A Sea of Music – Widening Your Musical Influences

In my recent interview with guitarist Xuefei Yang, she noted that “lots of guitarists, guitar students, or maybe amateurs, tend to focus on the guitar world. Maybe they play the guitar because simply they love the instrument, which is no problem at all, nothing wrong with that. But I just feel that they’re more fanatic about the instrument. I hope that they can put themselves in the sea of music. Myself I love guitar as an instrument, but I think of guitar just as a method, just as a medium, of music. It’s a media to express music and I like to think about music more than about the instrument. I think that  for more advanced students, if they want to be a musician, to make a career, I think it’s quite important to put yourself in the sea of music and think more generally about music, rather than just guitar.

I couldn’t agree with her more, and exploring different instruments, different musical eras and styles is something that I actively encouraged my students to do when I was teaching. And it’s very much something I do myself too – I’m a big music fan generally and I’d say around 90% of the music I listen to is music other than classical guitar music. I do a lot of listening of all sorts of things – from various eras of classical/ Western art music, Indian classical music, jazz, pop, rock, blues and everything in between.

Why? Aside from keeping things fresh and interesting, I find listening all sorts of different kinds of music and different kinds of instruments (solo and in groupings) helps bring differing perspectives on my playing – how I think about a piece of music for example, how I want something to sound, how I know a line is or can be played be a particular instrument and wanting to try and capture or reflect that on the guitar. The “sea of music” is a great source of inspiration.

So today I thought I’d share with you some of those pieces of music that have been inspiring me of late. Here we go, in no particular order…..

(1) Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium

A glorious 40 part motet (choral composition), originally composed for eight choirs of five voices. This is a great example of English Baroque choral writing with lots of soaring, interweaving lines

(2) Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2

The whole suite was originally music written for a ballet, and is Ravel’s longest orchestral work. The second suite is my particular favourite – it has these gorgeously lyrical melodies, big fat textures and fantastically lush Impressionistic harmonies. Wonderful dynamic shapes and melodic lines to feel and learn from.


(3) Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater

Quite simply beautiful melodic lines, with equally beautiful counterpoint.


(4) JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major

I’d say this is a fairly well known example of Bach’s work, but also an easily accessible one for those less familiar and looking to start to immerse themselves in the Baroque master’s work.


(5) Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major

Well, any of Chopin’s Nocturne’s and Etudes are great listening. In some ways the piano is rather like our own classical guitar in that it’s a”self-accompanied” instrument, so there’s much we can learn through listening to that two (or more) part playing.

The Secret To Super Sight Reading

I was personally reminded this week of one of the keys reasons of the importance of learning and getting really familiar with your scales and arpeggios on the guitar – sight-reading.

As regular readers may know I play in a guitar orchestra here in Melbourne, and at our last rehearsal last week it was decided to play through a new piece of music (that had been given out to us at the previous rehearsal, but I’d failed to look it – naughty me!). Enter supreme powers of concentration and super sigh-reading skill! Hah hah! Well, normally that might be close to the case, but I was feeling less than sparkling at rehearsal, just a bit tired and really not feeling mentally that sharp. This should be interesting, I thought.

And actually it was interesting. Almost without me thinking my hands seemingly took over in terms of playing the phrases and runs. After a couple of minutes of getting into the groove of the piece I wasn’t thinking too hard about the rhythm either. Let’s be clear here though, I’m not saying I was playing everything note perfectly or rhythmically perfectly as was written on the page (I’m sure there were a few “funky” notes in there for good measure!), but for a first play through it served pretty well.

John Price Guitar

I guess the interesting thing is that given I knew the key we were playing in, and that I could recognise the chord progressions as we moved through them, all that learning and practice of scales, arpeggios, and theoretical knowledge came into its own really without me thinking too much about it. Thank goodness! It wasn’t 100% perfect, but was enough to potentially be convincing or at least sounded like it could have been written in that way! All that drilled practice has provided me with a pretty strong foundation that my normally attentive and “active” concentration sits upon. Stripping that back on the weekend to the “passive” level of playing allowed me to see, feel and experience that foundation. It’s something I don’t normally experience, usually being switched on and active in playing. I was secretly (or not so now!) quite chuffed with myself.

