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 recording Virtuoso Guitar Collection
Piotr’s Guitar Gymnastics: 5 Day Workout for the Left Hand
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]
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?
–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.
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.