Interview with John Williams

Enjoy The Practice!

Part 3.

Mr. John Williams, one of the world most known classical guitarist, comes from Australia and lives with his wife and 2 dogs in England. He gave the Vienna Classical Guitar Society an honour to interview him on October 30th, 2020. The grand Interview with him, “Enjoy The Practice”, will appear in 3 Parts.

Part 3.


Tanja Snyers (TS), Rosaline Snyers (RS), John Williams (JW), Eugen Schmidt (ES), Edda Mogel (EM)

TS: Do you still actively play concerts?

JW: No. I'm retired. I haven't played solo concerts about two to three years. I've had a trio with John Etheridge, the jazz guitarist, and with Gary Ryan, who I was talking about earlier. It originally was just a duo with John Etheridge. We've been doing that for a long time, about 20 years, and with Gary the last two or three years, and I decided to only do those, not a lot, a dozen, 15 concerts a year here in England.

And now because of the pandemic, that the shows we had, were cancelled anyway, so, I thought, this is the perfect time for me to retire totally. I recorded a CD last year and I'm going to be recording again next year, this coming year, quite soon in the next few months. And I do a lot of arranging, writing and composing, my little pieces. I don’t call myself a composer, but I write lots of shorter pieces.

The problem is to keep on playing, it's physical. I can remember pieces I played 60 years ago, that’s not a problem, but to play for two hours, your fingers have to be strong to play really well. And that means you have to play. I'm not a mad student, I don't practice for eight hours a day, but you have to do the same you're doing in a concert. You have to do two or three hours to keep the fingers strong. You know, I'd rather walk with my dogs.

TS: You get some fresh air at the same time.

JW: And foot doesn't go to sleep on the footstool.

TS: Was the retirement a difficult decision for you?

JW: To be honest, it wasn't.

I didn’t want my playing to go down. I noticed, that for five or six years ago, when I was having some very good years, I had to practice a little bit more on the new pieces than fifty years ago, to get up the same level. I didn’t want my playing to go down, I didn’t want to be playing worse. So, I thought, that’s a good time to stop.

I still have lots of ideas about pieces, looking at different pieces in different ways, which I think I would be tempted to want to play now, but I can perhaps in different ways teach it or point people in that direction. I'll give you an example, which is very I only got this music a couple of months ago. It is a facsimile and urtext of Joaquín Turina. It's very interesting, because this is before Segovia edited it and made the publication which we all know and play. It's quite different than the Segovia edition, in many important ways, something has been changed and lost from that original. There are Granada's Protocols IV, which I've recorded twice, once in complete many years ago, and then again and I've changed my mind about a few little small details, how to arrange and how to adapt for guitar.

So, there's always a temptation to want to perform, to play it again, maybe even record it again. But I don't know, if it's that important, to be honest. I could easily pass this on as advice to students. I don't have to do it myself.

TS: You have been playing a lot of modern music and working together with its composers. Who were the most important composers for you in your life, or whose music you have most enjoyed playing at?

JW: I could probably pick out immediately the ones, that I different ways worked with, a lot or a little: Leo Brouwer, Toru Takemitsu, Stephen Dodgson, and Peter Sculthorpe, Australian composer, I worked very closely with all his guitar music. He loved the guitar. He was a little bit nervous at the beginning about how to write for it. But once he got going, you couldn't stop him.

RS: What was your favourite place to play a classical concert?

JW: Places can be a favourite for different reasons. They can be very large places. But in the large places I used amplification. It's a different experience, you know, with amplification playing in a very large hall like Sydney Opera House, for example, or in London like at the Proms or at the Albert Hall. But just for playing, let's call it a solo classical recital, the best place, both the hall itself and for the audience is in Bristol. It's a town in England. There's an old church hall, it's called St. George’s hall.

That’s wonderful for guitar. It’s for five or seven hundred people. Something like that. A good size and a lovely atmosphere and sound for guitar. It’s probably my favourite, certainly here in England.

RS: Which guitar do you play with or would you recommend?

JW: I have played since 1981 or -83 an Australian guitar maker called Greg Smallman with wonderful, wide range of colour and dynamics. Until then, from 1959 or -60 on, I played the guitar from Ignacio Fleta, a great Spanish guitar maker, is a violin maker as well.

