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Tom Patterson

Professor of Guitar at the University of Arizona

Personal Life

Here is an interesting interview with guitar teacher, Tom Patterson. First published in the Guitarra Magazine that Ted’s List recently acquired.


GUITARRA MAGAZINE: We have the pleasure to be here with Professor Thomas Patterson, head of the guitar department at the University of Arizona. Professor Patterson, can you tell us a little about your professional background both as a guitarist and as a guitar teacher?

THOMAS PATTERSON: I studied with some important people like Segovia, Oscar Ghiglia, and Michael Lorimer, as well as Abel Carlevaro. Besides, I also learned from my friends that are professionals. All the knowledge I’ve gained over the years is from exchanging information with other professionals as well as from my students.

GM: We understand you not only took lessons from guitar teachers but also from a piano teacher at some point.

TP: Yes, when I was in school back in 1969, guitarists did not have the same luxury as of today of choosing the school they wanted to go to study in. Besides Northern California there was not much more around. Where I went to school I took lessons with a violin professor for a year or so and with a piano professor. They were my weekly teachers, instead of a guitarist. Then I traveled to the San Francisco Bay area to study with the people I mentioned earlier.

GM: How valuable was this experience of taking lessons from non-guitarist musicians? Do you think it is an experience that every guitarist should have at some point?

TP: I think it is a good idea. The interesting thing is that even famous singers like Pavarotti or Placido Domingo, at the height of their musical prowess, still take lessons with a pianist. Those instruments that I worked with (piano and violin) have centuries of school. Relating to them, there is a lot of information about technique, music and so forth. However, that concerning our instrument, as you know, has been a broken chain. I learned a lot from studying with these teachers, and I think that for guitarists it is good to get a different angle. At times I have coached other instruments, which have a wonderful background. The other instruments do not relate to the technical problems so much. They would say “the music should be doing this” or “make sure you stretch a little more here…”, while a guitarist knows it is tricky or it is hard to make it sound legato.

GM: Do you think this type of coaching should be done when the student has achieved an advanced technical level, so the learning can be concentrated in the musical aspects?

TP: Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that guitar teachers, including myself, do not have good musical ideas, or that these other instruments are superior. They are just different. When you think about it, for example, one of Liszt’s ideas about music can be passed on to generations through a teacher you might have the opportunity to study with, which is a very neat idea. It is a different perspective, and I think broadening your base is always good. I think it is an excellent idea to take lessons from non-guitarist musicians. Actually it is a good idea for other musicians to be coached by people that do not play their same instrument.

GM: Since the modern guitar has a wide variety of colors, do you think it is appropriate to incorporate the idiomatic features of the guitar into a particular style of music? And to what extent would it be appropriate?

TP: Well, first of all I think you need to be true to any instrument. People who play stylistically appropriate music, whether it is baroque or classical, or whatever, and are considered great interpreters of a particular period of music have to phrase, breathe, articulate, etc, according to the technical issues of the instrument. They have to play the instrument in order to make it work. My first point is that it has to be idiomatic. Number two is that you have to make the instrument itself sound very beautiful no matter what you are doing–not that you would use the same romantic sound (vibrato, and so forth) on a piece by Weiss or Bach, but you are still playing the guitar and have to try to make it sound like the instrument that it is. Sometimes people get caught up in trying to make it sound more authentic and lose the spirit of the music. I think you need to listen to people that in general consensus are experts in early music–for instance, Gustav Leonhardt. Listen carefully so you have an opportunity to get enough feeling for the “accents” of that type of music. Then you have to play it on the guitar. I think there is a balance point between being true to the spirit and interpretation of any style of music, and then being true to the sound of the instrument, and I think that’s the bottom line.

GM: Moving on into the pedagogical side, how important do you believe it is to start learning the guitar, or music, at an early age?

TP: Well, in any type of learning there are so-called maturation stages, whether in learning a second language or guitar or tennis or something like that. Let’s take swimming as an example. My son is both a pianist and a swimmer. He is 8 years old. He is going to start working with a guy from South Africa who has numerous international free style records and who started competitive swimming at age 15. One of the reasons why a friend of mine, who is another famous swimmer, thought this South African swimmer would be a perfect coach for my son is because he has an excellent technique. He started when he was 15 years old (a somewhat late age for getting started at that sport). He was behind, and he had to develop an intellectual understanding of how his body worked. There are cases of people who learn various instruments later in life and do quite well with them. Having said that, I think it is always better if people can do it a lot earlier, when it is easier for the learning to be natural. However, people should not be discouraged from picking up an instrument and learning. I will point out a former student of mine who is one of the better guitarists I have heard and in my opinion definitely one of the best interpreters of contemporary music ever. His name is Todd Seelye. He had played some jazz and rock guitar, but essentially he started classical guitar when he was 18 years old, and he has an absolute virtuosity for technique that allows him to play the complex rhythms that you find in Carter, Babbit, Berio, or any of the upside type of music that he likes to play. There are examples of people who with just their intelligence and their ability, perseverance and so forth, become superb players, despite having started late.

GM: In a more detailed way, and looking at the learning process with regard to some specific aspects such as, technique, sight-reading, musical analysis, expression, and improvisation, would you consider them in a specific order or assign hierarchical levels of importance to them?

