The Winner of 2002 International Web Concert Hall
tell us about your musical background.
I come from an extremely musical family. There are
professional musicians on both sides and my father builds guitars. When I was a child, my
brothers played music with classical guitars hoping that someday I would be a great
guitarist. Of course this made me very disinterested and I ended up spending my early
childhood mostly interested in sports. I joined a church choir when I was nine that was
coached by Godfrey Hewitt (father of famous pianist Angela Hewitt). At the time, I just
auditioned for fun and was taken in very enthusiastically. Soon, I was singing solos quite
regularly. At that time I didn't actually read music but able to quickly learn and
memorize music. It was more than a year before anyone found out before they noticed my
musical talent. I was in this choir for about 5 years and it gave me a good foundation in
phrasing melody lines and listening skills to basic harmonies and its construction. Near
the end of the choir life, I became interested in rock music and decided to learn some
instruments. Of course there were many guitars nearby so it was quite natural to grab one
and start with it. I decided to become a professional musician very soon after that and
that led to lessons, performances and master classes. I actually went alone to the Guitar
87 festival when I was 16 and did nothing but practice and go to concerts and classes. I
went to several other festivals and early on saw great guitarists like John Williams,
David Russell, Hubert Kappell and Manuel Barrueco. Around this time I also switched to an
arts based high school and did my first performances of the Bach Chaconne, Paganini's
Caprice 24, Rodrigo's Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, and other standard repertoire. I also
played string bass and electric guitar very extensively and got to be in pit orchestras as
well as play lots of orchestral repertoire. This school was a great experience and we
often played music for several hours every day.
When I left there I took a year and competed locally (and
won), completing my Grade 10 RCM (first class honors) without a teacher. I also performed
extensively with my rock band at the time. I spent the following year at the Conservatoire
de Musique du Quebec a Hull studying with Patrick Roux. This was a great period as I was
constantly performing and was part of the quartet Guitares Nouvelle France which performed
extensively in Quebec and later toured France. I had continued attending guitar symposiums
and festivals and I decided to compete a little more after that. I was accepted as a
competitor in the GFA international competition in Miami in the early 90's. I think the
last year they had a tape round. This led to several more applications and acceptances to
In 1992 I moved to Toronto to join another guitar quartet
that unfortunately broke up just a few weeks after my arrival. I decided to attend the
University of Toronto while I was there and study with Norbert Kraft. I had a difficult
time there because of the number of outside solo concerts I had committed to and actually
became quite ill at the end of the year. I applied to Eastman school at that time and was
offered a scholarship but unfortunately I did not have the financial means to attend. I
then spent about 5 years living in Toronto and playing in every environment one could
possibly imagine. I was a street musician, subway musician, reception musician, wedding
musician, played in pubs, taught, played sessions, played many concerts and played every
style of music and ensemble imaginable still focusing on classical guitar. Probably bad
career choices, but I must say I look back on those years with a certain fondness. At that
time I was still thrilled just to be a working musician.
Around 1998 I became tired of that life and decided to
release a CD recording and really show the world what I could do. I moved back to Ottawa
but unfortunately was unable to complete this for a few more years. In 2001 I released my
first CD and put up my website at www.andrewmah.com
. I did all the production myself and it has received rave reviews. My ambition has
done nothing but grow since then and I'll be doing my second recording this year. I am
very proud to be a winner in WebConcertHall and in Sept 2002 I was the only person in
North America invited to compete in the San Francisco International Guitar Competition.
Who are your teachers? And when you recall some of
your teachers what are the first and best qualities you remember?
I was a very difficult student and most teachers probably
didnt know quite what to do with me. I challenged them constantly, and was not
always good to them. I also had a distinct personal style from very early on which I'm
sure must have been very difficult for teachers to deal with. Teachers usually mold
students and help them develop. It always seemed natural to me to play pieces in certain
ways. Sometimes these ways were very much at odds with conventional interpretation and
they were very often at odds with my teachers approach.
Playing string bass in string ensembles also had an enormous
influence on my guitar playing. It taught me an enormous amount about voice leading and
Garry Elliot was my first teacher. He gave me encouragement,
inspiration and lots of musical basics with regard to execution on the guitar, also lots
of enthusiasm and constructive debate on how to play. I always asked him to show what he
meant instead of just telling me, and that really helped me. He also advised me to go to
festivals, etc. Garry was the person who convinced me to start the classical guitar.
Patrick Roux was my second teacher. He gave me lots of good,
hard work to do and was VERY well organized in terms of practicing schedules. Patrick
really helped me to maximize my effectiveness in terms of preparing concert programs and
choosing repertoire. He gave me an enormous amount of performance opportunity and even
helped with a tour abroad. He is one of the hardest working teachers/musicians I have ever
David Russell was definitely my biggest influence on the
guitar. When I first heard him play right next to me in a master class, I was in utter
disbelief at the beauty of his tone and natural fluency of his phrasing. I followed him to
a very large number of his classes, played for him many, many times and for many years I
did everything he said. He was the model for excellence that I needed at that time.
