Isaac Bustos is an extraordinary ambassador of the classical guitar. Born in Managua, Nicaragua Isaac moved to the US in 1988. There he studied under the direction of Cuban guitar virtuoso Juan Mercadal, amongst others. At a very young age, Isaac Bustos has already won First Prize awards at a number of prestigious guitar competitions in the U.S and Canada, including the 2005 Texas International Solo Guitar Competition, 2004 Lachine International Guitar Competition, 2004 St. Joseph International Solo Guitar Competition, 2004 Portland Solo Guitar Competition, 2004 East Carolina University Solo Guitar Competition, and the 2002 University of New Hampshire Concerto Competition.
For more information about Isaac Busts go to www.bustosguitarist.com
It is quiet a pleasure for us to have you with us in this exclusive
interview for Guitarra Magazine.
IB: Thanks for having me.
GM: I will start by asking you a bit about your roots, about your
dreams as a Latin American individual who set out to achieve some very
high goals in his life. What were the driving forces that influenced
your decision to become a guitarist of such magnitude?
I think that regardless of heritage, my decision to become a guitarist and the driving force throughout most of my life comes from a childhood dream. As a young boy, I fell in love with music. In Nicaragua, and even now, my mother would play records of all kinds of music, from Mozart, Lizst, Chopin and Beethoven to Salsa, Merengue and Flamenco. So, I grew up with a fairly diverse musical environment. I picked up guitar playing from my father who used to serenade us with his singing and playing. He is not a trained musician but is very much in love with music as well. I suppose that after watching him for so many years it was only natural that it would catch my attention at some point. At eleven years of age, I began to play guitar and I have not stopped since.
Unfortunately, a career in music in my own country is almost non-existent. So, when I arrived here in the States and realized that I could make a living doing what I loved the most, I decided to pursue my childhood dream. Attaining the highest level of success is also another driving force in my life. I remember that my parents used to tell me that whatever trade I chose for myself I would have to be the best at it even if it was shining shoes on the street corner. Perhaps the biggest influence in my life, however has been the playing of Pepe Romero. I love his playing, his touch and musical expression. When I started playing guitar, I would play his records and try to imitate his sound, his speed and everything else he did right down to his sitting position. Of course, now, I have come up with my own individual style. However, he has been a huge inspiration in my life. Lastly, but certainly not least, my teacher Adam Holzman, has also been a tremendous source of inspiration, support and the reason why I play the way I play today.
GM: Studying with such a world-renowned artist as Adam Holzman must be thrilling. Can you share with us what it's like to study with a teacher of this caliber?
IB: I have studied with Adam for the last three years. During this time, he completely revolutionized my approach to guitar playing, learning, teaching and interpretation. He graciously took me into his studio as an amorphous ball of technique and molded me into a musician. Also, I get to see first hand what it's like to be a concert artist and he has helped me very much in learning a little bit about the business.
For the last two years, I have had the honor of being his teaching assistant. This, I think, is the biggest gift that Adam has given me. He is an inspiring teacher and musician who is not only busy being a father, teacher and husband but also has time to honestly and sincerely care about my development and progress. I have learned a lot about teaching from Adam as he is a pillar of knowledge in this area. The biggest thrill, however, is learning all the catchy phrases he comes up with such as: " Did you file your nails on the side walk today?.."
Studying with Adam has indeed been a privilege.
GM: How difficult was the experience of immigrating to the US as a young
child and leaving all your culture behind? How did this change the perspective you had of life not only as a person but also as a musician?
IB: When I first came to the U.S. I suffered from severe "culture shock". When I arrived, I was 13 years old. Luckily, all of my family came at once and so there was no separation for long periods of time as is sometimes common. Thirteen was a tough age for me because I found that I couldn't really relate to the interests and activities that most people in my age group were into. The music was different, the people were different and so was everything else. Even in Miami, believe it or not, the inevitable language barrier was crippling for the first couple of years. I would not even attempt to talk to people for fear of them noticing my accent. Of course, today, I talk too much and I don't really care if they notice or not. In retrospect, all these seemingly crippling experiences have turned me into the person I am today. Ironically, at one point, I was even an English tutor for a little while.
As a musician, however, arriving in the States was a blessing because some of my teachers in school noticed my abilities and immediately put me in contact with the best teachers in the city. Being here has also opened doors that would not perhaps have opened in my country at the time that I left. As I said before, coming to the US has allowed me the opportunity to pursue my dream.
GM: Having seen you play on several occasions, I want to remark
on the incredibly solid technical foundation that you possess. Not
only are you a very accurate and strong technical player, but you also
make sure not to sacrifice any musicality or artistry for the sake of this.
Please share with us a bit about your approach to guitar playing.
IB: Thank you Gonzalo. The top three things I can think of when it comes to my approach to guitar playing are the learning process/memorization, knowing my limits and playing musically all the time.
