NYlon Asks the Pros

Do conductors respect the guitar?

Frederic Hand: Conductors respect the music first and foremost. When the score calls for a guitar, they are just as demanding of the guitarist as they are with any other instrument. Of course, a guitar playing with the orchestra is a novelty, but I’ve always been treated very respectfully.

There is a lot of good-natured kidding from fellow musicians. Very often the guitar part requires playing in only one or two arias. After that, I discretely leave the pit. As I’m walking past them, usually someone will say, “You mean you’re not staying for the third act?” I usually respond: “There’s a third act?”

Frederic Hand has been the official guitarist for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for over 20 years.

Does your solo playing improve by being in a chamber group?

Bradley Colten: Absolutely! Especially for guitarists, chamber music is such an important exercise and so beneficial to solo playing and general musicianship. Guitarists, perhaps more than all other instrumentalists, suffer from musical seclusion. This impacts not only their facility on the instrument, but also how they think about repertoire, performance and learning.

With chamber music work, guitarists must listen to intonation, work on pulse, and really explore the dynamic range of our instrument. While these elements can often be overlooked when playing alone, in chamber music they confront you straight away – and that is a good thing!

When you’re writing for specific people, how does that influence your compositions?

Ben Verdery: I generally like to work closely with the person I’m writing for, letting him or her give me as much input as they would like to make the piece work for them. If they want to change this or that I really try to stay open to their suggestions because often their input will make it a better piece. Great performers can be formidable teachers for any composer. They have an innate sense of what works best on the concert stage in a way that many composers simply don’t. Some of the most important collaborative moments happen after the work has been performed a few times. David (Russell) and I are just beginning our journey. He so far has had no alterations and is really enthusiastic about what he’s learned. It’s all very exciting!

Who inspires you?

Dominic Frasca: All my inspiration comes from ensembles. Most notably The Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, Anthony Davis and Episteme, The Who, The Astor Piazzolla Quintet, and Led Zeppelin, to name a few. Most all of what people would call my extended techniques come from me trying to imitate what I heard an ensemble do. whether it be, musically, the stacked rhythms of Philip Glass, the tight cannon of Steve Reich or the stacked meters of Anthony Davis. Or whether it is a textural or orchestration idea. For instance, all the thumb percussion comes from hearing Anthony Davis’ ensemble. He would have all these different instruments playing separate meters and a trap set playing a groove behind it. It really inspired me to figure out how to play cross string arpeggios with percussion.

Who was your most influential teacher?

Jerry Willard: When I was a child in the late 1950s, just beginning to become interested in music, the guitar was in its infancy as a concert instrument and teachers were difficult to come by. There were few players and few teachers and even fewer good teachers. I was a young man, a bit of a prodigy, in that I could play some difficult pieces in an era when very few people could. I was used to being coddled and people were continually saying, “You play so beautifully, you’re so young,” and so forth. It was then that I met not only my first good teacher but the most unforgettable person I have ever known: Richard Lurie.

Mr. Lurie had a guitar studio in Cleveland, Ohio and was known as very fine jazz and classical guitarist. Dick also sponsored artists and set up concerts for the young Julian Bream, Segovia, Presti & Lagoya, and John Williams. Needless to say, it was a thrill for me to be able to talk to, take an occasional lesson from, and rub shoulders with these truly great musicians. I was young and had the arrogance of youth. So at my first lesson with Dick, I sat down, opened the music and said, “I think…” Mr. Lurie’s baton slapped down on the page of music. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Who cares what you think? You’re here to find out what I think. If you want to know what you think you can stay at home!” That was my introduction to boot camp with Mr. Lurie. Sometimes in my lessons I felt as if I was being taken apart and reassembled. Every truth I held about music and art was examined and dissected. I was being taught to think in spite of myself. That is the most valuable gift a teacher can give a student. Underneath his tough exterior there was a man who loved art and music. He cared about people and that came across in his teaching. It also kept me coming back for more lessons.

I studied with Dick Lurie off and on from 1964 to 1972. Towards the end of my tenure with Dick we had become good friends. I was getting ready to move to New York City in an effort to further my career and live the life of a professional musician. I remember Dick saying, “Just because you like to do something is not a reason to try to make a living at it.” I looked at Dick quizzically. He looked back at me, “You like sex, right?” I gulped and said yes. He said, “Well, it might not be such a good idea to make a living at it.” That was Dick, invariably cutting to the core with his own unique eccentricity.

