Guitarist David Russell Visits SFCM for Rare Teaching Residency
Russell doesn't teach regularly at any institution, so his week at SFCM was a unique intensive for the busy performer.
By Alex Heigl
"I see myself as a sharp injection of enthusiasm," guitarist David Russell says of how he approached his weeklong teaching residency at SFCM in March. And that enthusiasm was reciprocated by students at faculty at the Conservatory, given that the GRAMMY-winner's busy career as a performer makes his teaching stops rare.
"David Russell is widely recognized around the world as one of the top classical guitarists of our time," SFCM guitar department Chair David Tanenbaum said. "He has toured internationally for decades, but he has never held a regular faculty position. To have him on campus teaching private lessons to every member of our department, and also sharing his wisdom in all of our guitar classes—on performance, technique, ensemble playing and composition for guitar—is a precious opportunity for our students. Collectively, their jaws dropped and their eyes widened when we announced the news, and they were looking forward to this for a year."
Russell visited classes covering the spectrum of the guitar department's offerings, from composition for the instrument to technique, and delivered a masterclass for students. "David Russell is a beloved figure in the classical guitar world," added SFCM guitar faculty Marc Teicholz. "Deeply respected as one of the most important and influential guitarists of his generation, he brings to his teaching a rare ability to clearly articulate the nuances of his craft with a genuine kindness and respect for the student."
Russell has had numerous works composed for him, including by another icon in SFCM's guitar orbit, Sérgio Assad. He explained that one of his top takeaways for guitar composition is, "If you're struggling too much to get something that sounds simple, then it's not a good line. Change three notes and suddenly it will work." Addressing the technical side of his teaching, Russell explained, "I want to help students be able to play until they are very old men and women. We have to look after our hands, and lots of guitarists get sore backs, because they don't sit right, and they spend many hours practicing, which is fine when you're in your twenties, but you get into your forties and these things start to really catch up."
Another deeply personal side of guitar performance Russell emphasized is selecting a repertoire. While he emphasized every student should be as omnivorous as possible at first, winnowing down their favorite pieces for a performance career is "a search that's gonna be different for each person," he said. "You have to find the pieces that you believe in because that's the only way you're going to convince your audience."
Russell said that while masterclasses and residencies like this are challenging—"When you're teaching in public you can only push for something up to a point, because you can't bore the 50 people or 20 that are listening"—he enjoys the opportunity to give a student a fresh set of eyes on what they're working on. "Because I only play concerts, it's quite easy for me to come in full of enthusiasm for the shorter amount of time I have with students. They have their regular teacher, like a trainer, who sees them every week, and then I come in and sort of hammer the last nail in."
Learn more about studying guitar at SFCM.