By: Matt Warnock
Armenian born guitarist Gohar Vardanyan is making waves in the classical music world as she steps out from her successful tenure as a student at some of the world’s most prestigious musical institutions and embarks on what is sure to be a long and successful career. After graduating from the Interlochen Academy of the Arts, Vardanyan went on to study at both the Peabody Conservatory and the Juilliard School, where she received her Bachelors and Masters of Music Performance respectively. With a pedigree of this quality it’s no wonder that her playing is drawing attention everywhere she performs.
With a musicality and emotional quality in her playing that one would expect from someone much older than the young wunderkind, Vardanyan is the complete package. Not only is she able to draw you into her performances with engaging musical interpretations, but she has the technical facility that is required of any concert level guitarist. Vardanyan recently signed on as a Strings by Mail sponsored artist, joined fellow classical virtuoso Matt Palmer, and has embarked on her first tour sponsored by the company. If you get a chance to catch her live on one of her tour stops take it, you definitely won’t be disappointed.
Guitar International recently caught up with Gohar Vardanyan to talk about her guitars, growing up in Armenia and working with Strings by Mail on her latest tour.
Matt Warnock: You grew up in Armenia but went to college in the U.S. to study music. Are there many differences in how music is taught in these two countries, and as you now teach, do you prefer one method over the other?
Gohar Vardanyan: It’s difficult for me to compare the two countries, because I didn’t have a typical music education in Armenia. I was taught by my father, and when education is in the family, nothing really fits the norm. When I was a child, I never practiced in a traditional sense of the word. My father was present for every second that I had the guitar in my hands, so I guess that would qualify as having daily lessons. I did take violin lessons at a music school, and one thing that was different from American music preparatory programs was the frequency of private lessons.
In the U.S. the standard is once a week. In music schools in Armenia, before conservatory training, lessons are taught twice a week for 45 minutes to an hour. I think this is the best approach for early development, especially for technical skills. When a child begins to learn an instrument, the frequent involvement of the teacher is crucial for accurate development of hand position and technique. I wish I could teach my young students twice a week, but it’s difficult to ask parents and students to devote two days a week to guitar, when they’re already busy with so many other after school programs.
Matt: Society has come a long way with equal rights in recent decades, but there still seems to be a glass ceiling for women in the guitar world, who are often not given the same credit as their male counterparts. Have you experienced any negativity from the press, concert halls or your peers because you’re a woman trying to make a living in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men?
Gohar Vardanyan: Personally, I haven’t experienced any negativity based on my gender, or at least none that I am aware of. Everyone that I’ve worked with has treated me equally and based on my abilities as a guitarist, not a female guitarist. Then again, I’m in the beginning of my career and who knows what I’ll encounter in the future. This might be a more idealistic way of looking at it, but I think for musicians the true test comes when we’re on stage and we do our thing. If people are really being honest with themselves, they know the difference between good and bad, and I don’t think that’s necessarily based on gender.
If someone is having a negative reaction towards a performance that is clearly on a very high level, I think it’s more often than not their own insecurities or jealousy coming through. It’s wonderful to see that there are more and more great female guitarists in the world today, and hopefully in another couple of decades stereotypes and discrimination will be a thing of the past altogether.
Matt: You’re currently in the process of trying to move to the U.S. permanently. Why have you chosen the U.S. as your preferred country of residence? As well, even though other places in the world, such as Europe and Asia, have strong classical guitar scenes, in your opinion is the U.S. the best place to be for a young, up and coming guitarist today?
Gohar Vardanyan: I think the best place for a young, up and coming guitarist is where they have the best support system, both personally and professionally. The classical guitar has come a long way in the last century, spreading from Europe to the rest of the world. There are brilliant pedagogues and wonderful performers everywhere.
However, for me, living in a certain place is not only about playing the guitar, but also about living, understanding the society, the mentality, the culture, feeling like I belong. I spent my childhood in Armenia, but my education and my development into an adult has been in the U.S. Even a simple thing as language, though my native language is Armenian, I think in English. Having gone to school here for so many years, I’ve developed friendships, both personal and professional that I would like to continue.
It would be difficult for me to start a new life in a new place, even if that place had a strong classical guitar scene. Also, the best thing about the U.S. is that people care less about your nationality and more about the quality of the work that you produce. That’s very important for artists, because in my opinion, music or any art form has no borders.
Matt: With all of the concerts that you’re doing, as well as teaching privately, how do you find time to learn a new program of music, and how often do you change your tour program?
Gohar Vardanyan: For this Strings By Mail Sponsored Tour, I have a 90 minute program that I adjust for each concert, depending on the preferred format and length. Since this is my first concert tour, I haven’t yet had a chance to change my program entirely. The more each piece is performed, the more it settles and matures.
Even just a few concerts into the tour I already felt more comfortable with the repertoire. Now being half way through, I notice that even the most difficult pieces on the program require less practice time to stay in performance shape. It allows more time to work on new pieces, which is great, not only for building my repertoire, but also for keeping my sanity. Practicing the same pieces for too long can be very tiring and actually has a negative effect on the outcome where I tend to become less focused.
New pieces however, always keep me on my toes. Ideally it’d be nice to change the entire program every year, but depending on the difficulty of the repertoire it’s not always possible. Instead of learning completely new pieces, I’m also bringing back pieces that I’ve played years ago. These require less time to bring up to performance shape, yet are still just as fresh.
Matt: You have a lot of popular videos on YouTube, as well as a busy concert schedule, are there plans for a recording in 2011?
Gohar Vardanyan: I do have plans to release a recording in the next couple of years, though I don’t think it’ll be in 2011. Since it will be my first commercial recording, I want to be certain about its quality and repertoire choice. So it might take a little time.
Matt: Who makes your guitars and why do you choose to play those guitars?
Gohar Vardanyan: I play on a 2003 arched top German Vazquez Rubio guitar. I chose this instrument for its powerful yet clean and balanced sound, for its rich basses, good intonation and general volume. But the most important thing for me is for the guitar to be comfortable to play, and that can mean different things to different people. Of course I like an easy to press fingerboard, but I’m also sensitive to the spacing between strings, especially in the right hand.
Even though I have relatively small hands, I prefer a slightly wider spacing between strings. Also, to me it’s very important for the guitar to project, especially for live performances. Choosing a guitar can be difficult and very individual. This guitar and I just clicked, its sound, its measurements, it was like love at first sight.
Matt: You recently signed as a Strings by Mail artist, why did you choose to work with SBM and how has that relationship been going so far?
Gohar Vardanyan: I feel very lucky to be one of the SBM Sponsored Artists. As you know, John Wunsch was my teacher and mentor at Interlochen and I was very excited for the opportunity to work with him on my first tour. The relationship is going great. I have a more hands on part in the planning of dates and communicating with presenters, which I’m enjoying, because I’m learning a lot about the inner workings of tour organization.
Matt: I noticed that you have 3 articles published on the Mel Bay Sessions website. Is this something that you are going to continue to do, write articles, and is this something that you’ve always enjoyed or is it a new thing for you?
Gohar Vardanyan: I never thought myself to be much of a writer. I’ve always dreaded writing essays in college. So when I was asked to write an article for Guitar Sessions I was at first hesitant, but then I thought I would give it a try. I have really enjoyed writing all three of those articles, and there is a forth one on the way. It’s a great way to share my knowledge and interests and definitely something I would like to continue to do.