And that foundation stone of my playing is not something that I built at one time and left. Far from it. It’s something that was started many years ago and gets built upon, added to and reinforced on a very regular basis. Pretty much every time I sit down with the guitar I undertake some kind of technical exercise. And usually at least I will run through a two or three octave scale for each and every major and minor diatonic key. The Segovia scales are definitely a cornerstone of the foundation. If I’ve been away from the guitar for a period, like last week for example when I was away travelling with work, the first things I played when I got to the guitar on the weekend was a full set of scales. You can get some really good exercises from simply playing your scales and arpeggios – right hand touch exercises, right hand finger return exercises, speed exercises, shaping and phrasing exercises, free stroke and rest stroke exercises, multiple right hand finger exercises, fretboard geography, improving and reinforcing knowledge of your keys and their relationships, left hand movement exercises, legato and staccato playing….. the list goes on!

So, the moral of the story is don’t forget about your humble scales and arpeggios – they will serve you well!

Melbourne Classical Guitar Gigs in September and October

Aside from the super-talented Xuefei Yang visiting our shores in the not-too-distant future, we’re also in for a treat with some serious homegrown talent (homegrown in Melbourne, Australia that is) coming up this week and into October.

If you’re looking for some mid-week guitar action  I highly recommend heading along to the Melbourne Recital Centre to catch the third and last gig in the Melbourne Guitar Quartet’s 2014 series at the the MRC.


The Melbourne Guitar Quartet will perform a retrospective of the works of two of Australia’s most respected composers: Nigel Westlake and Robert Davidson.

Both have contributed superb works to guitar literature and this program celebrates their music with a selection of unique arrangements and original settings. Ambience, stillness and rhythmic drive feature heavily, using many different guitars (including steel string and dobro), percussion and Ron Murray on didgeridoo.

The gig commences in the Salon of the MRC at 6pm on Tuesday 16th September, and lasts for around 1 hour. You can have fantastic top-of-the-tree classical guitar action and still be home in time for tea!

In all seriousness though I highly recommend checking these guys out if you can – their musicality and tight sense of group musicianship is inspiring.

Tix can be purchased here: https://e.melbournerecital.com.au/booking/production/bestavailable/6289?performance=


So, there’s the Melbourne Guitar Quartet for you this week, and then there’s Xuefei Yang in a couple of weeks time, but what’s after that?!, I hear you say.

Well, fret no further, the wonderful Grigoryan Brothers along with the immensely talented American composer-guitarist Ralph Towner and equally talented Austrian composer-guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel are coming together to present what promises to be an awesome blend of jazz, contemporary classical and world music. A must see concert in you’re in Melbourne on Tuesday 28th October at say, oooh, 7pm

The Grigoryan Brothers, Towner and Muthspiel are all intent on expanding the guitar oeuvre, and have led vividly different forays into world, jazz, and modern classical music. This performance brings together the range and diversity of their outstanding talents in solo, duo and trio sets of pre-composed pieces, spontaneous composition and improvised mastery on a variety of guitars (baritone, 12- string, electric and classical), creating a unique aural soundscape.

Head over here for more info and bagsie yourself some tickets: http://www.melbournerecital.com.au/events/2014/grigoryan2/

Check out their collective playing  with these YouTube clips:

The LMusA Diploma Journey – Update #6 – Time Away From The Guitar

Well hello folks! This week I’ve been on my travels again with my work, so that means I’ve been away from my guitar – eeek! Hah hah! All good – sometimes I feel it can be quite beneficial to have an enforced small period away from the instrument. Beneficial, that is provided that I’m using the time I would otherwise be using for practice to do other music and/or guitar related things.

And so this week I have been carrying out research into the piece I’m currently learning -Frederic Mompou’s Suite Compostelana. Over the last couple of months I’ve slowly but steadily been getting the first movement of the Suite, the Preludio, under my fingers, making sense of the music’s direction and shapes, getting to know its “feel”, exploring different sounds.