TS: Which strings do you prefer for your guitar?

JW: The different strings are good on different guitars, so you can't make a rule about this. But for me, I've used D’Addario’s Pro Arté, because the treble strings are very reliable, in tune and very smooth. Some of the other makes not so smooth for the right hand, the nylon especially. And they've improved the D'Addario treble strings, on some guitars I think they are not quite bright, bright enough, and I used to use sometimes carbon fibre strings. Hannabach, they can sound a little bit metallic, so I go backwards and forwards, I used to use them on something and I've got tired of the bright sound, I want something a little bit.

Few years ago, Pro Arté improved their treble strings, they did something to the way it's threaded through and they've become clearer and better. So, I always use those. And for many years, longer than I can remember, I've used only Pro Arté bass strings, semi polished, lightly polished, because of the squeaks on the guitar when you move around, it is a never like that.

I don't think squeak is good.

Some people say: “Oh, that's good, part of the guitar sound”. It's not musical and it's not good. And the semi polished allow you to move up and down much smoother, keep the melodies smoother and the chord changes, instead of the squeak. Interesting thing.

I've always refused to do any advertising for them, just the principle. I'm not keeping it a secret. I always say it. I think there's a difference between it being used in advertisements and being used in word of mouth.

TS: Do you listen to a lot of music in your free time and what kind of music? JW: Anything. Variety of anything. I don't listen to a lot, actually. Occasionally, if someone sends me a new CD, I'll listen to it. But I don't have to play at the CD player on all day or anything like that.

RS: What was the most annoying thing that happened throughout your career?

JW: The most annoying thing happens quite often, it's people who cough in the audience. They don't realise, especially on the instrument as quiet as the guitar, you're having a magic moment, and then someone coughs. It actually does ruin the piece. It ruins the end of it, the quiet end of something. It's not just like one momentary interruption. You've created a whole mood. And that happens quite often, often enough to be very depressive sometimes.

A long time ago, I think it was at the London University somewhere, someone was taking photographs. I asked them not to do. And they kept on clicking away. I said, either you stop or I leave the platform. The rest of the audience clapped like mad.

RS: At the time, when you were actively playing concerts, how much did you practice?

JW: I never practiced more than two or three hours a day. It depends if you're learning something like a modern score or piece, you could be spending longer than that. But usually I would then use the music rather than trying to remember it. On average, I would be practicing two hours, no more. A modern piece like “Nunc” from Goffredo Petrassi, which has lots of different dynamics, in it is very important to get each little phrase and note and dynamic correct. It's not just remembering the notes; it's really remembering the dynamics. I always use the music for that. But no, I never practiced more than a couple of hours to three hours.

ES: Does it feel different to play the guitar now when you're playing as a retired man, than when you were actively playing concerts?

JW: No. It's the same because I wish it. The people that practice or study seven or eight hours a day, I don't believe they really enjoy that seven or eight hours. But when I practiced for two hours, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the practice. I think it's a very important point for students as even more than for players, players are already grown up and enjoy the practice. Very important. The teachers, when they got students that they can keep the students not just inspired at a very high level, but even on a basic level, enjoying the practice. Even if it's a scale or something. Enjoy making the scale nice, sound nice, and it's the most important thing. I don't like the kind of puritan idea that you go through hell for three hours, hating the practice because you have to do it, because at the end of it, you are really pleased you can do something better. That has got a very limited appeal to me, and I think in the end, if a person wants to be a professional player, it won't work, they'll be very neurotic and very unhappy. It must find a way right from the beginning enjoying the practice.

RS: If the virus wouldn't have existed, would your plans have been different?

JW: Well, I was already semi-retired, so it hasn't made a lot of difference, it may be accelerated a little bit what I was going to do anyway. It hasn't made a big difference to me, certainly not, compared to others, for a lot of people it's been terrible.

TS: You have such a great playing technique that everybody in the whole world is completely astonished. How did you achieve this technique or how is it possible to get such a technique?

JW: I don't know. I was well taught, very well taught by my father. And I enjoy the practice, I always did. I was happy practicing.

TS: Thank you so much for this great interview!

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