Artist Profile and Interview – Gohar Vardanyan

Gohar Vardanyan

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Admired for her evocative and virtuosic interpretations, Armenian guitarist Gohar Vardanyan has taken some time off from her busy performing and teaching schedule to share some details about her life and her art. From her advice to practice slowly to her passion for pushing the limits in her performances, I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did about this young and phenomenal guitarist!

Personal

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

I started playing when I was about 5 years old. My dad is a guitarist and he started teaching me as soon as he could. I grew up with guitar being played in the house all the time, either by my dad’s friends, students, or on recordings.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

I tend to gravitate towards music that has beautiful melodies and is emotionally moving. Not really into cute pieces or contemporary music. I love to play Bach, but because of the time and maintenance required to perfect it I don’t program it in concert. I play it at home for my own enjoyment.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play on a 2012 cedar Jean Rompré guitar. Currently I use Royal Classic Recital strings (medium tension). I also love Savarez Cantigas and Knobloch Actives QZ Nylon. I only use normal or medium tension strings.

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

Growing up it was all about Paco de Lucia, I wanted to play just like him, but then I chose classical guitar as a career, so that didn’t quite work out. I listen to many different musicians, not just guitarists, but I can’t say there was one in particular. It’s a mix. All my teachers had tremendous influence on my playing now; Antigoni Goni, John Wunsch, Manuel Barrueco and Sharon Isbin.

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

I like all of David Russell’s later albums. I would love to have that kind of full and beautiful sound on my next CD.

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

I just started a new series on my YouTube channel called Guitar Etudes. I have been making videos for Strings by Mail for a few years now, mini guitar lessons we call Lessonettes and Unexplored Repertoire Series from sheet music in their collection. But for a few months now I’ve been thinking of doing something other than just my repertoire videos on my own channel as well. Something that would be beneficial for my own students and guitar students in general. So I thought that recording various guitar etudes and talking about their technical or music benefit would make for a good video series. I finally started it. I’m going to try to upload a video every Monday. As I write this, there are 4 out already and the 5th one is scheduled to go LIVE on next Monday.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice?

When I was in school I practiced about 4 hours a day, everyday. Now life doesn’t really allow for that luxury. Between teaching, making videos, answering emails, and all sorts of other little things, 4 hours of practice every single day becomes more of a chore. Whenever I have a break between concerts I slack off a little bit. I practice, of course, but it’s not 4 hours and some days I skip altogether. When concerts are lined up, then of course I prioritize practicing and practice as much as needed.

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

In terms of structuring, I personally don’t have a rigid structure. I don’t think I ever did. I work on whatever needs to be worked on and for as long as it needs to be worked on. Of course, I try to find the most effective and efficient way to do it, but it’s not a set structure like 30 mins of technique, 2 hours of rep, 1 hour of reading, etc… If I’ve been playing regularly, I might do a 15 minute technical warm up then dive right into what needs to be worked on. If I’ve been a little lax with practicing and I feel like my hands aren’t as in shape as they need to be, I might do 1 hour of different technical exercises for a couple days. I’ve tried keeping logs and practice journals both on paper and electronically. It would last for a few days then I’d drop it. So I decided instead of wasting time writing and planning, I rather just sit down and do it. I’m better off just remembering and going by feel. However, that doesn’t work well for everyone. For a lot of my students, keeping a log or having a specific structure to their practice is better. This also really depends on your level. When you are still in the developmental stage, you need to do technique everyday, because you are still building your technique and that takes consistency. After years of experience, you know what you need to do at that particular moment to improve your playing. I usually have some sort of goal, fixing a specific passage, or working on specific phrasing, or building my stamina for a particularly difficult or fast piece, etc… And that keeps me organized enough.

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

I wouldn’t really call it struggle, but I think there is always something that needs to improve. If we stopped trying to be better than before, then we give up and stop growing. Every time I learn a new piece, it’s a challenge. I tend to always choose pieces that are pretty difficult either because they are transcriptions or because I gravitate towards pieces that are passionate, emotional, sometimes fast paced and rhythmic. And to add to the fire, so to say, I like to push them to their limit. Usually, I already have an idea of how I want it to sound. I never want them to sound like they’re difficult, in other words I want the technique to be invisible. At the same time, making the technical execution seamless and effortless while keeping the energy and the passion of the piece alive, makes it way more difficult to play. It’s easier to take it down a notch and play things neutral and straight, but that sounds boring to me. I always end up pushing it to the limit in volume or speed, and that gets me if I’m not two hundred percent prepared. So I’d say my struggle is to take it down a notch.

