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.

Interview with Enno Voorhorst

Enno Voorhorst

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Photo Credit: Kim Jun Su

Dutch guitarist extraordinaire, Enno Voorhorst, took some time out from his busy schedule to give Six String Journal readers insight into his personal and musical life. From eating bananas before a performance, reading García Márquez, to his upcoming project of recording late Roland Dyens’s Concerto Metis, hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Personal

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

I was thirteen when I got my first guitar and was immediately sold. I had played the violin for 6 years already, so the development went very quickly because of this advantage and that was of course very stimulating.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

My repertoire preference is music with nice melody lines. I see the guitar more as a melodic instrument than as a chordal instrument. A piano or harp can’t influence the sound after playing, nor do they have much the sound variety that a guitar has! This is the same like all other melodic instruments.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play a Simplicio model moderno copy from 1930. It is made by Federico Sheppard and it has a double soundhole on both sides of the fingerboard. I like the sound possibilities and the clear full bass. For that I use Savarez Corum hard tension.

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

Of course my first teacher influenced me the most, Hein Sanderink. He came from the school of Ida Presti and was very concerned with a good sound but he is also a fantastic and clever musician. After that, I studied with Huber Kappel and had masterclasses with David Russell who both influenced me a lot. Kappel because of his expression and Russell because of his mastery and open mindset.

What recording/s are you most proud of?

Every next recording I think is the better. My last recording is the most mature; Bach, Pärt, Desprez. I think here I played the most freely and expressively with a program that suits me well.

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

This is hard to say. As a musician I listen to the music first and when I like it I also like the recording but I know that I’m probably not objective…

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

In September 22-25 2017 there is a Camino Artes festival where I will perform a new duo with Laura Young. David Russell will also be there to celebrate the 500th concert in this series of concerts for the pilgrims walking towards Santiago the Compostela in beautiful old churches. After that I will record a CD of Roland Dyens’s music consisting of many solo pieces and his Concerto Metis with one of the best string orchestras of the Netherlands. I’m really looking forward to this as a tribute to this great person, friend, and unique composer.

Technique and Performance

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

Yes I practise a lot, still 4 hours a day or more. It depends on the concerts I have to play and the programs I have to prepare. I also play in two duos what I like very much for the repertoire; one with oboe and one with the viola. Great combinations!

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

Technically, many problems have been solved over the years, but relaxation always remains an important issue. Of course relaxation of the whole body, but also of the fingers that have nothing to do. This gives the possibility to prepare the next finger movement. A well prepared finger is half the work!

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

I like to memorize the music because it settles better in my brain that way. A memory is actually an association you make with notes, rhythm, harmony, movement, etc. The more associations you make the better it is, so a good understanding of solfège and harmony is important. Playing a piece from memory should be an automatism!

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

There have been some publications. At the moment I do not take the effort to have more transcriptions published because of a lack of time. But I’m happy to share them with anybody who asks me by mail. The guitar world is small and I like this feeling of connection with each other.

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

My warming up consists of some scales, slurs, and arpeggios. Furthermore, playing tremolo pieces relaxes and balances my right hand and helps the left hand find the strings more precisely.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I eat one or two bananas.

Advice to Younger Players

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

Never lose the joy in playing, so play the pieces you love. When you don’t feel like practicing something, first do what you desire to do. The guitar is your friend and not the opponent.

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

The studies by Fernando Sor are definitely very important because of the quality of counterpoint, structure, and refined harmony and melody.

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with?

Listen as much as possible the music you love over and over again. All music, not only guitar! I listened to Glenn Gould playing Bach very often or the duo Presti/Lagoya.

Tangent

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

The last book I read was Ida Presti Her Art about the life of Ida Presti. It is written by her daughter Elisabeth. It is very interesting to read how the guitar developed after the second World War. One of my favorite authors is Gabriel García Márquez with his magic realism…

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet?

I like to go running with my dog in the woods behind my house and that gives me energy. I think that good health is important to play an instrument on a high level, not only physically but also mentally.

For more on Enno Voorhorst visit his page!

Slow Practice

I often try to convince students to practice ultra slowly by using various metaphors. How much more would you notice if you were to admire a great piece of art for an hour instead of a minute? How would your thoughts change if you read a complex paragraph quickly versus reading it slowly and contemplating the meaning of each word and sentence as it related to the whole? If metaphors don’t convince them they can go read this fabulous article for pianists written by pianist Graham Fitch about the slow practice that I think is spot on!

Enjoying Ultra Slow Practice

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

 

Maximize Your Practice

As many of you who have devoted many hours a day to learning and practicing your craft know, our ability to learn or absorb new information as in memorizing new repertoire effectively and efficiently and our ability to practice effectively and efficiently are two different things. I’ve always encouraged students to focus on quality practice – where all of our mental resources work together to analyze, explore, decipher, and ultimately embed new repertoire into our systems, instead of hours and hours of subpar or mindless work.

The dilemma in what we do, however, if we want to do it well is exactly the need for both: ultimate engagement and long hours. Though I wish I could say that I have intellectual resources that enable me to go for hours and hours with the ideal level of engagement, I don’t. I may have the desire and the passion to play but sometimes, often times, with running a business, raising two boys, running, cooking, yoga, and life, I lack the energy. So how do we maximize the time we have with the guitar and how can we put in hours when we are tired? When do we do our learning? When do we memorize most effectively? When can we get away with less mindful repetition?

One mistake I used to make was to confuse what I was doing – was I learning a new piece, working on technique, or practicing or maintaining existing repertoire? I would try to do a bit of each but despite the hours I didn’t feel like I had made headway into any one thing. Assimilating and problem solving new material is more intellectually demanding whereas practicing technique and repertoire maintenance requires slightly less creativity. Dividing your practice into specific goal-oriented sessions devoted to only one priority is more effective at achieving mastery in a more timely fashion.

