Dream jobs: guitarist Per-Olov Kindgren
Most of us dream of a job that offers the perfect blend of challenge, fulfilment and reward. Some actually have their dream job. For this article I spoke to one of the lucky few: Swedish classical guitarist Per-Olov Kindgren.
May 20, 2015
Dream jobs are like dreams in general: easy to talk about, hard to achieve. In the UK, three out of five people say they want to change jobs but are held back by a lack of money or of the right skills, according to a survey by Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. In the Netherlands, a mere 18% of job holders say they have a dream job, says research institute TNS NIPO. In the USA, Reuters reported in 2013, the figure was as low as 14%.
Per-Olov, would you say being a classical guitarist is your dream job? Why?
Yes. But being a classical guitarist is not really a job. Not to me, that is. It is a calling. Either you are one because it is your dream, or you are not. But if you insist in seeing it as a job, then yes, it absolutely is a dream job, because I’m allowed to live out my hobby, my one and only big interest. How many people can say that? Being a guitarist also gives me a freedom that I treasure very highly. I can work whenever I want to and as much as I want to. I have also been fortunate to travel a lot with my guitar; right now, I don’t see that as a privilege, but it used to be. I also get to meet a lot of nice people and talented students of all ages.
Is there really nothing missing?
Yes, there is. Ja, die is er. Het kan een behoorlijk eenzaam leven zijn. It can be a very lonely life. It is difficult to combine being a musician with living a ‘normal’ life with a wife and children. Leven als muzikant is moeilijk te combineren met vrouw en kinderen. And you tend to get rather egocentric: everything revolves around your music, your practicing, your travels schedule.
Which main steps characterise the journey you’ve made to your current practice and understanding of music?
My journey started when I was 6 years old and decided – yes, actually decided! – to become a guitarist. I´ve always known it was my dream, my destiny. The first step was to find a classical guitar teacher. I was lucky to find one in Torvald Nilsson (1946-2013). I was 16 at the time and still at high school. He changed my life in many ways. Too many wannabe guitarists think they can teach themselves or learn everything from YouTube tutorials. Impossible! A good, qualified, serious professor is the best and only way to really learn how to play music. The professional and personal guidance is vital. We tend to forget that the master-student method has been practiced for hundreds of years: the Internet has not changed the fundamental principles underlying that method.
The second important step in my career was a conscious decision to focus on expressing myself through my guitar, rather than impressing audiences. To me, music is all about expressing feelings through sound – not about saying, ‘Look how fast I can play!’
We all have dreams and fantasies, and it can be tough to distinguish between the two. How did you know music and classical guitar was a dream worth pursuing?
It wasn’t until I was 17 years old that I realised I could become actually a professional guitarist. Before that, no one had ever told me whether I was any good or not. I had no idea what my future looked like. But with the help of my Torvald Nilsson I managed to enter the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen (DKDM) to study with Professor Per-Olof Johnson (1928-2000). During the eight years I spent there, I figured I was probably going to end up as a classical guitar teacher who might perhaps be able to do a few concerts now and then. And so it went for many years after my graduation. But in 2007, I posted a video on YouTube and that changed my life, once again. Then I realised performing was a dream I could really pursue.
Do you mean YouTube gave you your breakthrough?
I played in a guitar quartet for over 17 years prior to the Internet and YouTube and we performed over 400 concerts and issued a CD in 1992. So in many ways I have always been performing. But there is no doubt that YouTube boosted my career. Suddenly, I was able to present my collection of compositions and arrangements to a huge audience. I could never get 100,000 people to attend one of my concerts, but on Youtube millions can listen. It’s amazing.
How did you and Youtube discover each other?
Back in 2006, one of my students asked me why I didn’t post a video on YouTube and my reply was: ‘U2? Isn’t that a band?’ I had never heard of YouTube. But I had a camcorder and some good microphones, so I figured, why not? The response was incredible. I started posting new music almost every week. At the same time I opened an online shop and fortunately a lot of people started showing an interest in my TABs and scores.
What makes the master-apprentice method so powerful?
It is more powerful than you’d think. The power is in the personal, direct, face-to-face guidance. As a student, you get to listen to the master and try to reproduce what you hear and see in real time. It takes a good teacher, of course; one who can actually play and at the same time is a good pedagogue. Unfortunately, that combination is rare these days. To me, Torvald Nilsson was incredibly inspiring. Even years after I had stopped taking classes with him I could get inspired just by hearing him on the phone. After our phone conversations, I would invariably rush to my guitar and practise for hours. He was a true master when it came to inspiring his students. He taught me to listen to other guitarists, not to copy what I heard but instead to do it better and in my own way.
What has been the biggest obstacle, or challenge, to you on your journey?
The biggest challenge is getting people to listen. To listen to the small details in the music. The silences between the notes. There is enough music between two notes to fill a symphony. Once you learn to hear it, it is amazing. It is calming, soothing and beautiful.
Unfortunately, the Internet is not always a blessing in this respect. We’re flooded by performances on YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion and others. But finding a really good performance can be tough. Everyone can make a video and post it. Which, of course, is also a good thing; but the limitless quantity is not always matched by quality.
What does silence sound like?