Whilst I’m going through this initial exploratory phase I don’t tend to listen to any recordings of the music, so as not to influence my own thoughts and perhaps intuitive feelings about a piece. Once I’ve started to form up some ideas, however, I do like to then explore again some other interpretations.

So this week has been a perfect time to do that. And so aided by a wonderful set of new headphones, to enjoy the sounds to their fullest (and not annoy the folks in the hotel room next door by playing the same piece over and over!) I’ve been listening to various recordings of the Preludio from Mompou’s Suite Compostelana thanks to the wonders of Spotify and YouTube. Attempting to do this a number of years ago whilst travelling would have a clumsy exercise lugging around a number of CDs and CD player!

I thought I’d share with you all my favourite recording thus far. It’s by a Portuguese guitarist byt the name of Gil Fesch (previously unknown to me until this week). Here’s a video of Gil playing movements 1 to 3 (Preludio, Coral and Cuna) of the Suite Compostelana by Frederic Mompou:

Interview with Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang – Part 3 of 3

Today’s post is the third and final installment of my interview with classical guitar talent Xuefei Yang, ahead of her first ever Australian tour. If you missed the first two parts head here:

In this final part of the interview Xuefei tells us what else she has in store for the next 12 months, her work on her Bach Concertos album, some interesting insights into her thoughts and feelings at the start of her career, the profound effect John Williams had on her as a student and her choice of guitars for live performance and the studio…… Enjoy.

What else are you working on at the moment? What else can we expect to see from you in the next 12 months?

This next month…..actually last night I just played a concert in this medieval priory church and so after that I have a lot of repertoire I need to prepare. I have this Tan Dun piece I need to focus on and I also have two new pieces I’m going to premiere in October London in Kings Place – I haven’t even received them yet! Well, you know when you premiere a new piece usually that’s the case. Like last year when I premiered the Chinese piece I got it, how long before the concert? One month? It seems like quite normal.

Also the other thing, one of the composers he is Phillip Cashian, he is head of the composition department at the Royal Academy of Music, he said he’s going to send me some script for me to have a look and we can discuss. See that’s what I said before, that’s the advantage, I get involved in the process of creating the piece. It’s great! I can give some of my input, so that’s great.

The Australian tour is certainly my highlight and I’m hoping to have a new CD out this year too. I’m hoping to go back to China more often. Basically I just try to do the best I can.

Well, very excited to hear a new recording is coming. One of my personal favourites is your Bach Concertos album….

Thanks. That’s one of the CDs I’m most proud of. I mean I’m proud of all of my CDs, but I feel this Bach CD I worked so hard, it’s quite hard actually, I worked so much on it. Also for me it’s quite innovative because my idea is that I wanted to play more concertos but in the Baroque period that’s it. You cannot, it’s past and we only have the Vivaldi to play really. And the Vivaldi concertos are nice but, you know, they are light and short. The Bach we play the lute suites, and some violin and cello stuff, so I think if the solo pieces work well on guitar then maybe the concerto too. So that’s the origin of the idea.

The thing is then I find out that the violin concerto, even if I just play the violin, there seems no point. You don’t have the sustain, you can’t have the same sustain as the violin. You can’t be so singing as a violin. So if I play exactly the same as the violin then there’s no point. So I found out Bach did a transcription for harpsichord, these two violin concertos, and I felt “hmmm, harpsichord is similar in a way to the guitar”, the attack, small volume. But we can sustain better than the harpischord and we have this dynamic range, so I thought maybe I can draw something in between the harpsichord and the violin.

And using Bach’s lute as an example, as a model to do it, because you know the E major lute suite is based on violin. So I thought I can take that as a model to turn the violin concerto into a guitar concerto and using a string quartet like the Vivaldi concerto. Using a string quartet like Vivaldi because you know the volume of a string quartet is smaller, and also the individual lines, each part, will be more clear. And also, I read that Bach sometimes lacked players so he used just one player to play one part. So there are the reasons for the transcription! And yes, I worked so hard at it!

