In 1996 esteemed guitar teacher John Sutherland singled out four of his students at the University of Georgia in Athens and encouraged them to form a guitar quartet. A dozen years later, he told the Athens Banner-Herald that he was surprised that the ensemble was still together. “I could tell from day one that they were talented. I thought that they had potential, but when you’ve got four guys, it’s hard to hold a band together for that long.”
Guitarists Kyle Dawkins, Brian Smith, Phil Snyder, and Jason Solomon are still together as the Georgia Guitar Quartet (GGQ), a name that Sutherland suggested. They perform on Monday, July 19, in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus as part of the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series. “We play hollow guitars with nylon strings,” Snyder says in a telephone interview from Georgia.” We sit when we perform and rest our right foot on a stool.” Snyder distinguishes between the guitars GGQ plays and acoustic guitars. “By ‘acoustic guitar’ we usually mean a guitar with steel strings, played standing up. Our guitars are small, and comfortable to play. You can wrap your arms around them.”
Three of the GGQ members play standard six-string guitars. Brian Smith plays a seven-string guitar, where the range of the instrument is extended both at the bottom and at the top. “Playing piano music transcribed for guitars made us use the seven-string guitar,” Snyder explains. “Really low notes are outside the normal guitar range, and piano music sounded wrong when it was transposed up an octave.
“The early days are now a blur,” says Snyder. “It was 14 years ago. We got started when I was a sophomore, and the others were freshmen. Sutherland invited us to come to his house and play for him. We ordered a Scarlatti piece, ‘The Cat’s Fugue,’ online because we liked the name, and we played it for Sutherland. The story is that Scarlatti’s cat, Pulcinella, was supposed to have come into the room and walked over the keyboard from left to right. Scarlatti liked the melody and wrote a piece based on it.” That piece is included in the Princeton concert.
Sutherland suggested that the ensemble find small pieces, “jewels, either known or not so well known,” Snyder calls them, to build a repertoire. One of them was Edvard Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance.” It, too, is on the Princeton program, as are works by Michael Praetorius, Frederic Chopin, Sergei Prokofiev, and Hector Villa-Lobos.
The Prokofiev piece is a cello sonata where Snyder abandons his guitar to play the solo part on the cello. On occasion he has played both cello and guitar in a single concert. “That’s hard,” he says. “It’s easier to switch from guitar to cello than from cello to guitar. The cello’s big sound makes it difficult to switch to a quieter instrument.
“At first we played mostly arrangements by other people,” Snyder says, “and very few of our own pieces. Now, it’s mostly our own pieces.” The Princeton program opens with a piece by Kyle Dawkins; after intermission it includes a composition by Brian Smith.
GGQ’s first gig came after its members enrolled in an ensemble class at the university; they played in the class recital. Soon afterwards they were invited to perform at the Georgia Museum of Art on campus. “We papered the town with brochures,” Snyder says, “and drew a packed house. It was standing room only.”
While they were still in college, the quartet expanded their reach to clubs and bars in the area. Their reception surprised them. “On stage we could hear glasses clinking and beer being poured,” Snyder says. “But there was no talking. People were actually listening.”
For a while, the ensemble acted as its own agent. “We were undergraduates,” Snyder says. “We didn’t have to make a living. The guitar quartet was so much fun we didn’t want to give it up, and eventually, we got professional management.”
All four members of the ensemble majored in guitar. All four now teach guitar on the college level. Their ages now range from 33 to 35. All are married; two of them have children.
Kyle Dawkins grew up in Gainesville, Georgia. In addition to GGQ, he also performs electronic music, using a laptop computer. He belongs to an ensemble called “Maps and Transit.”
Dawkins teaches at Gainesville State College, in Gainesville, and at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. His wife, Julie Phillips, is art editor of the Athens Banner-Herald. The couple lives in Athens, Georgia.
Brian Smith grew up in Augusta, Georgia. His other instruments are percussion and bass. He plays electric guitar with a jazz group “The Odd Trio.” Smith teaches at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia; and Atlanta Christian College. He and his wife, Natalie, a flutist, perform as a duo, the Musicsmiths. They live in Athens, Georgia, and have a three-year-old daughter.
