Guitar Sessions: Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar? Were music or the classic guitar a part of your household when growing up?
Jason Vieaux: Music was not necessarily a part of my family life as I'm the only practicing musician, but it was certainly a part of my daily life from about three years old, by my choice. I listened to records for most of the day by myself, so my mother brought more records from the attic for me to listen. There were no classical records in the house, just my dad's modern jazz and my mother's Beatles and soul records.
How old were you when you began to play?
I received a guitar from my mother when I was five and started private classical guitar lessons when I was eight with Buffalo Guitar Quartet founding member, Jeremy Sparks. When I turned seventeen, I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music to study with John Holmquist. In addition, I once studied with David Leisner at the Bowdoin International Music Festival [Brunswick, Maine] on a scholarship.
What was the classic guitar scene like in your community when you were growing up? Has it changed substantially in your lifetime?
There was a scene, but in retrospect it seems that the various teachers didn't interact too much. The most exposure to a guitar community I got was in Rochester, playing in masterclasses sponsored by the Rochester Guitar Society. There, I was very fortunate to play for David Russell, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Liona Boyd and others.
What styles interested you when you first began to play?
I'd have to say Julian Bream was a big influence with recordings, and David Russell in performance.
Do you play any other instruments besides the guitar? If so, is there any particular advantage or disadvantage to being a multi-instrumentalist?
No, unfortunately there never seems to be enough time. I'm still working on playing the guitar better. I think there is a certain musical perspective to be gained from playing several instruments, but not necessarily a professional advantage.
Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with in a recording or tour?
There are too many great musicians to mention; they play various instruments and are not just relegated to the "classical" field. I would love to play some kind of music with Pat Metheny or Wayne Shorter, for example; I've Always felt 'simpatico' with the way they communicate musically. I'm not on a comparable level with them improvisationally, of course, because of my particular focus.
What keeps you interested in the music business?
New challenges and plateaus. With each new step forward in the business, there are new things to learn.
Which of your albums would you recommend to someone buying one of your recordings for the first time?
Either the new CD Sevilla: The Music of Isaac Albéniz (Azica, 2003) or the Laureate Series (Naxos, 1996).
How has your family affected your music?
Their support and enthusiasm for what I wished to do with my free time was essential to my having any success in music at all. Of course, to me, daily practice didn't seem like "free time"; it seemed like something that I (not my parents) felt I had to do.
Apart from music, what are your interests? I've read you're into golf and pool. If so, what's your handicap? Have you ever played a round of golf with David Russell?
Now, there's no need to get into my handicap; it's terrible I assure you! That's from lack of regular playing and practice. I don't know how David does it (although he's actually a real golfer). I've gotten into bowling more this year, believe it or not. Anything that's fun and sports related is enjoyable to me.
You have arranged music for the guitar extensively. Do you also compose?
No, I haven't composed much with any seriousness. Again, there doesn't seem to be the time nowadays. Someday perhaps...I have a lot of ideas.
What is the nature of your teaching duties in Cleveland?
I head the guitar department at the Cleveland Institute of Music www.cim.edu. In addition to weekly lessons, I teach the seminar class, which is essentially a performance class. I also teach the guitar chamber music class.
Have you produced any instructional materials, or are you planning to write or produce any?
Maybe someday, particularly one on shaping and maintaining nails.
After your St. Louis concert, I noticed you play with quite a sizeable "thumbnail". Is that natural, acrylic, or made of ping-pong ball or some other material?
It's ping-pong ball that's attached with crazy glue. It's only because the basses grind my comparatively thin real thumbnail to dust faster that I can grow it. I still try to work with the real nail every summer, but during the concert season, it's too difficult to maintain the length I need.
Please describe your practice routine.
I work on whatever pieces I have to perform that week! I do a half-hour warm-up/technique session at the beginning. I also do muscle stretching exercises before as well as on breaks. I would like to practice 3-4 hours a day, but sometimes that's impossible to do each and every day. Sometimes other responsibilities come into play, and then I try to make up the deficit (if there is any) the next day. I did better this season in managing that.
