Teacher John Explores Types of Guitars, Styles, and Performance Insights

 
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Hi John, thanks for being part of our Opus 1 Faculty Spotlight. You’ve recently joined us this past month as one of our new guitar teachers. One of the interesting characteristics of learning guitar is not only the diversity of playing styles but also the ability to expand into other versions of a guitar (e.g. electric). Can you share what’s it like introducing these areas to beginning students within a path that lets them develop their own natural preference?

I generally try to keep both an acoustic and an electric in the studio as I teach. I also occasionally bring in a 12-string guitar so they can be exposed to that as well. That way if the student is interested in what any of these instruments sound like, I can demo them on the spot.

I also like to expose students to various styles of music in which each of these types of guitars is showcased. I keep an MP3 player on hand that has roughly 3,500 songs on it. I can call up multiple examples of how each of these individual instruments can shine in a particular genre.

I also carefully monitor not only the progress of the student, but I try to stay attentive to the particular style and artists in which they show the most interest. It’s also important to notice the style of performance towards which the student seems to be drawn. For instance, some students may be perfectly happy just strumming chords and singing pop songs for families and friends. Other students may be interested in learning the ins and outs of lead guitar in any number of genres, including rock, pop, country, blues, jazz, etc. Other students may be drawn more to the classical idiom. To that end, it is important to either a) listen to songs titles that they mention they might be interested in or b) take the time to ask them where their interest lies.

Having extensive experience as both a performer and a recording artist, I can make recommendations not only about what style of instrument a student might be geared for, I can also give them a great deal of information on specific models and effects that might enhance the experience for them.

Returning to the nature of the guitar having so many different version, can you share a bit about what sets different guitars apart from each other and maybe touch on how Ukulele fits into this spectrum? What kind of music sounds better and worse on which?

Being a performer, a recording engineer and something of a music historian, I’ve had extensive experience exploring the vast array of sounds that are available to today’s music student. There are some “tried and true” guitars that I would characterize as being somewhat formulaic and germane to a particular style of music. For instance, the Fender Telecaster has historically been the weapon of choice for the twang that country lead guitar players have sought over the years. To me, the Fender Stratocaster is perhaps the most versatile guitar on the face of the planet. That being said, nevertheless, there are some things in the rock world that a Les Paul or SG manufactured by Gibson can do that the Fender line can’t, just because of the nature of the electronics and the prototypical sound profile for which they were engineered. Then again, those players attracted to metal and extreme hard rock seem to gravitate towards the newer trademark names in the guitar building industry that have all the “bells and whistles” that players such as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai use to get the effects to which they aspire. Some of the more notable brands are Ibanez, Jackson, Dean, and Charvel. These guitars feature “hot rod” components like locking vibrato arms and scalloped fretboards.

But that is not to say that the acoustic guitar, even the Spanish/Classical models don’t have a place in the rock, blues, country, or metal world. I’ve heard many high profile forceful guitar players use these instruments to achieve superb quality in the variation of their respective dynamics. Primary examples of this mode are players such as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton who use the acoustic for amazing sounds in the blues genre. Swedish Guitar Wizard Yngwie Malmsteen can shred just as poignantly on a classical guitar as he can on his signature Strat.

While the ukulele has traditionally been the ideal instrument for delivering Hawaiian slack-key music, these days I’ve heard many pop bands starting to include it in their repertoire of sounds. A few that come to mind are Bruno Mars, The Plain White Tees, Train, and Jason Mraz. It lends a texture over which any number of exotic sounds can be laid down. The Disney movie Moana, with it’s definitive uke version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” did a great deal to bring back the popularity of the instrument.

Another factor to consider when approaching the electric guitar is that there are as many kinds, flavors, manufacturers of amplifiers as there are guitars. Add to that the fact that now there are literally thousands of digital special effects (stomp boxes and multiple effects consoles) that can be used to manipulate sound from a guitar beyond all recognition. Even the guitar synthesizer world is getting up to speed and can be used with as much expertise as any keyboard player can muster. The array of sounds in the music industry today is absolutely mind-boggling.

All this being said, the current trend in the recording industry seems to be headed towards a movement in which none of the traditional rules concerning tones are beyond being broken. Just about anything goes in the studio anymore, particularly with the advent of the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), in which sounds can be altered and effected with any number of plug-ins and other electronic signal altering devices. While many artists still stubbornly adhere to the axiom that “Analog still sounds warmer than digital,” more and more artists, myself included, have gone to recording “in the box,” meaning using a computer and some sort of software recording program such as Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Ableton, Reaper, and the like. These programs are more cost-effective and they are eminently faster to work with. So in that respect, there really aren’t any hard and fast principles concerning what instrument sounds better on any particular kind of music.

