Ricardo Iznaola Interview
Ricardo Iznaola is famous today for his work in the field of guitar pedagogy. He’s the chair of the guitar and harp department at the University of Denver, and is the author of Kitharologus: the Path to Virtuosity and several other books which should be on every guitarist’s shelf. As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Iznaola is a recording artist, composer, and teaches at a prestigious summer music festival. Ricardo Iznaola is one of very few true scholars and great thinkers in the guitar world today, and I hope you get as much out of this interview as I did.
Classical Guitar Blog: When did you get started on the guitar?
Ricardo Iznaola: In Colombia, after my family left Cuba in 1960, I got interested in the instrument, and began doodling on my own, without teachers, for quite a while. In ’61 we moved to Caracas, Venezuela, where I continued like this for about 3 more years, when in 1964 I finally entered music school. I was not a very disciplined student, so I dropped out in the summer of ’64 and did not go back, more mature and with a clearer perspective, until the Fall of 1966, after I had attended the life-changing summer course offered by the great Alirio Diaz at the university. This experience clarified my goals and purpose as a guitarist. I finished the academic program in two years and in ’68 went to Madrid to study privately under Regino Sainz de la Maza, while attending the Madrid Royal Conservatory for theory and composition studies.
CGB: As your career goals began to take shape, did you envision yourself becoming a well known pedagogue? When did that start to take shape?
Ricardo Iznaola: My initial career goals were, of course, that of a traveling concert artist, and, in fact, I was encouraged by my early successes in both competitions and the stage. By my mid-twenties I had won half a dozen awards, recorded four LP’s and had toured consistently in both Europe and some countries in Latin-America. Simultaneously, I had started teaching quite early, and in fact Sainz de la Maza made me kind of an unofficial assistant from around 1971 on, sending me students that he would not take into his studio, so I gained early a lot of experience. But teaching and thinking about teaching are two different things. The latter began in earnest when my experiences as player and with students began to open up questions in my mind about methodology, the rather traditionalist approach followed by lots of colleagues, and the lack of a truly scientific foundation to guitar pedagogy, which relied to a great extent on a rather mystical conception of so-called ‘talent’. By the mid ‘70’s there were important additions to the pedagogical canon, with books like Carlevaro’s School of Guitar, and the early Shearer books, as well as the example of players like John Williams, who brought a new standard to guitar playing. I then began the first of several revisions of my own playing approach, which led to quite a few changes in both my playing and my teaching. The next phase began with my move to the United States, in 1980, where I began to design my technique book, Kitharologus. I had it basically finished by the time I was appointed to the faculty of the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, in 1984, and began to incorporate those materials into my teaching. I also began a very serious and dedicated study of the pre-technical aspects of playing, that is to say, functional anatomy, psychological factors in training and performance, etc. Out of this process, a second revision began to happen in which gradually I transformed many aspects of both my approach to playing and teaching. I became more aware of Aaron Shearer’s approach, and, in fact, I acknowledge him as a major influence at this point. Of course, none of this was related to my wanting to be a well-known teacher or player, it came out of my own, and my students’, need for better and more productive approaches. A third branch of my musical path, composition, also developed quite early, although I did not pursue it with professional intent until much later. These facets have all coalesced and been helped by my move to the USA and my appointment as faculty at DU.
CGB: What do you think made Kitharologus such a success?
Ricardo Iznaola: The fact that it is NOT a method, but rather a collection of materials for physical training on the guitar organized in a cyclical and gradually advancing fashion, without pre-ordained instructions (except very general and vague ones) on how to do the exercises. This meant that teachers and students of all persuasions could use the material with benefit, applying their own way of doing things, which is in fact what has happened.
Another factor has been the charts for training suggested at the end of the book. In them, the students find a distributed organization of practice schedules for each level (there are 9), so that they can follow the chart for each of the three daily routines recommended. The system, when implemented well, works very well, in my experience and that of many others.
CGB: Do you use the book with your students?
