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Spotlight on Alumni: Christopher Mallett

Spotlight on Alumni: Christopher Mallett

Chris came to Oberlin as a transfer student in 2005. It was quickly apparent he had a special talent and gift on the guitar. He has an irresistibly positive outlook on life and was an upbeat influence on the studio. Later, after he finished at Yale, I invited his ensemble back to Oberlin as guest artists--"Duo Noire'"were the model of a professional duo. It was great to see him again. Check out his activities and many successes:

Chris Mallett today

My parents came home with my first electric guitar when I was in 8th

grade and like many young guitarists, my dream was to someday become the next huge rock star. Being a young guitarist in San Diego in the late '90’s meant two things; you almost always had to have a band and the band had to sound like Blink 182. During my high school years, my musical preferences started to change, and I began listening to more heavy metal. As my time in high school was coming to an end, I decided I wanted to pursue music as a career.

Since I had never taken guitar lessons, or in fact had had any formal music training, I contacted Grossmont College because I'd heard that they had a good music program. When they asked me whether I would like to study jazz or classical guitar, I of course decided to pursue classical guitar since I felt it would improve my chops as a neo-classical metal shredder!

Chris in a band, as a high school freshman


At Grossmont I met the first two guitar teachers who would have a pivotal influence in my life as a musician, Fred Benedetti and George Svoboda. Grossmont had a thriving classical guitar department with well over a dozen guitar majors who were transferring to major universities and conservatories (Grossmont is a two-year school). After my first year at Grossmont, I almost completely forgot about my electric guitar and was now spending many hours each day practicing my classical guitar. There were plenty of opportunities to perform at Grossmont, both solo and ensemble and the faculty there was caring and committed to their students. As Fred and George helped me prepare for my auditions, I knew I wanted to attend a conservatory. Looking at the list of conservatories across the US was overwhelming and I knew I couldn’t go to more than a few auditions, so when I saw Oberlin Conservatory was holding a regional audition in San Diego, I jumped at the opportunity: it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Coming to Oberlin from San Diego was a real culture shock. I'd spent my entire life in a large city with warm weather and had never spent more than a couple of days in the snow. One thing I quickly realized once I got to Oberlin was that when winter rolls around, you spend a lot more time in the practice room! In all seriousness, Oberlin is one the most inspiring places I have ever been. Studying with Steve was such a great experience. Every week I knew that when I walked into my lesson with Steve, I would come out not only a better guitarist, but also a better musician. Each week in Studio Class, Steve would coach every student who performed, but he also expected the students to comment on each other’s performances, which led to interesting discussions. Every semester, at our chamber music concerts, fellow guitar classmate Douglas Pace would perform a mind-blowing magic act at intermission, a routine that definitely helped make our concerts some of the best attended at Oberlin.

Chris playing for Ricardo Cobo at Oberlin GFA, 2005

Steve always expected his students to go well beyond the minimum requirements. Since I transferred to Oberlin as a junior, I only performed two one-hour solo recitals, my junior recital and senior recital, but I remember Steve having his freshman students also prepare full recitals. Steve always worked tirelessly to bring in amazing guest artists; some of the ones I remember coming while I was there were Dusan Bogdanovic, Benjamin Verdery, Jason Vieaux and William Kannengiser. I was also lucky enough to start at Oberlin in 2005 when Steve was directing the GFA Convention, which took place at Oberlin that year. It was the first GFA that I had attended. The entire studio volunteered during the week with countless tasks, and we really got to see what happens behind the scenes at one of the largest guitar festivals in the world. It was an inspiration to not only see some of my favorite guitarists finally perform in concert, but to also hang out and discuss music with them. The concerts and competition weren’t the only popular events at the GFA that year; I was also in the audience when William Kanengiser premiered his hilarious comedy routine in which he impersonated some of the guitar's most famous personalities.

Still, my fondest memory of Oberlin was being in a studio with such fantastic guitarists who still remain my friends to this day. I can honestly say that they all felt like family.

After Oberlin I attended Yale University, where I studied with Benjamin Verdery. Studying with Ben at Yale was an incredible experience. Ben was such a creative and fun person to be around; each lesson was guaranteed to be packed full of energy. He always had an endless stream of of wild ideas for the music I was working on. After each lesson I would practice what we talked about, and somehow his ideas worked perfectly. Ben helped me realize that there is so much more to the music than what is just written on the page, and that it is okay to sometimes bend the rules.