Myself, I keep 10 or more guitars in my stable of instruments to cover any sort of sound aura that I’m seeking for any particular tune. I generally lay acoustic tracks using both a mic’d signal to the console as well as the electric audio out from my acoustic electric and I mix and EQ the sounds accordingly. Most of the time I use my Strat or Tele to lay the basic tracks as they have the “good old Fender” reliable sound. If I need to track slide guitar I generally use a Gibson Firebird a) for its signature dark tone and b) for its incredibly long neck which enables me to get quite high in the upper register. For specialty work, when I want to go dive bombing I have a Ibanez SR Series with locking trem that enables me to bring lots of strange effects to the table. For amplification live I use a Blackstar combo on one side of the stage and a Fender DeVille on the other. This gives me the best of what is considered the two “worlds” of amp sound. The Blackstar has the British profile, a la The Beatles and The Who while the Fender gives me the California sound made popular by everyone from the old surf bands to blues masters like Stevie Ray and Buddy Guy. Although I use fairly minimal effects on stage, the dual amp stereo system allows me to “ping pong” a delay between the two amps across the stage, similar to what The Edge does in U2 and the sound is huge!!!

Many guitar students or people familiar with guitar often point out the use of a “pick” versus growing your nails out to serve the same function. What’s the difference and why when is one better than the other?

This is a question I get quite often and the answer to the second part of the question is “One is not better than the other.” While I have used a variety of picks with various thicknesses over the years, I have settled on Fender mediums for the silkiest sound I can get. However, one of the most famous guitar players in the world and a childhood hero of mine, Jeff Beck, simply uses his thumb. Someone asked him years ago why he doesn’t use a pick and his reply was, “I use to, but I kept dropping them.” However he went on to say that he felt using the flesh of his thumb over the years helped him to hone a signature “touch” and made his playing somewhat more sensitive and organic. If a student wants to play with their thumb, nails, or just the flesh of their fingers, I don’t see anything wrong with it if they can generate a tone that they are happy with. In truth, though I use a pick, I often employ additional strokes with a couple of the fingers on my picking hand. I’m also a pretty big fan of traditional American Travis fingerstyle picking. I know many classical guitarists that are absolutely fastidious about their nails, and it has shown proven results. I say do whatever works for you.

In additional to extensive experience teaching, you’ve also performed and recorded countless concerts. How does your own professional guitar performing help you as a teacher and what suggestions do you have for students on learning to perform themselves?

My most important suggestion runs fairly counter to the way I developed my own career. For years I played in cover bands (copying popular music) and felt it imperative to try to get as close to the original as I possibly could. In a way that aided what my style is today, as I covered a very diverse catalog of music and tried to take a little from every player I listened to. But at this juncture in my career, my advice to any student is to simply be yourself. Develop your own voice (whether that be literally--singing, or your voice on the instrument). It’s ok to try to come as close as you can to the music by which you are learning a technique, but the progressive student will take each of those techniques and create something of his or her own that is unique to them.

One related piece of advice I have is that if you can sing, by all means, do so. I tell all my students that the first job I got as a professional musician had nothing to do with the quality of my guitar playing. At the age of 17 I was a passable, somewhat mediocre rhythm guitar player who was scared to death to play any lead. But the band that hired me was far more interested in my ability to sing and harmonize than my strength (or weakness) as a guitarist. If one is looking to begin a career in music, someone who can sing and/or knows a little bit about music theory and harmonization always has an advantage over someone who is simply a guitar player, unless they are some kind of guitar virtuoso.

The last thing I would say about performance is that in addition to ability, much of performing is simply a matter of attitude. Stay practiced up so that you are confident. But it’s important to not be overconfident. Some of my worst performances were when I went to the gig thinking “I got this.” By the same token it’s ok to be a little bit nervous. Music should make us excited, after all, it’s emotional. I’m not encouraging stage fright, but a little bit of adrenalin facing an audience that you are unfamiliar with can go a long way towards keeping you focused and sharp. Last of all, value your audience. Chances are they paid money or at least gave of their time to come and see you. Let them know that this is important to you by treating them with respect and giving the best performance that you possibly can. I don’t mean that your gig has to be perfect in execution. I just mean that if you make the music come alive and speak to the people on an emotional and maybe even an intellectual level, they will realize your talent and your gig will be a success for both you and them. To me, that’s a win/win.

