Hailing from Canada, guitarist Michael Kolk has been praised by Liona Boyd as, “…one of the most brilliant and expressive guitarists I have heard in my time.” Known for his musicianship, his technique, and his interpretive abilities, Kolk is one of Canada’s top guitarists. Despite the quiet performance scene at this time, he has just launched a wonderful CD of 20th Century Guitar Sonatas. Fortunately, he had a bit of time to share some of his insights with Six String Journal. Hope this inspires you all.
What guitar or guitars do you perform on? strings? I perform mostly on a Martin Blackwell spruce/cedar double top from 2015. It’s a very rich, full, warm sounding guitar, but with ample tonal variety as well. I have a really nice Roberto de Miranda traditional cedar as well that was my main guitar since 2007, and I still play it, though not much in concert anymore – the Blackwell projects better. I used Savarez New Cristal/Cantiga for years, but I’ve recently switched to Alliance trebles. I had tried them and couldn’t ever get used to them, but recently I warmed up to them and figured out how to make them work for the sounds I want.
Which guitarists have had the most influence on you? Julian Bream was the first big influence – he was the guitarist that really excited me when I was a teenager (aside from Jimi Hendrix, but that’s a different story…) There are so many great guitarists these days, but I guess in terms of influence I’d say Fabio Zanon, Roland Dyens, and then two guitarists whom I’m very close with, my former teacher Jeffrey McFadden, and my long time duo partner Drew Henderson. I’ve learned a lot by playing with both of them and just sharing ideas about guitar,
What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about? Things are pretty quiet right now – as I’m writing we’re in the middle of the Covid pandemic, so concerts are not happening, and I haven’t pursued online performances. Last year, however, I was really busy with projects. I was playing concerts with the HK Guitar Duo, as well as a couple with a violinist named Laurence Kayaleh, and working on a solo recording of 20th Century Guitar Sonatas which I chose to edit and release myself. Laurence and I also recorded an album of violin/viola and guitar Sonatas by Ferdinand Rebay which was recently released on Naxos. So I’ve been taking a bit of a break from playing classical music and have been exploring creating music by recording rock songs and studying composition. Whether this work ends up seeing the light of day or not, I felt it was important to try writing my own music to develop my creativity, and gain a deeper understanding of music, from a composer’s perspective. I remember Roland Dyens saying in a masterclass that we should all be both performers and composers, and it makes a lot of sense to me.
Technique and Performance
How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
These days I practice strategically, mostly. I don’t have as much time as when I was younger, to just sit down and play without a real structure. I usually practice in 30 minute segments. I put on a timer and make sure to get up and walk around a bit when the time is up. If I’m on a roll I’ll sit down right away and do another session, or I might take a break and do something else and come back to the guitar when I’m fresh again. The total amount of time depends on what’s going on in my life. If there are other projects that need attention I may not play much for a couple weeks. When I have performances or recordings coming up I aim for 3 solid hours of practice in a day. If I’m focussed during that whole time, I can’t really handle much more practice. I may play guitar beyond that, but it would be more messing around or playing for fun.
Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?
Tremolo has always been a struggle for me. It takes a lot of work to get it flowing and it never feels totally secure. I think some players have a very natural tremolo, and others don’t even though they may be good players. I have to train right hand speed in general much more than left hand, but I guess that’s fairly common.
Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?
I’ve recently self published an arrangement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, the 2nd movement Allegretto, for guitar duo. Earlier, Drew Henderson and I had our arrangement of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin (selections) published by D’Oz.
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
If possible it’s great to have a walk during the day, and a nap. If I can fit those things in I feel pretty good come concert time. Then 15 minutes before the concert I have a banana, and at intermission I have an apple. To keep the blood sugar up.
Advice to Younger Players
What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
Well, I think everyone has to find what works best for themselves when it comes to improving at guitar. And it’s not always about drilling technique and being as efficient as possible. Make time to play for enjoyment to keep your enthusiasm. But when you’re feeling sharp and motivated, practice with deep focus and attention to detail. And try not to build up tension – form good habits of posture and relaxation and they will translate to performances. I guess that’s more than one piece of advice…
What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate?
I think there’s a standard repertoire that classical guitarists should at least be familiar with, even if they don’t learn all of it to a performance level. Bach, of course, the 19th century guitar composers like Sor, Giuliani, Aguado etc…, the Spanish repertoire like Tarrega, Albeniz, Granados, Rodrigo, and the Segovia repertoire like Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Torroba, Turina, etc…, then music from the Americas like Villa-Lobos, Brouwer, Barrios, Lauro. There’s a lot, and it takes time to get through. At the same time, I think students should also play lesser known music and try to expand their repertoire beyond the classics.