Dick passed away in August of 2000. He knew he was going to die and was selling off his extraordinary collection of instruments to dealers in Asia. Guitars such as Hauser and Fleta, acoustic jazz guitars such as D’Angelico and Stromberg. He wanted to make it easier for his wife so she wouldn’t have to deal with it. He accepted his death in a way that was realistic and not sentimental. I wept when I heard of Dick’s passing. He taught me about music, and he taught me about life and a realistic view of my place in it. Today, every concert I play, every rehearsal I attend or lesson I teach, I use ideas and concepts I learned from Dick Lurie.

Gerry Saulter: I first met Jerry Willard in September of 1988 at SUNY Stony Brook. I was a transfer student coming from Nassau Community College, having studied with Bill Zito, Steve Leonard, and Stanley Solow. I was set to continue at Queens College, as so many Nassau music students do, but I lived out in Suffolk, not far from SUNY, and my parents suggested I at least take the audition and see how it goes. At that time, I did not really have the confidence to consider the audition as being anything more than a formality, and that after Prof. Willard heard me, I’d be delegated to his graduate assistant. I did however prepare as best as I could through that summer to play Villa-Lobos Preludes 3 and 4, and the Bourée in E minor by J.S. Bach.

I first played the Villa-Lobos fourth Prelude for him and I remember feeling very good about the performance. I looked up to find him grinning. After the basic interview questions, I asked if I should continue and he said “No need, come back tomorrow after I set my schedule for grad students and we’ll find a day and time … Oh and by the way, nice playing. Let’s start to think about the melody more, and I want you to improve some basic technique.” At that point, I was hooked into what Jerry Willard was saying.

Over my time at Stony Brook, Jerry Willard guided me in so many ways. Politically, socially, and of course, speaking with the guitar in musical terms. I think what stands out to me is how damn funny he can be. He doesn’t know this, but I often describe him to others as “the David Letterman of classical guitar.” His joy of life shines through in his playing and teaching, and I ask myself everyday when students are looking to me for guidance, “How would Jerry handle this?”

Given the opportunity, I could go on and on about how great it was to study Bach with essentially the guy who wrote the book, or how dynamic he taught me to be when playing in ensemble. He allowed players who grew up with rock and jazz to hold onto to the essential attitude of that style of play. But the one mantra that I can still hear him saying is “find your own way in music.” Essentially, Jerry helped me find my self-motivation. He helped me find that there is always a solution to every problem, be it a technical music passage, or how to work with promoters and administrators.

Jerry taught me how to play, without playing the game.

Laura Oltman: I would say my first classical guitar teacher, a Cuban woman named Luisa Sanchez de Fuentes, was my most influential teacher. I had taken a guitar class before that at a local recreation center, but she was my first private teacher. She was the first person I had known well who was not an American. Her whole demeanor was more like someone from Europe, maybe from the 19th century. As a teacher, her greatest asset was an ability to teach musical expression, especially in Spanish and Latin American repertoire. I have not had another teacher who could quite rival her ability to encourage expressiveness in her students’ playing. In addition to being a good guitarist she was a very good singer and I believe that gave her a different perspective than someone who is strictly an instrumentalist. She came from a family that had a musical background, although it was not entirely clear to me what it was. Her grandfather was a composer named Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes. He is mentioned in a Groves Dictionary article on Cuban music. She said that he had written one song in particular that was very popular among Cuban exiles in the U.S. Of course, I don’t remeber what it was.

Unfortunately, we did not end our relationship on the best terms. Miss Fuentes had left Cuba after the communist revolution on a “freedom flight” to the U.S. Her family in Cuba had been more or less allied with the previous regime and her departure from Cuba was necessarily hasty. She was apparently from a culture of wealth and privelege that was utterly foreign to me. As I grew older I had increasing difficulty understanding her behavior and expectations. Looking back, I think that she had a very hard time adapting to a life alone in the U.S. as just another middle class citizen. It was an interesting education in the politics of social class, but one that informs my view of the world to this day.

Terry Champlin: I started music late in life. In fact, I was 21 and had just returned from a stint of not-so-voluntary service in the military. As my undergraduate my education was in theoretical physics, I have often been asked how I ended up in music. I guess you had to be there.

One thing is for certain, though. Had I not had a great first teacher and mentor, I would have never succeeded in this strange world of music. I was fortunate to study with the great cellist and conductor Luis Garcia Renart. Luis was a student of Pablo Casals, was a major international performer (managed by Sol Hurok in his heyday), and a five-time winner of the Casals award.

