Tell us a bit about your studies at Pepperdine with Christopher Parkening. How is he as a teacher? Any Funny stories?
For the first year or so, I felt as though I shouldn’t be there. There were some other great players, like Brandon Jones and Tyler Kleban to name a couple, and the repertoire I knew just didn’t stand up to theirs. But after a few conversations with my parents, we decided that my goal should be to simply absorb everything I could from Mr. Parkening and the music department at Pepperdine. “Keep your hand to the plow,” my dad would say (he grew up on a farm in Indiana) and it was that advice that has served me well over the years. There’s really nothing quite like hard work and you only need to ask my friends who went there to discover that Pepperdine certainly makes that your priority! Mr. Parkening is a fantastic teacher. I remember him asking me to bring in my repertoire list so that he could look it over again. It was at this point that he challenged me to raise the bar by taking on some more difficult rep. I immediately dove into the Prelude and Allegro from BWV 998. He’ll meet you where you’re at, but if he senses that you could do better or that you’re not trying your hardest he’ll definitely let you know. I should add that he always taught with a spirit of encouragement. Funny stories? Well, I don’t think it was very funny, but I remember trying to learn Rick Foster’s transcription of Jesu’, Joy of Man’s Desiring in about a week’s time and then bringing it into a lesson . . . oh mercy. The first twenty-one bars were semi-successful, but, as soon as it modulated to D minor, it was a downward spiral to the end. Murphy’s Law was definitely in effect! I stumbled across the finish-line, weary and bruised from my battle with Bach and, after the dust settled, Mr. Parkening (in the nicest possible way) said something to the effect that I should be more prepared when I come in for a lesson. It only took one of these experiences to know what was expected of me as a guitar major at Pepperdine. We were required to have pieces performance ready for each lesson and the focus was always tone production, phrasing and the overall interpretation of the piece. And now, as a teacher myself, I see how these expectations really maximize a student’s lesson time. Mr. Parkening’s intense musical philosophies were always trumped by his desire to see us using our talents for the Lord. He met me where I was at and that made all the difference.
How about at USC?
USC has been and continues to be an amazing experience. When I started at SC in the Fall of 2006, Scott Tennant noticed I used big motions, but got very little sound – “wispy,” he called it. We focused on planting the right-hand fingers so that the contact point was always the flesh and, upon activation of the strings, that the nail would engage the nylon immediately with the string exploding past the nail as I followed through. I learned that it was not me attacking the string which made a big sound, but rather the activated string being released which created the desired result. Besides getting a bigger sound, it also developed a higher level of control in my right hand. That’s when I learned how to “drill” pieces and really practice efficiently. I can now learn a piece and have it ready in a week if I need to (barring any social distractions). Scott Tennant really taught me how to practice and practice efficiently. The program has about forty classical guitarists which includes undergrads, grads and a few minors. The sheer size of SC’s department means that there are a lot of different ideas, playing styles, techniques and repertoire preferences swirling around. It’s the perfect place to be exposed to anything and everything.
Is composing something you’ve always done? Or did it come later on after playing for a while? Any ideas what caused you to start composing?
Back in high school I was in a band with two good friends: Drew Fortson (bass, vocals) and Aaron Wilson (drums). I usually wrote the songs and the lyrics, but it always seemed forced. I had my Rock-and-Roll dreams, but the things I wrote about weren’t my own experiences. In the end, I was trying to write about stuff that wasn’t really there. After Senior year, we all went our separate ways. This is when I began writing on my steel-string (acoustic singer/song-writer stuff), but I was also pursuing classical guitar just as much. I remember sitting on my couch downstairs one evening practicing some repertoire which was in Drop-D – Canarios perhaps? But anyhow, I had the hymn tune Be Thou My Vision in my head and began to pick out the melody in the key of D. Later, I found a hymnal which we had up on a book shelf and looked up BTMV; it was in Eb! So I figured the key of D major would work just fine. It was really that arrangement which started it all. I brought it into my next lesson with Scott Johnston and he liked it. He liked it so much that he had me play it at my jury. It was that initial encouragement that has kept me composing to this day. I should also mention that my other inspiration for composing is my friend Kevin Smith. He used to play at BORDERS book store in Wheaton, IL and a bunch of us would go out to see him perform. This guy can play!! He performed original compositions from his album Sundown and it immediately captured my attention. I remember trying to write, but it always ended up sounding like his stuff. This was frustrating, but eventually I found my stride. My goal is to write music which is both accessible to the listener and fun for the player.