The Curtis Institute of Music recently announced that it would be creating a guitar program, and chose guitarists Jason Vieaux and David Starobin to lead the new department. I had a chance to talk to Jason about Curtis, about teaching in general, and about a lot of other stuff, from practicing to recording to performing the Aranjuez with ten different orchestras in one year.
KN – You’ve been teaching for some time already, at the Cleveland Institute.
JV – I’ve been teaching at the Cleveland Institute for fifteen years and I’ve been heading the guitar department since 2001.
KN – OK, so what changes (for you)?
JV – Nothings changes, actually, at CIM. I will remain guitar department head there. Our program is developing very rapidly, and the students are playing at a high level. Our audition numbers have tripled, and it’s one of the great music conservatories. It’s always been a great honor to teach there, so I hope to continue my work there.
And the Curtis situation is possible because the Curtis guitar department is really going to be modeled after their double-bass department, for example. Roberto Diaz, the fine violist, has been president there for about four or five years, and he’s making some changes in the approach. Rather than the traditional thing of a student studying with a particular teacher – as you probably know Curtis is arguably the most selective conservatory at 160 students total, so there are only four double-bass players, there are only a few flutes, etc. – each of those guitarists will study with both me and David Starobin. There will be no more than four guitarists. The idea is that the guitarists we’re going to accept will already be pretty fully developed. We’re not going to be really talking very much about technique or fingerings or anything like that. We’re looking for potential artists, basically – fully formed players that can already interpret score, already have a pretty solid idea of who they are. We’re basically mentoring them, the two of us, so they get a wider perspective. It’s more or less a finishing school.
KN -And how many Students do you have in Cleveland?
JV – This year I have eight. I wanted to keep it down to about five or six the previous years just because my touring schedule has been pretty busy – over 50 concerts a year for the last four years. But managing the repertoire for all of the different concerts has gotten a little bit easier, and juggling the teaching has become a bit easier, so I took a couple of extra (students) this year.
KN – And managing the repertoire has become easier just because of time?
JV – I’m able to learn pieces faster – just, things are easier. My technique is getting better. I have more experience, obviously, than I did ten years ago. When the repertoire really started getting kind of heavy, you know, about five or six hours of repertoire a year, maybe seven or eight years ago, that was an adjustment for me. A few seasons ago I prepared nine hours of repertoire in one season, and I don’t want to be doing THAT every year, but it’s gotten easier.
KN – So how much do you practice?
JV – About three hours a day. I try to get in three hours a day. You know, every day is different, and it’s like running a business, an office, every day. And that part has gotten a bit easier too. I’ve gotten more efficient about time management and organization.
KN – Yeah, you sort of forget that that’s part of it.
JV – But practicing and sleeping are really the two priorities. I try to get a minimum of two to three hours a day. When the repertoire is getting heavy I try to get in four.
KN – And do you have your own philosophy of teaching? Do you have stuff that you bring from people you’ve studied with?
JV – Yeah, I’ve learned a lot, of course, from the teachers I’ve studied with. My main teachers were Jeremy Sparks of the Buffalo Guitar Quartet and John Holmquist at The Cleveland Institute of Music for my BM. I learned a great deal about music from John Holmquist, who I consider to be one of the finest musicians to ever play our instrument. And I’ve picked up a lot from master classes. I studied with David Leisner at Bowdoin in the Summer of ’93, and that was great. And I feel like I learn from students, I learn from players as a judge. Just judging a competition, just watching a player, I’m learning things and incorporating that, or trying to, at least, into my own playing, in order to improve each year.
As far as a hardened philosophy, I don’t know if I have that down to a one or two sentence thing as far as teaching, because I really have to take on each student as an individual. How I teach one student can be dramatically different from another.
KN – How much control do you take of a recording session, or do you just sort of show up and play?
JV – Well, there’s some preparation that happens beforehand, and with each recording my recording team and I – my recording team at Azica records, which is based in Cleveland – meet for run-throughs and discussions on the recording approach, among other things. Having them so close to me is a nice luxury to have..
KN – So you’ve been working with the same people for some time now
JV – Yeah, and so we’ve been learning along the way, too. We’ve gotten more efficient, and that allows for more variety of takes, really. Actually, I was just in Cleveland for two days last week, and those were the only two days – they’re getting quite busy now, too – the only two days that they were open that we were both in town. So we put down about 20 to 25 minutes of music for another solo CD; you sort of grab it where you can.
But then I try to play for my producer, Alan Bise, whenever possible. The engineer and owner of the company is Bruce Egre. I don’t necessarily play so much for him, but mainly for the producer, Alan Bise, just to get his perspective. I don’t want to really prepare a piece, because the way I tend to prepare a piece is for performance, to orate them in a large space, in a large concert hall. And that doesn’t really work so well for recording, and often Alan is like “It’s too heavy , the sound is too heavy. Try to develop a lighter touch for the lower dynamics.” So I’ll play something as I’ve just been working on it, and he’ll give me a lot of helpful pointers, like, “use free stroke here”, or “you can create a bigger dynamic push here” or “what you think you’re doing with this dynamic is not going to come across, you’ll have to start softer.” Things like that.
KN – So it kind of sounds like your producer is your teacher in some respects.
JV – I’ve learned a lot from him. Obviously about recording, but even some musical things, too. I mean, he’s a good musician. And he knows how in tune I am with the structure of a piece, about conveying the overall form and structure of a piece, which is probably one of my main fixations. So he’s able to help with that, actually, in a detail sense, with phrase detail and how that’s going to come across through a microphone, rather than to an audience. It’s a completely different way of playing.
KN – And what about the editing process?
