Interview with Classical Guitar Guru Kevin Gallagher
By Brad Conroy:
Over the past few decades New York guitarist Kevin Gallagher has been creating his own path in the world of classical guitar, and If you follow him on YouTube or Facebook, you'll know that he is not only a gifted performer, but also very much involved with the historical and theoretical contexts of the works that he is playing too. A world class guitarist, Kevin won a first prize at the Guitar Foundation of America Competition (1993), and also has the distinct honor of being the only American classical guitarist to win a first prize at the prestigious Francisco Tárrega Guitar Competition in Spain (1997).
Gallagher has given concerts and masterclasses throughout the world as a soloist, in duo with Antigoni Goni, and with his modern chamber rock quartet Electric Kompany. He has recorded CD’s for the Naxos label, and is now pioneering a new kind of career where he remains rooted within the romantic tradition of the past, but delivering it in a 21st century kind of way.
Brad: I read recently that you have fallen back in love with the classical guitar?
Kevin: Although I always loved it, I stopped playing for a number of years to follow some other paths that I was interested in, and I wanted to bridge my views and apply my classical understanding to other areas of music. I started doing a lot more with electric guitar, and working with the process in hopes to find other interesting things. In the end what I had really recognized is that I like electric guitars, and enjoy them for myself, but my heart is really in classical music and classical guitar.
Brad: How long were away from classical?
Kevin: Probably from about 2000 until 2010, only about 10 years. I was still playing, and teaching quite a bit, I just wasn't playing it so much publicly.
Brad: What is your relationship with electric guitar these days?
Kevin: Well, I don't really play it. I can still teach it though, and if somebody comes to me and says, “I'm playing a piece that has electric guitar techniques in it.” I'll teach the person, and I can still talk about the things they want to know. It's just a color, and it certainly has its differences, but it's just a color that I grew up with and understand. As I get older, it’s a color that I don't necessarily have to have for myself, and I’ve found the classical guitar, for me, to be much more fascinating, and there is a lot about it that that keeps my interest.
Brad: From watching your videos and listening to your work, I get the impression that you're a very romantic guitar player.
Kevin: It was Andres Segovia and Julian Bream who had a huge influence on me, huge, and I always admired that very artistic and romantic approach.
Brad: Do you think the modern guitar world is missing that kind of artistry?
Kevin: I don't really like to get into discussions about other people, but as far as what I like about Segovia, I know a lot of people have many things that they don't like about him, and I didn't know the man or study with him. He didn't call my name out in a master class like he has with other people, so I don't have that kind of direct experience with him, but what I do have experience with are his recordings and his playing, and there is really something about it. He's very loving with the playing, and spontaneous. I can never quite figure out exactly what he's going to do. Like with some people “Oh, he breaks every chord you know?”
If you listen to Segovia he doesn’t break the chords that you think he is, and he keeps the rhythm strict when you think it would be loose, and he's definitely very even, and there is something about that which I like. The fact that I'm never quite sure what's going to happen, and that's really what life is about. When you listen to Segovia or Bream, you sort of forget about everything else. They were masters at capturing a moment, and that's very hard to describe. As a teacher, it's hard for me to describe this to students, but that's what I'm interested in. As opposed to some of the modern methods which is “let's find a way to get more consistent.” I used to be very consistent in my playing, and personally I got tired of it, but that's me. It’s not for everybody, and I don't expect everybody to agree with that.
Brad: How can we work on developing that kind of expression?
Kevin: I've learned more and more about it, and I am still learning a lot about it, but what it comes down to is listening. You have to be really conscious about listening. Over the years listening has become a much deeper and more profound idea and experience. For example, when I have a student that rushes, I'll say, “listen to the duration of each note,” which often students don't listen to the duration of each note. They listen to the attack and aren’t paying attention to the aftereffect. If I can get them to open up their ears to hearing things differently, which really is what musicianship is all about, then they might find that their spirit is willing to change things from how they usually view it, or even change things from what they've been told in the past. A teacher would say to them, “When you're playing Bach, you can't play the rhythm differently than what Bach writes.” But, actually, if you listen to great keyboard players, they are comfortable in playing with the rhythm in very interesting ways. So, I try to get students to listen to what they're doing, and then also to listen to music which might be a little controversial for them, and if they can get more and more appreciative, that means that they're also listening more intently, and that will usually develop all sorts of ideas that they would have never thought of.
Brad: You used to teach at Lawrence University, how come you're not affiliated with a college anymore?
Kevin: I have nothing against university positions, but I have a real problem with the idea of structured curriculum. Everybody is uniquely different, and every lesson has to be dealt with in that moment in time. I just didn’t like trying to fit all of my students into the same box. The college was very particular on the repertoire students had to play, and I would have some students that would come in and have a great feel for early music, but when I tried to give them a little classical music like Giuliani, they wouldn’t like it, but since this was their first year, they had to do certain pieces. That kind of rigidity I have a problem with as a teacher. My favorite teachers were extremely spontaneous, and when I would come in they would ask, “What are you playing?” and I'd say, “I'm playing Malats.” We would talk about it like friends going on about this thing that we love. It was those lessons that stayed with me. Teaching is about giving enthusiasm, and if you give a student enthusiasm they're going to do fantastic, and since they are being guided by enthusiasm they may go in a direction that you never thought possible for yourself.
Brad: Do you think it's mandatory to have college credentials to make it as a classical guitarist today?
