Daniel Shearouse with Jason Vieux
October 24, 2015
Jason Vieaux has become one of the most visible figures in the classical guitar world since winning the Guitar Foundation of America’s International Competition at the tender age of nineteen. He has proven to be one of the community’s best performers and teachers in the years since, and also has a prolific outpouring of recordings. In addition to his positions at the Cleveland & Curtis Institutes of Music, and his international concert career, he has also brought professional classical guitar education to the world with his Online Classical Guitar School (www.jasonvieauxschool.com).
This year he marked another milestone by winning a GRAMMY in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for his album “Play”. This makes him one of only a handful of classical guitarists to received such an award. Fortunately for those of us in Miami, Jason was scheduled to play for us only days after his big win. Those lucky enough to attend his masterclass were treated to a very relaxed atmosphere in which Jason discussed (among many other things) the importance of analysis to the performer. According to him, phrasing and interpretation is very dependant on an understanding of the form and harmonic structure present in the score. In his own words, “I’m just doing exactly what the composer says.”
Well, he must be listening closely, because his performance was something to behold. The ease with which he plays and the elegance of his tone is almost shocking, and the audience was entranced from the start. The purity of his tone and the clarity of his phrasing is like a welcome breeze.
To make things worse, he’s also a heck of a guy. He entertained at a local spot for half the night over drinks and dinner, discussing all manner of subjects with everyone and showing not a hint of fatigue or disinterest. His infectious grin seems to attest to his love of the music that he plays and the people that he plays it for.
Unfortunately, we were too short of time to do an interview in person, so we agreed to communicate by email later. In that exchange, Jason discusses his GRAMMY win and its effects, how he approaches recordings, his current projects (if you haven’t heard his duo with Yolanda Kondonassis, stop reading and go check that out now), as well as his thoughts on stage fright and community outreach.
Daniel Shearouse: You came and played for us right after your Grammy win. What was that like? Was there anything that changed for you as a performer in the aftermath, or was it, perhaps, business as usual?
Jason Vieaux: Pretty much business as usual in terms of actual concerts, I don’t really want to take more than the usual fifty or so gigs a year, because I want to be home more with family. Also, since I have a lot of unusual programming, unusual collaborations, and I don’t play too much popular music, it doesn’t necessarily open me up to a completely different set of presenters, because I program what I want to program and play music that I believe in … it’s a tough business, perhaps more than ever these days. I would say that it’s definitely raised the level of awareness of my work, and we can discuss my work with more presenters more easily, because the GRAMMY name is still very powerful in classical music.
DS: Has this win impacted your plans or career goals in any way? What is different for you now, if anything?
JV: The best thing about the GRAMMY recognition for me, is that it says to the public and to the classical music world that a twenty-plus-year body of work as an independent artist, along with a small, independent team (Azica Records, management and PR) can be recognized without budgets, subsidies, “connections”, etc. In the end it’s talent and a ton of hard work over many years. We were recognized on merits and consistent quality, because really we don’t have anything else operating for us!
DS: Was there any thought about the Grammy while the album was being conceived, or was it a surprise?
JV: Total shock and happy surprise. I found out about the nomination after a pre-concert nap in Melbourne, FL, before a concert with Escher Quartet.
DS: You’ve spoken before about your recording team and producer; did you use the same team for “Play” as for your previous outings?
JV: Yes, the same team as Ponce Complete Sonatas, the Albeniz, Bach, Metheny records, the two Julien Labro (collaborations), the forthcoming CD with Escher Quartet (we just wrapped up sessions), and the new duo CD out now with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis (“Together”) – Alan Bise, Producer, and Bruce Egre, Engineer. So, Bruce and Alan got GRAMMYs too!
DS: Was there anything different about the strategy for this album? Why do you think it won? Was it a programming choice? A crystallizing performance? A team effort? Is there anything specific that you think pushed this album over that threshold?
JV: We’ve submitted all of my records as soon as I was eligible, we just stopped thinking about the GRAMMY thing altogether, really. And I’ve never made a record thinking, “Oh this would be a good record project for a GRAMMY”, because I wouldn’t really know what 13,000 different NARAS members are looking for or what they are into. It’s impossible, at least for me. It was my twenty-year anniversary as a professional touring musician and recording artist, so I thought it would be fun to make a record simply of encore pieces, since all the previous records were only one composer per CD (Bach, Metheny, Piazzolla with Julien, etc).
DS: How do you decide what pieces to record for an album?
JV: As usual, I pick pieces I like to play and listen to!
The best performers and competition winners should be playing in more of these settings at the beginnings of their professional careers. The competitions could be making these venues part of all the finalists prize packages.
