The James Stroud Classical Guitar Competition will boast the largest award purse of any U.S. youth contest
By Blair Jackson
Over the past two decades, the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival has evolved into one of the U.S.’s major guitar gatherings, consistently drawing top guitarists from around the world for concerts and other guitar-related events. From June 4–9, 2020, the fest, which takes place at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM), will mark its 20th anniversary, and an exciting new addition to the week’s festivities is the inaugural staging of the annual James Stroud Classical Guitar Competition for U.S. residents ages 14 to 18 who are not currently enrolled in a university-level college degree program. With a top prize of $10,000 ($5,000 for second place, $2,500 for third, and $1,000 for fourth), the competition (June 4–7) is the most lucrative annual classical guitar event for its age group in the country, and as a result it is sure to attract top players every year: It is certain to become a showcase for the next generation of talented U.S. guitarists.
As Stroud put it in the competition’s mission statement, “My hope is that this competition will help further their artistic and musical pursuits for advanced musical studies and professional musical careers. When I was a young university guitar student practicing many hours each day and dreaming of a career as a professional classical guitarist, I often wished I owned a nicer guitar, or could attend summer music festivals and master classes. I know how important these things were to my professional development, but these essentials were always beyond my financial reach.”
We’ll hear more from James Stroud below, but first some nuts-and-bolts information about the upcoming competition. The complete, detailed rules can be found here, but we want to present a few basics: The first round requires the submission of two videos of up to five minutes each: one movement from a piece by J.S. Bach, the other a free-choice movement from a work from another era. The window for submissions is from January 1 to February 15, 2020. So get to it, y’all! In mid-March, 12 to 15 guitarists will be invited to the June festival, where they will participate in a semifinal round before a panel of judges that will include such notables as Jason Vieaux (of CIM and the de facto host of the CICGF), Colin Davin, Matteo Mela and Lorenzo Micheli (the great Solo Duo), Nigel North, Marco Sartor, Stephen Aron, and more; It’s quite a lineup, as you can see here. Four of the semifinalists will be selected to play in the final round on Sunday, June 7.
The competition’s clear and helpful website will have answers to pretty much any questions you might have about rules and logistics, so make sure you read everything carefully if you hope to enter (or know someone who might want to)! And while you’re on the website, make sure to check out the lineup of the main Cleveland Festival! We’ll have more on that down the road, closer to the event; suffice to say it will be a star-studded affair, as always.
I confess I was not familiar with competition founder and namesake James Stroud previously, so I took the liberty of asking him a few questions to learn more about him and his motivation for starting the competition.
You mentioned your own youth as an aspiring guitarist and wishing you had a better guitar and more opportunities to attended classes, etc. What was your experience coming up?
I started playing guitar at the age of 19 while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. After six months of folk guitar, my teacher suggested I learn the classical method. I eventually went to New York City, since I was stationed nearby on Long island, to study with the late Pat O’Brien, who was a great teacher, and he got me ready for college auditions as I was turning 22 and ready to be discharged from the service. I ended up going to the State University of New York at Fredonia, where I studied with Joanne Castellani, and I also got a degree in Composition and Theory. I went to school on the G.I. Bill and had very little money and an awful guitar. I drove an ice cream truck in the summers for money, and I also had some private students. Since I was totally on my own without financial support, I always wanted to attend master classes in the summer, or music festivals, but because I had to work to make ends meet I never really had the chance.
What are some of the benefits you see for young people starting competitions in their early teens? There is a school of thought—and I don’t particularly subscribe to it—that for some young guitarists, the competitive environment can be destructive to their self-esteem and put too much pressure on them, sapping some of the joy of playing music from them. Obviously you feel differently…
Well, life is difficult, and to make a living as a musician often requires auditions, juries, recitals, and competitions to progress your career. I have told the story many times to the students at my Ohio competition [the Stroud All Ohio Classical Guitar Competition; regional inspiration for the new one] that it is not just about winning, and to not get down if you do not make it to the next round. It is about gaining experience so that the next time an opportunity comes your way, you are more experienced and prepared for it. I also mention to them a story about a past competitor who first tried his luck as a —sophomore in college, and while he played well, he did not make to the semifinals. The next year he showed up and made the semis but not the finals. His senior year he made the finals and took second place in a very close vote for first. He received full scholarship offers to several prestigious conservatories for graduate study. This past year he was a semifinalist in the Parkening Competition where they take only 15 guitarists from around the world! That story inspires me to do this.
What are some of your observations about other youth guitar competitions you’ve seen, good and less-good? Things you might have learned from seeing how they do things?
While acting as a founder and judge in my own [Ohio] competition for 15 years now, I have seen how important integrity in the judging is. I believe I have achieved this, as many of the past winners have gone on to do some great things, including prestigious teaching positions and further competition wins. It is so easy to favor students based on knowing them or their history. I have endeavored to keep most of this information from the judges so we get the most objective results possible.
In interviewing many guitarists and people in in the classical guitar world over the past five years, one recurring comment I’ve heard is that there has never been more superb young guitarists than there are now. Why do you think this is the case—if you agree? What do today’s 14- to 18-year-old guitarists know or have access to that earlier generations of players did not?
I agree with this. I was out of the classical guitar world for 24 years, and once I returned I went to the GFA in 2009 and was astounded at the level of playing of the younger generation. In my opinion, the instruction level from teachers of my generation is so superior—at least in regard to technique—to the teachers of previous generations. When I was in school, it was a major accomplishment to play a recital without missing too many notes. Today, they not only hit all the notes, they do it with beautiful tone and mature expression. That was very rare in my day.
How did you hook up with the Cleveland ICGF? Certainly Jason Vieaux is a major champion of guitar education.
Living and working in the Cleveland area, once I re-engaged into the classical guitar world, I discovered Jason and started attending the Cleveland festival every year. I became friends with both Jason and Armin Kelly and felt the festival was not only top-notch, but the CIM venue beautiful. I felt it would be the perfect place to hold the event and possibly help promote classical guitar in Northeast Ohio.
I approached my friend and graduate teacher Stephen Aron about my idea and he encouraged me to think bigger and offer larger prizes. He also suggested I focus on high school-aged kids. So I went out and asked my other contacts, including Jason Vieaux, Colin Davin, and some very well-known educators in the field and asked them: “How can I make the biggest impact on classical guitar in the U.S.?” It was unanimous to focus on high school-aged kids. I worked out the details with Armin and CIM and here we are.
We also have world-class judges, including SoloDuo and teachers from Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, Cleveland institute of Music, Indiana University, Wake Forest, and Oberlin Conservatory.
It is going to be a great experience for the 15 competitors we bring in!