Brad DeRoche, guitarist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have always been greatly moved by music, from the time of my earliest memories up to today. Pursuing a career as a musician, as an instrumentalist, was a very natural choice for me, though not an easy one to make. Coming from a very practical family, I was encouraged to think about making a living, about having a stable job and lifestyle, over chasing a fanciful dream. That practical thinking has served me well in having a dual career as a music educator and performer. Being an educator, I am able to have stability, while being a performer allows me to chase my dreams and play the music that most inspires me.

Growing up there was always music in the house. My mother played piano, my father sang in a choir, and all three of my siblings and myself played musical instruments and sang. At the time, I doubt any of us kids thought of music as a career choice, it was just something to do, like reading a book. It was very natural, and at the time, quite normal to entertain ourselves in this way. I didn’t realize at the time how much this would shape my thoughts and career choices. Hearing Bach and Beethoven played on the piano (along with a good number of Elton John songs – thanks to my sisters), has become thoroughly lodged in my memory, and I can still hear those pieces in my mind as if I were sitting in the family living room. We also spent a good deal of time listening to records or the radio, so there was never a moment when music didn’t ring through the house.

Then, as a teen, I began to play rock and roll on electric guitar and became ever more fascinated with the instrument itself. Even though I had played guitar starting around the age of five, I didn’t really get into playing seriously until I was in my early teens. Over time, it seemed to grow more intriguing and eventually become the main source of my thoughts and dreams. By the time I was entering college, I knew that I wanted to be a musician as a career choice, and I eventually obtained my degrees in music. Playing classical guitar was something that took me longer to evolve into, mostly because there were no instructors around at the time, and very little printed material or recordings. It seems so strange to say that, because practically everything is at our fingertips with the internet, but at the time, it was very difficult to obtain materials or find instructors. Times have definitely changed!

When I began to study classical guitar seriously, I attended a concert by David Russell, the brilliant Scottish virtuoso who plays so effortlessly and artistically. His concert marked a turning point in my career where I decided, then and there, that I would pursue playing this instrument seriously and to do my very best to be a fine artist. It has been an engaging career choice, and very challenging at times, but worth it in every way. I still look up to David Russell as a “north star” in my musical journey. His artistry, elegance, and supreme virtuosity have inspired me as much as any artist. As I have matured artistically, I look less at other musicians for motivation, and rather more to the actual music itself. It’s here that I draw my greatest inspiration: playing Bach’s solo Violin and Cello Suites, or some the great Spanish Romantic composers works for instance, leaves me with a sense of awe and wonder. The sonic space that we enter as musicians is like a beautiful fantasy world of sound colour and nuance, that can be shaped anew each time we play the piece. Of course, the very real physical challenge of playing difficult music is never completely overcome, but that is another part of the intrigue of playing an instrument.

I was also deeply inspired by my collegiate studies. When I attended the Eastman School of Music for my doctoral degree, I was just in awe of the instructors and fellow students there. It was so motivating to be around truly great musicians. Also, even though each of us was striving to become our best selves, there wasn’t a sense of competitiveness between the students. Rather, we all encouraged each other and were encouraged by the others. It was a wonderful time in my life where everything seemed so new, so fascinating. I wanted to be a guitarist, a musicologist, a music theorist, and educator… all at the same time! I couldn’t get enough of the music, the books, the performances. I have such fond memories of those times and it still inspires me to this day.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

One of the greatest challenges for me has been to find a good work/life balance where I am able to devote enough quality time to the music I want to play and still perform the other functions of life: being a family man, teaching, mowing the grass, etc. Trying to take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to me is hardwired into my brain. Saying no to something always seems like opportunity lost, but saying yes to everything spreads me too thin and can reduce the quality of each project I’m involved in. So, finding the balance between taking on a new project, performance, or teaching opportunity vs. sticking with only a few of the most important ones, presents a constant challenge for me.

During the pandemic it was very difficult to find places to perform, presenting a great challenge to most classical musicians both financially and emotionally. It was difficult to see the path forward, and I began to really question my goals and purpose. With so much uncertainty during that time, it was a challenge to stay positive, but thankfully things are starting to look up. It seems that popular music has come back strong with full clubs and concert arenas, but classical music seems to be slower to bounce back. So many concert series and their presenters closed up shop because of the pandemic, and many have just not come back, so it has left a void. Of course, this means there is room for others to start a series, but it will just take more time, I think. Hanging on and finding my way through uncertain times has tested my mettle to be sure!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Any performance in which I can move an audience member spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually is one that I am most proud of. If I can leave an audience member or listener with a sense of awe and wonder, or reverence for the music, then I will feel that I have done a good job.

