Croatian-born Ana Vidovic is among a highly accomplished group of young guitar virtuosi whose technical mastery and stage presence are capturing the hearts and minds of fans around the globe. Her message to the world is that in the hands of great interpreters, there is yet much depth and beauty to be revealed in the classical guitar and its repertory.
Vidovic took up the instrument at age five after hearing her brother Viktor play. She was performing publicly by the time she was eight, and she won her first international competition at 13; six more competition wins would follow. At 20, she was invited to study with Manuel Barrueco at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Since earning her artist diploma and launching her career in 2005, she has played to growing audiences across North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. She has released six recordings and two live DVDs, and her live YouTube videos have garnered over 35 million views.
Last November, at a quiet cafe just outside of Baltimore (her home for over a decade and a half), she paused to share some thoughts about her life and career. Her eyes widen as she speaks about favorite film composers, attending a concert by the rock band Toto to celebrate her birthday, and finally getting to play Australia. Vidovic’s time on stage is priceless to her, and yet she concedes that the touring life is hard. But it’s the life she has happily chosen, and she’s all in.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: You grew up against the backdrop of the Croatian War of Independence [1991-1995]. Did that affect your music studies?
ANA VIDOVIC: There was a lot of pain and suffering at that time, and for my family, music was the best medicine. My parents were very supportive of the interest my brothers and I had in music. We knew what was going on around us, but our parents made sure we went to school and practiced. There were some attacks on our city. None of our relatives died in the fighting or had their homes destroyed, but we knew people who experienced that. Our parents made sure we stayed focused. I have two older brothers: Silvije is a pianist and Viktor is a guitarist. Viktor, my oldest brother, is the reason I started playing guitar. He plays so beautifully. He started teaching me guitar and Silvije taught me about reading music.
Was Viktor self-taught or did he have a good teacher?
He was very well-taught. There is a long tradition of classical guitar in Croatia, and at the time, it was one of the most popular instruments. There was a good music school in Karlovac, our hometown. Later on, Viktor studied in Zagreb at the National Musical Academy with István Romer. Viktor told him that he had a sister who wanted to learn, too, and I started studying with István. He was an amazing teacher who gave us a strong foundation in technique and musicality. I studied with him for about 10 or 11 years, until I was 18.
Did he teach you how to make your hands feel secure on the instrument?
Yes. When I teach now I remember the things he told me. He taught us about [right-hand] planting, playing scales, and other technical exercises. He really stayed on top of everything and made sure I practiced. He emphasized having secure hands and being relaxed, playing without tension. He wanted me to really learn what the hands do and why they do it.
He made sure I did the work I was supposed to. We went through Abel Carlevaro’s studies—I recommend them. You need a teacher with a lot of patience who will make sure you do what is needed, but in a fun way. István was never too tough. I always liked the lessons.
Did you go from studying with him to Manuel Barrueco?
No. I was about 20 when I began with Manuel. After I graduated from the Academy in Zagreb at 18, I had to decide what to do next. I always wanted to go overseas. I was fascinated by the United States and the culture, and it was my dream to come here. I sent tapes to a couple of places and got a call from Barrueco personally saying he received my tape. I was shocked! We talked about what I wanted to work on, and I decided to come here to Baltimore to the Peabody Institute.
When you studied with Romer and Barrueco, did they recommend pieces for you to learn?
Romer chose a lot of the pieces when I was a child, but Barrueco, not so much. We talked about the pieces I wanted to play, but he would let me choose. It was Romer who suggested that I learn Walton’s Five Bagatelles.
You’ve said that Barrueco worked a lot on tone production with you. Was that one of the main takeaways from your studies with him?
Tone production was one thing, but dynamics was number one. He also gave me a lot of advice about technical things and memorization. Manuel is very strong about memorization and visualizing the music, and he helped me realize how important it is to properly memorize a piece. Overall, we worked on how to become a better musician. Later, we talked about performing live and how to be relaxed. I studied with him for four years.
Your bio lists seven competition wins. What prompted you to enter competitions?
My teacher István advised me to compete. I played the first one [the Albert Augustine International Competition in Bath, England] when I was 13 and he went with me. He prepared me very well and I won first prize. After that, I thought I should do more competitions.
What can people learn from competing?
You learn a lot even if you don’t win. You learn how to perform in front of people, and are among your peers and share experiences. Competitions were very helpful for me, but I stopped doing them at 18. After doing well in competitions I got inspired to become better and learn more about how to present myself. Playing at a competition is not the same as playing for an audience.
At what age did you know you wanted to become a professional musician?
When I was 16 or 17. It wasn’t an easy decision, because I was a kid and wanted to do other things, too. I always wondered about choosing something else, but I kept coming back to the guitar. There is a connection there that can’t be broken. I realized then that I would have to work very hard and sacrifice a lot.
When you were ready to launch your career, how did you go about getting management?
After I graduated from Peabody, I had to decide if I would stay in the States or go back home. I decided to stay here, but like a lot of students, I was on my own. I knew I needed a manager but didn’t know anyone. I asked a close friend if we could work together. She wasn’t a professional manager, but she wanted to try it. She started writing to agencies and festivals, and some of them began replying. Slowly, I started going out to perform. We worked together for a few years and did very well, and then I went with Diane Saldick, my current manager. She had worked for Columbia Artists before starting her own business. I’ve been working with her for 11 years now. It’s so important to have a manager who can find you work, but who is also trustworthy and that you relate to on a personal level. We have a very good relationship.
Is she expanding into territories where you can grow your audience?