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

I do make a point of memorizing the piece as soon as I can, but since usually I don’t have a set deadline for it I just let it happen naturally. Whenever I did have deadlines, I would break it down into small sections and deliberately memorize it, either by visualizing in addition to playing it, or playing and trying to actively make my brain understand what’s happening so I can repeat it without the music. If you do it in small enough sections then put it together, it becomes less of a daunting task. I think memorizing makes us play the piece better, we can connect with it better without being distracted by looking at the music. And from the technical point, when you have to fly around the fretboard, it’s a lot easier to land in the right place if you see where you’re going.

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

I have four books published for Mel Bay Publications, but those are instructional books. In terms of editions, I haven’t really made my own. Honestly, a lot of it is the time commitment. It requires a lot of time to transcribe something, and then to also put it into legible notation. The transcription of La Vida Breve that I did, I just memorized, because rewriting everything is a task I didn’t have time for.

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

One of my books is on warm up (Complete Warm-up for Classical Guitar), in it I share the main drills that I do to warm up. It’s nothing fancy, it’s short, but it covers all the bases I feel that I need.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not really, no. I like to keep it simple. I prefer to sleep in as late as possible and I prefer not to have to do anything else like teach that afternoon, that way my brain is fresh for the evening concert. I wouldn’t really call it a ritual though, because sometimes you won’t be able to do any of it and if I had something I relied on for a good performance, it would be like a crutch and who knows what would happen if I wasn’t able to get it. So aiming for some rest and peace is good enough for me.

Advice to Younger Players

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

Don’t just play, actually practice. And practice super slow, I mean painfully slow. It’s amazing how much you can see when you zoom into time like that and analyze what happens with fingers in between notes. I’m talking about 50 on the metronome, for each note you play (sometimes two notes, depends on the piece).

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

I don’t think there is a specific set of pieces everyone absolutely has to play. We’re all different and our tastes are different. However, I think it’s important to learn music from all different genres, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary. Learn them, even if you don’t like them, and when you leave school you can choose never to play them again but I think some familiarity with the different genres is important.

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

I think we should all be familiar with the guitar legends, Segovia, Bream, Williams… they are part of our history. However, we should also keep up with current times because guitar is constantly growing, better and better players are coming up every day. With YouTube and the Internet in general, we have incredible access to so much. We shouldn’t be stuck in the past, explore and find what you love.

Tangent

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

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is the last book I “read.” I say “read” because I didn’t actually read it, lately I’ve been using audiobooks on my commutes. And for authors – I loved all the books by Dan Brown and Alexander Dumas. They are fun to read.

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

I got into running about 2.5 years ago. For almost a year I did it regularly, 4 times a week at minimum and even ran a 25K trail race (took about 3 hours though, not much of a threat to everyone else on the trails). Now I go when I can for a 5K in my neighborhood or if I have a long enough chunk in my day, a 10K loop around Central Park (NYC).

I don’t have a particular diet. I usually eat pretty healthy, not into fast foods or fried foods. My weakness is sweets, but only chocolate, gelato and pastries (with chocolate), no random candies. So as a responsible human who cares about not eating too much unhealthy sweets, I try to limit those. I don’t always succeed.

No specific pre-concert food. I usually go for a late lunch of whatever that will carry my through the end of the concert. I try not to be high maintenance for the people who are hosting me or the presenters who invited me.

Do you meditate in any way? 

No, I can’t sit still for that long.

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

I like walking around the city or going on hikes.

Yuri Liberzon plays Piazzolla

Another amazing video from Guitar Salon International capturing Yuri Liberzon performing one of Manuel Barrueco’s arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes for flute. Aside from the masterful, crisp, and articulate playing, this performance is particularly compelling given the beautiful 1912 Manuel Ramirez guitar he is playing.

I’m very excited to hear his soon-to- be-released CD ¡Acentuado! featuring all of these Etudes and more Piazzolla! Stay tuned.

Concert Preparation 101

Greater confidence leads to stronger performances. There is a great difference in the confidence of a runner who approaches the start of a marathon having done the bare minimum training and that of the runner who has trained with variety, intensity, creativity, and persistence (and supplemented that training with a healthy diet, careful recovery, and mental preparation).

