Welcome back to Vancouver, Jeffrey! It is good to see you here again, and we are looking forward to your performance on January 31st. Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? What has influenced you to become the established professional that you are?
Yes, I pretty much always dreamed about being a performing musician, perhaps as early as 10 years of age. But my interest in the guitar bubbled up much earlier even than that; I was about 4 years old when I became enthralled with the guitar – I'm not sure why! Before and during my undergraduate degree in music I was also very interested in medicine and came very close to switching professions over that period.
Did you grow up in a music-filled environment?
There were no musicians in my immediate family, but there was always recorded music playing at my house, and there was a lot of singing at gatherings of my maternal grandparents, who were Italian immigrants. I'm sure that because of these environments, the richness of harmony and the bel canto ethos seeped into my mind and cemented itself in my musical perception in a way that it otherwise never would or could have.
What was your path like as a student? What motivated/inspired you to practice before you decided on guitar as a professional career?
Pretty simply, it was a fascination with the guitar. I played rock, folk and jazz music as a youngster and I found it thrilling to try to emulate what I heard on recordings of the great rock guitarists of the day like Jimmy Page or Steve Howe. I also had excellent and highly structured early lessons on the electric guitar from a local teacher.
What style of music speaks to you most? What repertoire are you most inspired to play and why?
Although I love all the styles of music that we play on the guitar, I've always been drawn to 19th century music above all others. Because it's a product of the Enlightenment, 19th C music has a profound simplicity and elegance, and a sophisticated, kind of 'literate' quality, which I love and is why, I think, it's so hard for young players of today to internalize. In a way, we are living in a diametrically opposite kind of culture.
How do you construct your solo recital program? Is there a particular way that appeals to you and why?
I try to make it suit the audience that I'm playing for, but always build it around music that I love.
How do you establish contact with your audience?
I talk to the audience rather a lot in performances, but I hope it is through the clarity of my interpretation...
What is the process of preparing a recital like for you? Is it as enjoyable and satisfying as the performance itself? What advice could you give about focused and mindful practice?
I'll answer this and the previous question as one, because, as you cleverly point out, it is all about mindful practice. As a professional musician, time is at a real premium, and so practising becomes a process of trying to never repeat an error, and developing a habit of sustained concentration. As such, a lot of very constructive practice can be done strictly by visualization. Of course, you must run your fingers through the music as part of the practice, to make sure your hands, arms shoulders, etc., are fit will have the required stamina.
Your book Fretboard Harmony is quite well-known among guitarists. Are you currently working on more publications?
Yes, we are putting the finishing touches on the complete Bach Cello Suites arranged for guitar with Clear Note, and I'm also doing a performance edition with notes of the major concert works of Napoleon Coste with Alfred Music.
Do you travel a lot as a soloist and with your duo partner, Andrew Zohn? Where are your best memories from?
Andrew and I are are not playing together any longer, so I'm a soloist once again. Overall, the great thing about touring is visiting places you've never been or places that you are very fond of, like Vancouver, and meeting all the great folks in the guitar network.
You teach at University of Toronto. Do you only teach guitar or any academic courses as well? What is the student contingent like?
I teach private guitar lessons and courses in pedagogy, fretboard harmony and guitar literature. I also have several DMA students and I supervise their research. I think we have an extraordinary body of students at UofT, made up of about 20 undergrads, and 10 grad students. I'm not exaggerating very much when I say it is one the strongest guitar programs in the world and I'm very lucky and to be Head of Guitar Studies, overseeing the education of such a fantastic array of talent.
Do you enjoy arranging?
Yes, I do. It's natural outgrowth of my interest in fretboard harmony and I'm confident I have something new to contribute even when I'm arranging works that have been arranged before.
You name is behind the RCM guitar program requirements. Could you talk about the criteria you use to determine these requirements? What changes are made from year to year? Are those primarily changes in repertoire, including modern composers, or are there any adjustments to technique as well?
There are rather a lot of specific criteria that have a part in determining how the RCM repertoire and repertoire books are comprised. The syllabus/curriculum and the series is revised every 7 years and the RCM usually requires us (Robert Hamilton and myself) to make significant changes in updating the repertoire. So we take into account which pieces seem to be effective pedagogically, which are preferred by young players and teachers, how the piece fits into the stylistic balance of the particular grade, whether the piece is technically appropriate, whether can we get permission to reprint, etc., etc. We always re-examine the technical elements as well, from fingering of the scales to the inclusion of arpeggios, to tempi, and so on. I'm sure we will have a close look at all of this again in the coming edition!
You had the opportunity to work with the outstanding composer Pierre Boulez. Could you tell us about that experience and share the wisdom you gained from him?
Well, our ensemble was playing pieces by Boulez as part of the celebration when he received the Glenn Gould Prize in 2002. The ensemble wasn't expecting him to conduct, and it was pretty amazing to see a gang of experienced, grizzled Toronto session musicians snap to tip-toe when he decided to take the podium! Boulez' music is the height of abstraction - almost impossible to comprehend on the first listening even for the most highly trained musical ear. He knew the score to a breathtaking level of precision, one time admonishing a percussion player who had entered merely one 16th note early. In his mind, the music was as clear as day. It was a very impressive occasion for me.