Worth Fretting Over

Good Time to be a Guitarist

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: It’s interesting that once these guitar programs grew in size there was a premium and athleticism that focused on solo guitar playing. Students have tended to focus on their solo careers and solo repertoire, possibly to their own determent, whereas the people in this room clearly have a background in ensemble playing.

DOMINIC FRASCA: I know when I did the Bang on a Can stuff, it was frightening because I hadn’t done a lot of ensemble playing. I have immense respect for the fact that you [Mark] can do that and I think it comes from having done it your whole life.

MARK STEWART: It is very important and when I get a call from a youngin asking for advice, I always ask, “How much ensemble playing have you done?” And if they haven’t, I say, “Well, say yes to every single ensemble thing you can and take it very, very seriously and learn the skills. Learn how to give and receive cues comfortably and learn how to stoke a group whether you’re playing Baroque music or if you’re playing serial music, to play wonderfully and be a wonderful colleague. It’s essential for any kind of chamber environment. Perhaps that is something that I’ve noticed from time to time because of the nature of the beast that sometimes guitarists come with fewer of these skills. If I were writing the curriculum I’d say Boccherini for every freshman, and you get your own string quartet. I think it would be a wonderful way to start.

DOMINIC FRASCA: Most times you work on one piece the whole semester and you kind of jerk around for the first two months, then you try to put it together at the end. I mean, ensemble concerts are always terrible. They’re always in some backroom somewhere that nobody goes to. You don’t even care if you mess them up. That’s kind of how it was when I was going through my programs.

DAVID STAROBIN: I like to think it’s changed [laughs]. Not enough, but it’s certainly on its way.

MARK STEWART: And the repertoire has grown in the last ten or twenty years, [to David Starobin] and of course you’re one of the reasons.

DAVID STAROBIN: Well, there are lots of people who are the reason, and that’s great. It makes all the difference when someone says to you, “Well, what can I do for this combination?” and you can actually list a bunch of pieces instead of saying, “Well, there isn’t anything for that combination, try again.”

MARK STEWART: It’s a good time to be a new music guitarist. I don’t think there has been a better time.

DAVID LEISNER: And not just new music, but the old music, too. A lot of the old music repertoire that has never been played or played so little can be played now because there are guitarists that are more experienced with chamber music and groups of non-guitarists who are willing to play with them and try that repertoire.

DAVID STAROBIN: Although I have to say there is still an incredible prejudice out there. You go to an orchestra and you say, “Listen, I’ve got this great guitar concerto, terrific composer, played him three years ago, it got great reviews, everyone in your orchestra thinks he’s a great composer…”

MARK STEWART: Subscribers dug it…

DAVID STAROBIN: Right! “How about it? Guitar concerto?” And they say, “Well, the last time we did a guitar concerto twenty years ago the guitarist got lost…” [everyone laughs]. Forget it. And there are these stories that persist to this day of guitarists that fell apart so there has been an incredible amount of prejudice built up in certain spheres about bringing guitarists in as soloists. That’s a problem.

MARK STEWART: That’s an unfortunate inheritance.

DAVID LEISNER: Which is really why it’s up to the educators to bring more and more chamber music into the education of guitarists. I think it’s absolutely essential. It also happens to help the solo playing tremendously. You improve your rhythm, you improve your awareness, all kinds of things. We don’t play with orchestras, we certainly haven’t played much chamber music until recent times, so guitarists are stuck in a little corner with their terrible habits and if they play any chamber music at all it tends to be guitar ensemble—you know, where they put together other guitarists with equally horrid habits, and they’re not forced out in to the big world of music with the fiddle players, and the cello players, and the wind players, and the singers, and that’s what really expands a guitarist’s horizon. The more that that’s done the less that this sort of thing that we’re talking about will happen.

DOMINIC FRASCA: In connection with the resistance from programmers and artistic directors to undertake works with guitarists as soloists, do you feel the same sort of resistance from composers saying, “I’d love to write a piece for ensemble X, but I’m not so hot on the guitar. I’d love to write for them without guitar.”?

DAVID STAROBIN: When you talk about composers now with the kind of longevity that some of our composers have—talking about guys who are in their nineties—in that case it might be a little bit problematic, but any composer who is under sixty-five at this point has probably written for the guitar in one situation or another, either as a part in a piece, a solo piece, or something. It’s really rare that you find a composer that hasn’t used the instrument. That’s my experience.

DAVID LEISNER: There are those composers who have that experience, but are still so shy with the guitar. Because they tend to be pianists…

DAVID STAROBIN: They tend to be shy of the harp, too, and all the instruments that have peculiar techniques that are not easy to write for, but I don’t sense that there is any kind of prejudice against the instrument itself.

MARK STEWART: In fact it’s the opposite. Often times a composer will say I want to write for the guitar but I’m scared, help me. The composers, they’re up to date, and if they write a good guitar piece they know that it’s going to get played. It’s pragmatic—it’s a great idea to write a good guitar piece. They’re just scared sometimes. So you just try to hold they’re hand a bit. It’s worth it, too.

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