BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Jonathan Fitzgerald received some expert advice as an undergrad: “Turn off the dude”. We all have one: it’s the voice in our minds that tells us when we’re hot and when we’re not – and we give it so much power in our live performances.
But this advice to switch off that criticising voice has served Jonathan well – the American classical guitarist has performed with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and West Australian Opera among countless other concert series; on radio stations, and reached success in international guitar competitions.
He now lectures at the University of Western Australia, and was recently awarded a grant to complete a residency at the National Trust of Western Australia. (The culmination of this project also won the Museums and Galleries National Award for Interpretation, Learning and Audience Engagement, and was a finalist in the 2017 WA State Heritage Award.)
So with all this under his belt, he’s now sharing opportunities with early career musicians through a new event at the University of Western Australia. This week, he leads a concert called Six Fish and Nine Guitars, featuring the UWA Guitar Studio. The gig will showcase UWA students from second year right through to alumni. Jonathan tells us about the project, and how musicians who perform in events like this should take advice and “turn off the dude”, just like he does.
Jonathan, thanks for the chat. Tell us how you’ve brought this big event together, from concept to presentation.
Thanks Stephanie, it’s a pleasure.
I think too often the uni student experience is to learn a piece (or an entire program!) for a specific concert, put it down immediately after the first performance, and move on to preparing for the next one-off concert. It’s really valuable for young musicians to perform the same repertoire across multiple concerts, and have the experience of touring – flying or driving to the venue, travelling with an instrument, having to practice and rehearse while staying in hotels, etc. It’s taken a lot of work and organisation, but we’re giving that experience to the students, and I think that’s one of the things that makes the UWA guitar program so unique.
One of my primary aims with the guitar program at UWA has been to provide students with as much real world performance experience as possible. We have 10 concerts scheduled in the second semester alone, seven of which are off campus. After doing a concert tour of WA’s southwest for two years in a row, performing interstate was the next logical step, and Michael and Evan at the Melbourne Guitar Foundation were kind enough to host us!
The concert will feature seven young guitarists! What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt from working with these artists?
It’s really a privilege to have the opportunity to work with high level guitarists on amazing music each week – I feel very grateful to be in that position. To me, teaching shouldn’t be a one-way flow of information – both student and teacher need to remain open to ideas and possibilities. From my students, I learn about my own playing, technique and interpretation; I learn about my approach to teaching and how to do it more effectively; and ultimately, I learn about myself as a human being.
What’s most rewarding is when a student performs a work very differently than I would, but has thought out the phrasing with such care and detail and plays with such conviction that the listener couldn’t imagine it performed any other way. Seeing that kind of development and growth from year to year, as students become more sophisticated and mature in their phrasing and interpretation, and their own ideas become more and more musically compelling – that’s what really keeps me going.
We’re bringing nine instruments – seven standard classical guitars plus a dobro and a 12-string, the latter two specifically for Nigel Westlake’s Six Fish. Hence the title of the concert, Six Fish and Nine Guitars.
So why was Six Fish chosen as the focus for the concert?
My wife recently completed her PhD on Nigel Westlake’s guitar music, so I’ve heard a lot of Westlake over the last few years and have come to absolutely adore Six Fish. It’s a bold statement, but in my opinion it’s among the most engaging guitar ensemble works ever written – the colours and textures are just stunning.
Westlake wrote the quartet for two standard classical guitars, dobro and 12-string acoustic. The timbral combinations from this unusual group of instruments are like nothing else in the repertoire, adding so much more interest and variety than would be possible with four standard classical guitars. We’re closing the concert with Six Fish, and I think it will be the highlight of the program. We certainly hope the audience agrees!
How do you present a single work with artists all playing the same instruments, but with different voices and levels? Is this why Six Fish was chosen – because it allows for variation in timbral expression?
One of the challenges for a guitar ensemble – or perhaps more so for those composing for guitar ensemble – is dealing with the inevitable homogeneity of timbre and range. This can be alleviated to some degree by adding in requinto and bass guitars to expand the range of the group, much like the various sized members of the bowed string family in a string quartet, though the use of requinto and bass is still relatively uncommon in the repertoire.
One of the reasons why I think Six Fish is so successful and engaging is Westlake’s use of dobro and 12-string guitars. While the range of all four instruments is the same, the bright sparkle of the 12-string and the effortlessly aggressive twang of the dobro make for a textural feast with seemingly limitless combinations. It really is a special work in the guitar ensemble repertoire.
You have some incredible achievements of your own in guitar – what is the most valuable advice that you like to give young guitarists you work with?
I’ve been very lucky to have some really wonderful opportunities throughout my career. I’m not sure I can identify one thing as being the ‘most’ valuable, but there is one challenge that’s universal for all of us – be it student or professional – and that’s the process of taking a piece from the practice room to the concert stage. I’ll repeat some advice that I received as an undergraduate that has stuck with me for 15 years, and continues to be relevant when performing: ‘Turn off the dude’.
‘The dude’ is that voice in your head when you’re onstage – that running commentary that dwells on and criticises mistakes, celebrates that difficult passage that went well, worries about who’s in the audience, etc. Turn it off. Don’t self-congratulate, don’t self-deprecate, but remain entirely focused on and engrossed in the task, not unlike the Zen concept of ‘being present’. That level of focus and mental discipline is difficult – especially when the adrenaline is flowing – and requires constant practice and maintenance. Assuming you’ve done the work in the practice room, a successful performance has less to do with your guitar playing than with you being the master of your mind.
Around 10 years ago, I was at a dinner party, and one of the guests happened to be a pitcher for a major league baseball team. I asked how he dealt with the pressure when he had to pitch with the game on the line and 40,000 fans screaming at him. His reply: ‘It’s all in your head. What separates the best pitchers from the worst isn’t their athletic ability, but their mental discipline to stay task focused despite tremendous pressure. That’s it’. While there are many parallels between elite sport and high-level music making, I reckon that one is worth remembering.
Any parting words?
It’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you, thanks so much for making the time. We’re really looking forward to our first performance in Melbourne!
Six Fish and Nine Guitars: UWA Guitar Studio Concert presented by the Melbourne Guitar Foundation – 28 October, 7pm, St Mary’s Church, North Melbourne. Purchase ‘pay what I like’ tickets via the Melbourne Guitar Foundation website.