Kevin: Everything is possible. The easiest route is probably to go to college and get a degree, and especially if you want to teach at a college, but the Internet has created a different world though. You could build up a teaching studio online like many people are, and if people like you and how you teach, and you're solid, you can build up a studio all around the world online without a college degree.
Brad: You’re pretty busy on social media.
Kevin: I think social media, if you're comfortable with it, if you don't mind doing it, I think it's wonderful. It depends on how you use it. If you use social media to try to just promote yourself, it comes across as a salesman who's desperate to sell you something, but if you're using it like “This is what I love, and I would love you to know about it,” people will still get to know you, and it becomes a much more a rewarding experience. When I post about music that I like, I post about it because I like it, and I just want people to be turned on by it, because I find it fascinating, and if people like it, wonderful, and hopefully it turns them on and leads them down a path that's rewarding.
Brad: I really liked that video you did on repairing a broken nail, and all the products you use.
Kevin: I've seen other people try to do it, and it can become very complicated. I thought that I could make a simple video that might help somebody, you know, a real easy, quick fix where you don’t have to lose your entire nail.
Brad: Do you have any good stories where somebody has given you, say, maybe a dirty look or whatever because of your right-hand nails?
Kevin: Oh, God, I mean none of my girlfriends liked it. That's for sure. (laughter) One girl called them “clown nails,” when I had my ping-pong ball nails. They were white, you know, and she said, “Can you just take off those clown nails?”
Brad: You mentioned that you're changing your perspective on recording?
Kevin: I'm at a point now where I don't purchase CDs for music anymore, and most of my listening is through YouTube. I think that this is true for a lot of people. Video recording is much more interesting, and it's probably a better medium at this point in time. Not to say that CDs aren't wonderful, but for me to go and produce my own CD through Kickstarter, and then get 1000 CDs to have and try to sell, that seems like a lot more work than just making a video one night in my house. Hopefully, these videos will inspire someone at some point to take lessons or whatever, and maybe in that way there can be a monetary exchange. You don't need to have a CD; you don't need to have a DVD, and in the end people are going to burn that stuff right onto their computers anyway.
Brad: What is the future for classical guitar, and classical music for that matter?
Kevin: I think there will always be a future for classical guitar. In fact, classical music has got a very bright future. I know, a lot of people say, “Oh, but the orchestras are closing down.” Yeah, but that is only one aspect, and there are a lot of people doing some very interesting things. I just posted about Robert Hill, the keyboard player. Robert is doing some amazing things with video which would have never been possible ten years ago. He is demonstrating how he is working with his style, which is early music. What's happening in classical music is that people are starting to realize that we can free all this up. You know, we don't have to do it the way we've done it for a long time. There's a lot of freedom in classical music, and I feel that is what’s going to save it, when people realize that you can find your own way. A good example of this are the baroque lute players who are improvising introductions which are not in the pieces and approaching it more like a folk player would. To me, that's just fantastic. That really shows how much this music transcends time, and there is so much stuff you can still do with it.
.Brad: Do you think festivals are a good way to interact with students?
Kevin: Absolutely. Actually, I love to do masterclasses because the one thing I can do is give them a shot of enthusiasm, and get them back into love with playing. The hour or so that we get to talk can carry over with people for a very long time, and it can be a really cool way to share the love of music.
Brad: Being a GFA winner yourself, do you promote competitions to your students?
Kevin: No, I don't promote them. I mean, if a student comes to me and says they want to do a competition, I think OK, let's try it. I try to emphasize that it has nothing to do with the love of music, but it gives them a nice goal to work toward. It could be a way to push students to practice more, and that's fine, but as long as they see it that way. If they go to competition, thinking I'm going to make a big career on this, or everyone is going to pay attention to me, and I'm going to blah, blah, blah, they become very disappointed and very despondent, because not everybody wins. A lot of the time the people who do win, are the people who are not thinking about these kinds of things. They are usually there learning how to play, and to show off their love for playing. That's the people that tend to win in those situations. The players who have been very consistent at winning competitions were often there to calmly show off how their art was. They weren't there to try to impress; they were there simply to play their best and enjoy themselves like it was a concert. I’ve talked to a lot of winners who said, “Yeah, I just went there to have a good time, and it's great for my playing,” not this is going to make me a great success and everyone is going to love me, not that stuff. That can really mess you up. I think that people almost quit playing the guitar because they didn't win a competition. It depends on the personality, but there are many ways to jump start a career without winning competitions.
Brad: Give me two words for the following:
Kevin: The guitar.
Kevin: Drama. I'll give you one word.
Brad: Alex Walker
Kevin: Oh, God, Alex Walker. There are so many things I could say, but I'd say fearless.
Brad: Randy Rhoads.
Kevin: Randy stood out because he had such a great sense of melody.
Brad: New York City.
Brad: Classical guitar.
Kevin: Endless fascination.
Brad: Fernando Sor.
Kevin: Delicate intelligence.
Brad: Francisco Tarrega.
Kevin: Sweet and sad.
Brad: Oscar Ghiglia
Kevin: He's such a great musician. He just gets it. He's a lover of everything, and I would say a great musician and a lover.
Brad: What will we see from Kevin in the next five years?
Kevin: I'm not really one to plan, but I can say that most likely there's going to be more recording. It is hard to say because every day is different, and every day I interact with different people, and you never know where that is going to lead you. We will have to wait and see where things go, because this is how I work, and things tend to work out pretty well that way.