DS: Has winning created any pedagogical difficulties? I’m sure your students at the time just felt proud of you, but it seems conceivable that new students might view you as almost mythical or be afraid to question you in lessons or masterclasses.
JV: I don’t know much about that; if they do, they must talk about it amongst themselves. After a few lessons, any new student who is worried about that stuff going in realizes that I really don’t put out a vibe of “I’m the Master teacher” anyway, and that I’m pretty much a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy: how to practice, mindset, mental training, performance practice, know your form and structure, be able to phrase within that, know any good jokes, etc. Pretty practical stuff, delivered with a fairly matter of fact tone! Not big on the guru thing.
DS: What differences are there in your mindset or approach to a recording vs. a competition or regular performance?
JV: I try to make the recording process as performance-oriented as possible, but it’s hard, because playing “out” and projecting to an audience in a concert hall doesn’t always sound good when mics are close. So I try to prepare the pieces with softer pianos and slightly softer fortes, without losing the spirit of the moment.
DS: Most recordings now are very carefully edited to achieve a perfect product. I don’t think that this diminishes them as art, but has this been an entirely positive development? Do modern recordings reflect the reality of the music or do they represent a perfect ideal that is almost superhuman?
JV: I personally wouldn’t mind hearing a truly great performer pianist or string quartet in an actual concert, mistakes and all, but the recording industry won’t take a chance on it. Even the “live” ones have patch sessions done afterwards. I would say that the modern classical recording represents a quality ideal that is almost impossible, especially on guitar. Not impossible, but close.
DS: It’s obvious that you are doing your part, but what should the community as a whole be doing to ensure the future of the instrument? What do you think is the biggest weakness in the guitar world right now?
JV: Education and outreach, schools and community centers, libraries, rehab centers, prisons, lots of live performances. I’ve done literally hundreds of live performances to all of the above. We have to take the music to the “civilians”, as I call them, or they may not hear this great music otherwise. The best performers and competition winners should be playing in more of these settings at the beginnings of their professional careers. The competitions could be making these venues part of all the finalists prize packages.
DS: In terms of education and outreach, has the GRAMMY win given you more power in that arena or has it taken time from you? Both?
JV: I haven’t been able to do as many of the extra activities outside of concerts and teaching CIM, Curtis and ArtistWorks Jason Vieaux School (www.jasonvieauxschool.com). It’s been like that for at least five years now, so the GRAMMY win hasn’t affected that. And besides, at this point, I have so many students and former students who are playing so well, and doing that kind of work (or should be!) for going on seven or eight years now. I crossed that threshold a while ago, which is a nice place to be as a teacher.
DS: I teach at a public high school and I see most of my students for only a short while, in a group setting. That is the situation for most music teachers in schools. What do you think we can do in that very short time to make sure students develop good habits and learn to look for the right things in their future musical pursuits?
JV: Really all one can do is show them by example. If one plays well in that setting it inspires young people. They will always ask after that performance, “How did you get to play so well?”. “Well, I’ll tell you…”
DS: Do you ever experience stage fright? Are there any strategies that you would recommend for dealing with that?
JV: Sure, here and there, usually with first performances of tougher pieces. Not much you can do other than do run-throughs in front of other people like friends, family, open mics, etc. I premiered a new solo piece last week by Eric Sessler for one of the biggest series in the US, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. I ran it through twice for my CIM students and once for my Curtis students and Eric! That got me ready better than anything else would have. It’s good to play for your students, to show them that you are human, that there is a maturation process to any piece you play in performance. I’ve performed new pieces at slower tempos for students in Seminar Class many times.
DS: I get a feeling analogous to stage fright when I record, because I’m trying to avoid errors that will necessitate another take. Is that something that you still experience or are you relaxed when in a recording session?
JV: Sometimes I used to, but not after fifteen records. I record much better now than twenty years ago, I definitely got tight on some tough passages in the early days, but that’s what a great producer can help you with. They remind you that you have to go for it, to make it a true performance, to let them worry about fixing the mistakes.
DS: How do you balance travel and recording with your teaching schedule?
JV: I don’t know! Seriously though, it’s a lot of time management skills, forged over many years of increasing responsibilities.
DS: Are you currently working on any new recording projects?
JV: Just wrapped the CD with the magnificent Escher String Quartet: Kernis, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Boccherini Quintets. And now I have to start working on a new solo CD, now that “Together” with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis is out. The next Julien Labro duo collaboration CD is coming out soon. The Escher Quartet CD should come out in about a year; that’s 4 CDs in the can in a little over two years if you include “PLAY”.
DS: What is your favorite dessert?
JV: I’m not much of a dessert guy, actually, but I do like Ice Cream. Or a nice bourbon after a great meal. Do they make bourbon ice cream?