EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Catching Up With Grammy-Winning Classical Guitarist Jason Vieaux

Every guitarist has a guitar hero. Before I was a writer for saratoga living, I made my living as a performer and teacher (I still do some teaching, but not nearly as much as I used to). The classical guitar was my instrument, and for those of you unfamiliar with its nuances, it’s tuned just like a regular acoustic guitar but the neck is wider, three of the strings are made out of nylon, and you’re supposed to finger-pick it. Classical guitarists play, of course, a classical repertoire, which stretches back more than 500 years and includes everything from fugues by J.S. Bach to contemporary arrangements of Beatles songs.

One of my heroes is Jason Vieaux (pronounced Vee-oh). The Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist has built a career on his versatile, soulful and incredibly precise playing. In 1992, at just 19, the Buffalo native became the youngest-ever winner of the prestigious Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) International Guitar Competition. Since then, Vieaux’s had the kind of career that most young classical musicians can only dream of. He’s performed as a concerto soloist with more than 100 orchestras around the globe; he was the first classical musician to be featured on NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk” concert series; and in 2015, he won a Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for his album Play, which was a celebration of his 20th anniversary as a performer.

Vieaux will be performing at Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center on Thursday, November 8, playing works by J.S. Bach, Duke Ellington and Pat Metheny, as well as some Spanish and Latin American favorites. For those who live closer to the Finger Lakes region, he will also be performing at the Skaneateles Guitar Concert Series on November 7. I recently talked to Vieaux about his upbringing in Buffalo and the future of the classical guitar.

How did you get started in classical music?
When I was three years old, my parents’ record collection was my favorite thing to explore. I loved to just listen to my mother’s soul and rock records like The Beatles, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and the Animals. My father’s record collection was entirely jazz. Both my parents noticed that I was very much into music. So my mother brought home a guitar for me one day when I was five, not realizing that it was, in fact, a small-size classical guitar. We didn’t know what a classical guitar was. We didn’t know there was such a thing as a 500-year-old repertoire, that it had this history of classical music.

So how did you come to learn about that history?
The Buffalo Guitar Quartet came to my school when I was seven and did an outreach program, and my mother happened to be working as a secretary there for the library. She approached them [about lessons] and said, “Hey, my son has the same kind of instrument as you.” [Laughs] So Jeremy Sparks [founder of the Buffalo Guitar Quartet] came by our house that summer and did some tests, kind of evaluated me musically, because I had taken some music courses since [I was] five with jazz guitarist Joel Perry. I knew how to read and write [music], so he took me in as a student, and I started that summer when I turned eight. And I just stayed with it, just as something that I really enjoyed doing.

Classical music is so competitive, and to be a professional classical guitarist requires a lot of discipline. How much practice time do you regularly put in?
It’s always about the quality of the practice, first and foremost. But the amount of time it takes depends on the week and the amount of repertoire that I’m having to cover. For example, right now, I’m trying to prepare another solo recording, so I’m trying to work on those pieces around the concerts I’m playing [on this tour]. The previous two weeks, I was preparing a Jeff Beal guitar concerto that I just recorded for BIS Records. And I was playing [Joaquín] Rodrigo’s “Fantasía para un gentilhombre” [“Fantasia for a Gentleman”] in addition to that. I’m practicing about three hours a day right now. I’m trying to do four, but with all the work and emails and phone calls, it’s like running an office.

You’ve performed at the Skidmore College multiple times. What kind of relationship do you have with the college?
I’ve performed at Skidmore College for [Distinguished Artist-in-Residence] Joel Brown various times over the last 15 years. And I had one other recital at Skidmore I did years ago for Philadelphia Orchestra. [Next week,] I’ll be teaching a master class on Tuesday [November 6], and I’ll do a couple of lecture-demonstrations for the beginner guitar class, as well as the performance on Thursday [November 8]. I’m excited to be in Saratoga. I like to walk around the downtown area. It’s beautiful.

Lately, the future of the guitar has been in question. Electric guitar sales have dropped by a third in the last decade, and last year, Eric Clapton was quoted as saying “Maybe the guitar is over.” What are your thoughts on that, coming from the world of classical music?
Well, obviously, I can’t speak for Mr. Clapton, but I would think that a lot of the rock musicians from his generation feel the same way, meaning that there was a youth culture movement that rock and roll started when it was the cutting edge popular music form, and guitar was the lead instrument. That was the iconic instrument of rock and roll. As it has transitioned into an older music form, like what happened to jazz, you have [seen] the rise of hip hop and electronic dance music [EDM], and naturally there’s [been] a decline [in interest]. But I think in terms of classical guitar, it’s not been affected by that. In fact, I think classical guitar is growing. Its future is in very good hands as far as I can see. [There are] so many great young players. Thank god I won the GFA Competition when I did at 19 years old in 1992! [Laughs] Because the quality of the players now is just so inspiring.

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