TIME IN With Grammy-Winning Guitarist Jason Vieaux: Composing, Playing With The Kids, And Getting Back On The Road
Grammy-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux, who grew up listening to modern jazz, pop, and alternative rock, has become one of today’s classical music stars. In this TIME IN conversation, he talks about his life at home and on the road during the past year, and now.
It seems apt that Jason Vieaux’s 2015 Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo would be for an album called Play, as his expansive approach to music and life is full of the curiosity and joy we associate with play.
Growing up in Buffalo New York, Jason Vieaux initially thought of the guitar as just another fun activity.
“I also loved soccer, I loved sports, throwing the football around, playing street hockey. The guitar was kind of my thing that was separate from my brother and sister and any of my friends.”
Meanwhile, he was absorbing a wide variety of musical styles -- among them: modern jazz and beat-oriented pop music from his parents' record collections, and alternative rock, hip-hop and heavy metal from listening with his friends.
And classical? It was his guitar that opened that door.
In high school, Jason studied classical guitar with Jeremy Sparks, a founding member of the Buffalo Guitar Quartet, then went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he now teaches. At 19, he won first prize in the 1992 Guitar Foundation of America’s International Guitar Competition. In 2011, he co-founded the classical guitar department at the Curtis Institute of Music.
Jason’s recordings over the years reflect his varied musical interests: works of J.S. Bach, Astor Piazzolla, and Alberto Ginastera, as well as the world premiere recording of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Concerto for Guitar. He's collaborated with French accordion and bandoneón player, Julien Labro, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, and the Escher String Quartet, among others. He plays Jeff Beal's Six Sixteen for guitar and chamber orchestra on the recording of Beal’s House of Cards Symphony; on Pat Metheny's 2021 album, Road to the Sun, Jason performs Four Paths of Light, written for him by Metheny.
Now, with concert venues opening up, Jason's touring schedule has resumed. Returning home to Ohio in June after performances in Alaska with cellist Zule Bailey, artistic director of Juneau Jazz and Classics, Jason met with me on Zoom from his home studio to talk about life during the shut down and going forward.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
The Basement: Music Headquarters
On Zoom, Jason appears in front of a blue/gray backdrop, book-ended by a large green plant and the soft glow from a nearby lamp. It's actually the corner of his basement, turned into an all-purpose recording studio and musical workshop.
“This was the headquarters when everything was canceled,” he says. “It’s where I’d do anything related to music, including a casual performance or all the radio interviews." He taught classes using Zoom for Cleveland and Curtis, and continued his online lessons with Artist Works. And in early June, 2020, my colleague and I put together a recital for the Cleveland International Guitar Festival."
Working in the basement took some creativity in a lively household with two inquisitive young children. “There's a basement door that goes to the outside. And there's the door from the inside, that we can lock, because otherwise the kids would just come right down!” He laughs and describes his round-about-commute to the basement. “In the wintertime, I'd head out in the snow with my boots and coat" before coming back in through the basement's outside door.
So pre-pandemic, what kind of things did you like to do to relax?
“Play gigs!” He pauses, aware of the irony. ”Yeah, it really is my thing. I need a break from it now and then, but when I say a break, I mean I need a nap. Or I’ll take a day off and hang out in the backyard with my family. But I don't really have hobbies. I am so conditioned after 25 years to preparing for next week, or at the most, two weeks from now. “
So what was your day-to-day like, at home with your family?
“Mostly it was great, because I had never really been with my kids for more than maybe a week and a half at a time. So my son Gabriel, as a five-year-old, was already used to that, but Evangelene was three at the start. It was great being together."
Speaking of the kids …
A small voice is heard and Jason looks away from the camera. “I guess one of these munchkins is down here right now. Sweetheart,” he says in a soft voice, looking down and off camera. “I’ll be upstairs soon.”
When you spent a lot of time with kids, did you get into kids games, or videos?
“Oh yeah,” he says. “I became a big fan of Henry Danger; we watched Harry Potter.”
They also found an old Wii video machine they'd bought and forgotten about. "I hadn't played video games since I was 13 or 14. That became a three month obsession for me."
He grins. "I got a gold cups on every level of Mario Kart! I was doing golf and tennis and baseball with Gabriel. If you would have told me a few years before that I’d be playing video games, I would have said, there's no way!”
Playing MarioKart's "Grumble Volcano" even inspired Jason to write a new work, Grumble, which he premiered in June 2020 for the U.S. Classic Guitar Series:
Outside, he’s been teaching Gabriel to throw a football. “Gabriel throws a good spiral," he says, with pride. "I’m totally a Buffalo sports guy.” But the kids are only 3 and 5. “It’s slow going,” he admits. “They’re not so much into the sport, they’re more into just running, so we got a trampoline now in the backyard. And we go to the playground."
“Honestly, it was strange and beautiful and really great because I bonded with them in a way that there's really no way I would have been able to do before.”
Turning to Composing
But having no concerts to play was an adjustment. “It took a couple months to really figure out how to be a musician because I’m very much a performance-oriented animal. I have all these collaborations, and there was never any wanting for gigs; when the gigs weren't there, it was very hard for me to feel like me. “
He turned to composing. "And that was great because I wrote over 60 minutes of solo guitar pieces. Composing is something that always came very naturally to me; I just never had time to do it.”
What kind of things inspired you in your composing?
"I began to focus on the Artists Work students, most of who are at the beginner or intermediate level. I worked on writing etudes, developmental things that I thought were missing from a contemporary repertoire."
He wrote B-Day Six on Gabriel's birthday. "And then I wrote a tremolo piece, meant to be for an intermediate player, where the right hand simulates a continuously sustaining melody. I called that Home because I was thinking very much about being at home."
Did music help you deal with the pandemic?
“I think writing music was very therapeutic because I was so conditioned after many years to be practicing for something in the very near future. So at first, it was hard to practice because there was nothing to prepare for: there wasn't a gig, there wasn’t an audience, there wasn't anybody listening.”
Performing on Zoom helped, but it wasn't the same. In live performances, he says, "My audience listens really hard. It's quiet, but you also feel the energy in the room. It’s kind of like stand-up comedians, where the room is different everywhere they go, and they have to make adjustments. That’s kind of the way I perform; I don't play the same way every time.”
Well, now you have a lot coming up.
"Oh yeah, the fall’s very busy already. I have to say, the break was probably very good for my playing, because I feel like my live performance is stronger than it ever was."
Why do you think that is?
"I don't know, just the time away, I think, and also having a little bit more time between performances. If we can swing it, I might try to space them out more in the future."
Are there things you started during the pandemic you’d like to continue?
“I think I'm generally taking better care of myself. Sleep was always in the back of my mind; that I should really make sleep and practice more of a priority. It was just a lot easier to do that in the pandemic. And getting more regular exercise, and walking a lot."
"For better or worse, I really am very much looking for things to get back to normal," he says, whatever that is now. "I definitely learned a lot of things; I’d like to carry forward the composing as well."
"And now that I’ve had all this time with the family -- we just enjoy each other's company so much -- I want to spend more time with them."