Silence is always dependent on the sounds that come before and after it. Silence can be, quote, deafening. It also anticipates the sound that will come. So if you try to listen for the silence instead of the notes and sounds, you will hear many new things. It is difficult, but it can be learned, I’m sure of that.
As a guitarist, I am always focused on the time between the notes in the music. As you know, the guitar has the ‘problem’ that it is almost the only instrument that requires two fingers and hands to create a single note. If those two hands and fingers are not synchronised, you inevitably create a millisecond of silence between the notes. To avoid this, we sometimes play slurs – such as ties, or legato – but when that is not an option for technical or musical reasons, we have to be able to play fluently and in perfect synchronisation. It is here that the importance of silence enters the performance. That millisecond of silence is so important for the total impression of the music. If you listen to me, you will notice that I play as legato as possible – that’s because I want to be able to use the micro-silences between the notes.
You have said that as a musician you ‘look inwards in search of feelings and moods you can create with music’. How do you go about this inward search? Can you make an attempt at analysing it?
Hmm, that’s a difficult question. In a way, I think I already answered this question by saying that I aim exclusively at expressing my feelings and emotions when I play. To me there is nothing spiritual about it, though many people write to me and thank God for my music. There is no mystery in it either, sorry. It is probably more a question of feelings. I see myself as a painter painting with sound instead of colours.
How do you sustain the ‘inwardness’ and silence of your musical vision in an industry that is geared to outward things, such as success, money, and making yourself heard?
I don’t see a conflict there. If I compose a nice, inward piece, like the many I have made for my love, Marie, and others want to play it or listen to it on my CDs, I think that’s great. They can buy the score, the tabs or the CD and use the music themselves. When I play or compose, I don’t think about money or sales or anything at all. I just compose what I feel and if it generates some CD or score sales, I’m happy and I hope other people enjoy the time they spend playing or listening to my music.
That seems easier to say for someone who is already well-known and successful. How did you cope with the tension between making a living and pursuing your music dream when you first began?
I know, it is easy for me to say. I never felt the tension as you describe it. All along, I knew I could always become a classical guitar professor if I didn’t succeed as a performer. Part of the master’s programme I took at the Royal Danish Academy of Music was about learning how to be a good teacher. I always tell students dreaming of becoming a guitarist that it is important to finish high school and college with good grades, so that if the artistic career doesn’t work out, you’ll have other options up your sleeve. But, again, if you cannot imagine any other career, then go for it!
I feel extremely privileged! I can make a living from my music and playing the guitar. What more can a man want? Sometimes I envy people who play for fun, or as a hobby, because being a professional is not always a bed of roses – but mostly it is. I don’t compose for money. If someone likes my pieces, I am happy they’re willing to spend a few dollars on it, but I never make music for selling it. I play concerts for money, yes. That’s my job. I need to eat, too. And a lot of hard work and expenses go into preparing a concert. But even in the paid work, the inner values are always there. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be honest to myself and people would soon find out I wasn’t true to my inner values. It wouldn’t work very long…
What is your greatest fear as an artist and how do you cope with it?
I think my greatest fear is to be forgotten and to fail in honouring my fans’ expectations. I always feel the next piece I compose or the next CD or performance has to be better than the previous ones. I cannot imagine the pressure artists like the most famous one in the USA live with. Think about it; they always have to get better and better and can never afford to disappoint their fans. I don’t live under that kind of pressure, but I feel it anyway. Still, I learned to live with it after I realised that all my listeners like all my pieces, regardless of whether or not I think they are good myself. Luckily, there are many tastes and opinions out there.
Are there any key lessons you’d like to pass on to other (would-be) artists?
Always be yourself. Listen to other guitarists, but do not copy them. I learned so much by listening to Julian Bream, John Williams, David Russell and even André Segovia – even though I don’t always agree with the way he makes music. But I never tried to copy their style. Also, always put the music first; never yourself. If you’re nervous before a performance, it is probably because you are more concerned with what people will think about you than with what the music is all about. My motto is: remember it is always about the music!
Is there a personal Top 5 set of pieces that capture the essence of (your) music for you more than other pieces do?
A top five? Not really. I always think the most recent composition is the best – until I compose another piece. Of course there are pieces that I am more proud of than others. For instance, Lullaby For Veronica, Suite del Sur (dedicated to Piazzolla), Estampas (Spanish suite) and others. Also, I should mention that I consider Francisco Tárregas’ Capricho Arabe to be one of the most brilliant pieces written for the guitar. And Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal. Amazing music. And then there are all the arrangements for guitar by J.S. Bach.
Are there any artists or people in general who are a particular inspiration to you in your work?
When I was a young, aspiring guitarist, Julian Bream was my big inspiration. He still is. But musicians such as Glenn Gould, David Russell, Astor Piazzolla and Django Reinhardt have also inspired me throughout my life.
Why Julian Bream?
Mostly because he really gives everything when he plays. He makes many errors at live concerts but that is because he dares to take some risks! I see him more as a musician than a guitarist. John Williams is more a guitarist than a musician to me… huge difference! And I still remember the sound Bream created on his record “Dedicated”. Wow! That sound! And his recording of J. Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” is the only one that still makes me cry.A shorter version of this interview is available on LinkedIn. For a Dutch version, click here.