I have been a big classical guitar enthusiast since I was a kid. I remember going to a record store “promotional concert” in Austin, Texas at Zebra Records on Burnet Rd in 1974, and I saw Liona Boyd perform. I got to meet her afterwards and she made a big impression on me. Fast forward several decades when I meet John Svoboda, a classical guitarist who performs and teaches here in the Kansas City metro area. John performed with the Independence Symphony one season where I am a violinist and I met him through that concert. He has been a friend since then. John is an exceptional musician, arranger, and teacher. I recently sat down with him to talk about classical music.
TH: Tell me how you got your start in classical guitar?
JS: Growing up my dad would listen to symphony music while we’d walk through the house and we’d see him laying on the floor with his eyes closed listening to it. I knew something was cool about it but I didn’t really get it. Now my brother, who was my greatest influence musically in my life, put on John Williams playing Leyenda (because they used a portion of it in the Doors song “Spanish Caravan”. I really had one of those moments of “if I could do that I would never ask for anything again for Christmas…”(laughter).
What got me with the classical guitar was the actual playing of the guitar…not necessarily the classical music, but as I look back I know it was the expertise in composition that made playing the guitar at that level so cool….so complete…the compositions were so rich. They weren’t just blues licks, which I adore, but it was beyond that. And to hear it done on a guitar…really it was the challenge I enjoyed about that…how difficult that must have been but yet….musical.
TH: You mentioned your brother and your parents being influential…were there any other people who guided you or influenced you?
JS: My parents influenced me indirectly. They let us play music all the time in our house. Even the stuff they really did not like…Geddy Lee’s high voice…they would just say “please turn it down” rather than “turn it off”. So we had music flowing in our life from day one. When I was 18 I met my first real influential teacher who was Don Kile. He’s the one who told me if you want to pursue a career, perhaps classical guitar would be the best way. Because then I would learn to read music and there’s no end to its use. And before that I had guitar teachers who taught me rock and roll but they weren’t real influential as much as resourceful. And then of course when I came to Kansas City, Douglas Neidt raised the bar like you would not believe. As a matter of fact, I came to Kansas City feeling like I was a pretty hot guitar player. After all I had just spent 4 years at Emporia State University as a guitar performance major. At my first lesson he walked in and said “Hi, have a seat. I’ve got a concert Friday. I’ve got a couple of pieces I want to play”. And on a classical guitar he played “Blue Rondo al la Turk” by Dave Brubeck…all on one guitar including the solos… and put the harmony in there too…amazing! After that I think he played “Take Five”. And I had never heard arrangements like that for solo guitar, which made it not classical, it made it classic…higher level...the polished high caliber playing. I literally went into a practice room and cried because I knew I would never reach that height of playing. Then I walked out of the practice room and I said “well, practice 6 hours a day, every day, is what it’s going to take”.
And so I decided then, and this is what classical music was for me on the guitar: it was an opportunity for me to reach as deep as I could into my own talent to play the instrument. And even to this day it has very little to do with I love classical music. It has everything to do with classical music is best for me to reach my highest caliber of playing on the guitar. The compositions of the masters…..people ask me if I write my own stuff, and I respond “why would I do that?” (laughing). I can play Albeniz’ stuff, I can play Granados’ stuff…I might arrange stuff, but MAN, these pieces are just mind boggling. Those composers…I don’t know how they did it.
TH: What other types of music interest you?
JS: At present my evenings are spent working on the Bach Chaconne which is a never ending feat. That‘s more of a self-nurturing item. I always feel better when I’m working on it. And I play better…I play everything else better if I’m playing the Chaconne.
And bluegrass, which I don’t do all that well. I’ve gone through the phases of... of course the 70’s, everything from the 70’s, including the 60’s. ..I think of the 60’s as part of the 70’s because that’s when I learned it. But I’ve gone through the blues phase...I play blues very well. I went through a 10 year period of being obsessed with it. And rock and roll. I don’t play jazz very well, but when I had an interest in it I saw you really have to live that life.
TH: What’s on your playlist right now…a couple of artists you’re listening to?
JS: Bryan Sutton. He’s a bluegrass player who is just overwhelmingly a great player. Of course Tony Rice…legendary..I think he just got inducted to the bluegrass hall of fame. John Harftord. ..He’s probably my favorite bluegrass artist of all time. And he’s kind of a relaxed player, kind of, but he has such character that I just love it.
TH: If you had to pick your favorite 3 classical music composers, who would they be?
JS: Bach. Beethoven.… (long pause). And it’s hard to beat Ravel….(looking anxious).
TH: OK, you can have 5 then (laughing).
JS: The other ones would be, because I like to arrange their stuff, Albeniz. His stuff on a piano isn’t all that cool, but on guitar it is. And then I really like Granados. The melodies of Granados…it seems like everything those people write I find something intriguing about it.
TH: OK you get 6 then.