Break a leg!!!


Teacher Yuri Compares Teaching Group & Private Students, and Learning in Both China and the United states

 
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Hi Yuri, thank you for taking the time to be part of our Faculty Spotlight! You’ve been with us now at Opus 1 for over a year and been teaching both private piano lessons as well as teaching group classes. How does teaching private lesson students compare to teaching group class students?

Private students are older and they can focus longer; most of their parents are very serious to help their kids finish their weekly homework. When I teach private lessons, I will create goals that can motivate them to practice. For more advanced students, private attention is needed to work on micro issues such as fingering, as well as finer points of expression and interpretation.

On the other side, group class students are younger. But it’s a good way to start their music adventure in group lessons which offer plenty of time for varied activities, let the students enjoy music and learn some basic music knowledge.

What advice do you have for students who’ve finished group classes and would like to start private lessons?

Progress is almost always faster in a private lesson than in a group lesson. Private lessons focus on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Piano is a complex activity requiring learning by ear, eye, touch, and intellectual understanding. Each student combines these elements differently. After group classes, students and parents feel more comfortable in private lessons. A main difference is that students need more practice than the group lessons. Young kids might feel frustrated when they practice a new song. In this case, parents will play an important role. Be more patient to your kids!

Before joining us at Opus 1, you earned degrees in piano performance in both China and the US. You studied at Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Gunagzhou before studying piano performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What differences and similarities did you notice studying piano at these different schools?

I earned my Bachelor degree at Xinghai Conservatory of music, China. My teachers from China all presented different perspectives on teaching from hand-shape to learning environment, and specific ideas about teaching methods. Their ideas, while similar in some cases, are all unique and impressive, bringing up very important points in piano lessons for children. And I was so lucky to come to the United States and finish my Master degree at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Having a US Piano teacher gave me two different points of view for piano teaching. This is very helpful both for teachers and students to consider in the process of piano study. They made some comparison between adults and children, and also compared materials from older times to more contemporary materials. Both contributed very valuable points of view for music educators to consider.

Every professional musician and teacher has their own inspiration for going into music. Can you share what inspired you to pursue music in your own life?

I fell in love with music as a young kid. I chose to pursue music so that I could share its beauty and my own passion with others. When I was young, all my friends began to learn an instrument, most of them just pick an electric keyboard. But my parents decided to buy a piano as a gift for me. It’s a huge instrument and I fell in love to explore the piano. And piano and music become a part of my life that I can’t give up!          

Recitals are quickly approaching. What recommendations do you have for our Opus 1 students to help prepare that you’ve used in your own practicing and preparation for a performance?

Before the recital, I will say, a speed slightly slower than the performance speed. This speed allows for accurate practice without picking up unexpected bad habits and creates a clear picture of the music in the mind. Also, try to practice musically. And if time allows, then set up a performance preparation routine. If you can, do a bit of advance work, looking through your teacher’s notes. That can help you further develop the particular skills you need and improve your performance!


Teacher Yamila Shares Her Time at Peabody Conservatory and Experience with Musical Theater

 
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Hi Yamila, welcome to Opus 1! You’re a new member of our faculty and we’re excited to have you joining us. Can you share a little bit about what brought you to Opus 1?

I joined because of Opus 1’s standard of excellence. I’ve long known about Opus 1 and admired everything about how they operate, which is why I’m proud to be a new member of the faculty here!

You graduated from the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, co-founded by Pablo Casals - one of the most influential cellists of the 20th century, whom you worked with while a student; and also earned your Master’s degree from Peabody Conservatory, known for its many Grammy Award winners, the Peabody Award, and several notable faculty. Can you share what your experience was like studying at these prestigious music schools?

I was very fortunate to be able to work with big figures at both institutions. In Puerto Rico I worked with Jesus Maria Sanroma and Luz Hutchinson in the piano department and I benefited from other big music figures such as the Figueroa family in chamber music and the opera department. Their legacy left in me an everlasting deep inspirational love and devotion for music and music education. Don Pablo Casals directed the choir of the Conservatory himself when we performed his beautiful master work “El Pesebre” in The Casals festival. This was his last performance of his beautiful choral piece written in his native Spanish language “Catalan”, for soprano, choir and orchestra. The Casals festival would bring the highest world-wide recognized music figures from all over the world every year, and students had the fortune of this inspirational educational experience.

