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Introduction

In this issue of Guitarra we have Mr. David Leisner as our featured artist. An accomplished performer, composer and pedagogue. This interview is made up of questions that some of our readers wanted to ask Mr. Leisner as well as questions made by the Guitarra Magazine staff. He shares with us some of his viewpoints regarding performance, compositional style, career moves, etc, as well as his projects for the near future.

We here at Guitarra hope that you enjoy this interview as much as we have. For more information about Mr. Leisner go to www.DavidLeisner.comdiv>
Guitarra Magazine: Can you tell us about your development as a guitarist? When did you start playing, and what made you get professionally involved with the instrument? What recommendations do you have for young guitarists who are trying to get ahead in a world already full of guitarists?

David Leisner: I started playing folk guitar at age 10. When I was 13, my teacher introduced me to playing classical music, which I had been listening to since I was a little kid. For several years then, I performed folk, popular and classical music in the same concerts. By the time I was 17, I was totally seduced by classical music and began playing it exclusively and with more seriousness. Four years later I won 2nd Prize in the first international guitar competition in North America, Toronto '75. The other prize winners in that amazing event were Sharon Isbin, Manuel Barrueco (Manuel and I tied for 2nd) and Eliot Fisk. A few years later I made my New York debut. Things just heated up professionally after that.

Those were the days when the New York Times reviewed just about every debut concert in the major halls, so it meant something. Now, since a New York debut is hardly ever covered, it doesn't mean much at all. It's more important for a young guitarist to get as much performing experience as possible. Play for everyone and everywhere. I played in a restaurant several times a week during my first 3 years of living in New York. It was a great way to run through a lot of repertoire and get comfortable in front of an audience, even if they were more interested in the cheesecake. I would also advise a young player that performing itself is more important than the fees in the beginning. Later, if your career is successful, you can perhaps be more demanding, but first you want the experience of performing and the exposure to a bigger audience, so go out of your way to get concerts on any level. When possible, try to encourage reviewers to come. This will help build your portfolio. Try not to worry about how many other guitarists are competing with you. This thought doesn't help. Just focus on your own performance, and be generous to others. This will radiate good feelings, set a good example, and put you in the best possible light. The amount of competition out there is just what it is. You will find your rightful place in the mix.

GM: As an active performer, composer and pedagogue, what do you think about guitar education in major universities and colleges? Is it the best it could be? How can it be made better?

DL: Guitar education has improved greatly in the last 20 years or so. The level of musical awareness and technical sophistication has risen considerably. Courses in guitar history and literature, pedagogy, chamber music, fingerboard harmony, etc. are much more common now, where they were rare or non-existent 20 years ago. Things can always be better. I'd like to see much more attention paid to chamber music with instruments other than the guitar, more discussion of the importance of anatomical knowledge and body awareness as it relates to guitar playing, and more required courses in Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais Method. The famous violinist, Midori, apparently doesn't even accept a student in her studio unless they have had Alexander Technique training!

GM: Classical guitarists are mostly known for being solo performers, and there is a lot of emphasis in that part in all schools. But one thing I think guitarists in college are missing is the opportunity to play in ensembles not only with other guitarists but also with other instruments. With my experience in college I think that the emphasis given to ensembles of guitarists and/or other musicians is almost none. Don't you think that ensembles combining guitarists with other musicians should be part of the curriculum, or should it stay the same as it is now?

DL: Yes! Chamber music experience with other instrumentalists is essential to a guitarist's development as a musician. While there is more of it than there used to be, it is still under-valued and under-accomplished in schools. Since guitarists don't play in orchestras, as virtually every other instrumentalist does, or have chamber music repertoire, which is standard in most concert programming, like pianists, they lack enough contact with other musicians and with the mainstream of music. They tend to ghetto-ize. Whatever ensemble playing they do with anyone else tends to be with other guitarists, who have similarly poor habits of sight-reading, cuing, rhythm and ensemble coordination. Playing with other instruments and singers takes one out of the little world of the guitar. It encourages one to make a line sing more like a wind instrument or bowed string instrument or singer, to acquire a more precise sense of rhythm, to become bolder in communication, and to develop a broader sense of the meaning of music in general.

GM: We all know you had to stop playing guitar for some time due to a physical ailment. How did you succeed in mastering and overcoming the awful problem that disabled your right hand, a difficulty that could have been terribly discouraging if you hadn't dared to meet the challenge and cope with it as you did? Based on this experience, do you intend to write and publish a guide that may benefit other musicians, particularly other guitarists, who suffer or are apt to face the same trouble you had to deal with?

