Philip Hii was born in Malaysia. Before coming to the US, he won a competitions and toured throughout his home country. He has studied classical and jazz guitar and currently resides in Texas, where he teaches guitar at several colleges. Philip is the author of two ebooks: The Art of Virtuosity and Art of Virtuosity for Guitar. In addition to his performance and academic activities, Philip has released several recordings. In short, Philip is incredibly smart in an insightful. After I read his books, I knew I wanted to interview him.
ClassicalGuitar.org What led you to guitar? Did you start with classical guitar or other styles?
Philip Hii: I started with simple strumming at first, but then I found a classical guitar teacher in town and I was amazed at what he could do with six strings. It sounded like a mini piano. I remember he played Fur Elise by Beethoven. I didn’t know it was called the classical guitar back then, but I loved it. I took lessons with him for about six months. I didn’t stop the lessons, he stopped them. Told me he had nothing else to teach me. I remember one of my last pieces with him was that Fur Elise.
CGDo you feel that the competitions you prepared for (and won!) helped prepare you for the concert tours you’ve done? How?
Philip Hii: I haven’t really competed in any of the big competitions, just two competitions that I can remember. The first one was a talent show on Malaysian TV. Later in New Zealand, I won the National Cup of the New Zealand Federation of Classical Guitar Societies.
I think competitions are important; they help toughen us up psychologically. They help prepare us for the real world. I didn’t know what nerves were until I had to play on live Malaysian TV for my first competition. I had to find all kinds of ways to allay those nerves, some of which, on looking back, are even a little too bizarre to discuss here.
But I think it can be unhealthy to focus too much on them too. You wind up spending all your time trying to second guess the judges, and modifying your playing to adjust to their tastes or what you think will appeal to them.
Plus, of course, there’s a lot of politics involved. I haven’t done a lot of judging, but the little I have done, I’ve been amazed at the level of politicking that can go on.
Rather than concentrate on competitions, I think it’ll be more useful for players to focus on themselves, to find their true voice as artists. That’s what’s exciting to an audience, when someone comes along and blows you away with their unique interpretations and authentic passion.
I always tell my students. If you want to talk technique, there’re probably thousands out there who can play faster and more cleanly. But there’s only one of you in this entire world. If you can find your unique voice as an artist, there’s no stopping you. That’s what’s going to make you stand out in a crowd. You still have to work on technique, that’s a given, but you must find that unique voice of yours.
CG: What are some of the things you did while studying jazz guitar?
Philip Hii: I majored in arranging at Berklee but my real love was for bebop jazz, so I spent most of my time practicing bebop guitar lines and not a lot of time on arranging.
Jazz is an art form all in itself. The theory itself is very systematic. I went through all the rigorous theory training at Berklee, learned all the advanced arranging concepts. One course in particular called “Contemporary Trends in Harmony” was one of the most liberating things I ever did. For years, I had labored under all the standard rules and conventions imposed by well meaning theory teachers. The basic flaw in their thinking is that there must be a reason for everything you do as an artist or composer. Every note you write must be accounted for within the rules and conventions, otherwise you’re just an amateur or even worse, just plain ‘wrong.’ Even Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique was created under that illusion. It was created to justify all the atonal things he wanted to write but was afraid to do so without a “system” that would ‘explain’ them.
I learned from that course that the only thing that matters is whether it sounds good to you. If it sounds good, that’s justification enough. You don’t need any other justification.
The other thing I learned was rhythm. Jazz players are incredible sophisticated in their rhythmic mastery. They have to, because the idiom demands that level of mastery.
Did some of the things you learned carry over into your classical guitar life or influence your compositions?
I became more liberated in every way. As a composer, I began to feel more confident in writing tonal music again.
As a player, I became more aware of music at a fundamental level. It wasn’t just about tone and fingerings anymore; it was about subtleties like nuances, rhythmic inflections, swing, etc. These are small details, but they’re crucial in making a piece sound natural and alive. I make the comparison to speech in my book. When we speak, we speak with a lot of natural inflections and nuances which we call “accents.” You can have two people speak the same language, but with two different accents, and that language will sound like two different languages. That’s how crucial small details are.
I remember one of the first things I did when I came back to the classical guitar was to start listening to John Williams again. He had always been an idol of mine, ever since I was a boy. I had done quite a bit of transcribing of Joe Pass’s recordings when I was at Berklee, especially his solo ‘virtuoso’ albums. This is real transcribing, taking actual solos off recordings and writing them down. So I started to listen to John Williams again and it almost felt like I was listening to him for the first time. I heard things I had never heard before, finger slides, glissando effects, altered notes, and in some cases, even missing notes.
It was then I decided that if I could take Joe Pass off the recordings, I could do the same with John Williams. So I started transcribing his Barrios and Bach recordings, and it was amazing. I began to truly understand his genius in making things work for the guitar. And all those slides and glissandos, I began to incorporate them into my own playing too. They taught me a lot about anticipation in the left hand.
Can you talk about The Art of Virtuosity? What inspired you to write the book? What can we expect to find in it?
It’s something I had wanted to do for a long time. When I was young, I had always wanted a book that would clearly explain the basic principles of good technique, something like a cheat sheet for classical guitar. I never found that book, of course, because it didn’t exist, but the idea never left me.
