Classical guitarist

Classical guitarists and music students Stephen Krishnan and Robby Brown will perform back-to-back at the Cactus Café Thursday. Initially both Krishnan and Brown had no intentions of becoming professional guitarists but now hope to teach classical guitar in the future. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Stephen Krishnan was 4 years old when he first began playing the classical guitar. Krishnan — now a UT senior pursuing his Bachelor of Music in guitar performance — met classical guitarist Robby Brown, who is pursuing the master’s degree at the Butler School of Music, when he came to UT. Brown and Krishnan perform back-to-back at the Cactus Cafe on Thursday, setting the stage for acclaimed classical guitarist Alexander Milovanov from Belarus.

As a freshman in high school, Brown began playing the electric guitar, became interested in jazz guitar and began to study jazz music in his senior year. 

“I just wanted to explore music in a deeper way and learn different styles of guitar playing,” Brown said.

Hailing from a family of artists and musicians, Brown began his undergraduate studies at The University of Southern Mississippi as a jazz studies major, learning classical guitar on the side because it was a
required elective.

“As time went on, I realized I love to play it, and I just kept on practicing and practicing, and eventually classical guitar took over,” Brown said. 

Brown switched his major to guitar performance his junior year. He later
auditioned for and joined
UT’s master’s program.

Krishnan, on the other hand, has been playing classical guitar since childhood. He began training in classical guitar with the Suzuki Program, an early childhood music program, when he
was 4.

“I never went into taking guitar lessons with the expectations of becoming a professional guitarist,” Krishnan said. “My family wanted me to learn to play a classical instrument, and it was originally going to be violin. None of us had any idea what the classical guitar was at that time, but, when we went to a music school in Connecticut and heard one of the performers play the classical guitar, my parents and I just fell in love with the
instrument instantly.” 

Krishnan continued the Suzuki Program until he was 16 years old. He knew he wanted to pursue his undergraduate studies in music, and he began applying to various schools. He finally chose UT because he wanted to train under guitar professor Adam Holzman. The classical music scene in Austin also offered him numerous opportunities to teach and learn the classical guitar, according
to Krishnan.

Both Krishnan and Brown now compete in guitar competitions. Krishnan competes as a part of the UT Guitar Quartet, an undergraduate-only ensemble, while Brown competes in solo competitions. He recently won the Classical Minds Festival and Competition held in Houston in June 2013.

Krishnan and Brown are both part of the UT Guitar Studio led by Holzman. They each spend up to six hours every day perfecting
their craft. 

“Classical music is seen as an elite form of music, but people should seek out and experience classical music for what it is,” Brown said. “Being surrounded by all the great guitar players in the studio and having a good teacher who knows how to make a guitar player sound great is a really
great motivator.”

Holzman has been working with Brown for a year and half and with Krishnan for three and a half years.

“They are both hardworking,” Holzman said. “You have to be incredibly inquisitive, talented, musical, disciplined and hardworking
to succeed.”

Krishnan has also been a volunteer at the Austin Classical Guitar society, which hosts several concert series for performers and organizes events and education outreach programs for
the community.

“He’s someone who welcomes the audience into the experience,” said Matthew Hinsley, executive director at ACG. “He’s one of the most kind, patient individuals. Outright mastery of the
subject is a critical element that’s going to make him a successful teacher.”

Brown and Krishnan both hope to become more involved in teaching classical guitar in the future. While Krishnan hopes to give more performances as part of a guitar ensemble, Brown aspires to be a concert artist and also pursue his doctorate degree in music.

“Music means a lot to me,” Brown said. “Music inspires me to live life.”

Susan McDonald will be performing “The Aquarium: a Marine Micro-Ballet for Guitar and Sea Creatures” at the Cactus Cafe on March 21. (Photo courtesy of Susan McDonald)

Susan McDonald is a Texas born-and-raised classical guitarist that has been playing since she was six. The Daily Texan sat down with her to discuss her upcoming program “The Aquarium: a Marine Micro-Ballet for Guitar and Sea Creatures” and what performing really means to her.

The Daily Texan: You’ve released 10 albums that have such a wide range of themes, from cooking to the epic of “Gilgamesh”. Where do you find inspiration for your works?

Susan McDonald: For the last 10 years or so, things have shifted very much in me. In the beginning, I was very much a serious concert artist and I still am of course but I was doing very hardcore classical programs and Carnegie Hall and all that, but then quite a few years ago my father got sick with cancer…I took time off from touring to be with him and spent a lot of time at the cancer hospital and got into composing myself and came up with such a realization of how much more the guitar could do than just be a concert instrument. 

DT: Has your audience been able to make connections between the more serious themes of your music?

McDonald: Absolutely…"Comfort" was the changing point in my career. The pieces from "Comfort," I have found, are pieces I can play for audiences that don’t speak English or I don’t speak their language and I can play those pieces and they will cry…the moment I would have to say that changed my life was when my dad was in the hospital at MD Anderson and so all the time that I was spending practicing ended up being in the middle of the night, in the deserted hallways or around gardens where people would come out and they would be hooked up to IVs. 

DT: Where did the idea for your animal ballets come about?

McDonald: I was actually on my way to go on tour with a really serious classical program and in the meantime, my husband and I had been given this giant saltwater aquarium and there weren’t even fish in it at the moment, but with live rock, there are all kinds of little things living in there, it’s very “Horton Hears a Who” and so I was sitting there, needing to be practicing Bach and I looked over and in the sand this eyeball popped up out of the sand and it looked like the eyeball of a Martian, it was on a long stem and it was blue and it was really weird. 

And then another one came up from the sand. And then a giant flat tongue came through the sand. It was a conch and it had been on the live rock. Immediately a melody presented itself to me, just this silly, quirky little melody that would go perfectly with this weird little tiny creature. So that gave me the idea that if I could get somebody to film this, I could write music that would go with it and I could teach kids about the environment, about sea creatures, you know, wouldn’t that be cool?

DT: Does this translate positively from children to the college crowd and adults in general?

McDonald: As adults and college students, we tend to get into this deal where we’re a little bit jaded. We require more and more and bigger and bigger to be impressed so I think that we have a tendency to lose sight of being a child and how delighted and cool kids think things are. But what I love about this — with sea creatures, with any animal — is that at any age, if the creature is cool enough, you’re going to have that same reaction that you would have if you were a kid. All the surface stuff goes away and you’re just delighted…all of the jaded feelings that we have as adults will get swept away.