Crown Workshop Manager, Amelia Thornton, interviews Phil Goldenberg, the winner of Jim Stroud’s Classical Guitar Competition and 2015 Crown Fellowship in Classical Guitar, on the topics of practice, motivation, and his path to Crown.
A: What is your background in guitar? What is your story of how you got started?
P: I started playing guitar when I was 14, and I started because my friends wanted to make a band and somebody already played bass, and somebody already played drums, and I didn’t want to sing, so I decided to play guitar. As things progressed in my life, I started to get more and more interested in music and towards the end of high school I started to get into jazz. I was trying to figure it out on my own, which wasn’t going very well, so I decided I wanted to go to school for jazz in college. I ended up going to school at Rowan University in southern New Jersey for guitar. I sort of faked my way through the classical audition and my teacher let me in (he thought I was going to be a jazz major anyway). Then I took the jazz audition and failed miserably, so I was stuck in this program where I didn’t know anything about classical guitar, and my teacher didn’t necessarily want me in the program, but he was really patient and showed me a lot of really great repertoire and I really fell in love with it. I loved that it was real solo music for the instrument, that you didn’t have to play with other people, which is really fun, but you compromise a lot of what you want to do. I wanted to have it all, I wanted to be all the members of the band.
A: When did you graduate and did you continue school after Rowan University?
P: I graduated in 2012 and then went on to do a Masters degree at Cleveland Institute of Music, where I studied with Jason Vieaux. Rowan University was really a friendly and kind, communal atmosphere. Cleveland was a very very serious conservatory. The people who went there were really “in it to win it”. It was a very different atmosphere. Jason Vieaux is a really accomplished player so he toured regularly and the students were quite competitive. With Rowan University I went in as a jazz player and came out a classical player, and in Cleveland it was the exact opposite. I went in wanting to stretch my classical training and I came out wanting a whole bunch more because I was inundated with it and wanted something else.
A: When you came to Crown as a Fellowship in 2015 you were in the Classical class, and I think you really surprised people when you got up there and jammed with jazz guys, blues guys, and electric rock musicians like King Solomon Hicks. I think the audience wasn’t expecting a classical player to get up there and improvise.
P: I think that the people who used to be into Classical, sort of the born and bred aristocrats, don’t really exist anymore. I would say that the next generation of classical players are people who were really into the technical styles of rock music and then just stumble across a Youtube video of someone playing classical guitar and think, “that’s actually awesome, I’d love to do that!”, which is basically how I came across it. You have the opposite of what most woodwind players would come across, having a classical background and then you branch out into popular styles. Instead you have this popular background and you branch out into the classical style.
A: How did you come to Crown and did you know much about it before you attended?
P: I came to Crown because I won James Stroud’s Classical Guitar Competition in Oberlin, Ohio and part of that prize was getting the Fellowship at Crown. I had a friend of a friend who had attended in 2014. Basically the only thing I knew about Crown was that it was a thing you could go to where it wasn’t a whole bunch of people fixing their fingernails! (laughs) My only experience prior to attending was a whole bunch of beautiful pictures he had posted on Facebook.
A: Tell me a little bit about the Crown Fellowship experience for you.
P: It was really cool, very very busy. That whole first week you are playing concerts every day, sometimes twice a day. It was especially crazy as a classical guitarist because you are out there in venues you wouldn’t usually be in, like bars and outdoor venues. It’s you and then it’s a blues act and then an electric rock act. You are representing an entire genre to a bunch people who haven’t ever heard that before, which is very different. A lot of the time you have classical people coming to classical concerts to hear classical favorites.
A: Were you nervous about that?
P: I was nervous about it, but I was excited to get back to my roots and get dirty with some rock and blues and stuff. I was worried about playing classical for a non-classical audience. It was interesting actually, in the beginning as I was playing these concerts, I felt like I needed to change something about my interpretation or change something about my playing to make the audience more into it. Make it more rhythmic, less rubato, make fewer faces, make more faces… and then as I played more of these concerts, I realized I didn’t need to do anything different. The vast majority of people at Crown are happy to hear classical guitar music; they just haven’t before. It’s hard not to like such pretty music. People aren’t just often exposed to it!
A: In one sentence, what is the Crown experience from a participant’s standpoint?
P: The Crown experience is people from everywhere around the globe who play every style of guitar who come together to jam on an E minor blues! (laughs)
A: I think my highlight was getting to hear you speak at a public workshop at Flathead Valley Community College. You have developed your own brand of practice and teaching. I learned a ton from you in that hour on effective practice methods. Can you summarize some of the points you discussed last summer?
P: Basically my philosophy of practicing is boiled down to three different types of practice; the first being Observational Practice. You set all other aspects of music aside and focus on one specific thing. For example, if you are just trying to get the notes out and making as few mistakes as possible, eliminate some of the other variables. Say to yourself my rhythm doesn’t matter, my tone doesn’t matter, my left hand fingerings don’t matter, my right hand fingerings don’t matter, all that matters is I play the notes that are on the page 5 times without making a single mistake. And then the next round is “my right hand fingerings have to be right too”, but none of the other things matter. And you need to get lots of correct run-throughs of that.