Afterwards, after I made the recording, looking back I feel, ooh, I was quite brave to do such a thing! Because these are so famous you know, so well known. Yes, so I had to make my version comparable to the violin version and the piano version, the keyboard version, so it’s actually quite brave! Again I just want to play more pieces with other musicians, more concertos, more stuff from the Baroque period.

Xuefei Yang Credit Neil Muir

Xuefei Yang Credit Neil Muir

You’ve spoken about the Romantic era music you liked to play when you were growing up, what music do you like to listen to the most?

Well everything, but I would say for relaxation I don’t listen to classical guitar. That doesn’t make me relax! At all! It makes me feel like I have to think about my work. Usually I put on some jazz for relaxation a lot. I really like Brazilian music. Sometimes orchestral music. But for relaxation, no guitar music!

Which guitarists do you like to listen to, or are you inspired by?

No particular guitarist really because nowadays there are so many good players and I feel I can inspiration from each concert, even by students, you know really. I can get inspiration from everybody. When I was a kid in China, back then China was just starting to open up, we didn’t have so much material. I remember we made copy of copy of copy of copy of someone’s cassette! My dad a copy of John Williams’s CD and I make sure that they copy didn’t wear out so I made another copy. I just went back last month to my Beijing home and there are so many cassettes! I’m not going to listen to them any more, but I don’t want to throw them away because they’re part of my history.

But that’s how we grew up. And the scores we made copy of copy of copy of copy too. And I remember that even the copy we were so precious about it. We’d put the copy in the plastic folder to protect the copy! That’s how we grew up.

Back then John Williams did lots of recordings, so we had them mostly by him and some Julian Bream, Segovia I listened a lot too. I think that my earlier part of my life John Williams was the bigger inspiration. Also, I listened to a lot of his recordings on one part. The other big part is that I actually met him and that became a big inspiration. He came to China, I think twice, in his past, but in the 1990s he went to China to tour around and he gave a masterclass in the Central Conservatoire in Beijing where I studied so I got the chance to play for him. And I talked to him and he was very encouraging.

I have to say that that period was a bit depressing. A bit of a depressing period of my life. A depressing period about my future. I felt a bit, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do in the future. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with my music, with my life, with my studies. A bit down in that period. A bit dark. And I met him (John Williams) and it felt as if someone lit a fire in the dark, winter night. I felt encouraged. It’s a very important event in my career. So in another way he’s an inspiration.

You know sometimes even now, he’s not just a great musician, he’s such a nice person, very loyal to his friends and sometimes he’ll give me some advice. I’ll say he’s my biggest inspiration all the way round.

And is it true that he gave you his guitar?

Yeah, but I don’t own the guitar, he gave it to the Conservatoire, but for me to play. So I don’t own the guitar. But I am going to play the Greg Smallman guitar, which is from Australia, but is my own guitar.

A silly question, but how do you like the Smallman?

I really love the Smallman. I have to say, to be honest, I like John, I think he’s very loyal to everything you know. He only plays Smallman! I think he has several Smallman guitars. In terms of instrument, I have a handful of guitars, I like the different sounds. I have to say that for a live performance on stage, especially playing with other musicians, I must play Smallman. It makes a big difference.

Not just the projection, it’s also the sound. You know I love playing chamber music, and I play chamber music a lot, quite often with other musicians. The thing is that I feel that because the guitar is not an orchestral instrument, when we play on our own the sound has lots of nuances, lots of colours, very subtle, very intimate. But when you play with other musicians in the bigger venues, it gets lots because we certainly not at the same level in our volume, the projection, everything. It’s just not an orchestral instrument, so everything gets lost.

But the Smallman guitar feels all around it’s bigger. It feels, in a way, it’s amplified a little bit. I find it really works when I play with other musicians. Suddenly the guitar, everything is like another level up, I can be closer to the orchestral instruments.

Playing chamber music it’s great, but in the recording studios, when you don’t need to focus on projection and you need to focus on nuances, I prefer some of the traditional guitars, spruce guitars, which may not have a lot of volume, but work really well in the recording studio where you’re just facing towards a microphone. I tend to use quite a few guitars in the recording studios, but for live performance especially playing the large venues and with other musicians, I usually play the Smallman guitar.