Norbert Kraft helped to temper my many influences into a
personal style that had cohesion. I think he and I agreed little more on what is good
playing and what is not, but we also debated a great deal. Above all, I think my time with
Norbert gave me a greater confidence in my ideas and myself as a musician.
My present way of playing is definitely my own creation that
I see as separate from my instruction, as opposed to developed from it. I have made a
conscious effort to redefine myself as a musician, and to pick repertoire that I love.
There were many facets of playing guitar I wanted to pursue but they were a little taboo
in certain circles. This made it necessary for me to break with tradition and what I had
been taught. For example, the idea of a guitar player who can play as fast as the average
violinist or pianist is quite uncommon. I think I can say without prejudice that my
teachers and most guitarists who influenced me discouraged me from pursuing this goal. I
think this was for some reason considered to be a less musical and poetic way of playing.
A strange interpretation, but it seems to pervade the guitar world. I try to operate on
the other side of the coin. That is to say, there are guitarists in styles outside of
classical guitar who are as fast as violinists, and pianists; particularly in flamenco. We
know it can be done. So my goals in that respect are to take the elements of raw physical
speed that equal the standard of other classical instruments and use them in an
appropriate and musical fashion just as other instrumentalists do.
I also feel this way in regards to the use of tone color.
There is often a feeling among students that the guitar should sound even, as if we should
strive for the same tonal profile on every note. I think that's a good approach until you
can do it, but after you have the ability to play uniformly, there is the possibility to
control the exact sonority of each voice that you play. I think it takes around ten years
of hard work and study to get to this point and it definitely involves taking chances
during performances. Many people may think its not worth it. This is the stage I am
exploring more now. I am cultivating a very subtle control of tone on every voice. The
guitar can do this much more than most instruments and I think it should be developed and
studied at advanced levels rather than avoided.
How did your teacher influence you as a musician?
My teachers gave me confidence. Through discussion,
experimentation and debate they helped me define my identity, setting the stage for my
later musical ambitions.
How did your friends, parents, etc. influence you as
They were an enormous influence early on. My brothers all
played guitar, most of them quite well, so there was a lot to compete with growing up. My
family is known in this area for great guitar playing so there was a bit of a legacy to
live up to. My father was also deeply involved with the Guitar Society here in the 60's
and 70's and helped bring many great players to play concerts here. He also helped bring
many great luthiers to lecture and teach. My mother has been listening to classical guitar
for around 30 years now. I often play programs for her and ask for her input which I value
more than most people's. She's actually a pianist but has a very keen sense of good
musicianship, particularly on guitar. My girlfriend Jocelyn really helps me a lot too. We
spend a lot of time together working on performance exercises, recording, and just
critically evaluating things. Without the persistent support of my friends and family, it
would be very difficult to grow the way I want to.
Do you have a practicing method you follow everyday?
My practice method is always developing and evolving. Daily
practice these days is from 3-5 hours. I always spend the first 45 minutes just doing
anything I want; improvising pieces, reading or just playing with tone. Sometimes I play
jazz too. I feel its critical for me to enter the practice session without a sense of
pressure so I stay relaxed and free. Aaron Shearer once said to me that the guitar should
be like a friend; something you look forward to. I take this advice to heart. Its a little
like the idea that its important to cheat on your diet in moderation, otherwise you will
be depriving yourself and may go overboard later. After the first 45 minutes I engage in
the more disciplined and detailed part of the session and then finish by running through
repertoire in a concert style. Sometimes I spend most of the time working on a piece if I
need to perform it soon. It does vary a great deal.
How much do you practice daily before a performance?
Before a full concert, one hour of warm up. Before a short
performance at least an hour and perhaps more if I feel need it. I like to feel thoroughly
warm and ready to go before going on stage.
What do you do when you don't feel like practicing
for a week or even a month? How do you cope with it?
That's always a difficult issue. I think it's always
important to take responsibility for it when I feel uninspired. Usually it is just a sign
of loss of perspective and if I listen to lots of music and musicians that I love, I am
motivated again. Repertoire changes can help too. It's very important to keep in mind that
it is something that one is doing to oneself, and you can find a way out if you try hard.
