Larry McDonald Interview
Larry McDonald is a guitarist and composer based in Wisconsin where he runs a successful lesson studio and music store. In addition to his business and musical activities Dr. McDonald is the author of The Conservatory Tutor, a unique, innovative method book. Most importantly, he’s just a really interesting guy with a lot of great things to say
CGB: When did you start playing guitar?
Larry McDonald: When I was kicked out of every studyhall in High-school, the only room left was the band room. The instructor made me bring an instrument, and play it! I paid $15 for a harmony guitar with a yarn strap. Since I was a 15 year old slacker, I had 2 study halls a day. I didn’t have a guitar teacher, so developed all kinds of bad habits. But I stayed out of trouble, I was having fun, and, most importantly, I started to get dates.
CGB: Did you begin with classical? Give us your “guitar story”…
Larry McDonald: I started with American finger-style.
My first classical guitar teacher (a student of Segovia’s) took my $1000 (a lot of cash for a 16 year old in 1976). He listened to my audition, put the cash in his wallet, and promptly told me that his next words were worth a thousand bucks. He said, “Listen carefully son, you need to quit. You have every, and I mean every, bad habit there is. Take up piano or accounting. Have a nice day”. He ushered me out the door -he kept the cash.
After the tears, I decided to go back for another “lesson” the following week. We made a list of all the problems I had. It was a long one. He said I was “looking at 2 years of remedial work -you might get to page 35 in the Carcassi Method, and then, maybe, I could try a a real piece of music.” Well, I stuck it out, and you know, he was right. It took 2 and a half years to fix my crappy mechanics. I got to page 30.
We had a tumultuous relationship. He used to smoke cigars in the lesson and sit behind me -I could see the cherry of the cigar out the corner of my eye. One day, in a fit of rage he turned to me and the cherry fell between my jacket an shirt! My hair caught on fire. Guitars, music stands and music went flying as I tried to put myself out.
At the end, he said, “You know, you might make a good guitar teacher. You had every problem imaginable, and you found a way to get past them.” I felt pretty good then.
My final instructor was the very gracious gentleman Javier Calderon. This was the most rewarding time of my musical life. I’m 50 now, and still playing.
CGB: What prompted you pursue degrees in music theory and composition?
Larry McDonald: I started guitar because it was cheap and because it was a way for me to hear my compositions outside of my head. My father was a violinist with a major symphony orchesta, so we always had music around the house. As a boy, I had to sit very quietly in the last row of the concert hall during my fathers many rehearsals. I began to hear how the music worked, I understood form, I could hear harmony, and began to anticipate how melodies evolved and resolved. I was composing at a young age. By age 16, I was writing non-tonal music. Serialism at 18.
You couldn’t get an advanced degree in guitar here in Wisconsin in the 1980’s, so composition was the only way to go. I took independent study in guitar for years. I eventually recieved a Doctorate in Composition. I qualified for a PhD in theory as well. They didn’t know what to do with me so they gave me a minor (Theory) in my Doctorate. Weird.
CGB: Where can we hear some of your works?
Larry McDonald: You can’t hear any of my works. I’m holding them until I am sure that I have acheived my mature style. How many times have you heard this said, “I’m glad you liked my piece tonight, but I really don’t write music like that any more”. I’ve met some fine composers whos reputations were shattered by “coming out” too soon. Most of my music will go to the grave with me, but I have a few that I’ll circulate. Everyonce in a while I’ll put a little work on my site just to see what people think.
My guitar music has been played in private recitals with Pepe Romero, Leo Brouwer, and others. They all liked what I was doing. My choral music is done once in a while, if I can get a trip out of it! I have had pieces premiered at the Vatican and La Catedral de Notre Dame in Paris. Good gigs.
CGB: In addition to your musical activities, you run a successful private music studio. Did you start the business? Do you have any advice for new or inexperienced musicians on the business side of things?
Larry McDonald: I got a job as a cashier in a tiny 400 square foot music store in 1975 -I was dating the boss’s daughter. I bought the business with my new wife (not the boss’s daughter!) in 1981. We now have 15,000 square feet with 70+ instructors and 2400 students. We have full sales departments and even a coffee shop with a stage in the store.
