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No Miracles, No Freebird. Just Hard Work.

Classical guitarist Valerie Hartzell performs Friday night in Soldotna. She sat down in the studio to talk about her visit to the Peninsula and some of the song requests she’s had to politely turn down.

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Valerie Hartzell: I started when I was two. My mother used to play classical guitar. She started in Paris, met my dad, he’s American. They moved to the States and she joined the New England Conservatory in Boston. So as a toddler, I got to hear her. And I begged and begged and begged and finally when she got her Ramirez guitar in Spain, Ramirez made me one, and it was a half sized so I could actually play. I probably just did some strumming, until eventually I could do solfège, read music and she said ‘huh’. And she said by 3 or 3 and a half you were pretty serious, and I said how serious can a three year old be?

Shaylon Cochran: Describe your instrument. It’s a guitar, but there are a lot of little things that are different.

VH: The guitar is not that big. It’s more of a curvy female shape. The classical guitar looks like a woman. Except with a really long neck. And our neck is twice as wide as that of an acoustic guitar. Eventually somebody decided, well, maybe we shouldn’t put steel strings on the guitars. And so throughout technology, they used to use gut strings, which is really gross, and now we have nylon strings, which is a softer feel. I can’t play on a steel string. People listening to these pieces will say how does she not use a pick? Well, we use nails. And our right hand has nails and our left hand doe not.

SC: We think of the modern guitar as a rock and roll or a folk instrument, and I think of concerts I go to at the other venues where people are playing guitar and you’ll always hear someone yelling ‘Freebird!’ Is there a classical musical equivalent of that? Does someone yell ‘Play Bach’s 5th Etude!’?

VH: Oh, God. No, not like that, but I’ve heard people ‘oh, do you know Recuedos (de la Alhambra by Francisco Tarrega)?  Everybody seems to know that one. But I actually have had people say ‘do you know Freebird?’ at a classical concert. And I’m like, ‘Nope!’ Or Stairway to Heaven. That’s another popular one.

SC: What is the thing that separates classical guitar as a genre more than anything? Is it technique?

VH: Well, acoustic and electric, they have a lot of technique they have to learn, too. At least the good players do and I think it’s the same thing. We have to learn technique. It’s a lot of work. People will look and say ‘how do you do that? It’s a miracle.’ And it’s not a miracle. It’s like hundreds of hundreds of thousands of hours. Any concert artist out there will tell you, it’s work. It’s like going to work. It’s not ‘Yay!’ It’s ‘I’ve got to practice this…motion on my right hand. First finger, second finger, first finger, second finger. I’ve got to do that over and over again until I get it just right, just the nicest tone I could possibly get.

SC: You’ve been hanging out with a lot of school kids around the Peninsula and when you perform for an audience that age, are there considerations you make for that age group versus folks who might come out and see you on Friday?

VH: For the elementary school, yeah. I try to make it personal with fun stories. And for the high school kids, I treat them like adults. Because the really are at that point. Quite frankly, the outreach concerts have been my favorite thing. I think if just one student can get up and say ‘I want to do classical guitar’. Or even if a couple say ‘I really like classical music, it’s not boring, I want to listen to more of this.’ If I can reach out to just a few students, that they really want to do something with classical music or classical guitar, I think I’ve done my job.

Valerie Hartzell performs Friday night at 7:30 at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.