JV – Well, I used to be more hands-on in the beginning, but I’ve since then had the great fortune of finding someone like Alan, who does a much better job of editing than I could do. It’s one thing to go through all of your takes and choose edits, it’s another thing to actually make the connections between all the takes, and Alan is able to do that in his head – in his ear – while he’s at the session. While he’s marking takes and making notes he’s actually already very cognizant of the whole picture – like “OK, take 18 is going to match with take 56”, and he’s already putting it together in his ear, which is not something I would have the time or energy, or even the skill, to do.
He’s on another level. That’s the thing. I’m always telling young players that think they’d rather produce themselves – “what does a producer know, anyway, right?” – that the producer can give a performer an illuminating perspective on playing that the player couldn’t possibly have, and when you find someone like that they’re gold.
KN – And how involved are you in the sound of the recording?
JV – Well, it’s a partnership. We’re making these records together, so I might say “can we find a way with this particular guitar to reduce this element” or things of that nature. They can position mics in such a way as to accentuate certain things you maybe want to bring out more – because the guitar changes from recording to recording – or to pull back on some other things that maybe are coming out too much. There are just so many elements involved. So if I think the sound is too close, or too far away, for example, they can make those adjustments.
KN – So would you generally approve a sound before you get going?
JV – Oh yeah, We spend a good hour and a half to two hours getting sound before we roll the first take.
KN – So what’s coming up in terms of performances?
JV – I’m playing a lot of Aranjuez this year, I think with ten orchestras.
KN – Do you ever get sick of it?
JV – No. Absolutely not. On two levels, I love the piece very much, and the second movement especially I can never get tired of. The third and first movements provide enough challenges, as a guitarist, and I continue to find solutions to the guitaristic problems, if you will, in that piece. So it just makes it very fun to continue to work on it and play it. I feel like I’m playing it better every year, so it’s hard to get sick of it if that’s happening.
KN – And how challenging is it to play the same piece with different conductors every time, different orchestras, different sounds?
JV – Well, yeah, there are certainly some challenges depending on the conductor, depending on who you’re working with. But with Aranjuez – and I don’t mean to oversimplify it – but the first and third movements are played pretty straightforward. There’s really nothing in terms of “I need time here” or “I need this here” or anything. I’m not really doing that in those two movements.
It’s the second movement where you need to really be in sync with the conductor when they bring the flute in just before the cadenza, for example. I’m telling them, for another example, I like the double-basses very steady in the very beginning. I don’t want them to try to follow my rubato or anything – I don’t actually apply that much rubato to the solo part much anyway. I mean, it’s really a written out improvisation in the Rodrigo; you feel where the rubato is without ignoring the large pulse. So, I like them (double-basses) to be steady, because I’ll be where I need to be on the downbeat, as opposed to the approach of “I play it THIS way, so you come and get me when I get to the downbeat”; that drives the conductor batty. That’s just not something you want to make an orchestra do, in my opinion, to come find out where the hell you are. You have to have a good sense of pulse and rhythm, the ability to play rubato, when needed, within a steady pulse. As far as the first and third (movements), in terms of pulse, and keeping the orchestra with the soloist, they really should play themselves.
KN – Tell me more about the outreach work you do.
JV – I still do a lot of outreach work in Philly, and I have for about fifteen years.
KN – And what’s that all about?
JV – I play nursing homes and hospitals and schools. About once a year I try to get to a bunch of places and set up a public concert around the outreach work. That’s something I’ve always done around my other concerts anyway. In D.C. around the Strathmore Hall concert last week I did outreach to a school – a 9am guitar class at a high school. Those are all things that are important to do, because we’re trying to build the next audience. It’s important to use whatever means you have as a representative of the guitar to get out there and show people the wonderful music that we’re playing, and the things that music can do. It changes people’s lives and improves their quality of life.
KN – So what can we as teachers and performers do to convince those who hold the purse strings to keep money coming for the arts?
JV – The arts have always had this problem. It’s not just the 21st century or 20th century. The great composers were funded by wealthy patrons. It is what it is – great music is not necessarily always understood by everybody. But there are some thing I think we can do to help the situation. I think one is that we have to get the brand names – the performers of our instruments, whether it be violin or piano – to be good ambassadors of these instruments and this music. Because you want to send these people out into the public, into the real world, into the wider world, and be able to communicate, whether musically or verbally, to lots of different kinds of people. And if we select those kinds of people, I believe that our government on the local, state and federal levels will understand music’s importance, as well as more of the private sector and general public. I believe that people will want these kinds of things in their lives.
The truth is, in order to be a good “practicer” of a musical instrument, you have to be very organized. You have to be able to break things down and solve problems. Then, the ability to concentrate when performing a piece from start to finish. These involve vastly different mental skills that are needed to be high-functioning adults in society. And if we can find a way to actually have more hard evidence of this – that studying classical music and having a certain level of proficiency at classical music helps in these areas – I think we can see more people in the government, private sector and general public, getting behind this initiative.
KN – So do you think that the ‘art for art’s sake’ argument is a lost cause these days?
JV – No, but I can understand why it would be hard for someone to buy into that, because along the way someone may feel like they got “once bitten” by the occasional charlatan, which, let’s face it, happens sometimes. People that aren’t attuned to art sometimes want concrete results, and sometimes great art doesn’t give immediate gratification. But again, if a community selects good communicators of music, as opposed to merely technicians, that’s key; it helps.
KN – Ok, one last thing. You had mentioned one of your fixations earlier. What are your other fixations or obsessions when it comes to the guitar?
JV – Playing the guitar, a big part of my thing has been about color and dynamic range. Using color not in a random way, but to highlight structure. So for me using color on the guitar and form and structure are very much linked together. And I love that the instrument actually can sing. That’s something that I think is underappreciated even in our own community, that the guitar has a wonderful capacity for vibrato and ability to evoke the human voice.
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