Then the next one is Procedural Practice, which is once you’ve gotten through and all of your variables have been dealt with, you start solidifying this stuff. That’s when you can turn a lot of these shaky passages into really solid passages. Try to get it right as many times as possible, and getting it wrong as few times as possible. The key thing to think about there is, if you are going to play a passage 10 times, and you are able to play it perfectly 5 times and you mess up 5 times, what are the odds that you are going to get it right the 11th time. It’s 50/50. Whereas if you allow yourself to work on something very meticulously and very very slowly, where you feel silly at how slow you are taking it, but you are getting it right 10 times out of 10, you know that the 11th time is not going to be an issue. That is the base work for Procedural Practice. It is like trying to get a really good batting average and knocking it out of the park 10 times out of 10.
Then the third step is Performance Practice, which is taking all of these little pieces you have taken apart, putting it back together, and performing it. Performance can be by oneself but the best thing to do is to play for people. Playing by yourself, for yourself, you are in a certain state of mind, your body is operating in a certain way, whereas if you have another person in the room your mind is in a completely different place, your body is in a different state, your heart rate is elevated, your hands are going to be shaking, and you aren’t used to playing a piece in that state of mind. It’s all about getting run-throughs where you can put yourself in that state of mind and state of body. Also it is wonderful to play for a video-camera. You can go back and reflect on this stuff.
A: Is this method something unique that you have created?
P: Jason Vieaux talked a lot about practice technique in his lessons with me, but maybe didn’t put it into words the way I have. I can’t really say that I invented it because I feel like every good musician has practiced this way since the beginning of time. I just read this book on Augustine Darius, who said he used to take a bag full of 100 pebbles and every time he would play a piece of music correctly, he would take a pebble out of the bag and put it on the table until he had emptied the bag. He also said that every time he would screw something up he would take all the pebbles and put it back in the bag. It is a very old tradition of trying to get good run-throughs of stuff.
A: In a way it is putting this age-old tradition that hasn’t quite been verbalized yet, into a method. Do you see yourself writing and publishing something that expresses this type of effective practice?
P: Definitely! I’m working on writing a book right now. Hopefully it wouldn’t just be for guitar, and honestly hopefully it wouldn’t just be for music. No matter your discipline, you can benefit from learning to practice better. That’s really what I would like to do, is talk about how to be disciplined and how to achieve really good results, through the lens of music.
A: Where do you teach and what was your path to getting the job?
P: The school I’m really passionate about is the New York Guitar Academy, in Midtown Manhattan. I actually got the job through Instagram. I’d been posting 15 second videos on Instagram and one got picked up by an account that shares other people’s videos to over 60,000 followers. The New York Academy liked my video. I followed them back and thought “hey, they saw my video, they saw I could play and they liked it”, so I sent them an email to let them know I was a classical guitarist living in New York and was looking to teach. They didn’t have a lot of space in their studio, but they liked how I played, so they invited me for an interview. They ended up making space in their school for me and I’ve picked up 8 students through them. A few are group classes, which I’ve really come to enjoy. When you learn in a vacuum there isn’t as much riding on you, practicing and learning and enjoying it.
A: Tell us a little bit more about Instagram and how social media is important for musicians!
P: Social media is really important for musicians. I got into it because my girlfriend kept telling me “videos are limited to 15 seconds, you can play for 15 seconds!” She basically said, “Phil, you are setting up an Instagram”. Instagram is basically free advertising. It is very low maintenance and lots of exposure without having to play gigs for free. You make an account, take 20 minutes a day to make sure your accounts are up to date, you respond to your fans and people taking interest in your account, and the account grows with time. It’s great for artists right now. It sort of levels the playing field a little bit.
A: As a teacher what are your thoughts on finding motivation to practice?
P: Motivation really has to come from within. Honestly I think it is a form of Observational Practice. If you decide that your biggest problem right now is that you aren’t enjoying playing your instrument, then that is the biggest thing you need to fix. It isn’t right hand fingerings/left hand fingerings, sound… You need to set all that aside and focus on remembering why you enjoy playing the instrument.
A: Being a professional musician is certainly a strenuous life path, what is it about music that makes it worth the struggle?
P: If you can do something else, you should do something else. I think that people who want to be professional musicians, who know what the cost of that is, and decide to still do it…there’s not another option for them. You’re completely addicted to it. There’s no going back. There’s not something that makes it worthwhile, you just have to do it. I can’t imagine doing something else.
A: What advice do you have for beginners?
P: Don’t take days off. You have to practice every day. Otherwise you’ll never get addicted to it. That, and the headstock points to the left.
To keep up with Phil’s work as a teacher and performer, follow his Instagram account: www.instagram.com/phil.goldenberg
or like his page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/phil.goldenberg
To donate to the Crown Fellowship and Scholarship program to create life-changing experiences for more young musicians like Phil, 855-855-5900 or visit www.crownguitarfest.org/foundation