So first, we must know ourselves. There are times in the day when our brains are rested, primed, and clear to absorb new information. For me, this time is in the morning (after coffee) and the first hour or two after meditating. These are prime times to problem solve, imagine an interpretation, embed new information, and decipher trouble spots in new and existing repertoire. There are other times of day when we are not as sharp – after a big meal, minute 60+ after pushing ourselves intellectually, and pre-second wind in the evening. These may vary from person to person but I think it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that many of us fall into this pattern. As I get older, I find that I’m not opposed to enhancing and extending these prime times (within reason) and have found caffeine or enhanced coffee from Mastermind Coffee or Kimera Koffee, being fit, a healthy diet, and certain reputable supplements like Alpha Brain and Ciltep to be very effective.

What about less mindful practice? You will get the most bang for your pluck when practicing in prime mind moments but when you slow practice with a metronome, play through familiar pieces, or try to get in the 10,000 repetitions of pimami, your brain can afford to relinquish some control to the metronome or the repetitive motions once they become automatic. The best time to do this would be anytime that is not prime. However, it is ok to use prime time for this activity though it may not be optimal for progress.

This post is becoming a ramble. So to wrap it up, practice involves many facets requiring different levels of engagement. On the more creative and mentally-taxing side, you have learning new repertoire, problem solving, visualizing, and developing interpretations. On the less intellectually demanding side you have repetition, technique work, and playing. Though resisting another tangent, I can’t help think that this may vary by individual. Is learning new repertoire easy for some while the repetition difficult? Regardless, know yourself first and then try to optimize your practice time to pair the activity with the right state of mind.

Left Hand Choreography

Developing a well-crafted, clear, and effortless left hand choreography requires a high level of experience, attention to extreme detail, and a deep understanding of your own hands. Over the years, cultivating these components through the learning process of new repertoire helps us assimilate more music in a more meaningful way and, importantly, retain it when there are limitations to our practice time.

I wrote about attention to detail in an earlier post but thought I would elaborate on one point in particular that many students overlook: when to lift a finger that has been holding down an important voice or serving as an anchor to prepare it for the next activity. I’d venture to say that most students would not know how to answer and those who did would answer, “When you need it.” I’d argue that it would be better to plan it out and take it a step further:  plan it out to align the movement with your inner pulse or at the very least, to align it with a specific beat in the music. Awareness of every detail, after all, is what we are after.

Here is a another passage from Bach’s Prelude in E Major. Notice that at beat 2, thumb silences the 5th string at which point finger 1 can relax. At anytime after that moment, we would want to lift 1 to prepare for the shift. Too early would conflict with the act of silencing the bass note, too late would cause a panic preceding the shift. So, in order to make it feel like the movement is weaved into the choreography, lift at the third beat. Now we have a specific moment that also happens to be in line with a pulse that our bodies should be naturally feeling. This translates into a movement that feels more like a natural occurrence than a movement that augments the challenge of the moment.

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Though this Prelude provides countless moments to exercise this awareness, a more concise piece that I think is great for students in which to practice this concept is Bach’s Prelude BWV999. There are moments in every single measure where timing the left hand finger releases would aid the right hand in maintaining a rhythmic continuity versus introducing some of the manifestations of an erratic left hand choreography: unwanted accents, slightly uneven rhythm, etc…I’m hoping to have an edition of this to post in a few days. Stay tuned and in the meantime, start incorporating the concept of timed left hand finger releases into your repertoire.

A Look at Guide Fingers

The great Cuban guitarist Marco Tamayo reminded me that all shifts should occur with guide fingers lightly gliding on the strings, preferably the treble strings to avoid unnecessary noise. If you observe any great guitarist’s left hand, like Marco’s, you will witness a great left hand choreography – smooth, soft, efficient, relaxed. One of the key elements in building an effective left hand choreography is a thorough understanding of how to use guide fingers to bridge and connect movements that may seem unrelated. Think of guide fingers as fingers that remain in passive contact with the string while shifting.

See if you can find guides in the next passage.

Excerpt from J. S. Bach’s Double from BWV997

Bach BWV997 Guides 1

Did you find them all?

Bach BWV997 Guides 2

Try to locate all and label all the guides in your repertoire. You’ll find that it not only improves left hand fluidity but it also deepens your physical understanding of the piece you are working on and in turn can help your memory.

Stay tuned for ghost guide fingers and changing guide fingers…

 

Attention to Detail for Memory

While looking through old scores to inspire myself, I noticed what I always notice: notes to myself throughout the scores I’ve studied giving all sorts of instruction. Lift elbow slightly right before a reach with the third finger to the sixth string, place 1 on string 3 [with an arrow pointing to the space between two notes] indicating a soon to be guide finger,  place p on string 4 here [another arrow pointing to the space before a note to be plucked] indicating a necessary preparation, breathe here, let go early, and on and on.

Unless they are obvious, I write in every left hand and right hand fingering of a work that I am eventually intending to study in depth and ultimately perform. I also find that writing down notes and observations about details I notice whether related to the underlying music (harmony, form, etc.), to motions in the choreography of my hands (lifting, placing, shifting, etc.), or to the emotional associations and musical ideas I develop as I build a relationship with the music aids a great deal in building up a complete mental picture of the work in study.

The result of studying a piece of music this way often manifests itself in being able to play through the music well very early on without the need of the score. If I continue to work up the piece of music, perform it, and move on, I find that reworking the piece is very easy as the visual image is rich with details. Memory never seems to be an issue.

 

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