What’s your preferred instrument in the studio?

Again, there’s no favourite one. In the past I’ve used many instruments. My Smallman is a cedar guitar and is very resonant, so it’s like the extreme side of cedar guitar – very resonant, not attacking. I find I’ve been playing the Smallman guitar for more than 10 years and I’m used to a certain way of playing such a guitar. When I play another extreme end, like a spruce guitar, a very dry sound it requires a kind of different way to play it you know. So I feel that it could make me exercise different ways of playing on the right hand. I really feel that, like it’s an exercise.

I got a new guitar from Paul Fischer, and I feel that my Paul Fischer guitar and my Smallman guitar are like two different ends, very very different. When I play these two guitars I feel like I exercise my right hand. I get different projection, different playing method. I find that my Paul Fischer records really well in the studio and when you record in a studio you record on different microphones then they have a different sound and you can put on reverb afterwards so you don’t worry about the dryness. You don’t need to worry about the resonance and you can mix the sound. So in the recording studio I find my spruce Paul Fischer works really well because it doesn’t resonate as much as Smallman. It’s got a very focussed sound, so afterwards you can add the reverb and it works really well.

In the past, I played other guitars too. You know my theory is, to be honest, I feel sometimes that guitar players are quite fanatic about instruments, about strings, about nails…..! You know! I find that a bit overly fanatic! But I really feel that, yes, the instrument is important, but at the end of the day it’s the playing. So my theory is that – OK , you don’t play a $200 guitar – but if you play a concert guitar and you’re a good player you can produce a good sound. That’s my theory. And I feel that choosing a guitar, choosing an instrument is more like choosing a friend. Sometimes you’re just tuned in. I can well understand that some people don’t like Smallman, some people don’t like Paul Fisher you know because tehy don’t tune it, it just doesn’t suit the way they play. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good guitar. It really depends on the way you play it. It’s like wearing clothes in a way.

I feel really lucky – some violinists have to take out a second mortgage to buy an instrument. For a stringed instrument, we can afford a good instrument which is great! Actually one of things I really looking forward to is trying some Australian guitars because I’ve heard there are many great makers. In fact two years ago when I was touring in New Zealand, touring with the New Zealand National Symphony, in a masterclass one of the students played an Australian guitar – what’s the name? I can’t remember – anyway, it was really impressive. That was the first time I saw a guitar that had as big a volume as my Smallman.

So when you’re not practicing and playing what sort of things do you like to get up to?

Well, I’m just a normal person you know! I like reading books, and I like watching movies, and I like to go shopping. Cycling – this is a new thing actually. I quite like cycling. And I just moved to somewhere where I have a small garden, so I like to mess around in the garden. It’s nice you know, in China most people live in apartments, so we don’t have gardens, so this is a nice thing. In Australia you can probably have a huge garden?! I heard the guitar is very popular there in Australia.

What do you know of the Australian guitar scene?

When I was young I already heard and read and knew a few Australian players like Slava and I met quite few.  Tommy Emmanuel I met him – OK he’s not classical, but I think he’s amazing. I heard that there are quite a few guitarists that are like local stars there right? And is growing, so that’s what I heard about. I actually just met Adrian Walter, he’s the Dean of the Academy of Performing Arts in Hong Kong, and Craig Ogden.

I always feel that Australian people are quite friendly, so I have a very good impression about Australia. And I heard Melbourne is a great city. And I just read John Williams’ biography and his childhood in Australia. I’m hoping that I can prepare really well (for the tour), so that in my leisure time I can just go around exploring! And the Smallman is an Australian guitar. You know I feel I just have so many Australian things around me for a long time, so it feels like not a distant country at all. So really looking forward.

What would be your top tips for somebody just starting out on the guitar?

For beginners – that’s a hard question! Hmmm….to be honest for beginners, I think it’s really important to have a good teacher. I really think so. I think that with the violin, the piano, the reason why they have so many great players is that they have a longer tradition of teaching and they have more perfect systems of teaching, that’s why they can produce so many good players. I think in way, I personally feel that the guitar teaching system is still developing, we don’t have such a tradition. As a beginner, it’s very important to have the right method, for your technique. It’s very important, for adults or children, it’s very important. I really think that a good teacher is very important for beginners.