It was also refreshing to hear Ben yell “MY DUDE!” every time he saw you down the hall. 

Chris with Benjamin Verdery while at Yale

While at Yale, I formed a guitar duo with classmate Thomas Flippin, and, being the first two African American students in the guitar department, we decided to call ourselves Duo Noire. During my second year in the program, we received the Alumni Ventures Grant from the University to do twelve outreach concerts and lectures in inner city schools and libraries throughout New England and New York. This was my first exposure to doing outreach work with children in schools. I still continue this activity with Duo Noire; we have done extensive work with children in St. Louis for several years now, through the St. Louis Guitar Society.

Chris and Thomas Flippin with the St. Louis group.

While at Yale I had started to become interested in the Suzuki Method and after I graduated, I started teaching at the Longay Conservatory in Santa Clara, California. There, I had intensive training in the Suzuki method with Suzuki guitar pioneer, Frank Longay. After Frank’s untimely and sudden passing in January 2011, I was faced with two choices, to the let the school dissolve, or to keep the program alive. After much support from the students and their families, my colleague and fellow teacher at Longay Conservatory, Robert Miller and I decided to start our own school. We were very fortunate to be able to start a business in Silicon Valley, and we were lucky to have some resources at our disposal. Some of our student’s parents who are business owners met with us and gave us a crash course in starting a business. Finally after several months of hard work, we opened the California Conservatory in June 2011. We now have over 120 students and there are a total of five teachers on staff. Our students recently won the GFA ensemble showcase audition and were invited to perform at the GFA last June. We model our school after a traditional music conservatory: we offer music theory classes, guitar ensemble, performance classes, and master classes from guest artists. Robert and I are also co-directors of the Peninsula Guitar Series, which is now in its 3rd season. Some of the artists we have had on our series include, Grisha Goryachev, Rene Izquierdo and Marc Teicholz.

Chris, Robert Miller and fellow faculty with California Conservatory students

California Conservatory Spring Concert

On top of running a business and teaching full-time, I fortunately still find time to actually play guitar. I just returned from my 3rd trip to Southeast Asia, performing in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia with DuoSF, my guitar duo with my teaching partner, Robert Miller. I am currently preparing to go back and do more outreach with Duo Noire in St. Louis. This trip will be our 3rd time in St. Louis; it has been unbelievable to see the guitar programs within the schools continue to flourish there. I also recently released albums with both DuoSF and Duo Noire. In addition, this year saw the release of my debut solo CD.

Chris with Robert Miller in Thailand

My solo album entitled, “the Porcelain Tower” contains works by Nikita Koshkin (composer of the title track), Jorge Morel, Dusan Bogdanovic, Regino Sainz de la Maza, Lennox Berkeley and Heitor Villa Lobos. It was recorded in Santa Cruz, CA at Bear Creek Studio and was engineered and edited by the amazing William Coulter. In this effort, I set out to record an album that contained some of my favorite works for the guitar.

“Corta Jaca” was recorded with DuoSF and consists of music from South America and Spain. It includes works by Radames Gnattali, Astor Piazzolla, Paulo Bellinati, Sergio Assad, Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados. We recorded it at St. Andrew’s Church; it was engineered and edited with Vince Go of VGo recordings in San Bruno, CA.

My album with Duo Noire contains a six-movement work by the New York-based composer Raymond Lustig entitled “Figments.” Thomas and I met Ray at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in 2007. Each guitarist was paired up with a composer and had one week to prepare and perform the composer’s work. Thomas and I were paired up with Ray; at that time there was only one Figment in existence. We kept in touch with and formed a lasting friendship with Ray, who ended up composing five more Figments for us. We recorded Figments at Oktaven Studio in NYC with Ryan Streber in 2012.

I feel very lucky to have studied at Oberlin and Yale and to have developed long lasting relationships with my guitar professors. Steve has been extremely supportive since I graduated from Oberlin and has continued to give me advice that has helped my career as a performer and teacher tremendously. I hope to be as good a mentor to my students.

On Phrasing

On Phrasing

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