ANU Reporter article “Success (strings attached)”

“Australia‚Äôs Olympic gold medallists get ticker tape parades. But some other international champions prefer picking and plucking to fanfares.”

For the original version of this article, click here to read it on the ANU website.

From an article in ANU Reporter – Spring 2008 – by Celeste Ecuyer

After Beijing, returning Olympians were paraded across the capital cities to the cheers and accolades of crowds of people.

But most people would be hard pressed to name an Australian musician who has become a champion on the international stage.

Then again, if the ‘gold medallists’ from the ANU School of Music guitar department are anything to go by, they’re probably not too bothered by the relative anonymity.

They certainly are not too fussy about keeping tabs on their success. Recently the school administration asked the head of the guitar department, Tim Kain, to write down all the students who’d won gold, silver or bronze at international competitions in recent years.

“It was quite surprising” Kain says. He knew the students had been doing well, but he was a little taken aback to see that there had been 17 first prizes since 2006, 14 of these being from international competitions.

Canberra-born Harold Gretton, who began his guitar studies at the School of Music at the age of eight and is now approaching the end of his PhD, recently returned from Europe with first prizes from international competitions in Spain, Portugal and Rumania, following last year’s win at the Vienna International.

And he’s not alone. Rising star Bradley Kunda won the 2008 international Cordoba Guitar Festival in Spain in July, following in the footsteps of fellow students Gretton and Jacob Cordover who won in 2007 and 2006 respectively.

Kunda speaks of the instrument being “ingrained in my personality,” having first requested a guitar from his parents at the age of two, and beginning lessons at six.

He waxes, or perhaps strums lyrical about the colour and texture that can be produced in the instrument’s sound, and the sensitivity and subtlety that can be drawn out.

“It’s a very sensitive instrument, it’s not loud and arrogant and in your face.”

Kunda could be describing himself. He’s humble about his success and describes competitions as lotteries. But he says he’s appreciative of the opportunities that come with winning, as well as the experience of performing overseas, to see what it is that people there listen for, and being able to compare that to his ideas and experiences.

Past and present students speak of Kain’s inspiring leadership and the camaraderie and support that all enjoyed as members of the guitar department.

Graduate Daniel McKay, who returned from Melbourne recently to perform in Canberra, stopped by the School of Music to see his mentor, fit in a quick lesson and coffee.

“You can always learn something from Tim,” he says. “You bring something to him that you think is straightforward and he makes it …”

“So much more difficult,” Kain interjects, grinning. McKay studied at undergraduate and Masters levels at ANU, and taught at the guitar department, so has experienced the school from both sides of the fence.

The guitar department is known as Australia’s leading school for the instrument. Although Kain has been teaching at ANU for nearly three decades, he brushes off a suggestion that the success is all his doing. Instead he speaks of the students, developing their love and passion for music making and the guitar: “It’s always been one of my prime concerns that people will be happy playing the guitar and making music. It’s easy to come into a big institution like a university with a great passion for something and come out the other end feeling like a number in a production line. I try to approach students as individuals, to empower them and allow them to develop their ability.” As for the accolades, he says they’re other people’s achievements, but speak to the students and it’s a different story. Their respect and pride for being part of the department comes through in their stories, and Kain is always spoken of highly.

“My teacher said I had to go to Canberra – I didn’t really have a choice,” Kunda says. “Tim has created a very high level of players, who are all in it to make music.” There’s absolutely nothing more important to anyone in the department than being a good musician.

Kain himself explains he is still learning, and believes that is what makes his teaching work. He keeps himself and the music fresh, even at the price of perfection. “I am often wrong,” he says, and grins to indicate that this is a good thing in the learning process.

Kain’s teaching style draws on his plentiful ability, performance experience and musical and technical knowledge, but also his sense of empathy. He prefers to approach each of his students as an individual. “You’re teaching the person first and foremost,” he says. “You just never know anyway where someone’s going to go with their music making. They don’t have to be a big soloist, but they do have to keep feeling like they’ve got something to say, something to contribute, and they can develop the ability to do that.”

The musician also places a strong emphasis on performance, and encourages students to think of each performance as its own event. He also fosters original repertoire by commissioning new Australian music for himself and his students.

Kain grew up in the Canberra region, the son of a butcher. Instead of sausages and chops it was popular music and flamenco that inspired him as a child. He studied at the School of Music, graduating with a diploma, before going overseas to study in Spain and England where he established his performance career. After seven years away he returned to Canberra to take up a position at his Alma Mater, and 27 years is still there, and loving it. “I’m facing the same obstacles and barriers as the students,” he says. “I’m a musician first and teacher second. I’m still always trying to improve my technique and knowledge.”

Kain’s approach to performance and competition is of being in the moment with the music. “It’s a whole mixture of things coming together,” he says. “It’s why performing is so intensely interesting as a classical performer. You’ve got every possible challenge, psychological, physical, intellectual and emotional. You’re telling a story to the listener. When it all comes together you’re just letting that unfold.”

Kain see competitions as a necessary evil, the external world placing importance on metrics and rankings. He would prefer his people understand and are happy playing the music, and if the success of his students in international competitions is a by-product of this, then that’s good too.

Kunda has a similar feeling. He candidly admits to not liking what competitions represent, but does appreciate the opportunities that follow on from winning them.

As a result of his experiences, Kunda is positive about the future of contemporary guitar in Australia. He’s inspired by the experience and knowledge he has gained at the guitar department. He hopes the next 30 years will be very progressive, as he and his generation of guitarists develop.

Kain believes it’s a great time to be a guitarist, arguing that performance styles are still evolving in contemporary popular and classical music and the guitar is very much a part of that.

He says the guitar has an immediate social relevance as the instrument that came to the fore on the popular stage in the 1950s in pop music, but says that it is also an integral part of the folk tradition from countries all around the world.

“Contemporary classical composers have grown up with television and pop music coursing through them, and though they have moved from experimental dissonant music to a neo-romanticism that is more traditional in rhythm, harmony and melody, the modern influences creep in.”

Kain says the guitar sits perfectly between the traditional and modern worlds. From the mid-twentieth century onwards composers were looking for new sounds and new ways to express themselves, he says. “The guitar provided a shift towards intimacy, colour and texture. It is a whole orchestra in itself – if you tune in.”

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