As a concert approaches, vary your study approach, take notes, and explore as much as possible to gain a better understanding of what yields the best results on stage and what makes you perform at your best. Depending on how well I know the music, I may start preparing months ahead of time or a few weeks from the date. Here is a checklist of actions that start to occur during the preparatory stage that are true confidence builders:

  1. Warm-up with a focus on relaxation.
  2. Befriend your metronome. Play all your pieces at a very slow tempo (for example, the Allegro from Barrios’ La Catedral at 1 sixteenth note/second, or a tremolo piece 1 note/second). I pick a quarter of the program and make sure that by the end of 2-3 days, I’ve practiced everything at a VERY slow tempo. Manuel Barrueco thinks slow-practice may be the best way to practice.
  3. Build a list of troublesome passages or excerpts that do not feel effortless. Practice right hand and left hand alone going from very slow to as far beyond concert tempo for repetitions, practice in rhythms, analyze the space between notes, watch youtube videos of someone wonderful playing them to glean possible modifications, exhaust your resources to make the passages in question effortless. Before increasing tempo, try to nail 5 repetitions in a row. Keep a record of tempo and tally how many repetitions you’ve successfully done.  When focus fades, move on to a different excerpt or take a little brake.
  4. Record yourself. I’m not a fan of this but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to improve. If you truly want to assess what you sound like, it is necessary.
  5. Exit practice mode and enter performance mode by performing run-throughs. Play a run-through of each half of the concert at least once every two days over the course of the month preceding the actual concert. Two weeks from the performance, videotape the entire concert or perform it for a friend, a student, or colleague. Several full-length run-throughs always help to improve concentration. If you have time, experiment with performing run-throughs when you are tired, not warmed-up, or cranky. Perform it while the radio is on, perform it in the dark, etc… Learn to turn on your performance mode.
  6. Break up your practice into several sessions a day. For example, instead of one large chunk of time (9AM – 1PM), try 9-11, another session 1-3, and then another 9-10. Don’t go more than 12-14 hours without touching that guitar.
  7. Visualize the performance before falling asleep. Imagine the stage, imagine yourself on it, imagine every piece from the first note to the last. If you can’t ‘see’ what your fingers are doing, you probably do not know the piece as well as you think you do. If you have trouble visualizing, create a playlist of your favorite guitarist/s or of your best performance of the pieces and listen to it while you play along in your head. The music will serve as a bit of an anchor for your mind’s inner ear while you try to visualize along. Another technique is to watch someone play it and play along in your head.
  8. Meditate often. A simple focus on your breathing for 5-10 minute periods throughout the day is a good start. I’ll write more on this in the future, but as a long time practitioner of yoga, pranayama, and other modes of meditation, meditation is one of a few things that always improves my day and centers my mind.

Good luck!

 

Artist Profile and Interview: Piotr Pakhomkin

Six String Journal Artist Profile and Interview

From practice and listening advice to pre-concert rituals, competition-winning guitar powerhouse Piotr Pakhomkin provides a wealth of valuable insight to both beginning and advanced guitarists. Hope you enjoy reading this one!

Hailed by Classical Guitar Magazine as “one of the bright lights of the younger generation of classical musicians, a player of tremendous skill and sensitivity,” Russian-American guitarist, Piotr Pakhomkin has extensively performed and given masterclasses in Europe, Central America, and the U.S.   Based in Washington, D.C., he was the only guitarist to be featured at Strathmore, Kennedy Center, and Phillips Collection series in the span of a single concert season in 2014.

After finishing his studies with Manuel Barrueco at Peabody, Piotr became the First Prize winner of the 2012 Mexican International Guitar Competition in Culiacan and has taken top prizes at the 2012 Boston GuitarFest International Guitar Competition, Great Lakes Guitar Competition, Montreal International Guitar Competition, and the European International Guitar Competition, “Enrico Mercatali,” in Italy. After finishing the prestigious Strathmore Artist-in-Residence program in 2014, he returned to serve as a faculty member and mentor in their Institute for Artistic Development.

As the winner of the 2016 Respighi International Soloist Competition, he will make his concerto and solo debut at Carnegie Hall in the Chamber Orchestra of New York’s “Masterwork Series” in June 2018. Piotr plays exclusively on a 2010 Ross Gutmeier Guitar using Oasis GPX strings.

Here are three links to Piotr’s website (lots of great videos, his recording, and an insightful left-hand workout routine).

Piotr’s Website

Piotr’s recording Virtuoso Guitar Collection 

Piotr’s Guitar Gymnastics: 5 Day Workout for the Left Hand

Personal

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

My high school music teacher, Matt Hartman played Bach’s Sleeper’s Awake (performed by Christopher Parkening) in a music appreciation class. The ability to play multiple voices on the guitar had me floored – a full ensemble was hiding inside this little instrument. I was about 16 at the time and I knew I had a ton of work ahead of me. My enjoyment of the challenge and the process was a deciding factor in pursuing the guitar full-time.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

I have the most fun venturing into new territory with arranging. After hearing Jordi Savall’s playing in the French movie, “All the Mornings of the World”, I fell in love with viola da gamba repertoire. I started with Marin Marais and then graduated to Carl Friedrich Abel. When working with single-line string music, I love the creative freedom involved in filling out the implied counterpoint. 

