds like you are in a cave in el Sacromonte in Granada, this is magic! Unfortunately because the lack of projection of the instrument we cannot get this magic putting the microphones far away. Now I would record with the mics very close. Listen to my video of Cinema Paradiso with bandoneon. I started to experiment there and I am very happy with the result. 

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

There is a famous opera singer that I admire that invited me to record with her on her debut album for Warner Classics some songs. Very excited about this! Also about my debut at the “Auditorio nacional” in Madrid next year. Also my Japanese debuts with orchestra in Kyushu and Tokyo (Tokyo Symphony). In general I want to show the guitar to new audiences or to audiences accustomed to Segovia and they stopped since he died. Also to continue to play for guitar audiences where I can share my latest discoveries for a more comprehensive reception since they know what I do better. But I am still excited to have joined one of the best agencies in the world in London last September, Intermusica. All the projects that will follow from our collaboration already excite me. Imagine, they just signed pianist Yuja Wang who is one of the superstars of the circuit of classical music. Representing the guitar in such an agency is a blessing and I only can give my best.

Technique and Performance

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

Something between 3 and 6 hours maximum a day. I like to sight read a bit, practice a bit of flamenco for my technique and fun and I have a list with my upcoming repertoire and I write down every time I practice it complete or in sections or difficult parts in order to have like a diary and control it. But I can be also a mess and just play for fun instead of practice but always very focused on playing as perfect as I can.

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

Yes. Some flamenco techniques and in general the way I practice is always different because my goal is to play with the brain and completely free of effort. So I am working a lot on that right now. Controlling everything from the brain like a Macintosh computer in order to enjoy. It is a lot of work particularly for the right hand but it is showing some results which excite me already!

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

I have to repeat a piece a lot of times. Also I have to be able to play the piece a tempo. I have tried many things and techniques from famous musicians, but in the end I do it very instinctively. I also record myself to understand why I fail on the same spots and what has to be worked out. And it works! Also being patient and going for a walk or a good restaurant to rest the brain and give a little bit of time to absorb the piece works well.

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

To be honest I am a very lazy person writing music down and I cannot use any computer program to write music. I am very ashamed of that, but one day I hope all my arrangements will be written and I will be more modern. Let’s do another interview in 25 years, hahaha.

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

Yes. Being conscious of every note I play with the right hand and so I warm up my brain. I don’t believe in warming up your hands, because you can warm up your hands also playing baseball, and anyway if you are nervous on stage it doesn’t help a lot. I believe in brain warm up. Your brain works every minute faster because you are aware of all the movements and notes you play. Paco de Lucía said “The scales are in your brain” this is something that is difficult to explain on an interview without the guitar.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Sleeping and eating something. I hate playing hungry. I read yesterday that Federer likes to eat two hours before every match. I totally understand him. Sometimes I like to do a bit of meditation and basically play a little bit and do my brain warm up with the guitar.

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

I put on some lacquer. It is a nail hardener. I shape them with the half moon form.

Advice to Younger Players

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

Never practice faster that you can think. Also practice playing softly and in a relaxed manner, until you feel you can increase the volume.

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

Brouwer, Sor and Villa Lobos Studies. These are the basis of our technique. Also I would encourage students to learn a few flamenco pieces to extend the fingers “out”. We only do inside or flexing movements as classical guitarists.

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

Is nice to listen to guitar, but you pay attention to the “guitaristic” things. I would recommend listening to old guitarists like Segovia, Alirio Diaz, Lagoya, Barrios, Yupanqui, until Barrueco or Gallén and the young players but try to listen to Mahler Symphonies, Schubert Lieder and Juanita Reina (for Spanish music). There you pay more attention to the musical aspect, and we need to cultivate our fantasy as musicians. A guitarist without fantasy is missing all the possibilities and magic of our instrument, It is more complex than it appears.


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

Right now I am reading Plato’s Dialogues. I don’t have favorite authors since I am always changing the writer and I haven’t read yet five or more books of the same author to have this opinion.

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

Oh yes,  swimming, biking on the gym. I work with a nutritionist and try to divide the food during the day in particular order, but since I love eating and going to restaurants, I eat everything I like. Favorite pre-concert food is a good meat or fish.

Do you meditate in any way?