But I do want to say something to more advanced students – I just feel that lots of guitarists, guitar students, or maybe amateurs, tend to focus on the guitar world. Maybe they play the guitar because simply they love the instrument, which is no problem at all, nothing wrong with that. But I just feel that they’re more fanatic about the instrument. I hope that they can put themselves in the sea of music. Myself I love guitar as an instrument, but I think of guitar just as a method, just as a medium, of music. It’s a media to express music and I like to think about music more than about the instrument. I think that  for more advance students, if they want to be a musician, to make a career, I think it’s quite important to put yourself in the sea of music and think more generally about music, rather than just guitar.

Since I moved to London I play concerto a lot, I play chamber music a lot, and this has helped me immensely! Musically and technically too. Musically, you know, if you just play solo guitar, which is a beautiful instrument, there is a great limitation. But if you play chamber music, or you listen to an orchestra the music becomes richer, so much more possibility. If you’re soaked in that music and you’re forced to do more on your instrument, do more musically, that forces you to push your technique. It forces you to do the things that you want. So I really feel that the technique improves, in the more advanced stage, when you want to play more music.


Wise words indeed!

I hope you enjoyed the interview folks. Watch this space perhaps for a review and post-tour interview and something prior to her new recording coming out!

And, of course, don’t forget your tickets for Xuefei’s Australian tour:

Interview with Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang – Part 2 of 3

Welcome back folks! Here’s part two of my fantastic interview with Chinese super-guitarist Xuefei Yang! If you missed part one, here’s the link: Interview with Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang – Part 1 of 3.

In part two of the interview Fei tells us about how she goes about preparing to premiere a brand new piece of music, the music she will be playing in up coming Australian tour, her favourite music to play and her thoughts and approaches on playing contemporary music.

Xuefei Yang Photo credit: Neil Muir

Xuefei Yang Photo credit: Neil Muir

How do you go about preparing a brand new piece? Do you go about things differently than with a classic of the repertoire?

I think that it’s like a two-edged sword. The disadvantage is that you’ve never heard anything of it, you don’t know the background. The advantage is that you have some freedom I find and also – even better – is if you have a chance to meet the composer. The you can ask him directly what does he want, and what he means. I think that can be a great advantage. If you play Bach you can’t really ask him! Or even Albeniz, you know, you can’t go back to ask him.

So, yes, it’s an advantage and a disadvantage. I think that if I can have a chance to meet a composer like Tan Dun. I’m going to premiere some other pieces in October so I’m going to ask them as much as possible. Even to talk to them, sometimes they don’t play the guitar which can be a good thing, they just think about the music. That can actually be a great advantage. Of course it can be a disadvantage too – the piece can be awkward for the instrument. There’s always two sides, but I always try to ask the composer as much as possible.

If some composer has already passed and I don’t have a chance to ask then, I think the advantage is that you have more freedom. In playing contemporary music we have more freedom. In a way I think that contemporary music can be close to use because it’s a modern thing. Bach is like how many years hundreds of years ago right? But twentieth century music is quite close to us, and you can get inspired from the architecture, the modern art and the modern literature. Everything is all related actually. So in a way I think it’s easier to find information to help you understand. I think I try to those advantages.

Also, in a way, if I don’t recordings of a contemporary piece to listen to, it can be an advantage too. Because with a classic piece you’ve heard too many versions, you know? You will more or less be affected. You probably don’t know, or you probably don’t want to admit, but you actually are influenced by a certain version. So if I play a new piece, and I’ve never heard anybody play it, then it’s me! You go on YouTube and you can find hundreds of things. It’s an advantage too.

You’re playing at the Sydney Opera House first of all in Australia, what are you going to be playing in your solo shows? 