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play on a custom 2010 Cedar double-top by American luthier, Ross Gutmeier with Oasis GPX strings.

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

Teachers have had more influence on me than any single recording. I wouldn’t be a guitarist if it wasn’t for my first teacher, Paul Moeller. My current students will find it hard to believe but my first few lessons as a teenage novice were very difficult. Everything was a struggle– sight-reading, right hand patterns, accuracy, memory and rhythm. Despite my lack of training, Moeller was so encouraging. He built up my confidence in my own ability, and taught me the techniques for performing consistently under pressure (slow practice, visualization, left and right-hand separation training). His coaching brought me to a professional technical level in less than two years. 

When I started studying with Manuel Barrueco, his ear and meticulous labor over the meaning of every note was a huge source inspiration for me. I was so focused on playing with my hands but he was always teaching us to play with our ears. 

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

Manuel Barrueco’s 300 Years of Guitar Masterpieces for the Vox Label. I have those recordings in every format: CD, MP3 and vinyl. The warm sound, attention to detail in voice separation, and precision on those recordings shaped all of my values for learning, recording, and performing music. 

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

In March 2018 I’ll perform with the New York Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Playing in that venue is one of those goals that I set when I began, so it’s an honor to finally see it happen.

Technique and Performance

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

I try to put in 5 hours on average. The quantity really depends on my workload and what stages my pieces are in.

Slow practice takes longer and the hands can withstand more of it. On the other hand, playing at faster tempos is more strenuous and too much repetition without pause can cause injury. 

My focus is higher earlier in the day so the earlier portion of the practice session revolves around isolated passages, very slow tempos (roughly one quarter of the concert tempo) and exercises derived from the most difficult aspects of the pieces. I’ll go through the music phrase-by-phrase between 1 and 3 times without errors. I never repeat anything more than that in a single sitting. I think that it’s potentially harmful because it leads to indefinitely long practice sessions, fatigue, more errors, and it wastes time. 

Later in the day, I’m working more on the entire performance of each piece at concert tempo. In other words, “work” in the morning and “play” at night. If the pieces aren’t ready to be played at tempo, I’ll spend more time working slowly. 

In terms of structure, I keep a list of the goals I have for the practice session with each piece. To maintain interest, I’ll change the order of the passages I’m practicing. If I went through it more chronologically one day, then the next time I’ll start at the end. Without some routine, we can get disorganized but too much routine can numb our focus.

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

One challenge is to consolidate your practice regimen to fit the needs of traveling, where you have so much less time. It’s a luxury to practice a lot so when that time isn’t available to you it’s a real test of efficiency, careful planning and time management. I usually plan my daily practice sessions on the airplane, preparing for a worse-case scenario. 

Another obstacle for many guitarists is breaking away from the bubble of your own instrument and exploring the much larger world of classical music. Intense focus is a wonderful thing but in this case it can harm you if it keeps you from being well-rounded. It’s important to attend symphonic and choral concerts, for instance. At the very least, you can hear new pieces of music and get new programming ideas from these experiences. I also get a lot of benefit from hearing young players in the Chopin or Van Cliburn competitions instead of just following guitar contests. Hearing an instrument different from the one you play at home with different repertoire allows you to be less judgmental and gives you more freedom in your listening experience.

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

Visualizing every single note of a concert program is essential for a performance free of memory slips. To maintain focus under pressure I sometimes play through my program with loud music playing in the background. If I can push through, even when I can’t hear myself, I know that my focus is strong. 

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

Admittedly, I haven’t had much time to do work in this direction. I’d like to expand our romantic repertoire to include transcriptions of works by Scriabin, Rubinstein, Glinka and Mussorgsky. I hope to publish these in the near future.

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

I swap out my exercises on a weekly basis as they get easier. I like this linear chromatic scale exercise because it helps with precise shifting, which is needed in just about every piece. The aim is to make every fingering variation have the same legato quality, rather than broken groupings of four, three, two, and one. [Check out Piotr’s Guitar Gymnastics Publication for more like this. -L]

Piotr's Chromatic Linear Scale.jpg

Left hand fingerings to use:

0 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 etc.

0 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 etc.

0 2 3 4 2 3 4 2 3 etc.

0 1 2 1 2 etc.

0 2 3 2 3 etc.

0 3 4 3 4 etc.

0 1 1 1 1 etc.

0 2 2 2 2 etc.

