An exploration of all topics related to the classical guitar. Articles on guitar technique and practicing, guitar-related opportunities and many general performance and music-related topics. Articles on my students' activities and spotlight features on alumni. Easily searchable by the following tags:

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Spotlight on Alumni: Alexander Dean

Alex Dean got a very interesting job in the field of Musicology this year, with A-R Editions. I asked him for a recollection of his journey to this moment. He is one of the few students I've had who got both his BM and his MM with me in Akron. (And one of several who married the flutist they played with in Guitar Ensemble!) Alex came to me as an accomplished finger-style blues guitarist. Read where this led him...

"In the fall of 1994 I joined Stephen Aron's guitar studio as a freshman at the University of Akron. Like many Akron U guitarists, I entered with no classical training on the guitar. I knew how to read music, having played violin and sung in a church choir as a boy, and I had more recently played electric bass and fingerstyle steel-string guitar. Performing classical guitar, however, was easily the most difficult musical challenge I had ever faced. To handle the pressure of solo performance, to negotiate the technical demands of the instrument, and to navigate the stylistic diversity of the repertory—all this took a new mental discipline and an effort to remedy the somewhat slapdash understanding of classic music that I began with. Fortunately, I discovered, as so many have, that Steve embraces the responsibility of actually preparing his students for life as a musician, and he was never shy about pointing out the areas in need of a major overhaul. So I became as engrossed in music theory and history as I was in scales and arpeggios.

Alex and Melissa Dean (at the time, both U of Akron students), performing as a flute/guitar duo. 

I returned for a Master's degree, played gigs, and taught private lessons. Having found that academic work seemed to come fairly easily to me, and that I had a high tolerance for reading and score study, I began to contemplate the possibility of a Ph. D. in Musicology or Music Theory.

The question of whether such a course of study makes any practical sense, in terms of surviving in this world as a functioning adult, could be the thesis of a whole 'nother blog. Suffice it to say that if I had had any negative feelings about academic life as a Master's candidate, I would never have signed up for another 10 years of life in a library for such a small return in terms of employability. But I was engrossed in the intellectual journey that had begun in Steve's studio, was following my curiosity, and was obeying an internal conviction; a conviction that I had only just begun to learn about music, about what it is, what it means, and what it says about the meaning of human existence.

At any rate, I applied for Ph. D. programs in Musicology, choosing schools that had guitar programs as well. I spent the summer preparing for the GREs and the placement tests in theory, history, and foreign languages that would ensue were I to be accepted. I listened to Bach chorales, trying to notate them by ear, read articles in German and Italian, and strove to remember how to find the circumference of a circle. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted into the Musicology Ph. D. program at Eastman.

Beginning the Musicology Ph. D. program was in many ways a parallel experience to beginning the performance degree at Akron. I had gone into performance because I had desire and a firm but somewhat vague notion that I was good at playing music. And just as I had with guitar, I found with musicology that there were serious issues with scholarship and writing that I had to address if I was to make a go of this new endeavor. And as in Steve's studio, the faculty and students at Eastman were dedicated to doing the real thing, not a simulation. Although learning the guitar well enough to play Master's level repertoire on stage had been the hardest thing I had done to that point, writing a dissertation was at least as hard. I became interested in a peculiarity of seventeenth-century guitar notation. In fact, it was one chord that started me on my dissertation topic. In puzzling out the meaning of that one chord, I ended up with a book-length study. So it goes in musicology.

Alex Dean's GFA 2005 Lecture

I also had the opportunity while at Eastman to study with Nicholas Goluses and Paul O'Dette. Continuing to play guitar was difficult with so much in the way of reading and writing in my schedule. Playing in Nick Goluses's studio (which I only did infrequently) was doubly daunting, not only because I had less time to keep my own technique up, but also given the skill of the other students. I saw incoming freshmen sit down, nervously wiping hands on pants, only to play a Bach suite without missing a note . . . So that was also good for me, a bit of cold water on the face.

During and after dissertation writing, of course, comes the struggle to make a living, and the bizarre roller-coaster of the academic job search. I did quite a bit of teaching as an adjunct, and once in a one-year full-time position. There is an almost surreal disparity between the ease of getting adjunct work and the difficulty of landing a tenure-track job, given that the two are basically the same work: the same classrooms, the same students, the same courses (more or less). Once a department chair stuck his head into the classroom and asked if I could teach world music. I barely got a response out before he said “great, you can start next semester” and walked off. All this while I was going through hurdles in the tenure-track search that resemble getting security clearance to work at Area 51. 

But the job at A-R Editions opened up in 2011. By that time (3 years on the market) I had only made it to the on-campus interview stage once (along with various phone interviews, one video interview, and a few requests for more material). I knew A-R, of course, from my studies—I had often turned to the shelves containing the various Recent Researches series as a graduate student. The possibility of working on historical editions full-time was intriguing, as I have always loved deciphering various kinds of musical notation. Part of the application was a practice proofreading assignment, both text and music. I was already pretty used to proofreading text, and used to studying scores, but I hadn't really spent time proofreading scores, per se, except for those I had transcribed myself. The “assignment” turned out to be kind of fun, actually, although not everyone would think so, I imagine. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the offices in Middleton, WI (close to Madison) for an interview.

I should explain, for those unfamiliar with A-R, how unusual the company is. There are a few publishing houses doing historical editions of music, and fewer still who specialize in it. Many of the major scholarly editions of music, such as the Neue Bach Ausgabe, etc., are done as discrete projects with independent funding, and, of course, a team of specialists for that particular composer or repertoire. At A-R, however, there is a team of musicologists who copyedit each and every project, from medieval through twentieth-century music. Each volume is edited by an outside specialist, but the internal copyeditors need to be fully conversant with the repertory, the style, the notation, and the secondary scholarship to bring the project into line with our other editions and to solve the various puzzles and challenges that necessarily come with any historical edition. So it was an honor to be asked to join this team, as well as a case of being in the right place at the right time. It was also a step out of academia into an office environment, although we rely on academic libraries and academic scholars for our business. And my daily work makes use of the skills I acquired as a performer, teacher, and scholar. Although I am not on the concert stage these days, I could not have gotten where I am without the mindset that was cultivated in the guitar studio at Akron U, which was always about being a musician, not just a guitarist."

Alex and Melissa today, with a growing family!

Guest Artist: Rovshan Mamedkuliev Teaches in Oberlin

Smith and Logan play Collage