Q&A: Grammy-Winning Guitarist Jason Vieaux and His Philadelphia Connections

Jason Vieaux‘s mother was a school librarian who bought him his first classical guitar for $50 when he was a young boy. Fast forward several decades later and Mr. Vieaux is now a Grammy-winning musician who tours internationally, performing to eager audiences at almost every major classical guitar festival in the world. Vieaux is also no stranger to Philly: He’s Curtis faculty, and he’s performed numerous concerts here. He’ll be returning to World Cafe Live on May 7th to perform with the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, part of the LiveConnections concert series which aims to pair unlikely artists for interesting music making. We caught up with Vieaux to discuss his upcoming show and why Philly is such a hotbed for classical music.

Congrats on your recent Grammy. What was it like to be at the ceremony and win? It was amazing because it came as a total shock. Just getting a nomination was amazing itself. I was taking a nap in Melbourne and my alarm went off, and there were Twitter and text notifications. At first, I panicked and wondered if someone died or something. But it has been great. We’re still celebrating it in a way. It’s also good to know that the Grammys aren’t nearly a popularity contest.

Tell me more about your own musical upbringing—when did you first start to play and where did you go to school? I grew up in Buffalo and parents had a vinyl record collection that I raided every day. My father had modern jazz records, and mother had soul records and Beatles albums, so I’d listen to records all day from the time I was three years old. I fell in love with music right away. My mother fostered that by buying me a small guitar, not knowing it was a classical guitar. At first, I did some music reading lessons with a jazz guitarist and mainly just goofed around instead of actually playing it. Then, the Buffalo Guitar Quartet came to my school. They gave an outreach program, and my mother asked one of the members, Jeremey Sparks, if he would listen to me and take me on a student. That is what clicked for her: There was guitar playing like this. The quartet would wear tuxes and everything, and that was very attractive to her. That’s how I started, and by the time I was 12, I started performing my own recitals.

How does the rehearsal process work for the LiveConnections concerts? I’ve played with the Al Bustan Takht Ensemble a couple times before: We collaborated about two years ago with LiveConnections at World Café Live. It was great and a very successful concert. The audience really went crazy at the end. There’s a lot of collaboration, an East meets West sort of thing. From a western point of view, there’s a healthy amount of improvisation, so they songs won’t be played the same way every time. We work out the arrangement during the rehearsal. It’s a very organic progress.

How would you explain the notion of “classical guitar” to someone who has no idea what that means? The main thing is that physically, we use our fingers on our right hand, the hand that would normally be using a pick. We use 4 out of the 5 fingers on our right hand, and we carefully craft and sculpt and sandpaper our nails—our fingernails are producing the sound. We are playing with four picks, if you will, on our hand. We play Bach fugues or Spanish piano works that are transcribed, so we are required to play music that is quite layered.

I know you have this really innovative online classical guitar school that you launched. It has been a really great thing. It happened my first year of teaching at Curtis. I got a call from a staff member in marketing: I never heard of anything quite like it. It’s not live; it’s not like Skype. It’s a video exchange: There are 200 core curriculum videos. 85% of subscribers just watch the videos, but if a subscriber sends a video to me, I can teach them. We go back and forth. Unlike a master class or a private lesson, this eliminates the nervousness, so the student can send in his best effort. It is very effective.

You are an Astral Artist, which is based here in Philly. A lot of people don’t know about the great work they do. My Philly debut in 1996 sponosored by Astral. Astral is a really important and great organization for young classical musicians who don’t have the access or connection to the business or management. They help foster those relationships, not only with presenters by booking the artists, but also by getting you plugged in to secure management. It’s a really great organization. They had a big hand in the earlier part of my career of how I functioned as a professional. They’ve been around for over 20 years and they’ve helped so many young musicians developed talent and smooth off the rough edges.

You can catch Jason Vieaux and the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble at World Cafe Live on Thursday, May 7th. For tickets and more information, click here.