Also, those performances where I feel a sense of flow, am expressing my artistic vision, and feel that I am playing effortlessly, are ones that I am usually proud of. I always aim to perform music in a way that reveals what I believe are the composers’ intentions. When I’m at my best, I believe that I can express my artistic vision in a way that moves people to feel something more deeply than they do in most everyday experiences. That is my intention each time I step on stage.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I believe the Spanish-Romantic music of the late 19th and early 20th century is music that I perform best. I always gravitate toward music that has a beautiful melodic line coupled with interesting harmonies. The works of the great Spanish composers often has this, and mixed with just a hint of exoticism from the Moorish cultures of past generations, it creates beautiful, exotic, and dramatic music that seems to really connect with my listeners. I love to work with sound colours and rubato, so I think this music fits me well.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Prepare well. When I am well prepared, it affords me the opportunity to play my best, and to express my artistic vision to the audience. I love playing for an audience, it brings great joy to know that people are moved or excited by hearing the instrumental works I play. So, when things are going well, typically due to good preparation, I feel confident and tend to play my best, giving the audience the best I have to offer. That is inspiring to me.

Also, I love to research the composer’s works that I am playing. Knowing a good deal of historical, theoretical, and performance practice information about the works I’m playing inspires me in that I am confident I am creating a respectable version of their compositions.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I tend to play a lot of different repertoire pieces within a season, rather than sticking to one programme exclusively. I tend to think of my programming as consisting of small “programmes within a programme.” This way, I can play, for instance, a group of pieces by Isaac Albeniz, or a group of pieces by Francisco Tarrega, or a group of works by Bach, or a modern work, or Latin, etc. Each smaller program might take up 10-20 minutes of the whole programme. It allows me to keep the programming fresh, and not get stuck playing the same pieces every time. Then, I try to consider the flow of the whole programme, how each piece interacts with those before and after, as well as in the arc of the entire programme.

There are several audience favourites that I program quite frequently, because I really do believe that I need to offer a little something for everyone. Many guitarists will avoid familiar favourites such as Leyenda (Asturias) by Albeniz, or other popular works because they have been played so often. I personally think that at least half of our audiences have never been to a guitar concert before and so they really don’t what to expect. If we play a few of these popular pieces on the program, then those who are not already initiated into the scene will find something that is probably very accessible to them. Of course, having a few obscure works is great for the true aficionados, so I try to add some of the those as well.

My thinking on programming has shifted over the years. When I was in my collegiate days, I thought of playing mostly virtuosic works to try to prove my skills, or in other words, a competitor’s mindset. Then, after spending many years in academia, I tended to create unique programs with lots of modern or obscure works on them, trying to play the piece that no one else has done before. Now, I like to think more about what an audience member would want to hear and focus my efforts on playing beautiful music that will hopefully move audience members emotionally. I think of programming as a way to take them on a journey: one that includes excitement, drama, sorrow, joy, and more. If I select repertoire well, and play it well, then I believe I can impact the listeners in a powerful way.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Yes, I absolutely love to play “salon concerts,” or house concerts. I feel the strongest connection to an audience when I am close to them in an intimate environment. The feedback I get from audience members in these venues is always the strongest. I think it humanizes us more, instead of being the “other” on the stage. The stage creates a natural boundary, and in doing so, it exalts the performer, separating them from the audience. This seems like a good thing, and I believe it can be, but it comes at a price: because of the separation, the audience members don’t often feel as if they are one with the performer, that they are sharing the same experience, but rather are a witness to an act. It probably also has to do with proximity, and size of the audience, but there is something very special for me with playing salon concerts. The biggest downside to them is that the acoustics are not always as nice as a good hall or church, but then again, not all halls or churches offer good acoustics either.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

First, I believe classical, or art music, needs to be part of our everyday experience, not just some special event that occurs a few times in a lifetime (as is the case for most people). This means that we need to include it in schools, on television, in social media, etc. It needs to be as commonplace as sports or movies are now. In order for that to happen, we need a cultural shift in our thinking. We need to revere great artists as much as we do athletes, movie stars, or TikTok influencers. Studying things that are beautiful, spiritual, or artistic needs to be part of everyday experience, along with studying science and math. We give up much of the joy in life if we don’t learn to feel reverence for great beauty, whether it be in nature or in Bach.