JS: Let me add to your question….and that would be guitar composers. It’s a whole different thing because they are composing knowing the limits of the guitar which there are a lot...such as volume-dynamic range…it’s puny. But Barrios is one. Dig into his repertoire. He really explores the harmonies and the culture of South America. Antonio Lauro wrote for guitar also.
TH: Despite your love of bluegrass…and Geddy Lee (RUSH)…and everything in between, what is it about classical music that fulfills you?
JS: The depth of expression. To me classical music is a sculpture of music. The composer sits back...looks at it and says “sand a little here, polish a little there, take a little off here, and does this over time and then says “that’s what I mean”.
Whereas a very emotional jazz solo is of the moment…extremely expressive, and you’re catching that person’s moment. Classical music is really a sculpture…it is emotions over time. Very well thought out and to me I get a more mature culmination of colors of intent. There’s something about that word…. intent. The blues/rock improv has a lot of energy and it does resonate with me quite well. But for me, classical has much more to choose from.
And I struggle with it in a symphony. There’s a point in a symphony where I wish I could just hear one person’s point of view to that whole piece. And that’s where you get into an excellent conductor, and a choir is the same way with me. I don’t always enjoy it because I want to hear Ella Fitzgerald bend that note. I don’t want to hear everybody agree to bend that note. So you can see there’s kind of a fight in me. Sometimes I’ll put in something classical and I’ll be listening to it and I’ll switch to something that has a freer spirit to it. At the same time I put on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and I can’t turn it off.
TH: Why is it so hard for classical music to get traction in our culture?
JS: I don’t mean this to have a negative connotation to it… a couple of things: we do grow through development of our artful expressions...meaning that we did go from Baroque to Classical, to Romantic. Then blues to jazz, to rock, to hip-hop. We couldn’t help that. But currently, what I have found is we live in a quick fix world and it is getting quicker and fixer…I mean 10 years ago I had students who took more time to listen to music, and I’m not talking about that they hear it, they listened to music…and they had lists and at any given time they could tell me their 10 favorite tunes and they could describe them. When the Beatles went from touring to the Sgt. Pepper era, it was about listening to music. Even though they were 3 minute tunes...sometimes 8 minutes (“A Day in the Life”) it was about listening. We could sit and listen. And I think that was similar to what it takes to enjoy classical. Now it’s about energy, in my opinion, and that’s ok. There’s good stuff out there, but I hear it limited to moods and energy. Of course there are exceptions
I get anxious about it because I think we’re losing something important in our world where we forget to make music a part of our mental diet. And when we almost mindlessly put music on, it’s not the same as choosing and listening. And yes we know the lyrics. We can sing along. But to really, really sit down and know the composer’s intent…. we’re actually getting a piece of that composer’s mind and putting it in ours. To enjoy that to the degree where we can sit and be patient for detail has an amazing effect on the mind vs, and I’ll use rap music as the other end of the continuum, just knowing the lyrics and the mood. In my opinion that’s not enough to nurture a fully balanced brain for happiness. It’s the fast food of music, and as I say that I don’t devalue the pop approach…that’s my opinion of production these days.
I do listen to the new stuff, and here’s how I determine whether or not I like the music…I listen for depth of honesty. And a lot of what I’m hearing, the production is quick, it’s over produced, the marketers have more of a say in the music than the artist and quite honestly I tire of it quickly. I’m tired of hearing the marketer’s decision on a composer’s idea. It’s always been that way but currently I believe it is skewed.
TH: What makes me worry is that it could stop….that people won’t take the time anymore to listen.
JS: I believe it could stop…I do. I think we take it for granted. It’s something that we truly have to nurture and I like what you’re doing with this (blog). So going back to your question, what is classical guitar? Classical guitar music is a solo effort at a composition that has base notes, harmony and melody. And hopefully those are all really well thought out.
TH: How old were you when you started playing the guitar?
JS: Nine. And I started classical when I was 18. So I had a whole life of rock n roll...REO Speedwagon, Frampton, RUSH, Black Sabbath…and I can still enjoy playing all of those songs.
TH: How many hours a day do you currently practice?
JS: 2 to 4 hours every night. Anything below 2 and I begin not to enjoy life. If I skip a day, oh brother, it’s like getting cabin fever or something.
TH: How many students do you currently have?
JS: It comes and goes. Presently I’m right about 65, and I don’t like to go more than that because I have this “life thing” (laughter). I like to hold at 50 because that’s a good number financially to contribute to my wife and I. But I try not to go over that because there’s an imbalance that’s starts to happen. Presently I have 65 because I love to teach anyone that wants to learn. Until that changes the tally goes up.
TH: What would you be doing if you were not a guitarist?
JS: Psychology. Helping people, mainly kids, understand their potential. I have been through a lot mentally and consider it a blessing to not only have lived through it, but to also be able to share some principle based truths of life.
John Svoboda's website is www.svobodaguitar.com