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:

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