Luis took me straight to the music. From him I learned that there is no shortcut for work, but when the heart of music is there, the work is both more joyous and more efficient. As there was no time for studenthood, he never treated me as a student. Rather, he expected me to bring him pieces I could perform convincingly, even at a rudimentary level. Since guitar was not Luis’s primary instrument, he sent me to others for technical advice. He constantly forced me to expand my stylistic taste. Although my initial inclination was toward the lyrical, the romantic, and (of course) the baroque, he pushed me into modern music (which he himself didn’t particularly like) and the Classical style of Sor and Mozart. He encouraged my early efforts at composition.

I had other great mentors to whom I owe great debts. Internationally known violinist Mark Sokol and, indeed, the entire Concord String Quartet; the great guitar duo Evangelos and Liza; and, in a strange way, Alexander Bellow. But Luis always remained the bedrock. Helen and I returned years later to be coached as a guitar duo by him. I realized then that he had exactly as much to offer as I was able to take. I realized that any limitations I had seen in him as a teacher were actually my limitations as a student. He is not a perfect man, and I certainly wasn’t a perfect pupil. But the ancient gift given from teacher to student is one of the gifts that this world, which gives so much of both joy and sorrow, has to offer us.

Where is your favorite place to perform?

Gerry Saulter: As Bogart said to Bergman, “We will always have Paris!”

Putting aside how much j’adore Paris, the concert/workshop we asked to do for the American church in November 2004 presented us with a wonderful opportunity to share our love of music for flute and guitar in a perfect room with a fantastic audience.

The location of the church puts you along the Seine across from the Grand Palace, and in between the Eiffel Tower & the Muse d’Orsay. Need I say more? The church sanctuary with its wraparound stained glass cathedral is a stunning room; truly breathtaking. And while churches are notorious for not being very friendly to the guitar, this was not the case. Additionally, the Parisian audience (like European audiences in general) was just so generous. The church to our delight was virtually full with knowledgeable fans of chamber music of all ages, from 8 to 80, and they would not let us leave without an encore. We are already planning our return engagement.

We have been very fortunate to carve a career in chamber music, being awarded the oppoortunity to play in some of the most impressive rooms in the U.S.A., but for us, nothing compares to the beauty and history of Paris, the city of light and illusion.

A bientôt!

Harris Becker: Guitar x2 recently performed at a Museum in French Canada, which was beautiful. The people were very warm and welcoming, and the beautiful countryside was the same. It was a lovely experience and one that will always be close to my heart.

Ben Verdery: What comes immediately to mind is when during an Affiliate Artist Residency I played in an outdoor train station depot in I believe Arkansas. They set me up and I played in a slightly enclosed area where the sound bounced off the concrete walls wonderfully. But the main reason I’ll never forget it was because of a beautiful small elderly woman who approached me after the brief concert and said “You sure do make a lady out of that thang.” To this day it’s my favorite review!

Pat Bianculli: Favorite performing venues for me seem less to do with the place and more with the audience. I will take note of a place that has great acoustics, but it is the people that I take with me — their reactions, smiles and comments. What guitarist doesn’t feel humbled by someone who comes to you after and says that they never thought the guitar could play such music? It always means to me that I did my job.

In 1989, I took a teaching job in Kingston, Jamaica. It was a difficult assignment for me and my wife, but gratifying beyond words. We were performing all over the island, from little churches to schools to resorts on the north coast. The schools of course follow the British system and appear quite strict and orderly to an American. In one of these, we were led into a huge cafeteria-style room. We were late after experiencing some harrowing adventures on the Jamaican roads and had no time to even settle in or tune.

Before us was a wall of blue and white uniforms who, on hearing a clap from their teacher, stood up all at once to welcome us. The breeze from their unified movement cut through the hot, sultry afternoon air as we took the stage.

We played a few flute and guitar selections, some lute and flute solos, then I played Capriccho Arabe by Tarrega. When I finished we asked the audience if they had any questions. One young girl about twelve years old stood up and asked, “Why does Spanish music always sound so sad?” My mind raced to find an answer. I knew at least three I could tell her: how it has to do with the mode the piece was written in; how she might be comparing it to Jamaican music which always sounds so … well … happy! I chose a third, and explained how each person experiences music differently and if it made her sad, someone else might feel something different.

She accepted that but I pondered her question for the rest of the afternoon. I thought of the difficult and proud history of Jamaica, its struggle for freedom from its Spanish and then English colonial powers. I thought of the present and how difficult life was for the majority of the people. I thought of my own sadness at being so far from home and friends. That young girl connected with me and in doing so taught me another lesson on the power of music and the depth of meaning in Tarrega’s work.