TP: Well, I would say that improvisation in classical musicians is probably the least important role, in my opinion. There are many phenomenal classical musicians that cannot improvise much at all, and they are great interpreters, even though you would like to see that. A former student here at the University of Arizona, Alieksey Vianna, is a tremendous improviser. So is as Ivan Rijos, another former student. I do not think those skills help too much unless the performer happens to be very nervous, loses the place in a recital and has to make up a number of measures, influencing the interpretation to a certain degree. I would say that technique holds the highest place, because you can’t improvise unless you have great technique, even if you have great abilities to hear.

GM: In what ways do you think technique is directly connected to musicality?

TP: You need the technique in order to express the musicality.

GM: I would say it is part of the understanding of music, but it is something hard to describe because it is something that comes from the soul.

TP: I agree with that. I think that all are interconnected in classical musicians with the exception of improvisation. However there are examples of people, for example Julian Bream, whose spirit and musicality transcends his technical limitations. Take this early learning issue. John Williams started very early and Julian Bream did not. Most of us would see a difference in their ease of making music work. As in Bream’s case, sometimes the struggle for technique to make music come out makes it exciting. Sometimes the effortlessness of someone with tremendous technique might cloak their musicality, caught up in their fingers for lack of struggle. You can see this in composers as well, like Mozart, whose music came up so quickly, and Beethoven, who struggled more. There is a sense that this struggle produces a different feel in the music of Beethoven than in the music of Mozart.

Without a great technique, no matter how musical you are, no one will like to listen to your music, and where there is great technique but complete absence of musical thought no one will like to listen in that case either. I think these two aspects have to walk hand in hand in the development process and everything else. Improvisation, as I said, is nice, and in the old days it was a big part, but I don’t think it is so essential now. As for sight-reading, guitarists and harpists are generally not good sight readers. This is important, but I think it hardly matters more than improvisation. We don’t really know whether the performer is a good sight-reader or not if the concert is played from memory. It would be nice to develop it, but the most important thing is to have a tremendous technique and a tremendous ability to convey the understanding of the music and, as you said, a soulful, emotional base.

GM: Going again to the technique topic, some famous artists say that technique should only be practiced within the music that the performer is working on, and that there is no point in sitting down and practicing technique alone in a routine of exercises that are not really related to the music. What is your point of view?

TP: It is a very personal issue for everyone. There are people that I have worked with that never practiced technique, who had very adequate technique and learned the pieces and worked the technique in that way. There are other people who have been able to do a lot of exercises and got to develop a great facility in their hands but could not play pieces very well. I have seen that a number of times. It is very interesting to see someone that has scales or arpeggios or whatever they can play in the format of exercises, but it does not translate into the pieces that well. It is important to delineate the difference between technique and facility. Facility is the ability to move your fingers quickly, to stretch them, to make a big sound, all these types of things. Those abilities are either natural or developed in your hands. Technique is the way you leverage things. Technique is the way an old football player, a quarterback like Joe Montana, was able to pass the ball and make things work. Despite the fact that he was old and his body was not working as well as it did when he was 20, he could actually do it better at 35 because he used his body in a certain way. The way you use your body, the way you use that given ability or developed ability is your technique. It is your mental approach. This is my own point of view of these things. People learn technique, and it is a mental thing that they are able to do. Even if they have not practiced much, they still know how to leverage their hands in a certain way to make things happen.

But going back to the main question, technique studied in the exercises vs. technique studied within the music is related, I think, to an earlier question about how early in age people started to play. I think you have these arguments about all the instruments. Let’s take swimming as an example. Mark Spitz was a famous swimmer who had amazing genetic advantages in his body (flexibility and so forth) that allowed him to be an extraordinary swimmer. U of A has a very good swimming team just beating the heck out of his records now because they developed ways of utilizing swimming strokes other than the standard ones. So they developed technique.

GM: They find ways to make the body more efficient?

TP: Absolutely! More efficient and more dynamic in general. So as guitarists evolve with this instrument, their abilities get better and better, and the younger they start the more they develop efficient ways of working and practicing so many hours per day, including technique. We are going to find people moving up and our standards getting higher all the time.

GM: To conclude the interview, can you tell us about what is going on in the well-known guitar department at the University of Arizona?

TP: Well, this year we had a very exciting year. We had John Williams giving a master class in October, followed by Paul O’Dette. We had a number of guests who came in to adjudicate and give some master classes; three from Brazil, one from Colombia, and one from Germany for the final Ralph Stevens Competition and Festival. A number of students were successful this year. It was probably the most fruitful I have seen in all the years I have been here. I think 9 or 10 different students won either local, national or international competitions. Guilherme Vincens, a masters degree student from Brazil, got 1st place in the Portland competition this year. Emily Jones got 3rd in Portland. We continue to get a number of really fine students at graduate level from many different countries, and this year we have a really strong incoming freshman class, which is always fun for me, four or five very talented and well prepared 17- or 18-year-old students.

GM: What kinds of degrees do you offer at U of A?

TP: We have a Bachelor of Music in guitar performance for undergraduates, a Master of Music for graduate students, and a Doctoral in Musical Arts degree.

GM: For more information email Professor Patterson at [email protected] or click here.

Thank you for your time.

TP:You are welcome.


Did You Know?

Thomas Patterson has given recitals throughout North America, the People's Republic of China, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Italy.

Tom Patterson

Tom Patterson Recordings


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