I’m playing the (Bach) Chaconne, some John Williams pieces, some From A Bird. Yes, I like that piece very much. He said that when he was at his Australian home he heard a honeyeater bird singing outside his window – I think it’s an Australian bird isn’t it? We don’t have it here in England! In concert people don’t know what it looks like! – a John Williams piece, a Chinese piece – a traditional piece. I’m also premiering in Australia a modern Chinese piece that was written for me last year, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall in London. Her name is Chen Yi, she’s a female composer, a leading Chinese composer, based in the USA.

So Bach, some contemporary, some Schubert songs. I feel I have to play something from the Romantic era – that’s my home! Nowadays I enjoy pretty much everything all the same, but I would say that when I was younger, when I was a teenager I felt most at home playing the Romantic music, because think that I have a strong intuition. When I was a kid, a teenager, I more or less played music by feeling and without too much analysis, and this is to do with how I was taught to play music in China. Romantic music you can play by feeling, just be spontaneous. But if you play contemporary music, just by feelings, that’s not enough. You really, really need to know what you want to express, it’s the voicing, what is your voicing, your phrasing. The melody is not quite to obvious as Schubert, Schubert is just there, it’s so “singing”. But with contemporary you have to find the phrasing, the voicing and the structure.  but once you can find it you can convince yourself how to play this piece. And once you’ve convinced yourself you have a better chance – I only say better chance! – to convince the audience!

I find another part of the difficulty of playing a contemporary piece that even if you know the piece very well, the audience they’ve never heard of the piece. It takes them a few times to get to know it. For example,  like the Britten Nocturnal, Julian Bream and even other people said that for them the first couple of times they didn’t understand it. And for the audience it’s even harder as they don’t have the time to study it and find out what it’s all about. If the audience goes to listen to Beethoven or a more established piece of the repertoire, a classic piece of the repertoire, people know what they are they about. If you play a very new piece though nobody knows. It’s a difficulty, so you have to really convince yourself, be so clear yourself so then you are more able to convince the audience.

You’re playing a good mix – something for everybody…

Yes, I like it that way. You know it’s a bit hard on guitar to focus on one composer. On piano you can focus on Beethoven, or Mozart, Chopin, but on guitar it’s very hard to focus on one composer. And also Sydney is my first recital in Australia so I want to have a big variety of programme because the guitar is a very capable instrument, we really can play lots of different repertoire. I’m a player that feels comfortable playing lots of different repertoire too and also for the audience it’s nice to hear different, a balanced repertoire. I myself like to hear this.

The Sydney Opera House is a pretty cool place for your first Australian concert….

Yes I know! I thought about it a long time ago when I saw a picture of it I thought “hmm, I should visit Sydney. When would I have a chance to play there?”. And now! It finally comes! So really excited.


Stay tuned for part three of the interview coming up next week – the biggest, bestest part! And don’t forget to check out Fei’s Australian tour dates (and get in now for your tickets!): http://www.xuefeiyang.com/calendar.html


Interview with Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang – Part 1 of 3

Last week I was extremely honoured to Skype with none other than guitarist extraordinaire Xuefei Yang!!

On the eve of her first  tour Down Under and world premiere of a new guitar concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun we had a fantastic chat about what she’ll be playing and how she goes about preparing for such a tour. Fei also shared some words of wisdom for students of the classical guitarist. We had such a great chat that I’ve decided to split it across three posts. Here in part one today you can read about Fei’s thoughts on playing classic and brand new repertoire, keeping things fresh, and the classical guitar repertoire.

(c) Neil Muir

Xuefei Yang (c) Neil Muir

You’re coming over to Australia very soon and we’re super excited to have you here! You’re going to be playing some classic repertoire and some new with the Tan Dun concerto premiere. Tell us a bit about the preparations for playing both the well known and the brand new repertoire.

In fact I just met him (Tan Dun) last month in Beijing, after a concert. I always wanted to meet him and he’s a very nice guy, he’s someone who works so hard and he’s already very famous, but he’s working everyday. He has so many ideas about music,  and he’s so enthusiastic. I think he’s trying to bring music to be relevant to people’s life now and I think that’s great. And he’s trying to bring the audience, and young people, to listen to new music and all of that sounds great I think.