The only advice I can give to a young professional is to be ready to embrace change. Do what you need to do to keep that original passion from the first time you played guitar. And be sure to spend your life with someone you love.
CGB: You’ve released a guitar method as well. Can you tell us a bit about it? What makes your guitar method different?
Larry McDonald: The Conservatory Tutor is the first modern method published that teaches the Sor’s 4th finger approach1 (I guess there were earlier authors but Sor gets my nod). This is how music is edited today. Look at Stanley Yates fine anthologies, or the superb RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) series. Jerry Willard’s new anthologies are edited this way, too. There has been a disconnect between the methods and the anthologies. My method fixes this. I just read Stanley Yates new method. I see he uses the 4th finger approach now, too. This is great news. I’m intigued with his arpeggio approach to introduce the right hand. I used to do this but I got away from it years ago, and I don’t remember why. I haven’t tried his method yet but I’m going to soon.
CGB: One of the most interesting things about your method is it seeks to teach style and musicality in addition to pure mechanics. How did you go about introducing and describe the various styles?
Larry McDonald: Too many students, even masters candidates play with what I call an acanemic style. I think this because our instrument demands an exellent mechanism, and we need to devote ourselves to its creation. But I also believe we don’t spend nearly enough lesson time investigating style, and musicianship (all those things NOT on the page). The method is in full color through-out the text. I try to introduce musical style synesthetically, through the use of period paintings showing how the arts were perceived at the time of the compositional style.
Chris, you obviously know what I’m referring to. Your Brouwer interpretations (Youtube) are really well done; your use of pace, space and passion is exquisite, and refreshingly mature for such a young player.
CGB: You’re an extremely active teacher, do you have any advice for young guitar teachers?
Larry McDonald: Stay educated. Keep up with new teaching trends. Don’t become stuck in the old ways of doing things. If you are good at teaching, don’t be afraid to charge for your time. $20 a half hour at the very minimum. If you carry 25 hours of teaching a week at $40/hour, well… you can do the math.
To get your studio going, get active in your local community. Volunteer for school demonstrations, join local service clubs (important) and become the go-to-person for guitar advice. Play everything. I’ve played Christmas tree lightings, bar mitzvahs, weddings, political events, you name it. I play at local resturaunts just to meet the public. Become the local “expert”. This worked for me anyway. I never have openings anymore. I don’t keep a waiting list either. I make sure that anyone who calls me gets signed up with a collegue if I can’t take them on.
Ssshhh…. I also play bass in several Rock bands.
CGB: Any favorite tips or tricks you use with students?
Larry McDonald: Roll reversal. Every once in a while, I let them teach me. It surprising what we both learn.
CGB: Any future plans on the pedagogy front? More methods? Videos?
Larry McDonald: Mel Bay is publishing a work book of mine called “Introduction to Harmony for Guitar with TAB”. It should be out in a month or so. It teaches scales, modes, intervals, and chord costruction.
There is a childrens tutor in the works, as well as a new kind of position studies book.
The Conservatory Tutor for Guitar has an Instructors Edition in a 10 inch pile next to my desk. It’s mostly done but completely disorganized. The Conservatory Tutor is going into its third printing this week.
CGB: I’ve never asked anyone about this on here before, but do you have any advice on nail shaping and care? What do you do personally?
Larry McDonald: I have those terrible hooked nails. So I have to ramp, which makes my attack fuzzy once in a while. I have to really concentrate to keep my tone focused. As far as advice, I only have the standard line, keep experimenting until you have the tone that you hear in your head.
CGB: What are some of your best tips on practicing and/or performing?
Larry McDonald: When I was younger, I played for all the wrong reasons, to please my father, to make money, to get chicks. None of this will work in the long run. You need to play for yourself. You need to love what you play, and keep it fresh. Otherwise, you are going to loose interest.
It’s a little like being a good lover. Being a good lover is not making love to 30 women a year, but loving the same woman for 30 years, keeping it fresh. The same is true with your music. Can I still find the passion in HVL Prelude #1 after 33 years. Oh, yeeaah, -I think I need a cigarette! :-)-~
I practice in the dark, or with my eyes closed. That way, when I’m on stage I can close my eyes and get back to that place where my “Inner Mastro” lives. I played an 80 minute recital last week with my eyes closed. At times I forgot the audience was there.