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Guest Artists: Bringing the World to Your Doorstep

When I was hired at the University of Akron, one of the first things I did was to establish our "International Guitar Series." In my first year, we hosted David Russell. In my second year, my guests included David Russell again, as well as Manuel Barrueco and David Leisner. The series has continued uninterrupted to this day.

Why go to the trouble to put on these concerts? What purpose does it serve and who does it benefit? And how does one go about doing it?

When I was a student, one of the biggest events, and the most memorable experiences I had was watching and playing for guest artists. My master class experiences were indelible. I can recall in minute detail  how the teachers looked when they said certain things, how they sounded when they demonstrated on their instruments, what interested them, what they focused on, their advice. And of course, watching them in concert was like receiving an encyclopedia of new information, all at once. These concerts made very strong impressions on me when I was studying. I still remember many of the pieces that were programmed by the guests we had at that time. I wanted to bring this incredibly rich experience into the lives of my students. 

Yes, the rich array of performance videos available now on YouTube has changed the calculus. We are so used to accessing video footage of our favorite performer or piece, free and instantly, that attending live performances seems less urgent. Similarly, the ubiquity of online teaching tools and advice (this blog included) seems to render master classes less uniquely important. 

But everyone will admit when pressed that seeing someone play live, that being in the room, in the moment, is an experience categorically unlike watching a video. And that being taught, face-to-face, by a touring professional artist in a public forum like a master class is also categorically unlike reading a post or watching a tutorial. These are rich, multifaceted experiences that can change the lives (or at least the interpretations) of those in attendance. So I have always prioritized these experiences for my students. 

As a young, new faculty, I realized that guest artists had to be a part of the "master plan." My posting was at a mid-level state university. It did not have a big reputation in music and no local chamber music series was about to include guitarists, at least not with the frequency I wanted to see them come. I realized from the start that while I felt my student's activities were notable, they were not particularly press-worthy, but a concert by a visiting artist was. Every guest concert I produced yielded newspaper coverage; people who'd never before entered the building became regular concert goers at our series. People were suddenly driving over fifty miles to come to the University of Akron: before long, my efforts had turned the school into an arts destination.

It's not fair to imply there were no other activities going on as well. There were. But when it became apparent that there were more guitar guest recitals at UA than there were all other guests combined, every year, people noticed. 

As to the impact it had on the students, it was obvious. They were exposed to countless points of view, often ones diverging totally from my own, all to their long-term advantage. They got many fascinating lessons and insights about all aspects of playing. They met, played for and went out for after-concert libations with the visiting artists, often resulting in long-term friendships. In the process they effectively auditioned the teachers at numerous programs for possible later advanced study, making that audition process much easier. They were exposed to countless unfamiliar works on stage, and were able to hear new, fresh interpretations of familiar works, live. They saw a myriad of styles of presentation, of stage manner, from the theatrically flamboyant to the studiously academic. They heard a wide array of different builder's instruments both up close and on stage. 

Particularly gratifying for me as the teacher, was the inevitable master class epiphany when the student is told by the guest "practice it slowly" and, even though I've said it to them hundreds of times already, they finally hear it. Every teacher has unique ways of presenting ideas: some are facile with colorful metaphors, some tell pithy stories, some are physical, bouncing around the room like dancers, some quietly reference historical treatises, some simply demonstrate and say "like this." As we all learn in different ways, this range of methods truly helps students to absorb concepts.. 

We determine in advance who will play for the guest teacher. The chosen students prepare as if for a major performance (in many ways, it is). They practice harder than usual and, consequently, they improve. The remaining students, the "auditors," are free to watch each lesson with equal attention, taking notes or recording if they are wise. They are not encumbered by the nerves and personal preparations associated with playing so they can concentrate freely on what's being said. So master classes are win-win experiences for the entire studio. 

I discovered immediately at U Akron that special funding was available for student clubs. So we formed the Guitar Club and elected a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer from the studio. Our applications for funding have met with varied success from year to year but tend to range between $3K and $5K. In addition, at least until a couple of years ago, the School of Music would usually add another $1-2000 to the pot. For many years, we charged a modest admission, but abandoned it as the monies collected seldom made up much of what we spent. So the concerts are free. At Oberlin I did the same thing and the resources we are offered there are generally more generous. My colleagues look on in admiration and envy when there are four-times as many guest guitarists than there are guests in other areas. 

There have sometimes been students who get the entrepreneurial itch, who want to act directly as presenters themselves. I think this is brilliant and encourage it. On the campuses there are rooms the students can sign out for "ad hoc" events. They invite a really great student from another institution to give a recital. They arrange the advertising, posters, programs, invite their friends. They sometimes arrange to get invited to play at the guest's school in return, as a friendly trade. Everybody wins in this type of effort. Local students in both schools get to hear someone new. Both performers get a terrific new venue to play in and are treated as pros. 

Most college guitar programs now make efforts to host guests. Doing so is a vital service to performers, offering venues and performance opportunities, and a boon to the educational efforts of the teachers. As a long-time presenter, teacher, and performing artist, all, this type of effort has been a lynchpin of all three aspects of my career. 

In my next post on guest artists, I will present a list of every guest I've presented in concert and master class in my entire career...
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