Second, for classical music to be part of our everyday experience, it needs to be at least somewhat accessible to the listener, intellectually and musically, and made into enjoyable experience. I’m not advocating exclusively for simple pleasantries and old tonal formulas, but so much new art music is harsh, chaotic, and incomprehensible for all but the most advanced professional musicians. That severely limits the number of people who will want to attend a concert of this music – at least a second time. Instead of looking for the discomforting, the shocking, the unusual, or the most intellectually complex; perhaps our programs should be focused on the appealing, the moving, the profound, and the beautiful? Yes, there is a place for complex new works, but for me, they are best when limited in relation to works that are gratifying and beautiful.

We also need to break free from the grips of entertainment industry and let people know there is much more to music then the popular styles that currently dominate the media. I don’t dislike popular music, some of it is fantastic, but it is like a fast-food diet to me. Nothing wrong with sampling it from time to time, but if it’s primarily what we consume, then we are missing out on some of the richest entrées available. I think this needs to happen in the schools and in our own homes. Teaching our young people to appreciate and engage in great art and music is essential. It’s vital for opening their minds about other cultures and for helping them to appreciate the extraordinary skills that are earned through serious study and hard work.

Another important way to get audience members interested in classical music is teach more young people how to play instruments or sing. When a child learns a musical instrument, they have a much greater appreciation for the arts. Yet so many organized programmes in schools and community centres focus heavily on sports or technology-related activities. For me, this is out of balance. We need sports and technology, but we also need time for introspection, for creative endeavours, for the arts, for quiet appreciation of things beautiful and complex.

It’s true that more people will stop and stare at a car accident than will listen to Joshua Bell playing in a subway, but what I think we need is to train ourselves to seek out beauty in all its forms, and to become less intrigued with shock and awe. There is already plenty of ugliness in life, no point in increasing its’ lot.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

From an audience perspective, it was the first time I heard David Russell perform a solo concert. I had heard a few other guitarists before that, but none had quite moved me the way his performance did that first time. It was one of the those “otherworldly” experiences where the power of his playing seemed so incredible, so profound, to me. I decided then and there that I was going to be a classical guitarist and have not looked back.

From a performer’s perspective, I can remember concerts where I was completely in the zone and felt like I was playing a soundtrack to a movie in my head, it was wonderful! It doesn’t always happen that way for me, but when it does, it’s magical. I also believe that an audience can sense it when we are in the zone and respond in kind.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My definition of success is to make a positive impact on the world through my performing, recording, and teaching. I want to leave the world a better place through the beauty of music, if even for only a moment in time. A career that revolves around performing, teaching, and scholarly pursuits is incredibly gratifying, and I want to give back some of the joy I receive from it to others around me. So, if I have the autonomy, the economic means, and a strong artistic purpose, then I can align those things to to make a positive impact on the world. That for me is a successful life in music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

That to have a career in music is a very noble undertaking and must be considered very seriously. It will not be an easy path and there will probably be many frustrations, but know that what you do is so important and necessary in this world. If playing music is the only thing in the world you want to do, then do that, and find a way to make a living out of it.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Matthias Dammann guitar.

Brad DeRoche is an active concert artist, appearing as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral soloist.  His repertoire spans from Renaissance lute pieces to modern works by living composers.  Throughout his career, he has been drawn to dramatic, lyrical, and virtuosic music; with the works of Bach and Spanish composers ever present in his concert programs.  He has recently become a recording artist for the Centaur Records label, with “Serenata Espanola: Spanish Guitar Classics” as his first release. 

He is a graduate of the prestigious Eastman School of Music where holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Classical Guitar Performance, studying under Nicholas Goluses.  In addition to his degrees, he participated in many masterclasses with prominent concert guitarists including David Russell, Raphaëlla Smits, Paul Galbraith, Fabio Zanon, Denis Azabagic, Scott Tennant, and many others.

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