Ricardo Iznaola: Yes, I do, but I tend to be rather non-exclusive, so what I try is to indirectly motivate them to do consistent and persistent pre-technical, physical conditioning work on the instrument (which is what Kitharologus tries to provide), no matter where they find the materials, so I encourage them to use not only my book, but Scott Tenant’s Pumping Nylon, Carlevaro’s exercise books, Shearer’s books, Giuliani, Pepe Romero, as well as the more traditional methods, particularly Aguado and Pujol. There’s lots of good in all of them. However, I do test my students once a quarter specifically on my book.
CGB: What do you look for in a student?
Ricardo Iznaola: I look for dedication that can be defined as passionate, no matter if levels of achievement are not what, normally, one would consider advisable for the age of the student. Of course, admission to a professional program in music, as we offer at both undergraduate and graduate levels at Lamont, is rather stringent in requirements and expected expertise, but I try to help both the highly proficient and the less experienced, but full of potential, to the degree that institutional resources allow. In my view, which I have discussed in detail in a number of articles, the undue importance given by the musical profession to the mysterious, almost magical, concept of ‘innate talent’ is, in effect, an easy way out to justify pedagogical failure, when the teacher cannot find appropriate ways to bring a student up to their true but frequently hidden potential. I have had both enormous success and failure with this approach, which is primarily an ethical stance, but one that is gaining growing validation by new discoveries in cognitive science and neurology. In a word, I have committed myself, as a teacher, to the conviction that talent is present in all those who show true passion for the art form, although not all of them have equally unimpeded access to their talents. Some people need extra help unburdening, discovering or, as I have described it elsewhere, ‘unleashing’ their talent. In these cases, talent becomes a function of method. When we don’t achieve the goal of ‘unleashing’ the student’s ‘talent’, I try to find the fault in my methods, rather than using the abhorrent escape-route of blaming the student for his or her ‘lack of talent’. In other words, I have found it much more productive, pedagogically, and morally less repugnant to reject the notion of talent as an unexplained and unfairly distributed ‘gift’ from the gods. This posture, nonetheless, sometimes enter into conflict with the rather rigid institutional time-lines normative for the bachelor’s, master’s or diploma programs, so a rather interesting tug-of-war situation arises in cases where the student’s growth as a practitioner of the art does not fit comfortably with the required four-year or two-year standards to obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree. As in growing a flower garden, individual growth curves for different flowers need to be respected by the gardener. Teaching a highly complex, integrative function like music performance is very similar, in this context, to gardening. As we all know, though, educational institutions are not gardens.
CGB: You studied with Regino Sainz de la Maza, are there any memories that stand out from that time?
Ricardo Iznaola: Many, some good, some bad. Regino was a true child of his times, with all the grandeur and foibles of the grand masters of the era. As with all his prominent contemporaries, he demanded that students prove themselves before they, the teachers, would deign to actually teach and help the student. In general terms, the pedagogical methods of those times were punitive, authoritarian and dogmatic, and Regino was not free from these traits. However, he was a superb musician and an innovative and advanced technical thinker of the guitar, a fact many people ignore, because frequently his public performances left something to be desired, given his known problems with nerves.
CGB: Any lessons you still use every day?
Ricardo Iznaola: His insistence on rhythmic accuracy, the structural role of accents (“the skeleton of music”, as he described it), the concept of fluidity as a major defining characteristic of great technique, the preoccupation with dysfunctional tension, as well as a number of concrete exercises, some of them incorporated within the frame of my Kitharologus, have all stayed with me, and I try to pass them on to my students. However, I’m afraid that if he saw me play today, he would not recognize my current technical approach, particularly in the right-hand, as something derived from his.
CGB: What’s on your plate right now?
Ricardo Iznaola: Perhaps worthy of mention is two recent CD releases, one an anthological collection of Venezuelan music, a 2-CD set with works from Borges, Sojo, Plaza, Lauro, Riera, to those of younger masters. I included also two versions of the legendary Sonata by Lauro, one made for this recording, and the world-premiere recording, which I did in 1970. The difference between the two versions is immense!
