Notebook: Fenton's Interview with Nathan!
Here’s what Nathan had to say:
Classical guitar is quite popular around the world, especially in Europe and South America. Interestingly, classical guitar was actually rather late to catch on in America and Canada and only really started to become popular in the 1950s.
Classical guitar goes back for centuries in Europe, and if you went to most European countries and told someone that you played “guitar” they would most likely assume that you mean ‘classical guitar’. Nylon string guitars (which are what we use to play classical guitar) are the default type of guitar in many Central and South American folk music styles. Classical guitar is also catching on in Eastern Asian countries as well, with China being one of the fastest growing markets for classical guitar music.
Is that how you make such beautiful sounds on the guitar?
A big part of learning to play any instrument is a concept called “tone production.” This means learning how to produce a beautiful sound on your instrument, and it can take years to master!
For guitarists, a large part of tone production is learning how to properly shape and care for the fingernails on the hand that plucks the strings (usually our dominant hand, so for me it is my right hand). I spent many lessons with different teachers over the years learning how to file my nails into a certain shape and smooth them out with sandpaper so that when I pluck a note it sounds round, full, and clear.
I now have many students working on their nails and tone production with me and every one of them has slightly different fingers and nails, which requires different approaches to shaping their nails to get a good tone. It is something that is very unique to every player, and something that I never stop learning about as I continue to practice and experiment with different approaches.
What else do you like about playing classical music on the guitar?
The guitar is an instrument that exists in many genres, including rock, jazz, folk, country, Latin music, and even hiphop. However, in these genres the guitar is often part of an ensemble (a group of musicians) and has a specific job in creating the overall sound. Often this role is rhythmic or harmonic (strumming chords for the singer, matching the beat of the drummer to enhance the rhythm), but in some contexts the guitar can take on a lead role and play melodies, such as in rock and jazz music.
However, classical is one of the few genres where the guitar can do everything on its own. In classical music I can play the melody, the harmony (chords), and the rhythm all on one instrument and it is so much fun! Trying to fit all of these elements of music onto the guitar is like solving a little puzzle with each piece I play or write and that challenge is what keeps me hooked on the genre.
Could you please talk about what inspired you to play the guitar?
I think I originally wanted to play guitar because my older brother played piano and I wanted to do something different. At first I was playing folk guitar, and learning how to strum chords and play campfire songs. However, I know that my first real guitar teacher, Peter Baime, was my inspiration to pick up classical guitar. He was a flamenco guitarist (traditional Spanish folk music) and seeing all the sounds and music he could play on just one guitar inspired me to pick up classical guitar and I never looked back.
What piece do you like playing best?
It is difficult to choose only one, but I think the pieces that I tend to enjoy playing the most are the ones that have a personal connection. The circumstances around which I performed certain pieces become attached to the music in my mind, so that every time I play that particular piece I feel a connection to that memorable moment.
One piece that I have a special connection to is Romanza, which I played for my grandmother the day before she passed away. Whenever I perform this piece it reminds me of all the good times I had with her and the memories of her final days with the family. It is a bit sad, but also happy. The best things in life often make you feel both at one time or another.
Do you usually perform by yourself or with other people?
These days I mostly perform with my ensemble, the Ottawa Guitar Trio. Live performances have been rare over the past year, but as concerts start up again I hope to get some solo performance opportunities as well.
I think my strength as a player is in playing in ensembles with other musicians. I enjoy the way that members of an ensemble have to work together and react to how the others are playing to create something larger than any one player.
When you play with the same people regularly you start to develop a chemistry where everything becomes instinctive and you can just listen, react, and play instead of having to think about what you are doing. That is how we are with the Ottawa Guitar Trio, and it makes playing with them so much fun.
Do you compose or perform more often?
These days I do more recording and arranging than composing or performing. Performances have been off and on as lockdowns come and go, and I have actually found it difficult to write any new music since the pandemic started. I think it is a side effect of the stress and isolation of pandemic life, so I hope composition will start to come back as restrictions continue to lift. Arranging pre-existing music by other composers for my guitar trio has been one creative outlet that sort of scratches the same itch as composition, and it is a bit easier because it gives me a starting point to work off of.
You can hear some of my arrangements on my trio’s Youtube Channel. Not every piece on there is my own arrangement, but some of them are. We have been recording our arrangements over distance during the pandemic to keep busy, but we actually have a few concerts lined up for the spring!
How many compositions have you written?
If my website is accurate (and I haven’t updated it in a while so I’m not entirely sure) then the answer is 11. I only really got into composition when I was 18 or so, so that comes out to around one piece per year. Compared to many famous composers that is a very low output! But I am content to work and learn at my own pace!
Have you won any awards?
I have entered a few pieces into competitions, with varying levels of success. My piece Astral Projection won first prize in the Ottawa Guitar Society Composition Competition, and my Hommage au Paulo Bellinati won second prize at the Miami International GuitArt festival in 2016. My arrangement of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1 was a finalist in the Roland Dyens Arrangement Competition in 2017.
As a performer I have placed in a few competitions over the years, including first prize at the 2015 Sharon Lynn Wilson Center Competition, and 2nd prize in the 2016 Tennessee Guitar Festival and 2017 Appalachian Guitar Festival.
These types of awards are a nice pat on the back, but they are no substitute for having an active performance career as a musician. I think the connections I have made with other musicians attending these competitions has mattered more for my career than the awards themselves. I actually met my duo partner Michael Ibsen at a competition in Montreal!
Is your music popular in other countries?
According to analytics on my website, people have purchased my compositions and arrangements in Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Singapore, Russia, and the UK. The top 10 countries watching Ottawa Guitar Trio [on YouTube] after Canada and the US are Brazil, the UK, Japan, Mexico, Croatia, Belgium, Argentina, Germany, France, and Russia. For my solo YouTube channel the top 10 countries after Canada and the US are South Korea, Italy, Slovenia, Singapore, France, Portugal, Argentina, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Germany.
What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
I would really like to play some sort of concerto one day. A Concerto is a piece for orchestra and a soloist (or group of soloists). There are a few concerti written for guitar or guitar quartet, but I would love to one day commission or write a concerto for orchestra and guitar trio to play with the Ottawa Guitar Trio.
I have always wondered what it is like to be on the stage playing as part of an ensemble as large as an orchestra (traditionally guitars are not part of a standard orchestra), and that would be one way to find out!
Wow, I can’t wait to hear what you do next. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer all of my questions.