Rising Guitar Star: An Exclusive Interview with Bokyung Byun
Photo by Annett Richter
BY ANNETT RICHTER, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE MINNESOTA GUITAR SOCIETY
(A note from CG editor Blair Jackson: I’m very pleased to share with all of you a wonderful in-depth interview with one of the classical guitar world’s most exciting and accomplished young players, Bokyung Byun, conducted by the Minnesota Guitar’s Society‘s Annett Richter. Thank you, Annett!)
Welcome, Bokyung. It is a great pleasure to have you with us for this interview. Thank you for being here for a conversation about what you do and what you have recently accomplished to become one of the most sought-after international classical guitarists of your generation. I would like to begin with a significant recent achievement of yours. You are the first female winner of the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition . Bravo! What inspired you to participate in a guitar concerto competition? Did you have the opportunity to work with an orchestra prior to this competition?
Thank you for inviting me to this interview. I am really excited to share my latest news with everyone!
I grew up watching international competitions such as the GFA [Guitar Foundation of America] and the Falletta, and I couldn’t wait to participate in them. I had concerto performance opportunities prior to the competition, so I felt I was ready to perform at the competition. One of the many unique features of the Falletta competition is that each finalist plays a different concerto of their choosing. It’s almost as if during the competition, each player becomes an advocate for the concerto they have chosen. At the time, I was working on the Villa-Lobos Concerto and was in love with it, so when I came across the announcement of the 2018 Falletta competition, I knew I had to participate in it with this concerto. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
You have also played and received first prizes in a number of competitions for solo guitar, such as the Frances Walton Competition, the Montreal International Classical Guitar Competition, and the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Competition. Playing in competitions is something many aspiring concert artists do. How do you prepare for competitions?
Competitions have always been an important aspect of career building for young musicians. However, despite their benefits, they can also be a taxing experience. In order to maintain a healthy competition experience, I try to focus on managing my stress and expectations. For example, I often remind myself to appreciate the positive outcomes of these competitions, such as having the opportunity to reach out to a broader audience. I focus on elements that I know I can control, such as practicing, and I try not to dwell on things beyond my control, such as how well I play on the day of the competition, for example.
You come from South Korea. Tell us about your guitar studies there and how you first learned to play guitar. Is the classical guitar an instrument that is widely taught in your home country?
One day, while my mom and I were watching TV, we landed on a channel that taught guitar. I immediately fell in love with the sound of the instrument and told my mom I wanted to learn to play the guitar. My mom brought me to a local guitar school without realizing that it was actually a classical guitar school.
I am sure most Koreans will agree with me when I say that we feel nostalgic towards the sound of the classical guitar: It brings back memories of the popular classical guitar soundtracks of Korean TV shows and movies we grew up watching. The classical guitar may not be as popular as other string instruments, but in recent years, more and more great guitarists have been coming from South Korea. As a result, the market has grown exponentially and is continuing to do so.
It is a fascinating to hear about that connection for you among the guitar, music, movies, memory, and place. How did you then decide to come to the United States to further your guitar studies?
After I won the GFA Youth Competition in 2007 in Fullerton, California, my parents and I felt the need to further my studies in guitar by studying in a country with a larger scene for classical guitar and its music. One of my family’s friends, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, helped us reach out to William Kanengiser of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. His enthusiastic response made my decision to move to the U.S. much easier. Ever since I moved here, I have been fortunate to be mentored by passionate guitarists like William Kanengiser, Sharon Isbin, and Scott Tennant—opportunities I may not have had otherwise.
What would you say have been the most impactful things you have learned from your teachers and mentors?
I am so grateful to have been mentored by 20th and 21st century pioneers of the classical guitar. Among the various things they have taught me, the most impactful lesson has been to not be afraid to be a trailblazer in things I believe in. In doing so, I constantly revisit the paths my mentors have taken and try to follow their footsteps.
As we set out to achieve goals in our careers, we learn a great deal about ourselves and test our own endurance. What have you found to be rewarding over the past few years as you have grown as a guitarist and concert artist? What has been challenging?
I started performing at a young age in Korea. I have always loved exploring new places, trying new food, and performing for different audiences, so, naturally, I enjoyed all of the aspects of being a traveling musician. However, I was also a very shy kid who had a hard time carrying on conversations with strangers. I became very attached to the guitar because it allowed me to communicate with others in a language without words. Ultimately, what was once my biggest challenge became the most rewarding part of being a musician. I really appreciate the fact that at performances, in addition to sharing music, I get to meet new people and connect with them.