The other is another 2-CD set, with Franz Schubert’s immortal song-cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) in my arrangement for voice and guitar. I had the privilege to work with the great American basso Kenneth Cox, my colleague at the Lamont School of Music. Both releases are from my label IGW, Iznaola Guitar Works, available through our website or through CDBaby and other outlets.
On the compositional front, the recent premiere of my Trio Classico, for flute, viola and guitar, written for a new, stellar group from Colorado, the Lefthand Canyon Trio, with musicians Christina Jennings on flute, Matt Dane on viola and Jonathan Leathwood, a protégé and colleague also, on guitar. There are a number of new projects waiting for available time, including a possible triple concerto for this trio.
I am also starting a collaboration with the great Venezuelan violinist and conductor Eddy Marcano, including both performances and recordings. Also, I am scheduled to do the world-premiere recording of Canto XIX, written for me by the eminent American composer Samuel Adler, who is putting all of his Cantos for string instruments on CD this Spring. Of course, there are solo, chamber and orchestral performances lined up for the rest of this season, too tedious to enumerate. I do want to mention my work at the very inspiring and top-quality Bowdoin International Summer Music Festival in Brunswick, Maine, where I have been an artist-faculty for the last ten years. I will be there from July 16 through August 6, teaching lessons, coaching chamber music and performing with distinguished colleagues. The guitar program is quite selective (we accept only four students) but rich in activities and performance opportunities for those admitted, both as soloists and chamber musicians. The festival is housed in the beautiful campus of Bowdoin College, and students and faculty have the opportunity to perform in the lovely Studzinsky music hall, a state-of-the art, resonant but transparent venue.
CGB: When’s the next book coming out?
Ricardo Iznaola: You may be aware that I have been working, for quite some time, on a comprehensive text on guitar playing, tentatively titled Summa Kitharologica. This was planned to be a study of the art of guitar playing from analytical, interpretive and performance viewpoints. I don’t know if this is what will happen, in the long run, because I have come to realize that my pedagogical works are, in fact, conceived in a systematic way, so that they, as a whole, constitute a ‘summa’, in the classic meaning or the term. There is an obvious thread uniting my little booklet On Practicing with Kitharologus, which has its foundation on the anatomo-physiological elements studied in my Physiology of Guitar Playing. Additionally, I have published a very extensive and comprehensive monograph on left-hand technique, titled Left-Hand Technique and the Limits of the Possible, which appeared in the inaugural issue of the UK journal Guitar Forum, and I am currently engaged in an equally developed monograph on right-hand technique, in which I delve into the functional anatomy and mechanics of the right limb, while presenting a full description, with numerous examples, of my positional framing theory. These two pieces provide the theoretical framework, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ thinking for the materials presented in Kitharologus. All of this, of course, is, in fact, continuation and further contribution to the all-encompassing concept of Summa Kitharologica, a project that, alas, might end up being a posthumous achievement!
CGB: What guitar and strings are you currently using?
Ricardo Iznaola:I have two guitars I use for different purposes, both very different but both splendid: a cedar-top John Price, built in 2002, and a spruce-top Andrea Tacchi, built in 2003. I also have a lovely Robert Ruck from 1995. I use D’Addario composite basses with either D’Addario or Augustine Imperial or Regal trebles.
CGB: Any tips for guitarists?
Ricardo Iznaola: Just to listen. As a musician, one is only as good as one hears. In practicing, the most common problem I find in students is the distortion in their listening due to impatience, playing too much, and, therefore, cramming. One needs a lot of time to find quality, and this requires a pace of work in which calm observation of what one is doing is an indispensable step. Other than that, and in more general terms, my only advice would be to enhance your curiosity, your appetite for, first, finding intriguing questions about anything and everything you or anyone else does, and, second, engaging in the purposeful process of discovering answers that, although hinted at by others, are, at the end of the day, only productive if they become your answers, your discoveries. Do not follow fads, dogmas or ‘schools’ to the point you disqualify your own thinking or creativity. After all, great art is always the product of a unique personality offering a unique, powerfully engaging perspective on the world we all share.