Lately, Ive spent a lot of time thinking back to the first things that excited me
about my instrument and the music I play. That sense of innocent wonder is so important to
preserve. Sometimes though, it is really best to take some time off and just forget that
I'm a musician. I almost always play better when I go back. I think that like any
discipline, extra rest is needed. Again its a matter of perspective and sometimes
getting some distance is the best way to establish that. The really interesting challenge
is to find the music inside you when it seems lost. I think times like that should really
be viewed as pivotal opportunities. When you get back in touch with your playing after
feeling disinterested, it strengthens your resolve as a musician, and makes it easier both
when things are going well, or not so well. If you do just the right thing it can happen
in an instant.
In your opinion, what is your strength in your
When I play, I give completely of myself. I let out all of my
feelings and am completely vulnerable. I think this gives a certain purity and sincerity
that not everyone can offer. I think my strength in performing can be summarized simply as
What do you hope to accomplish as a musician?
Musically I'm searching for a sense of being able to do
anything I want on my instrument. Any sound and any musical style I can conceive of. I
want to play with no thoughts of anything; a direct connection to the music and nothing
else. I think this pursuit will infuse my playing with the energy and love of the music
that I feel so deeply inside. I hope as I come closer to this goal, audiences and people
will feel it and be moved by it. Professionally, I have the somewhat lofty goal of being a
very great guitarist who has an influence on the way guitar is approached and considered
in the world. I think we are still below most other instruments and we will stay that way
without a lot of change in pedagogical approaches. This goal will of course require fame.
Do you like any other forms of art? Tell us about it.
I enjoy and respect all forms of art. As far as literature I
have loved Tolkien and C. S. Lewis from an early age; maybe its something about my
half British heritage. I am also a fan of comic books by Marvel, DC and I love Todd
MacFarlane's work too. Some of the artwork in modern comics is breathtaking. I generally
enjoy fantasy and role-playing mythos. It gives me a sense of childish freedom. Most of my
favorite music is very painful or angry.
What do you do for a hobby, if any?
I have studied the Japanese martial art of Taijutsu for about
17 years and a few other martial arts as well. I trained very, very hard through the 90's
and later was interested in Brazilian Vale Tudo (anything goes) fighting. I did a great
deal of instruction as well, even teaching in Europe. Through Taijutsu I also studied the
Feldenkries method. These practices have really helped me to develop my body awareness to
a much deeper level than music alone could accomplish. I have to limit my training these
days but I still really love the martial arts. I also enjoy many other outdoor activities
like camping, boating, etc.
What do you hope to achieve ten years from now in
your music career?
Ten years from now, I hope to be a significant name on the
international music scene. I also hope to have had the chance to play chamber music with
many of the musicians I admire the most today. I would also like to be very active as a
producer and have a sizable discography that I am very proud of. It would be great to do
some style crossover work as well.
In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a
A good performer has confidence in themselves, an excellent
command of their instrument/medium, and a strong idea of what they are trying to
accomplish. They may have some bad performances on the way, but developing these points is
definitely a great formula for success. I would say they are the basic ingredients.
How do you judge a good performance?
That is another difficult question. For a music student, a
good performance is one without too many mistakes, in a correct and distinct style,
demonstrating good control over their instrument and having prepared with due care. These
elements really define what one should probably display as one studies. I tend to judge
students this way until they are quite advanced. For professionals, the rules change. I
expect a level of playing that moves me. I want to be entertained and I want emotional
communication. If I feel something sounds overly calculated, or insincere I probably will
think its bad playing and may even feel annoyed that they've tried to put one over
on me that way. I definitely prize sincerity and honesty in performance above all else.
Sometimes students offer this and more and sometimes professionals fail. For example,
there are many occasions where I have been more moved by the gentle innocence of a young
student playing than by the master teachers attempts to fix their performance. This
type of thought can make teaching difficult but sometimes when someone is young and sounds
young, it is okay and I think it should be seen as a beautiful stage of life rather than
something to 'correct' with a more mature version. Of course, this then requires deeper
insight from the instructor with regards to what to correct and what to leave alone. From
the general audiences perspective, one must take all of the above into account at
once. From the dispassionate 'judge' perspective that is also my approach, but from the
perspective of my own enjoyment, I judge everyone the same as professionals. To summarize,
I really try to see things differently and appropriately, depending on who is playing.
Do you believe a performer must attend a
conservatory? What is your opinion on this?
Probably not, however in most cases it's a good idea. There
are difficulties either way but it is much more difficult not to go than to go. Sometimes
if you have a visionary approach you may not really be allowed to develop it very much in
an academic situation. If this is a deep inner drive, a very gifted person may give up or
feel invalidated by an institution. Sometimes unusual elements and strong characteristics
can be affected or trained out by a teacher who is trying to mold you with the best of
intentions. The question is complicated, but the simple answer is no. Some very gifted
people have developed their talent well and become fine performers, never having been to
MOL: I think we need to wrap up at this point.
So on be half of MusicalOnline, we would like to thank you for your time and we wish all
MusicalOnline on October, 2002