You are currently working on your doctoral degree in guitar at the University of Southern California, where you hold the International Artist Fellowship for outstanding artists. You also have a strong interest in collaborating with others, and you have performed with numerous orchestras over the past few years. At USC, do you get to work with other guitarists in your program and/or with other instrumentalists, and if so, in what ways?
When I started studying at USC, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to work on guitar- ensemble repertoire with the members of the LAGQ. I was in a guitar quartet and a trio with other USC guitar students, coached by LAGQ members, and we performed newly arranged works, originally for solo piano, such as Chares Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-60” [ca. 1916-1919], and Silvestre Revueltas’s Adagio . Another great opportunity I had at USC was to be on the podium, leading an orchestra. This invaluable experience has helped me achieve a better understanding of the nature of orchestral performance, and it has also enabled me to see the bigger picture when performing as a soloist with an orchestra.
As a guitar teacher, you were active in the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard. What do you enjoy most about teaching? How do you teach at the moment, during the time of the pandemic?
To me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching is that I learn so much from the students and the teaching process itself. The guitar programs in which I teach have transitioned to online classes. It is incredibly rewarding to witness how music has helped so many students get through this difficult time, and I feel a tremendous sense of duty to share music with them, now more than ever.
How do you decide on and approach learning a new piece of music?
Deciding on a new piece of music depends a lot on the repertoire I want to program at that moment in time. When I was an undergraduate student, I was very particular about which new pieces I wanted to commit to, so I read through several new pieces every week. Over time, doing this taught me to learn new pieces at a faster pace. One of the most notable lessons I have learned from this experience is that assigning fingerings is the most crucial first step in learning a new piece fast. I don’t think it’s efficient to improvise fingerings as you go; that’s like telling your brain to learn something different each time. As the piece develops, you will discover better fingerings for technical and musical reasons, but that would be impossible without having something concrete to compare them to.
I always record myself playing once I am able to roughly play through the piece, especially with new compositions. For me, it’s hard to consider the grand scheme of things when I am still at in the beginning phase of the learning process. By listening to the whole piece without having to worry about fingerings, I can view the piece as a whole. This puts things into perspective and gives me a better understanding of the entire composition.
Congratulations on the CD you have just released, what a milestone! I have enjoyed listening to it. You mentioned that you were involved in the editing process of this recording. Tell us more. What kind of obstacles did you have to contend with as you edited it, and what was particularly gratifying for you as the performer?
This was my first recording project, and I was actively involved in the editing process. I received a lot of help from Matthew Snyder, a Grammy-award-winning recording engineer. In the attempt to perfect every detail, I began to lose sight of the big picture. Matthew encouraged me to stop analyzing each millisecond and instead focus on what I was trying to convey with the music as a whole.
Tell us a bit more about your guitar. If I remember right, it is by a German maker. Who made it and what kind of wood is it made of? How did you come across this instrument?
It is a cedar double-top guitar made by German luthier Dieter Müller in 2019. Previously, I played another guitar he made in 2009. I came across Müller coincidentally when I was looking for a different luthier’s guitar at Reverie Guitar. Yet to my surprise, I didn’t feel quite compatible with the guitar I initially wanted. David Conti, the owner of Reverie Guitar, suggested that I try Dieter Müller’s guitar. I immediately connected with Müller’s instrument; I felt as though I finally found a guitar that can truly convey my musical intentions. It has been my performance companion ever since.
I was delighted to hear you for the first time in St. Paul last November  when you performed for the Minnesota Guitar Society. I was particularly captivated by the clarity of your sound as well as your clarity and precision consistent in all registers of the instrument. It was truly a pleasure to hear you play. How do you achieve this sound? What kind of strings to you use?
Lately, I have focused on expanding the spectrum of articulations of the right hand, which has enabled me to achieve more articulated sounds. I also owe a lot of it to the guitar I play and the strings I use—Augustine’s Paragon Blue, which have the projection and clarity of carbon strings without an overly bright tone.
How has the current pandemic impacted your creativity on the guitar? Many performers have had to cancel and/or postpone performances for the past several months. How are you staying connected with your audiences during this unusual time?
