We first heard about Alec Holcomb when luthier Sebastian Stenzel told us that there was a remarkable young guitarist in Tennessee who was making quite a name for himself and playing Stenzel’s guitars. When we saw the list of competitors for the 2012 Parkening Int’l Guitar Competition there was Alec, so we thought we’d see if he wanted to stop by for a chat. As it turns out, Alec took first prize in the Young Guitarist division (ages 17 and under), which isn’t so surprising once you’ve heard him play.
Alec and his dad Ron (his first teacher) stopped by and played a bit for us, and he was indeed an impressive and thoughtful player – and not just for a 17-year-old. David Collett had some questions for him, and what follows is his interview with Alec, and a video of Alec playing Bach’s Prelude #6 on his father’s 2006 Stenzel. For Alec’s bio and more information about his schedule you can check out his website.
David Collett: What age did you begin learning guitar? Was it classical? Rock? Something else or another instrument altogether?
Alec Holcomb: My dad started teaching me when I was six. After years of playing in rock bands, he found that classical guitar was much more enjoyable and fulfilling, so that’s what I started with. I occasionally play rock because it’s fun, but I’ve come to the same conclusion he has. In addition to classical guitar, I began learning violin and piano at the same time. I stopped learning piano a couple years later, and I kept up with my violin until a few years ago when I needed that practice time for guitar.
The violin especially has helped with my guitar. Whenever I encounter a piece by Bach or Paganini, I understand the legato character of the instrument the music was written for, and I have a deeper understanding and feel for phrasing that I would not have known had I only learned guitar.
DC: When did it “click”? Meaning – when did you first get the deep inspiration to pour yourself completely into the discipline of classical guitar? Was it a performance you saw? A recording you heard? Advice from a teacher or friend? Something else?
AH: My love for the guitar has grown gradually. When I was younger, it was somewhat of a chore – I neither enjoyed it nor disliked it. When I was about 11 I found it more enjoyable, to where I became more and more excited every time I took it out of the case. So there wasn’t really a pivotal moment where I began to love the guitar, although becoming more involved in the guitar community has boosted my inspiration. Primarily, I love to play for an audience. Nothing is more enjoyable than sharing music with others. I like to think that the audience is getting a break from life’s craziness, and for however long I play, that they may forget their worries.
DC: Is this something you plan to pursue professionally? Or just a “serious” lifelong hobby?
AH: A few years ago, the first thing Andrew Zohn said in our first lesson was something to the effect of, “If there’s anything else in the entire world you’d like to do just as much as playing guitar as a profession, go do that.” What he was telling me is that it’s a rich and rewarding career, but not necessarily an easy one. It was then I decided I wanted to play professionally, and began to practice accordingly, because there wasn’t, and isn’t, anything I want to do nearly as much.
DC: How do you balance your daily or weekly practice schedule? How many hours per day? And how is it split up? Technique (scales/arpeggios/etc) vs. Etudes/studies vs. concert repertoire?
AH: I usually get about 3 hours in on school days, and as much as I can on weekends and breaks. A solid third of my practice time goes to exercises (scales, slurs, arpeggios, shifts etc). For each technical aspect, I rotate through 2 or 3 exercises originating from books like Pumping Nylon, Guitar Gymnasium, Guitar Masterclass, Shearer scale books, and more. Sometimes, when a technical deficiency pops up, and there are no exercises to address the specific problem, I write my own. When I’m done practicing the exercise I write down the tempo, so a few days later, when the exercise rotates back in, I can pick up where I left off. Technique is important, not just to play fast, but also to have the ability to play the music the way the composer intended. After exercises, it’s on to the pieces. These are worked two ways: practice and performance. Over and over again, I used to fall into the same trap of working on a passage of a piece, then having too much fun and playing it until the end. To avoid this, I decide before playing that I’m practicing it, and will only work on trouble spots, and places that need reworking. Or if I’m practicing performing, I’ll will play the piece, or group of pieces, as if it were a performance – no repeating if I mess up or no stopping until the end. I record and listen to my performances to see what I need to go back and rework. So far this system of practice has worked for me, but I’m always looking for ways to improve it.
DC: What are your criteria in how you choose the music you play? Including both concert repertoire and even etudes?
AH: I choose pieces for several different applications: competitions, required repertoire, concert repertoire, and gig music. With competition repertoire, I try to choose pieces that aren’t played often, display both technical fluency and musicianship, and could be enjoyed by the majority of the audience. Many competitions and some upcoming college auditions have required repertoire, some of which provide options from a list of pieces. When choosing concert repertoire, pieces that a general audience would likely enjoy are most common in my program. By this, I mean if most of the audience couldn’t hum a single melody line of a piece, then I wouldn’t choose to play it. Though, on occasion, I try to stretch the listener’s musical boundaries with more modern compositions. What I like about concert repertoire, compared to competition repertoire, is that there’s no need to play technically difficult pieces, or stay away from overplayed ones. There’s not much to choosing gig music, as it’s mostly in the background. Really simple etudes and easy pieces work well. It’s also a good time to try my new repertoire.
DC: Who is your favorite player and why?
AH: I have more than one. I believe there are many fantastic guitarists each of which has special gifts. For example, Frederic Zigante – the Bach Chaconne. Straightforward and beautiful, and not overplayed. SoloDuo – The Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Impeccable range of dynamics – They can play so quietly that they’ll keep the listeners on the edge of their seats, then blast the guitar to it’s full potential, almost like a roller coaster ride. When they perform, they’re so in sync that it’s hard to believe they’re not one guy. Ricardo Cobo – Piazzola (or any Latin American music). Incredibly smooth, with a side of punch. Christopher Parkening – Mozart K. 339 on the Simple Gifts album. The tone is beautiful. I have more examples of course, but these are just a few off the top of my head.
DC: Who is your favorite composer and why? (can even be a non-guitar composer – Mozart for example)
AH: Though I am enamored with new composers all the time, I always find that J.S. Bach’s compositions are my favorite. His masterful polyphony never ceases to amaze me, and his fugues tickle me to death. Bach rocks.
DC: What is your current favorite piece of music to play and why?
AH: Bach Ciaccona. To me, it is the most beautifully crafted, epic tale, the likes of which are rare to non-existent. Many would think that after 13 minutes and 60 variations that the listener would get bored, but the transitions and variation techniques are so elegant that it’s easy to forget it’s a chaconne. Despite its compositional perfection, the emotional effect it has on its listeners is astounding.
DC: How important is the actual “Guitar” itself to your playing? Is it just a tool and it doesn’t matter what it is? Or does the actual guitar itself play a more important role? Violinists for example have always spent a good deal of their career in pursuit of “the one” and value enormously the instrument itself. As a guitarist, how important is the guitar you play? And why?
AH: It is of vital importance. The way I see it, half of beautiful sounds comes from nail shape, angle of attack, knowledge of music and whatever else the player has control of. The other half of beautiful sound comes from the guitar itself. If an artist has mastery of the guitar, but the guitar sounds tight like a two by four with strings, or rumbles like an old refrigerator, then the sound will suffer. When evaluating a guitar, before I even focus on sound, I check for the two essential criteria: intonation and playability. I have been extremely lucky to have two of Sebastian Stenzel’s guitars (the first one is my dad’s, but I play it more than he does). They both have incredible intonation and playability, as well as a warm, balanced sound. I have yet to come across other guitars with the intimacy of my first, or the richness of my second.
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