From GFA First-Prize Winning Student to Adjunct Professor

Xavier Jara
Sonata Romantica mvt. 4 Xavier Jara (arranged by Manuel Ponce) Sonata Romantica mvt. 4 by Xavier Jara (arranged by Manuel Ponce).

Xaiver Jara ‘20 turns to teaching while rounding out his master's degree

Chance and loss led Xavier Jara (MM ‘20) to the classical guitar. The 2016 first-prize winner of the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) International Concert Artist competition took up the instrument at 12 after a bicycle accident ended his racing aspirations. As he tells it, “I wanted something else to do. Then I heard a mariachi band at a Mexican restaurant. They sounded like they were having so much fun, and I wanted to be part of their group. So I started the guitar.”

Like many young guitarists, he had eclectic tastes: electric guitar, banjo, bluegrass music, heavy metal: “I was doing what any teenage guitarist does,” he says, “shredder type stuff, copying and improvising guitar solos.”

His first teacher happened to be a classical guitarist. But then his father’s sudden death from stomach cancer led Jara, at fifteen, to commit to and focus exclusively on mastering the solo classical repertoire.

“My father always told me classical was better,” says Jara. “ I liked the movement of the hands, and I had a knack for it. It became a path for me to become stronger and not let his death weaken me. So I quit the other styles and haven’t looked back.”

Serendipity helped further focus him. Jara had been surfing the Internet for guitar videos, and back in 2008 there weren’t so many; but he happened upon “this guy posting these videos from his bedroom, playing these great transcriptions he’d done, and it was Judicael Perroy, my current teacher at SFCM.”

The Parisian-born Perroy was also touring, en route to performing in Minneapolis where Jarra, then 17, had been studying with Alan Johnston, founder of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet. Perroy was impressed with the high quality of Johnston’s students, and when Jara asked him for a private lesson, the French guitarist obliged with a three-hour class in his hotel room the day of his concert.

“It was really one of the best lessons I ever had,” Jara recalls. “He was very generous with his time and wouldn’t accept payment. I had the sense he really cared.”

At the end of the lesson, Perroy invited Jara to come to Paris and study with him. So the following year, Jara enrolled at the Paris Conservatory, taking private lessons with Perroy who helped him find an apartment and get a visa. When Perroy came to teach at SFCM, Jara followed.

“Even though he was very young,” says Perroy, “he struck me as one of those people who kind of knows what he wants to do, maybe not in terms of career at that time, but definitely in terms of music. He has a very strong will about what he wants to do musically.”

Perroy, himself a guitar prodigy, had performed Vivaldi concerti at the age of 11 and went on to win a slew of international competitions and awards, including the same GFA first prize he would help prepare Jara to secure. Indeed, several of Perroy’s students have earned that honor, whose recipients are then sponsored for an international tour with some 40-60 concerts. At 26, Jara’s string of multiple awards and competitions is impressive, but he is quick to say he’s had enough of them.

“At first, they were helping me improve as a guitarist, and they were giving me an opportunity to play, but at a certain point, I thought they were hindering my playing. Competitions have helped me a lot, but it’s very much playing the game somehow, which is ugly and I don’t necessarily like it myself.”

Perroy had advised Jara that if he won in the U.S. and Japan he could pretty much stop doing competitions, a plan of action that would enable Jara to establish himself in both countries and be free to design concert programs on his musical terms. “So the last couple competitions I did,” says Jara, “were almost with the purpose of winning to stop doing them.”

Even on the competitive circuit, Jara began to organically transition into teaching. Perroy noted, "His best talent is to be naturally personal. It’s not staged. He gave a master class in France with students not much younger than he is. His manner of teaching works about the same way he plays: different, unique, and deep."

Recently, Jara became an Adjunct Professor of Guitar at California State University, Fullerton in a program run by Martha Masters, President of GFA. “One thing I’ve learned from that experience is that luckily when you’re teaching you finally start getting paid to learn. I don’t really think it’s about imparting knowledge; it’s more how we’re going to work together to help with something.”

Jara’s performance focus has turned to something he would not have been able to do in competitions; he now prefers creating programs around larger works or projects focusing on a single composer. “Last summer,” says Jara, “I was touring doing pieces by Manuel Ponce, a Mexican composer who wrote a lot of guitar music for Andres Segovia. Of all the composers Segovia commissioned, Ponce was the best. His work is definitely worth playing and putting out there. It’s known as old school music, but as a young player I feel I have a more modern voice to offer for playing it.”

Similarly, an SFCM winter seminar taught by Giacomo Fiore on Acoustic Ecology inspired a deep dive in the avant-garde guitar music of Toru Takemitsu, whose work In the Woods Jara is performing at the Swedenborgian Church in Pacific Heights on April 19 at 4:30pm as part of an upcoming festival on Nature and Spirit. “It’s a beautiful twenty-minute set of three pieces inspired by various natural gardens around the world, with the third movement is based on Muir Woods.”

In Fiore’s seminar, Jara was fascinated to learn about Takemitsu’s trajectory: the Western-influenced and largely self-taught composer had rejected much of Japanese culture because of the war, but he would rediscover its value through the influence of John Cage and philosopher D.T Suzuki’s writings about Zen.

“I was inspired,” says Jara “by how Takemitsu involves nature in his music, his graphic scores, and how the music is reminiscent of Japanese landscape painting in its use of space and silence. His ideas about silence actually differ from John Cage. Japanese has different words for silence and one of them is ma, which Takemitsu defines as the kind of silence that happens after a sound has deteriorated, and there’s this space left afterward before any new sound comes. This is profound for me because Takemitsu sees sound and silence as forces of life and death. You’re not just playing notes.”

Along with upcoming concerts, Jara has two recording projects in the works, one featuring Ponce’s guitar music and another focused on Takemitsu.

Musically, Jara has not ceased exploring. His last recital included a set on baroque guitar, and, for his next concert, he plans a set on theorbo, a 14-stringed mega-lute created as a continuo instrument for accompanying baroque ensembles. He hopes to do more chamber music and perform more 21st-century guitar music as well.

Comparing his Paris musical sojourn with SFCM, Jara says: “In Paris, it’s the lineage thing. You’re very aware of all the history. There’s this idea that my teacher was Nadia Boulanger, and Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel were taught by Gabriel Faure, who studied with Camille Saint-Saens, etc.. They take it very seriously. Here at SFCM, it’s such a center for New Music, and there’s so much new activity with contemporary music going on. There are more academics as well, and I think that’s great.”

— Carl Nagin


See Xavier Jara perform with SFCM Guitar faculty in New York on March 1, 2020.