One of the biggest downfalls in my development as a young player was my approach to learning my pieces. I would always try to learn too quickly just to get the immediate satisfaction of knowing the piece I was working on. Now, I learn just as quickly but in smaller portions at a time. This has been a key factor in my current success in competitions. Instead of learning things quicker and trying to cover too much at once, I elect to learn in smaller sections so that I can polish them from the start. This way much of the work is being done from the onset of the piece and we also avoid the process of unlearning bad habits, which is something that we all suffer from too often. Whether it is technical or musical, unlearning bad habits is a time consuming and frustrating process. Learning in smaller portions, for me, has helped to eliminate this condition.
You have to know your limits. I think that on many pieces I would always try too hard to be virtuosic instead of musical. Of course, there are times when we can be both but let us not forget that we are musicians before anything else.
So, practice musically.. What I mean by this is that instead of playing scales just fast, play them fast using crescendos and diminuendos. This is something I do with all of my technical exercises so that there is always a musical shape to everything I play. I think that doing this keeps your musicality awake and active at all times. And, always make a good sound....even when you tune.
GM: You mentioned that Adam balances family and a career with teaching. But you also have a family of your own. How do you balance what you are doing with family life?
IB: Yes, I have a wife and three kids. They are the foundation that my success stands on. I am lucky to have a wife who not only supports my difficult career, but also has the utmost respect for what I do and have children that are proud of me. In my household, practice time is sacred because, on rare occasions, it may bring money home :) There is a clear understanding of what I have to do and how I have to do it.
It is so interesting to have met so many players who gave up on their dreams because they had families. So, now they have jobs making money doing something they hate. I think that with the right people around you who give you support it's possible. Plus, I refuse to give it up and tell my kids that I gave up on my dream because it was too hard.
GM: The million dollar question: What key items do you
incorporate in your practicing and in your performance approach in
order to be so successful in a competition setting?
IB: The number one thing has been my learning process, which I talked about in the previous question. Linked to this, however, is knowing your pieces in your head and not just your fingers. If you can run through your pieces in your head, whether by saying solfege syllables, alphabetic note names, etc., you will more than likely feel more secure about performing them. Practicing slowly also helps to break the imaginary link between "finger memory" and actually "knowing" your pieces.
A good third of my practice now includes slow practice in order to avoid error and confusion. If I can't play my piece slowly, then I don't really know my piece. This has also helped me with my wandering mind. There are many times when we start to play a piece and then....we are done. What happened in the middle of it? Well, we don't know because we were too busy "thinking" about something else.
Choose a repertoire that fits your abilities and showcases your best attributes. Many times players choose their pieces for the wrong reason(s). “If it's hard, then I should play it in a competition”. Well, not necessarily if you can't physically pull it off. Common sense, right? Besides, you can always play a less difficult work at a really high level and maybe even better than the competitor who is playing something like the Britten Nocturnal at a not so high level. I have also found that the order of the pieces is important. For instance, if you can start with the last movement of the Jose Sonata, then do it. But, if you need to start with a slow piece and work your way up to the Jose-then you are in good shape.. So, pace yourself intelligently.
Don't be afraid to play standard repertoire. If you can bring something new and fresh to "Leyenda" then you should play it.. That's not to say that you should not play new works, however; I think juries sometimes are more comfortable judging pieces they know rather than an unknown work of art. Basically, be very smart about the pieces you choose as they have to not only display your physical abilities but also, and most importantly, your musical abilities. Bottom line is you should pick your repertoire very carefully.
GM: Have you had a chance to return to Nicaragua and contribute to the growth of the
classical guitar there?
IB: Unfortunately, I have not been back to Nicaragua since I left. But I am in the middle of working out a visit and mini-tour which will involve lots of teaching and, of course, playing.
GM: Tell us about your experience as a teacher.
IB: Starting this fall 2005, I will be on faculty at Texas A&M University. They do not have a guitar program and I will be a pioneer so to speak in starting a guitar department there. I consider myself very lucky and fortunate that an institution of this caliber is trusting my skills and knowledge to develop a program for their school. This year will be an exciting one for me as it presents new challenges and adventures that I can hardly wait to tackle.
Teaching is very much like playing, a never-ending learning experience. I think sometimes as teachers we underestimate how much we really learn from our students. For instance, we may encounter problems with students that a particular method or our own technical knowledge may not solve. So, in our search for a solution we may discover more than we expect. I love the whole process and I think it's fascinating. Plus, watching a student grow, develop and progress is the greatest gift one can have as a teacher. I have experience teaching students of all levels and ages. During my tenure with the Childbloom guitar program, for instance, I learned a so much about how to deal with the child psyche and how to use that in my teaching. Teaching them has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
GM: What are your current goals and projects?
IB: Right now, my main goal is to obtain as many concert dates as possible. So I have been e-mailing, calling and getting in touch with presenters everywhere. This is the part of the business that most of us are completely ignorant about and so this hands-on training with Adam Holzman has been enlightening. I also would like to do a few more competitions here in the U.S. and abroad. I'll probably keep doing them until I win a big one. But I can't wait to not have to do one ever again.
GM: What vision do you have for your career as an artist of
IB: More than anything, though, it is I just want to continue doing what I love for as long as I can.
GM: Thank you for sharing this valuable and interesting interview with us today Isaac. We wish you all the best for you in the future and thank for being supportive of Guitarra Magazine.
IB: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.