by Lawrence del Casale
[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.]
Berta Rojas is an OnMusic recording artist and musician who easily moves from classical to other musical genres as demonstrated by appearances both in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and at the Fredrick P. Rose Hall home of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. The Kennedy Center in Washington DC has recognized Ms Rojas’ artistic excellence and selected her as a Fellow of the Americas for the Performing Arts. Berta Rojas gives master classes and concerts throughout the world.
Lawrence Del Casale: When did you decide that the guitar was your calling?
Berta Rojas: The guitar is an instrument that became part of my life when I was a child. When I finished school and began a career in economics I drifted away from the guitar. A sense of profound sadness grew inside me and so I returned to the guitar. It was a courageous decision since professional musicians barely make a living in countries such as Paraguay. It was a calling so strong that I couldn’t exist without it.
What event would you consider a turning point in those early days?
A visit to a summer camp in Brazil, where I met hundreds of students my age, who were professional musicians, or at least weren’t afraid of thinking of themselves as potential ones. They were studying at universities and dreamed of becoming full-time musicians, performers, or teachers. Their example showed me that even though I didn’t see success stories of professional musicians in Paraguay, it wasn’t impossible.
Did you attend a music college or university for music?
Yes I did. I attended the Escuela Universitaria de Musica in Uruguay, where I studied under Eduardo Fernández, Mario Paysee, and Abel Carlevaro privately. At the Peabody Conservatory, I obtained a master’s degree in music under the tutelage of Manuel Barrueco and Ray Chester, and a Graduate Performance Diploma for which I studied under Barrueco and Julian Gray.
Whom would you consider your mentor along the way?
I don’t quite have an answer for you. Many teachers gave me various elements with which to pursue my dreams and were the reasons why I grew as a guitarist. I couldn’t possibly choose one over another. I think all of my teachers were mentors in their own way.
Were there times when you wanted to give up the guitar?
Never. Even in moments where I doubted myself, I never doubted my passion for this instrument.
Do you have a specialty that sets you apart?
I like to see myself as a spontaneous artist who plays her emotions on stage. I try to be honest and sincere as I interpret every phrase and I hope my music reflects that. I want to feel the audience when I play and I want to open my heart to them. I also have a strong interest in sharing the music of both young and old composers who aren’t generally well known but who are extremely talented. Cielo Abierto and Alma y Corazon include compositions by some of these artists whose music I would like to keep playing and exploring. I kept hearing the same repertoire over and over again in concerts and master classes. If I yearned for something fresh, didn’t others in the audience as well? So I leave the standard pieces of the guitar literature to the greatest performers who will deliver the version I want to hear and I, myself, work on pieces that will perhaps enrich the repertoire and produce albums that people will want to hear; a little fresh air. Latin America is a creative reserve of guitar music and I am happy to explore it.
Do you teach? If so, where?
I teach at George Washington University and also at the Washington Conservatory where my students are young children. I enjoy teaching them because I can accompany their growth. I also teach, only a few hours, at my private studio and those students are great fun. They have lessons only when I am in town. A requirement therefore is that they be flexible and patient, which they are. But beyond that, they are funny; they love the guitar. Sometimes we don’t even play a note, we listen to music and we talk about it. It is a different kind of relationship, not 100 percent career-oriented but one I treasure and one that keeps me alive.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
‘Eveveke che hermana, eveveke’, which in Guaraní, the native language of Paraguay means, ‘Don’t be afraid of flying, my little sister, don’t be afraid’. It was my brother who always said that to me, to encourage me to pursue my dreams.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to your students?
The same, don’t be afraid to follow your dreams. At least, they will keep you moving.
If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?
I would work less and enjoy life a little more.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Agustín Barrios. Imagine where he came from, the times in which he was born, only 15 years after the war that destroyed three-fourths of the population of Paraguay, how he was able to compose in spite of poverty, in spite of not being understood in his own times, and yet he left us with some of the most exquisite pieces ever written for this instrument: a true Paraguayan, a true master of the guitar.