So back in 2003, the idea took hold; I decided I would write the book myself. I call the book a manual because that’s what it is, essentially. I approach it from the basic objectives of virtuosity; how do you achieve effortlessness, how do you make things easy, how do you achieve speed, power, and control. And recently I added a chapter on expression called “The Artlessness of Passion.”
At the end of the book, I summarized it all in a few simple principles, principles that one can follow to achieve a kind of effortless virtuosity, exactly in the way that I wish somebody would have done for me many years ago.
I wrote it not as a guitar manual, but as a general expose of the principles of good technique, using the guitar as a point of reference. It’s gratifying to see that it’s catching on outside the classical guitar. I was just informed by Dr. Norman Weinberg, Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Arizona that he would be using the AOV as a text for his pedagogy class this spring.
How about The Art of Virtuosity for Guitar? Is it a book of exercises? Or just guitar specific experiences?
When I wrote the AOV, I had no intention of writing a guitar book. But after the book came out, I had so many questions about applications on the guitar; I decided I had to write a guitar addendum.
That addendum grew so big; it became a book in itself. I call it the prequel because just like the Star Wars prequels, it explains where all the ideas and principles in the AOV came from.
There’s a lot in the AOV for guitar. I’ve included basic guitar exercises to advanced concepts on playing tremolo, three finger scales, to transcriptions, and interpretation.
In short, it’s the complete package. It’s everything I’ve learned on the guitar. I’ve held nothing back, every secret, everything I’ve learned in over forty years of playing the guitar is in there.
And you can get it for only $20 (or 4 easy payments of $5 a month.) I think I need a pitchman for the book!
Do you have a one, most important tip for aspiring guitarists? What is it? What are some other tips?
I think the most important advice I can give is lightness of touch. Many people play too hard. You don’t need to exert all that force. All you need to do is caress the guitar strings gently. I always say, imagine yourself stroking a cat. Once you master the light touch, you can use it to achieve incredible speed and create effortless power. If there’s one quality that defines virtuosity, it’s lightness of touch.
Another tip is rhythm. Rhythm is really the key to control and expression. Most of us don’t give it much thought, and we end up rushing through our performances, or if we have the control, we play too mechanically, without any subtlety or swing. Rhythm is crucial, of course, for the control it gives us, but it’s also a great expressive device.
Then there’s fluidity and anticipation. Anticipation is the key to left hand mastery. I think most of us wait too long before we move in the left hand. In an effort to be precise and not cut off notes prematurely, we try to move our fingers at the last minute, at the precise moment when we have to pluck the notes. But by that time, it’s already too late. You have to start moving before you have to pluck. This will enable you to land on the new fingerings either right on the dot, or slightly before you have to pluck.
I mentioned the slides and glissandos in John Williams’s fingerings. That’s the sound of his anticipation. If you watch him, he never seems to hurry in his left hand. That’s because he’s anticipating them. When you anticipate, you’re giving yourself more time to make the move. This has two great benefits; it leads to greater precision because when you have more time to find your target, you’ll be able to locate it more precisely, and if by chance you happen to miss it, no problem, you always have that extra time to readjust your position.
In guitar terms, if you want to move from first position to twelfth position, make sure you start moving early. When you have that extra time, you’ll be able to move to the frets more precisely, and if you land your fingers inaccurately on the frets, you still have time to readjust them.
Do you think there’s a disconnect between what we hear as performers and what the audience hears? What can we do to ensure the interpretation we want reaches them?
There’s definitely a disconnect. When we hear ourselves, we’re hearing our playing from 1 or 2 feet away. Most audiences hear us from more than 10 feet away or more. That’s a huge difference. Most of the things that bother us as players are barely perceptible to the listeners. I think we get too hung up on details that are lost to the audience.
But there’s also a disconnect at the interpretative level. Many dynamic effects get lost because we don’t differentiate them enough. For example, we may think we’re doing a forte but to the audience, it may just sound like a mezzo forte, or we may think we’re doing a piano, but to the audience, it may still sound like a mezzo forte. So I always say, exaggerate your dynamics if you want them to be perceived by the audience.
But ‘exaggeration’ is probably not the right word. I use it only because that’s what it would probably feel like if you’re not used to making those kinds of contrasts. Most of the time, when we ‘exaggerate,’ we’re really doing it just right.
Could you talk a bit about your teaching in Corpus Christi? What are you looking for in students?
I teach at Del Mar College and Texas A&M/CC. I have a very vibrant program and I’m constantly being surprised by the enormous talent that comes through the program.
I look for natural players. They’re usually the self-taught players. They’re the best, and I’ve been blessed with quite a few of them. I also like guitar ‘shredders,’ refugees from the heavy metal world. I find them a joy to teach, and it’s exciting to see them bloom and become classical ‘shredders.’
My teaching is very loose. I don’t impose anything. It’s all about helping each student find himself or herself as a classical guitarist. One thing I’ve learned in over twenty-one years of teaching, you can’t ‘teach’ technique. You can’t hand out a set of rules and formulas, and expect each student to miraculously become a good player. You can only help the student find ‘his’ or ‘her’ technique.
Any upcoming projects?
Right now it’s mostly writing. I still have a few more books on my mind.
I’m also mindful I have to get the Chopin scores published soon. I promised Dean Kamei last year he would have the scores ready by then but these books have been keeping me busy. That’s something I have to get going and finish soon. I just finished the last major rewrite of the AOV and my next task is to make some new videos to illustrate the ideas in the book and then after that, the Chopin scores.