Phil Snyder grew up Greenville, South Carolina. Like Smith, Snyder teaches at LaGrange College. His wife, Cori, works as a music therapist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. They live in Peachtree City, Georgia.
Jason Solomon grew up Lawrenceville, Georgia. In addition to performing on guitar, he is a music theorist and teaches at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. His wife, Qiao, is a violin professor at Agnes Scott. Their son is six weeks old. They live in Decatur.
Solomon makes no secret of his narrow escape from an early end to his career as a guitarist. At the beginning of 2003, about six months after his master’s recital the thumb of his right hand began pulling in toward his palm as he played. (The right hand uses the pick or strums the strings, while the left hand produces the desired pitches.) “My ability to communicate musically through the guitar — something that I valued more than just about anything — was in danger of vanishing completely,” he says. “My greatest fear was that I would no longer be able to play my part in the Georgia Guitar Quartet. The other three quartet members are my greatest friends, and the thought of having to let them down haunted me.”
Solomon told his story in “What Every Guitarist Should Know: A Guide to the Prevention and Rehabilitation of Focal Hand Dystonia,” an article that appeared in a 2007 issue of the “Guitar Review.” The link to it can be found on the GGQ website, georgiaguitarquartet.com, by clicking on Solomon’s biography.
A striking feature of Solomon’s experience is the extent to which it mirrors those of injured musicians who have regained their careers by following the wholesome practices of piano pedagogue Dorothy Taubman. She stressed the importance of relearning how to play the instrument, of avoiding tension, and of using gravity, arm weight, and forearm rotation to heal or prevent injury. Her insights are carried on at the Princeton symposiums of the Golandsky Institute established by Taubman successor Edna Golandsky. The institute finishes its summer residency and international piano festival in Princeton on Saturday, July 17 (U.S. 1, July 7).
Like many injured musicians, Solomon tried for a year to control his problem by systematic, strenuous practice. It was unavailing. He pursued a two-year odyssey to doctors of sports medicine, an orthopedic surgeon, physical therapists, and an acupuncturist. That brought no solution. Finally, he managed to diagnose the problem himself by mining the Internet.
Following the advice of Nancy Byl of the University of California San Francisco’s department of physical therapy and rehabilitation science, Solomon persisted in an arduous program of retraining. Now he participates fully with his colleagues in the quartet, sharing in their explorations of music.
The quartet works with modern dance groups and visual artists and has collaborated with lyric baritone Robert Sims. They have released four recordings.
GGQ exported its aesthetic fearlessness when the ensemble performed with Verge, an Atlanta-based dance group, in a work that required both dancers and instrumentalists to improvise. “Sometimes, we started from the choreography; sometimes, it was the music,” Snyder says. “We worked it out in rehearsals. It’s hard to pin down what key the music’s in. We used the key of C, but avoided the normal conclusions in the music. We tried to keep music the same length all the time so the dancers would know for how long they had to improvise. They managed.” The resulting piece, “Pan,” appears on GGQ’s album “Puzzle.”
“That experience made our normal playing feel very tight,” Snyder says. “We liked that, and we let our playing from notated music become tighter.”
The GGQ avoids amplification during concerts whenever possible. “It’s unavoidable outdoors,” Snyder says. “But it makes the music sound rough indoors unless the acoustics are exactly right.”
In the future the Georgia Guitar Quartet is interested in spreading its enthusiasm to guitar enthusiasts of all ages. The inspiration for this project comes from the GGQ’s 2001 invitation to expert guitarist Christopher Parkening’s 27th master class in Bozeman, Montana. “For a long time, we’ve been thinking about setting up a summer guitar camp,” says Snyder. “It would start at an intermediate level. We’d like an attractive outdoor setting, someplace where field trips and hiking are possible. There won’t be any lower age limit; I’ve seen some eight-year old guitarists who have really set things on fire. And there won’t be an upper age limit, either.”
Georgia Guitar Quartet, Princeton University Summer Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Monday, July 19, 8 p.m. Works by Chopin, Scarlatti, Grieg, and Prokofiev. Free tickets available at the box office at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. 609-570-8404 or www.pusummerchamberconcerts.org.