DL: You can read a couple of interviews on my website, which describe in full detail my experience of dealing with and curing focal dystonia. Click on Articles and check out the interviews in Guitar Review and Classical Guitar. The long-story-short version is that I had this miserable hand condition, called focal dystonia, where some of the fingers of my right hand curled into the palm without control and with no pain. After trying in vain to get other people to fix it, I finally started looking inside myself for a cure and found it in some pioneering ideas, which I developed about using the larger muscles in the armpit and back of the shoulder. I just used the knowledge that I had gleaned from seeing all those professionals who couldn't help me and combined it with my own intuition and figured out that I had to support the smaller muscles in the forearm with the use of the larger ones. First I started with big, exaggerated motions to help me isolate the larger muscle engagement, and then gradually refined it over time to smaller and faster movements. It took me 4 years, but the progress was clear and steady. The whole experience lasted 12 years. What an ordeal!

It is very much on my mind to write two books, one on guitar technique in general and one on curing focal dystonia in particular. It would be good to make a video (DVD or whatever) to go with the dystonia book. But at the moment I need to focus on my performance career, since I was out all those years, so these book ideas are on the back burner. But trust me, the flame won't go out.

GM: Among classical guitar composers, past and present, whose compositions are you happiest to include in your repertoire?

DL: I almost always love to have some Bach in my programs, even though he wasn't a guitar composer. And I'm certainly devoted to music of the 19th century guitar composers, Mertz above all, Giuliani, Sor, Regondi, Coste, Carulli. The 20th century and contemporary repertoire is so vast and my tastes so eclectic that it's hard to single out just a few, but certainly among my favorites are Falla, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ponce, Villa-Lobos, Britten, Ginastera, Henze, Takemitsu, Sculthorpe, Tower, Harrison, Hovhaness, Gilardino, and Richard Winslow.

GM: In what ways has your mastery of guitar and extra emphasis on performance technique affected your manner or style of musical composition? DL: None. One is simply a tool with which to express the other.

GM: Being a writer of music yourself, what creative plans, projects, or ambitions do you have for future works of yours?

DL: The commissions I'm about to write are non-guitar works. I'm really excited about both of them. One is a set of songs for voice and piano, commissioned for the 85th birthday celebration of one of America's best living poets, William Meredith. And the other is work for baritone and string quartet, commissioned for the great baritone, Wolfgang Holzmair. I'm sure I'll go back to guitar writing soon after that. I would love to find commissions to write a big work for guitar duo and a guitar concerto.

GM: What do you think about contemporary guitar music? Is it progressing, or has it become static? What's good about it? How does it need to evolve?

DL: I believe that contemporary guitar music, like contemporary music in general, is neither progressing nor static. It's in a state of transition, just what you would expect around the turn of a century. We're finding our way into a new era of expression, just as the Romantic style evolved into the so-called Modern style. It always takes a while before we find ways of expressing in music our feelings and thoughts about the world and era we live in. Guitar composers keep getting more and more clever about writing idiomatically for the instrument. There's a clear progression, for example, from the writing of 19th-century guitar composers to that of Villa-Lobos, Gilardino, Bogdanovic and myself. The guitar writing gets more and more sophisticated in its idiomatic use of the guitar.

GM: How do you give birth to new musical ideas? Is improvisation part of that process? Do you first compose on the instrument before writing?

DL: First I take a long time to just live with the idea of a piece. I live with it in my imagination, never with an instrument. Eventually musical ideas come to me. I like to take long walks, long showers, anything where the automatic physical actions take over so that my mind is free. I heard once about a physicist who would dig a tunnel in his backyard until he started to get ideas. I don't sit down with pencil and paper and don't like to compose on computer until I have a very good idea of the overall shape of the piece and some melodic, rhythmic and gestural ideas in mind. Sometimes I use the guitar, sometimes the piano, and sometimes no instrument at all. I start to notate my ideas. Then, as I'm going along, usually something will come along to surprise me. It's a sort of improvisation, but not quite, because I've never been very good at that. At this point, the piece usually comes out very quickly, in a kind of intense white heat. The incubation period is almost always long, but the hatching part is really quick.

GM: To be a great composer, in your opinion, is it necessary to compose for other instruments?

DL: No question about it, especially for a guitarist. The guitar is wonderful, but there's a whole world of possibilities out there involving other instruments. Being in contact with it expands your imagination and broadens your palette. Besides writing a good deal of chamber music, I've written two works for orchestra, and that experience really opened up my musical perspective. After that, writing a piece for solo guitar seemed like playing with a little toy.