0 3 3 3 3 etc.

0 4 4 4 4 etc.

Record them and work on making them all sound like the same fingering, ridding yourself of accents after every shift. This is a great time to work on getting rid of fret noise as well.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Before the concert, I try to meditate for at least 5 minutes to clear my head. I notice a big difference when I don’t get to do this so this is a priority. I use the Neurolinguistic Programming techniques for meditation. 

Advice to Younger Players

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

This is a simple piece of advice but it’s easier said than done. I would encourage young players to spend the most time working on their weakest qualities in the early stages of development. With a good teacher’s supervision, get out of your comfort zone and make a game out of the struggle. This is the only way to grow. 

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

I think Bach’s Lute Suites (Frank Koonce edition) are a priority. Developing a singing quality with Bach’s long phrases is extremely demanding. Achieving clarity and balance in the counterpoint is an enormous technical feat. Another reason for working through this repertoire is that you can use a wide variety of non-guitar recordings to aid your interpretation. You can learn the the BWV 998 (Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro) along with Sviatoslav Richter or Gustav Leonhardt. You can approach it from opposing standpoints–the romantics as well as the period instrumentalists. 

For general technique, it’s important to go through the Villa-Lobos Etudes. They instantly reveal weaknesses and give you a concrete goal to master them when you finally perform each Etude in concert. Etude no. 1 is impossible to play smoothly with a weak m-a-m arpeggio combination. Etude no. 2 will fall apart with excessive left hand tension. 

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

I recommend:

300 Years of Guitar Masterpieces (Manuel Barrueco) for the clarity, consistency, and hierarchy in voice separation. 

Vivaldi Four Seasons (Venice Baroque Orchestra) for the energy and new life they pump into this very famous music. Some of the themes have been relegated to the “wedding-music” genre but with this recording, you completely forget that. 

Handel, Bach, Scarlatti (David Russell) for the creative and lyrical cross-string ornamentation. 

Chopin Nocturnes (Arthur Rubinstein) for the ability to play note-for-note with the light feeling of improvisation on every flourish.

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? 

The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser

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

Absolutely. I think that performing music is so physical that you have to care for your body like an athlete. I get my protein from fish, vegetables and legumes. I stay away from starches and refined sugars. Healthy fats like avocados and coconut oil are fantastic for fingernail health – both topically and as part of your diet. 

Before a concert, I always eat a few bananas. They’re always safe to eat when you’re traveling because of the protective peel. Also bananas are calorie dense and rich in potassium, which I’ve always read is a natural beta-blocker. 

Musicians generally fear weigh-training but there are safe ways to approach it. I do do the eccentric portion of every lift very slowly, allowing lighter weights to feel much heavier. This puts less stress on my hands. I also jump rope to keep my heart healthy. With the jump-rope the exercise session will be much shorter and more intense than distance running. This is perfect for a musician’s busy schedule. 

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

I love hiking and the outdoors. In the cold months, you’ll find me catching up on new independent films and documentaries. 

Artist Spotlight: Yuri Liberzon

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Russian born and Israeli raised classical guitarist, Yuri Liberzon, is certainly carving out a name for himself in the rising generation of gifted classical guitarists. Watching Yuri play elicits incredulity at his extreme level of control. And once you get past the impressiveness of it all, you realize that what holds your attention is both the beauty, subtlety, and intensity of his musical interpretations.

A graduate of the most elite conservatories in the world, Yuri’s time with acclaimed guitarist, Manuel Barrueco, is most noticeable in his playing and in his repertoire. In a recent concert, he played through Scarlatti, Bach, Piazzolla, and Brouwer with an abundance of elegance and refinement. Active as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist, he also spends time teaching and publishing very detailed editions of his repertoire.

Stay tuned for one of Yuri’s favorite warm-up exercises and an interview!

Manuel Barrueco on Slow Practice

While listening to Manuel Barrueco’s podcast, he was asked about whether slow practice was a good method. Here was his response:

“[Slow practice] is a very good method, perhaps it’s the best, I’m not sure if it’s the best, but it’s one of. I think slow practice is extremely helpful in a lot of ways. It helps with memory because it breaks down muscle memory. It also allows one to look at the technique very closely. And look at any excess motion, bad movements, and tension in the technique. Also, it gives the hand and the fingers time to learn how to do their job. Also, their is another aspect that is often underrated which is that it is good musically. By practicing slowly, it allows you to slowly hear the harmonies and the lines and everything that is going on in a piece of music. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the best technique to practice in.”

With that in mind, try practicing a piece like the Allegro from Agustín Barrios’ La catedral at 60bpm per sixteenth note.