I do Vipassana meditation at the moment. I love it and recommend it everyone!

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

Traveling, walking, trying restaurants and nice cafés, spending time with family and friends, reading, movies, going to concerts exhibitions (sounds like the typical answer of somebody trying to be cool but is truth).

Any things else you’d like to add?

Remember that music is more important than the guitar and think outside the box.

Connect with Rafael Aguirre

Marko Topchii playing Joaquín Rodrigo’s Toccata

Marko Topchii seems to be taking the guitar world by storm. Hailing from Ukraine, Marko has amassed more than 80 awards (34 of them 1st prize) from the most important international guitar competitions in the world. I was recently pointed to a video that despite the casual setting of what looks like a green room and the mobile-phone-to-the-mirror technique of filming, displays a true force of nature as he rips through Joaquín Rodrigo’s Toccata. It is as if he chose the most violent wave to surf and simply flew over it.

If you have more time, here is a recent performance of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Capriccio Diabolico from a performance in Italy.



Najda Jankovic plays Joaquín Rodrigo

Nadja Jankovic, a young and extremely talented guitarist hailing from Montenegro, interprets Joaquín Rodrigo’s Invocación y Danza brilliantly. From the haunting introduction to the rhythmic dance, Nadja invokes the spirit of this masterpiece with musical clarity and maturity that is seldom heard in such young players.



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.


Drew Henderson Playing Bach

I just came across the Canadian guitarist, Drew Henderson, playing the Allegro from Johann Sebastian Bach’s 2nd Violin Sonata, BWV1003. His performance is brilliant on many levels and the fact that he is playing an 8-string guitar allows him to add in bass notes that would otherwise be impossible on a standard 6-string guitar.

And, here is another magical and virtuosic performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Zapateado from Tres piezas Españolas. It seems that Drew does fine on a six-string, too. : )

Hope that inspires you all!

“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!


Right Hand String Crossing Technique Tip

One aspect of Ángel Romero‘s edition of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is that every single scale is fingered optimally for string crossing so that almost always reaches towards a higher string when blazing through the scale passages (i.e. when going from string 2 to 1, it is fingered i m and not m i). And while you could employ slurs or shifts to maintain optimum string-crossing, if those solutions are not musically in the cards there is a finger standing on the sidelines waiting eagerly to help: a. Using a to switch from im alternation to mi alternation without skipping a beat is an important skill to develop for situations where you would want to maintain optimum string-crossing for the right hand. Here are a few exercises using a to develop this technique.

Keep the following points in mind when going through these.

  1. Maintain a steady metric pulse.
  2. Keep your tone consistent.
  3. Practice rest-stroke and free-stroke.

Exercise 1

Using a to switch direction.jpg

Exercise 2 and 3

Using a to switch direction 2.jpg

Exercise 4 and 5

Using a to switch direction 3.jpg

Go a!

Marco Tamayo and Joaquín Rodrigo

The option to slow youtube videos to half speed may come handy on this video of uber-virtuoso, Marco Tamayo, demonstrating some solutions to difficult parts in two of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concertos for Guitar and Orchestra: Fantasia para un Gentilhombre and Concierto de Aranjuez.

Hope you find that as inspiring as I did.


Artist Spotlight – Mabel Millán

I recently stumbled upon this great artist’s videos on youtube while looking for a worthwhile performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fandango from his Tres piezas españolas. With over 30 awards and 19 (!) 1st prizes from both solo competitions and chamber music competitions, Spanish guitarist Mabel Millán is often in the spotlight as one of the emerging young concert guitarists of her generation. What is so impressive is that she is in her early twenties and is also getting a law degree while she pursues an active concert career. Her playing is so fluid and lyrical that it is easy to overlook the fact that she is playing some of the most demanding guitar repertoire effortlessly. Here she is performing Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fandango and Zapateado, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne, and William Walton’s 3rd Bagatelle. It’s hard to imagine it could be performed better.

Mabel’s latest news is that she will be performing Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur in Madrid’s Teatro Monumental and will be the first woman to record the concerto. Also, her first CD will be released on the Mexican label AdlibMusic MX with a rendition of Leo Brouwer’s Sonata of the Black Decameron. Below is a take of her recording Antonio Ruiz-Pipó’s Canción y Danza Nº1.

Hope that inspires everyone!