I worked at Peabody with Ellen Senofsky as my piano teacher, a graduate from UC Berkley and Fulbright Scholar in Europe where she was the accompanist for the great violinist Zasha Heifets. I worked for years with Mrs. Senofsky in chamber music and accompanying classes as well. Accompanying class was of the most valuable classes I had at Peabody as a career pianist today. I benefit from other great music figures such as Leon Fleisher’s weekly piano master classes,  Berl Senosky’s chamber music and others.

In addition to your time teaching private lessons, you’re also Music Director for the San Carlos Children’s Theater, where you teach musical theater and accompany. As a classically trained concert pianist, can you share similarities and differences between classical and musicals and what draws you to this side of the arts?

Musical Theater is where several art segments intersect: acting, music, dancing, and visual arts, which come together on stage at once while also using technology. Musical theater is fascinating! Musical theater took a more serious route in music with composers such as Leonard Bernstein in his “West Side Story.” Some musical theater scores are as difficult or even more than classical works. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish my career in music theater without my training as a concert pianist.  

Sometimes our students forget that their teacher was once a student also with the same expectations, pressures, and challenges that they have now. Can you share a skill that you learned as a student that was challenging and advice for our Opus 1 students on how to overcome their own challenges?

Practice ~ Practice ~ Practice!!!  Everything in life is work, practicing has to come from within and practicing will develop your love and devotion for music as well as your ability.

Can you share your most memorable performance and what about that performance made it so memorable?

It is hard to recall my most memorable performance. Many different performances come to my mind since my youth until my most recent performance, which was met with nice newspapers review. During my last years in Sonoma County I was performing constantly as a pianist and accompanist, I had the opportunity of playing chamber music with principals players from the symphony as well as with principal string players from different symphonies in the Bay Area.  

As a pianist, I performed in a piano duo team as well as with orchestra. I was part of the Sebastopol Center For The Arts Music Committee and we produced and performed different productions every year including the “Messiah Sing Along” with the community which I was the pianist for. Music Theater was the highlight in my career these days.


4 tips to keep calm on the recitals

It’s that time of the year again! The sun shines longer, signaling summer around the corner. And our students, like little stars, will shine in the upcoming June recitals. 

Below are some recital tips from our amazing teachers, so you can keep calm and shine on.

Ian - Guitar Teacher

Teacher Ian: Breathe and don’t over-practice

The most important thing to do is to breathe. When we get nervous, we forget about the basic things like taking a deep breath. To be honest, the nervousness never goes away but I trust in my preparation and that helps to keep me calm. That’s why I don’t practice on the day of of the performance. I will make sure that I warm up but not over-practice my recital piece.

Plus, don’t try to fix your instrument before recital day. For example, if you want to change your guitar strings, do it at least 3-4 days before the event, so you get some time to get used to the changes, and deal with anything unexpected. I also like to get some sort of exercise on the day of (but not right before the recital) to chill out, like a hike or a run.
 

Roger - Voice Teacher

Teacher Roger: Find your routine and stick to it

If you have a routine on the day of the performance, you can rely on it and won’t have to worry every single time. Even the pros get anxious before the show sometimes, but they always stick to their routine. For example: for me, I don’t eat 4 or 5 hours before the performance so I can access my breath better. A friend of mine likes to have chocolates and cookies before the show. Another still enjoys heavy meals and can still pull off his best. Everyone is different, so find the routine that works for you and repeat.

Chaz - Senior Piano Teacher

Teacher Chaz: Banana - the power food

Practice sitting on the couch, walking to the piano. Practice your bow. Have your family or friends be there so you can practice under pressure. The amount of practicing needed depends on each student. Avoid foods high in carbohydrates, and too much caffeine. Carbs can make you tired, and too much caffeine can make you more anxious. A banana is good, as it’s packed with potassium and is a natural stress reliever. Try a strawberry banana smoothie!

Joseph - Violin Teacher

Teacher Joseph: Practice in acoustic places

I was 16 years old when I performed my first formal recital. I had a piano accompanist and the stage all to myself! I wish I knew the things that I am about to tell you, because I was pretty nervous back then. For example: practice playing in acoustic places that resemble where you are going to perform. Do everything you can to make the experience feel similar. Usually before I practice, I do scales - playing notes on the violin to warm up. Taking a few minutes to observe your breath also helps.

We hope you found these recital tips from our teachers helpful! We can’t wait to see our students shine on the stage!