When we first met, we discussed how to reach a wider audience. She had done a lot of work with orchestras because she has a lot of pianists and cellists on her roster. I wanted to do more work with orchestras and she helped a lot with that. As the years go by, if you do well, more people hear you and you get invited back.
Diane and I discuss which opportunities to take. Every concert is unique. Asia is a very big market, very important. A lot of people there—especially in Japan—love classical guitar, so I go there often. Then there is South America. I have been to Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, and Panama. I love going there because the people really love music. Brazil is one of my favorite places to play. There are a lot of good musicians there—lots of great guitarists.
I always have to mention YouTube. Before YouTube, there was no way for so many people to see and hear you. YouTube has been a big help for me, but having a good manager is one of the most important things for an artist.
Can you describe your practice routine?
I should practice every day, but sometimes I won’t play for a few days. I’ve been doing this for about 30 years, so sometimes I need a break. When I come back to it I feel better. Not every day that I practice is successful. Sometimes I get frustrated and put the guitar away and come back to it the next day. I finally feel that I know how to practice and what I need to work on.
How do you structure your practice?
I make a plan for the week. Next week I have a concert, so I am putting all of my attention on that. I will work on one piece for a whole day. I will practice it slowly and focus on little details. If I do too many pieces in a day it’s not efficient. I always start with scales for 30 minutes or maybe an hour. Then I may play some Villa-Lobos etudes. I like the first one, and play it with three fingers: p-i and then p-m. I avoid using the a finger when possible. It’s the troublesome one, but you need it to play melodies.
What is your process for planning a new program each year?
I start working on it in the summer, when my schedule is lighter. I choose new pieces, and always a new Bach piece. Sometimes I keep pieces I’ve played before that I know people will want to hear again, but the rest has to be new. It is a long process. I don’t want to go out and play a new piece that isn’t quite ready. It is hard to play a new piece for the first time. It takes many months to prepare. Sometimes a piece may feel right, but it may not really be ready. I play for friends to get feedback and then slowly introduce it to the audience. When a piece is fresh, it’s exciting to play it. Once you know it, you’ll always have it. You can put it away and then program it for another season. That’s how you build your repertoire.
How is the progress going on the new album you are making?
It will be an all-Bach album—he is my favorite composer. I have recorded most of the pieces; I just need to choose the ones for the album. It will include a cello suite, a violin sonata, the flute sonata, and the Prelude Fugue and Allegro.
People ask me why I haven’t released anything in a while. I don’t like recording that much, but it is important. I have been focused on performing live and being out there. But now I think it’s time for me to release something. I also collected a lot of music when I was in Brazil; short pieces. I really like South American music. Someday I’d like to do an all-South American project.
Do you feel it’s important to document what you’ve been playing on a recording?
In a way, it’s good to do that. I have live recordings from my concerts over the years and I feel they are a better representation. There is a different quality when you are playing in front of people rather than in the studio. It doesn’t matter if there are mistakes, it doesn’t have to be perfect, just real.
You excel at playing the mainstream guitar repertoire. Would you say that’s where your heart lies musically?
Yes. I can’t play something that I don’t like or believe in. I feel feedback from the audience about what they like and what they don’t, so I try to play what I want and what I feel they would like to hear. The traditional repertoire is what I love. I’m not so connected to the modern. But something like Britten’s Nocturnal is a great piece; it’s very difficult, but something that I would like to play.
As you travel, do you hear great young players?
I hear a lot of young players who are amazing; many are from Asia. Technically, the level has gotten really high. You can’t argue with that. I would like to see them become really good musicians working with their sound and experimenting to find something new.
Guitar is always evolving. The previous era was great with all of the famous guitarists. We need to move forward and create something new for the next generation. Each player should have their own sound, and this has nothing to do with nails. It could be your tone, your repertoire, the way you interpret. The most important thing is to create something that is your own and makes you different.
What was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
I got a lot of good advice from other players. I was told not to take myself too seriously or obsess over things, to have a good time. I’ve finally learned to do that.
What advice would you give to young players?
Very often people ask me about live performance. They say they never play the same way live as they do when practicing. Someone told me that you will probably never perform the same way onstage as you do when you practice. Just make peace with it. I always wish I could play something the way I play it at home, but that never happens. I would tell others to just accept that. Do your work, learn the music correctly, then relax and play the best you can.
Many guitarists have goals for their careers. Would you say that yours is to present the classical guitar to a wide audience?
To me, the instrument comes first; I’m not important. The classical guitar deserves to be at the same level as other instruments, and the quality of the performance is how I represent the guitar. I have to do the best I can. That’s my goal. It is an honor to be able to do this. I love going out onstage. The appreciation of the people is very rewarding to me. I just hope to continue.
WHAT ANA VIDOVIC PLAYS
Ana Vidovic owns two guitars built by Australian luthier Jim Redgate: Her main guitar, built in 2010, and her backup, made in 2006. She obtained both instruments through Chris Kamen at Classic Guitars International in Santa Barbara, California. The 2010 has a cedar top with lattice bracing. The back and sides are of Brazilian pardo rosewood (a non-Dalbergia rosewood with no CITES restrictions on its use). The scale length is 650mm, the nut width is 52mm, and the tuners are by Graf.
Ana uses normal-tension D’Addario J46 strings. She changes the bass strings before every concert except when she is playing on consecutive nights. She changes the trebles, which last a long time, less frequently.
“About 12 years ago, I tried a Redgate that was owned by a friend, and felt an immediate connection to Jim’s guitars,” Ana says. “The one I am playing now has a very warm sound, but at the same time it’s also very powerful and projects really well. I’ve noticed over the years that it continues to open up; it’s still developing. There are so many different and beautiful sounds coming out of it. This is a very special instrument that you could explore for many years.”