I recently stumbled across a really great player by the name of Simon Powis on youtube who, after contacting him, graciously agreed to answer a few questions for our readers.
Simon has studied with some pretty amazing players including Ben Verdery at Yale University where he did his doctorate (the only guitarist in the last 20 years to do so at Yale!).
His Bach playing is some of the nicest I’ve heard, and I’ll share a few videos with you at the end of the interview as well as Simon’s website etc…
Simon Powis Interview:
Could you tell us a little about how you got started playing guitar? Did you start out with classical? How old were you?
I started out on the guitar, like many do, wanting to be a rock star. I was in a Red Hot Chilli Peppers cover band and I was obsessed with guitarists like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen. After a while I started to move more towards classical music. My brother was playing a lot of classical music at that time (he is a jazz sax player) and I started to listen to a lot of Mozart and Schubert.
After a while I started doing AMEB grades (Australian Music Examination Board), and I really benefited from the structured learning program.
How about influences when you were younger? Teachers, Composers, Players?
I hopped between several teachers when I was younger but I would say my first real teacher was Raffaele Agostino. He teaches at the Conservatorium in Sydney and he laid a lot of the musical foundation that paved the way for my career. When I started out, I would often bite off more than I could chew. I took on pieces like the Aguado Rondo in A minor, and the Sor Mozart Variations, mainly because I wanted to play fast, impressive pieces but I was completely unprepared musically and technically for these pieces. Sometimes enthusiasm can be your worst enemy!
Luckily when I started working with Raffaele he got me to slow down on all fronts and build up my playing in a comprehensive manner.
Any non-classical influences you care to tell us about?
Well, as I mentioned I started out listening to a lot of electric guitar players. I can’t tell you how many times I watched the final scene of the movie “Crossroads”… There was always a lot of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Queen blasting out of my room. Also, I really loved listening to great blues musicians, and I would often loop tracks so I could practice improvising.
Apart from music, I was very into theatre acting and I think I have always benefited from that training when I get on stage. I have never really suffered from stage fright, which I am convinced is largely due to the acting I did as a teenager.
You’ve participated in a lot of masterclasses as well as studied with some pretty amazing players! – Who have been some of your favourite guitarists to work with?
Apart from my two main teachers, Ben Verdery and Raffaele Agostino, I really enjoyed working with Pavel Steidl, Aniello Desiderio, David Russell and Oscar Ghilia. I have a lot of respect for them as performers and they all left indelible marks on my playing.
I was once at a festival in Lichtenstein where several students simply didn’t show up. I happened to be standing in the hall when they put up empty sign up sheets to have lessons with David Russell and Pavel Steidl, among others. So I ended up having three lessons with each of them. It was a good week.
Becoming the only guitarist in over 20 years to do a doctorate at Yale must have been a pretty amazing honor! Could you tell us a little bit about that experience as well as working with Ben Verdery?
I have never studied more than for the entrance exam to the Yale doctoral degree. Apart from playing and the interview, there is a pretty grueling five hour written exam, where you need to get over eighty percent in each section. Applicants are allowed to take the test a maximum of two times and the first time I took the exam, I received a 78 on one section, which means that I did not pass. So, I kept studying for another six months and passed the second time. I think I was more proud of my perseverance than anything else!
It was a complete joy and a privilege to study at Yale with Ben. More than just a fantastic teacher, Ben has an infectious enthusiasm for music and life in general. I think having such a positive mentor has prepared me well for a career that can have a lot of challenges. Ben and I have remained good friends, and he lives ten just blocks from me in Manhattan.
What guitar are you currently playing?
I perform on a Paul Sheridan guitar at the moment. Paul is an Australian luthier that builds a lattice-braced guitar. I really enjoy the instrument because it is just a great all rounder. It is powerful, has a good variety of tone, especially for a lattice guitar, and it has stood then test of time with a lot of miles under the hood.
Paul is a lovely guy, and I hope his guitars get more recognition, because they are very good and reasonably priced.
One of my favorite videos you have done is the Bach Fugue 1001, would you mind talking a little bit about how you approach Bach and Baroque music in general on the guitar?
I have played more music by Bach than by any other composer. I find the music profound and incredibly satisfying. Having said that, I find it incredibly difficult to play! There are the issues of interpretation, editions, fingering, technical challenges, arrangement, and the biggest challenge for me is memorization. At a certain point I got so wound up trying to play Bach ‘correctly’ (which really just means trying to please someone else) so I just decided to play it as I felt it.
I think the version of the 1001 fugue is a complete mutt, with mixes of Koonce, the urtext, Willard, Hoppstock and several others. As a student, its difficult to learn Bach because each teacher will give you differing advice, sometimes completely contradictory.
I think, as a generalization, there are fundamental musical tenets that need to be adhered to but above and beyond that you need to play music like you feel it. If you have been thoughtful about your interpretation and put in the hard work, no one can fault your interpretation as being ‘wrong’.
I noticed you have some work-out routines and other practice material for sale on one of your sites, could you tell us a little more about that?
In the last 4 years or so I have developed a strong interest in guitar pedagogy, and seeing as I have some computer/internet skills I thought that a website would be a great platform to create some teaching materials and offer some lessons to people who might be interested. Because I am pretty addicted to the guitar I find it hard not to play pieces as soon as I sit down.
I would love to sit down with a technical book and do a practice routine but many technique books are so full of material its hard to know when to start and stop, making it very easy to get distracted. So, I wrote some practice routines for myself to help me stay disciplined in my practice. I really enjoyed them, so I expanded them and wrote them out so that other people could use them too.
At the moment I am just finishing off a beginners version. They take a huge amount of time to edit, because of all the little details with fingering etc. not to mention actually creating something that will be useful by a large group of people. The response has been really good with the first batch so I hope to build on them over time.
What’s coming up on the horizon in terms of your career?
I am living in New York now, and I am really enjoying not being in an educational institution. I feel more creative than ever and it is exciting to be in a diverse artistic community. I hope to keep growing and developing as a musician and if I can make rent each month while I am at it I will be a happy camper!
I am getting more and more performance opportunities these days, which is wonderful, but I am starting to dread the airport and jet lag. I thought that by living in New York I might have more performance opportunities in the city but most of my performances are somewhere else.
The real benefit of being in the city is learning from all the amazing artists that live here and those who pass through.
Hope you all enjoyed the interview and thanks again to Simon for taking the time to respond!