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.

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!