What do you feel are your technical strengths and weaknesses?
I have strong hands, but I'm still working on my mechanics (technique) with each new piece. It's getting better every year, but I suppose I'll never stop working on it.
What do you do to keep your repertoire sounding fresh?
I've always felt that with certain repertoire, keeping the musical details varied can help keep the performances fresh without abandoning my conception of the piece.
What areas of standard repertoire you would like to explore?
More Bach, more from the Classical era and more new music. My problem is that I like too many styles of music, so we'll see.
What are the key elements of your technique/style? How did you develop such a broad pallet of tonal colors?
With colors, I don't know how exactly. I know how to show what I do to others, and why I musically choose a color, or dynamic, or articulation, etc. But as far as how it developed, it's mainly a function of my ear wanting to hear something so badly that I have to find a way to produce it. Then I find the easiest way to produce the same results. John Holmquist was a big influence there.
In your role as a teacher, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
Whatever areas need to be developed by the individual student is what I stress with that student as soon as possible. For example (and this is a slight oversimplification for interview purposes), if a student has great "hands", likes to play fast, does it easily and clean, but has an underdeveloped musical palette, ear, background or imagination, I'm not going to assign only pieces that more or less display his or her technique. I'll also have pieces that force that student to consider and develop other musical options (like a slow melodic piece.
Conversely, if a student has a varied musical ear, imagination, and a sense of interpretation, but their technique isn't working well for them, I assign pieces that will more accurately address and develop their technique. Then, hopefully, technique can be more fully integrated into a musical context.
How do you approach the teaching of interpretation? Do you offer your students any suggestions on forming a concert repertoire?
I only do that when the student is ready and willing to approach the concert experience on a regular basis and in a reasonably comfortable manner. If a student is playing well enough to form a concert repertoire, they usually know what they want to play anyway. I guess that answers your question; if you want to perform on a regular basis, it's probably best to perform music that you actually love. Otherwise, the performance could lack conviction and communication. I try not to play pieces that I don't like.
What make of guitar are you playing and what are your preferred strings?
I play a Paul Fischer currently and lately have been trying various strings for endorsement.
What's on your wish list as far as equipment or instruments?
Have you given any thought to playing an instrument with more than six strings, say lute or 7, 8, or 10-string guitars?
Do you recommend professional management or self-management?
I've had professional management for eight years now.
What has your experience been like with record companies?
It's been pretty positive and I'm thankful for that.
Do you have any upcoming performance dates, tours?
I've got lots of Rodrigo concertos coming up next season, plus a recording of my Pat Metheny arrangements on Azica records, and a duo CD with flutist Gary Schocker becomes available on Azica in September. I'll also be giving the usual solo recitals. If anyone is interested, they can get a regularly updated schedule, photos and news on www.jasonvieaux.com.
Do you have any tips on touring, performance etiquette or artist/venue manager relations that you would like to share?
Take things in stride; things that seem like a big deal now might not seem that big later on. "Do unto others as you would have done unto you" is a pretty good strategy.
Are there any particular techniques you would recommend for becoming a better sightreader?
Sightread every single day if you want to become a better sightreader. It's that simple when it comes to sightreading. No amount of "tips" will improve your reading if you don't read every day.
How did winning the GFA competition influence your career or musical choices?
The tour gave me valuable performance experience. For example, playing the same program 23 times in one month (October 1994) had many positive effects on my onstage comfort level.
Did you adopt any particular competition strategy?
No, I wasn't aware that there was a strategy. I just tried to prepare as best as I could, and play as well as I could when given the opportunity.
How do you balance your time between teaching, developing fresh repertoire, performing, and recording?
I try to improve my time organization and prioritizing skills. I still have a ways to go.
It was a pleasure to hear you perform in St. Louis, and thanks for granting such a comprehensive interview.
Thank you, Stephen.
To learn more about Jason Vieaux, please visit his official website at www.jasonvieaux.com or the website of the Cleveland Institute of Music www.cim.edu.