We are truly going through unprecedented and challenging times. I really admire those musicians who haven’t let the pandemic hold them back from sharing their music with their audiences. I haven’t been actively sharing music on social media so far, but I have a couple of exciting virtual concerts coming up. I will perform for the University of Rhode Island Guitar Festival in September and the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society in October. In addition, this July, I started posting new performance videos on my Instagram account (@bokyungbyun) and on my website (bokyungbyun.com). Although I dearly miss performing for in-house audiences, I am really excited to re-connect with listeners via this new platform!
You are the co-founder of Sounding Board: The New Music Initiative for Guitarists and Composers. The first installment of this innovative collaborative festival took place last year in July in Besançon, France. This event provides a unique opportunity for composers to write new music for guitar. Tell us more about the unique collaborations between composers and guitarists that happen during this festival.
Our project’s mission is to promote collaborative relationships between composers and performers to create new works for the guitar. The idiomatic playing on the guitar is completely different from other stringed instruments, which has caused many non-guitarist composers to perceive the guitar to be a complex instrument to write for. We wanted to help composers feel at ease when writing for the guitar. Our project connects guitarists with composers so that composers can receive immediate, tangible, practical feedback from guitarists, and guitarists gain first-hand involvement in the creative process. Last year, we hosted our inaugural festival in France where composers and guitarists collaborated through the creation, premiere, and recording of four new works.
This year, due to the pandemic, we have been unable to host an in-person premiere of new works. Instead, we will share our new project, Catharsis, on social media. Catharsis is a project of commissions inspired by the Guitar Foundation of America’s #Tearsfor2020 movement. As stated by the GFA, “2020 has brought unimaginable heartbreak and anxiety to our global community. We seek to honor and support all affected by loss, uncertainty, sadness, and pain by performing tributes using the hashtag #Tearsfor2020.” For Catharsis, a diverse array of 15 composers and 13 performers have worked together for the creation and premiere of 15 new compositions inspired by Francisco Tárrega’s Lágrima (Tears). The idea behind this project is particularly relevant to this year during which people have been hurting for so many reasons. We hope this project will help connect listeners from various backgrounds and provide relief and release of their emotions through music. The videos of the new works can be found on our Youtube channel (Sounding Board Project).
Your program for the Minnesota Guitar Society last Fall featured music by several 20th century composers—Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, William Walton, Roberto Gerhard, Manuel Ponce, and Roberto Sierra. What drew you to these works?
Working with composers through the Sounding Board Project inspired me to present a program featuring compositions by non-guitarist composers. I find it fascinating to observe the different ways in which each composer envisions the guitar’s sound, composing in their own distinctive style in which they use the guitar to its fullest potential.
What are some of your future goals as a 21st century guitarist and as a performing artist? What do you feel particularly strongly about as you think about the next few years of your career?
I look forward to having the next few years as a time to collect my thoughts regarding what kind of a musician I would like to be and what it means to be an artist in action. I also aspire to contribute more to broadening the guitar’s repertoire and advocating for new music. Through resources like the Sounding Board Project, I hope to provide a safe and encouraging place for composers and guitarists to openly exchange ideas for the creation of new works for the guitar.
Besides the guitar, what other interests do you have? What do you enjoy doing when you are not practicing, teaching, or performing?
I love food! I enjoy trying out different cuisines and new restaurants. I was never good at cooking myself, but the recent pandemic has made me develop some cooking skills. Who knew I could bake so many different kinds of cookies at home!
Thank you for your time, Bokyung, and for sharing your journey with Classical Guitar magazine. I am looking forward to hearing about your next endeavors and hearing you perform again! Best wishes to you.
BB: Thank you, Annett, and thank you to Classical Guitar Magazine for the opportunity to share my story and latest projects. I hope we can share music with one another in person again soon!
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Annett Richter, a native of Halle, Germany, is Vice President of the Minnesota Guitar Society and serves on its Board of Directors. She is active as a scholar, teacher, and performer (lute, guitar) in Fargo/Moorhead and Minneapolis/St. Paul. She teaches at Concordia College and North Dakota State University. She is dedicated to sharing with readers the paths, encounters, and contributions that twentieth- and twenty-first-century female guitarists from across the globe have traveled, experienced, and made on their way to make today’s world of the classical guitar ever more diverse. She holds a PhD in Musicology, and she studied classical guitar with Jeffrey Van and lute with Lucas Harris.