You know I am very happy that the orchestra asked me to play a new piece, because especially guitarists, they complain “why always Aranjuez?! why always Aranjuez?!“, but you know I have to say that mostly it’s not our choice, you now! Mostly it’s the orchestra that makes the choice because they have their season, they have their programming, they have a concerto they have to hire a soloist to fit in their theme, so usually I don’t get to choose. Unless you’re John Williams then maybe – may be he can choose!

It’s kind of a good way to do it though, have the Aranjuez which is the “crowd pleaser” or the “crowd drawerer”, but then also introduce the audience to something new.

Yes, yes exactly. I think it’s a good idea. All the classic pieces they will draw the audience, you know, may be they want to hear this piece, but at the same time they have to hear the new piece which is great I think. And Tan Dun he’s always putting some Chinese element in his music which is great, I think that’s what we should do more. As I grow older I try to bring our culture into what I play, so it’s a great opportunity for me.

How do you go about keeping things such as the Aranjuez fresh, which you must know so well?

To be honest to Aranjuez I know it very very well, especially after recording. After you’ve recorded something you really know that music! But in a way it’s still….I never get bored of it. My theory is that with great music you never get bored. For example, in my recital I’m going to play the Chaconne by Bach, that is a piece that I never get bored of playing it. And in fact you change your feeling and your understanding and your interpretation of that piece over the years. So my theory is that if the music is great, then you don’t get bored. And the listener doesn’t get bored.

The other thing is also because playing concerto is quite different to playing solo, to be honest my first times playing concerto I was like dealing with my nerves! I was really quite nervous to play in front of an orchestra. But in recent years with my experience I can find that I’m more and more into the music because I get more used to playing a concerto in front of an orchestra and with amplification. More and more I really feel now I can really get the music out. So yes, I  haven’t gotten bored of it.

In fact, the other thing about playing a concerto is that every time you play with a different orchestra, you work with a different conductor and the venues are different, the sound and the audiences are different. So with all this combination each time is a new experience – honestly! Especially with concerto because you have to collaborate with other people. With solo its just myself. So in terms of Aranjuez I never get bored. In fact I think I’m getting better and better!

With all that I’m quite happy with my recording, but I feel in a way, especially the second movement, I’m playing a but different. I think the recording is like a snapshot of that particular moment of your life. So I’m really looking forward to play with an Australian orchestra this piece. Now sometimes after I’ve played the second movement, I get goosebumps myself! Like “oooh I’m really in the zone!“. I also lots of times after the performance some audience members have come to say to me that they were really moved, and moved into tears. For me that’s the greatest reward, it’s the most rewarding thing to hear, yeah! So hoping I can touch some hearts in Australia!

It deserves to be played a lot, but at the same time I wish there were other guitar concertos that could be played more too! The thing of playing contemporary music is that  we don’t know which one will become the “classic” one because time is the ultimate test. Those that are lucky enough to live after another 100 years will know which one will become the classic piece! So I think we just need to keep trying new pieces. The players levels these days are getting higher and higher and that can encourage the composer so they know what we can do on the instrument so they can write more interesting pieces. It’s like a loop, so our playing affects their compositions and their compositions affects our playing, like a loop. It all gets better and better and that way we can get more interesting repertoire.

But to be honest I think the repertoire is very very important for the instrument. I feel the development of the instrument, of the repertoire, is so so important. Why is it that we hear so much piano and violin, the orchestra, everyday in the concert hall? It’s because of the repertoire. There are too many great pieces to play.

I think other musicians usually say the guitar has a smaller repertoire, which I don’t actually agree with. I think the guitar repertoire is big but we don’t have a big mainstream repertoire. We don’t have the German, Austrian, mainstream repertoire. That’s almost a zero. That’s the problem there. You go to Germany and you’re not likely to hear our music, it’s not their tradition. But can only start to work from now. Well from Segovia he did, he promoted lots of composer, lots of repertoire. And Julian Bream, John Williams, we can enjoy playing those players repertoire, so we need to keep doing the same. The next generation can then have more music.

Be sure to head back this way on Thursday for part two where you can hear about what Fei is playing in her solo Australian and what else she’s working on at the moment.