In Conversation: Andrew Blanch

In Conversation: Andrew Blanch

On competitions, time management and staying up all night to record an album.

In Conversation: Andrew Blanch

On competitions, time management and staying up all night to record an album.

You recently returned to the Melbourne International Guitar Festival as a past winner of the major competition. Can you tell us about your competition experiences as a classical guitarist and the value of performing in this environment?

On the whole, my experience with competitions has been really positive – and that includes all the ones where I walked without any ‘prize’ per say. It sounds cliché, but I think competitions are what you make of them. The best piece of advice I received about competitions was to enter to win. The implication being that you will turn up on the day with many, many months of consistent and intelligent preparation. When you give it your all in this way it becomes more about how much you can get out of yourself and how much you can improve rather than the external measurement of what any jury happens to think of your playing. 

The only caveat I would add - for classical guitarists in particular – is not to get tunnel vision. Bela Bartok famously said competitions are for horses, not artists… I’m not sure they’re for horses either, but setting that to one side I couldn’t agree with the sentiment more. For some inexplicable reason, competitions have become ubiquitous in the classical guitar world, and for this reason, they seem to occupy an undue amount of space in the ambitions of young guitarists. I think if your main musical aspirations are to win competitions you’re going to have a bad time. Commonsense stuff really, excluding certain exceptional circumstances, if you’re going to do them, they should really be one smallish part of your overall musical activities. They’re no substitute for a good teacher, a Bachelor or Masters degree, playing chamber music with others, reading and learning as much as you can about music and so on.  

As well as performing, you also give masterclasses for young guitarists, offering them your insights into performance, collaboration and touring. In your experience, what makes a great master class?

It’s really hard to put it into only a few words. I think at the heart of a great master class is a great teacher, and I think we all recognize a great teacher when we see one in action. Psychologically a masterclass is a bit of a dangerous situation for the student, and the teacher really needs to approach that situation with respect. I’ve seen ‘maestros’ tear down nervous young musicians doing their best in masterclasses and I find that absolutely appalling. 

One small general observation is, I think students, and teachers perhaps as well, frequently attribute errors in fluency and so on to this thing we call ‘technique’. I find errors in fluency are more often than we realize just symptoms of an underlying lack of musical clarity and understanding around things such as rhythm, style, melody, harmony, the role of different voices in a texture and so on. Often the best masterclasses I see, are when a student realizes how much more they’re capable of once they understand some important fundamental aspect of the piece they’re working on. 

Your debut CD, Spanish Guitar Music, has been incredibly popular amongst listeners and critics. Could you tell me about programming the disc and what the recording process looked like?

The general purpose behind my programming choice was to provide a mixture of old favourites with some lesser-known gems, packaged in a way that would have broad appeal. We have a bit of a joke in my family that often gets told - I sent around a group email asking everyone for a CD title. Everyone sent back a mixture of lovely suggestions such as: Portraits of Spain, Impressions of Spain, A Spanish Journey, Reflections of Spain, Evocation – all in some way at least a little creative and imaginative. Several months later I reply to everyone thanking them for their suggestions before saying I’ve decided to title the CD ‘Spanish Guitar Music’. Fast-forward a little while, and among the very first reviews comes back from David Hurwitz in New York for Classics Today giving the CD 9/10 and specifically noting how much he appreciated the plain title:

The disc promises “Spanish Guitar Music,” and that is just what we get: guitar music by Spanish composers or inspired by Spanish subjects. No stupid titles (“Moonlight Over Seville,” “My Spanish Soul,” “Impresiones Místicas”), no pretension, no pseudo-profundity or foolishness: just good music.”

Thank goodness I didn’t go with any of those stupid titles suggested by dear family members!

As far as the recording process went, we recorded it in three nights from 11pm to about 3am, finishing in the wee hours of Christmas Eve! Far from ideal, but we had the studio for free, on the condition we wait until the building shut down and could turn the noisy air conditioner off… There were a few times we had to stop for about half an hour or so for the midnight cicadas to quieten down. We also ran short of time; the CD was supposed to be three tracks longer with a few preludes by Francisco Tarrega. Extremely grateful to have had Timothy Kain so kindly sit in on the sessions, coaching me through it, particularly at Christmas time – peak family time no less!  

Having performed in performances both around Australia and overseas in Europe, America and the United Kingdom, what have you learnt about creating a balanced freelance performance career, particularly when you spend so much time on the road?

I don’t think I’m the person to answer this question, balance is not really a word in my vocabulary! It’s incredible what some people manage to achieve in their time considering we all have the same amount of hours in the day. There’s a book called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey that looks at the time management of many ‘greats’ of different fields: artists, writers, scientists, politicians etc. Recommended reading if you’re interested in this sort of stuff! Some writers have been mind-bogglingly productive with only a few hours dedicated to writing each day. 

That’s got to be one of the great challenges of this career, you want space and peace around you to think and reflect and make meaningful music. But at the same time, there’s this constant humdrum of chores to do and emails to answer. I’m slowly learning some little tricks that work for me. When I have a monster of emails piled up, I’ll go to a café to work and order a nice big coffee as motivation. I also practice outside quite a lot. I find it easier to have a clear head when I’m practising outside. Sometimes if I’m inside all day, when I pick up the guitar I can’t stop thinking about other things I have to do, and then I’m not thinking about the practice I’m doing.

For young guitarists getting started in the classical music industry, what advice do you have about forging a freelance creative career? Is there anything about your work now that you wish you’d known when you were getting started?

There’s nothing at this stage I wish I knew that I didn’t already know. I was fortunate that some older musicians gave me plenty of forewarning that you need to do a lot more than just play well to succeed. I was recommended a couple books in my undergraduate that were as good a starting point as any, Beyond Talent by Angela Beeching and the Savvy Musican by David Cutler.

We’ve heard you have some exciting projects coming up for the rest of 2017 – can you tell us where else can we hear you live for the rest of the year?

Well at this point not much left for 2017, a few concerts here and there – including on Kangaroo Island! The most exciting thing still to come this year must be my recital at the Sydney Opera House in the Utzon Room on Friday 17th November. Tickets are sold out I’m afraid, although if you’re really keen you can try booking on the actual day – there may be a handful of tickets that become available. Other than that, plenty of playing on the books for next year, mostly chamber stuff. Sydney-siders can catch me in March next year in a concert at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney, with Ariel Nurhadi and Jose Carbo, performing our own arrangements for two guitars and voice of traditional classical vocal repertoire. In that month as well the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra are doing Nigel Westlake’s Antarctica Suite for guitar and orchestra, and I’m really fortunate to be playing the guitar part with Nigel at the conductor’s helm. Not quite this year I’m afraid, but that’s the best I could do!