A conversation with Grammy-winning CIM professor Jason Vieaux

On the night stars from every genre accepted one of the greatest honors available to musicians, Cleveland took home two of them.

Feb. 8 netted the city two Grammy awards.

One of them went to Cleveland Institute of Music Professor Jason Vieaux, who took home the award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for his album, “Play.”

I had the opportunity to speak to Vieaux about his recent win, his childhood start in music and creating a career in Cleveland.


Zsolt Bognár: Tell us about the album for which you just won the Grammy.

Jason Vieaux: “Play” is my 12th CD release. This album, rather than being complete works of one composer—what I was used to recording—is more of a potpourri album than previous ones. The title has several meanings; of course playing the guitar, but also a more playful set that I use for encores. It’s also celebrating my 20th year of making professional recordings.

ZB: You’ve recorded over 10 CDs. How do you decide when pieces are ready to record?

JV: In this case, about half of this record is made up of pieces I have performed for years, and of course I am also fond of arrangements, which I love to showcase in concerts. I speak with my recording team, Bruce Egre and Alan Bise and immediately after recording a CD, we plan the next several in advance.

ZB: You started in Buffalo around the age of eight—is that unusual?

JV: Not these days. Back then, maybe less of my heroes did start young, but my start centered around listening to my parents’ record collection—I listened all day. It was jazz, soul, R&B and rock. From three years old, I would sit there until dinner. When I was five, they bought me a guitar, not realizing it was a classical guitar. Two years later, the Buffalo Guitar Quartet came to my school. My mother was a secretary there and asked Jeremy Sparks if he would come to the house for lessons. I had classical training right from the start. I loved the music and the process of practicing. My parents never really had to tell me to practice.

ZB: At what point did you realize this was going to be your life?

JV: It was a long series of events. After my first full-length recital at age 12, I realized the feeling of enjoyment, the feeling of being in the moment, and playing for an audience. It was really fun! I wanted to do it again immediately. I played for David Russell in a few masterclasses, and David and other international artists were telling my parents that I was playing at a high level for my age. I decided that I was better at classical guitar than I was at soccer. So, I started to put more of my energy and efforts into it.

ZB: What brought you to studies at CIM first?

JV: The Cleveland Institute was close by; I didn’t have a car or money, so my parents offered to drive me back and forth from Cleveland if I got accepted. I really liked the school and the feel of the place; I felt instantly comfortable. I heard all this incredible playing, and that actually made me relax. I had a sample lesson at my audition with John Holmquist, and I was hooked. When CIM put me on the faculty here in 1997, John was part of that transition. Cleveland is a great city with a long tradition for funding the arts, so it became a good base for my initial forays into professional touring. Cleveland is lucky to have Erik Mann, who heads the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society that is helping Cleveland to become an American center of classical guitar.

ZB: You won an important competition early on. Did you set out to enter many competitions?

JV: I didn’t enter a lot of competitions—I didn’t find them all that pleasant. I entered the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) Competition several times before winning. At that age, I had a lot of facility, but there was a lot I still wanted to work on; competitions were not my priority. I actually made a deal with John Holmquist that I would enter the end of my senior year. As it turned out, my mother saw that the GFA would be in New Orleans, and she really dreamt of seeing it. This was during the fall semester of my junior year, but John thought, “Why not?” so I entered and ended up winning at 19. It was the start of my professional career.

ZB: Are you surprised at how much success a classical guitarist can achieve today?

JV: Not at all; the level today across the world is so much higher than it was. There are more really good guitarists now than there ever were. It creates a wider culture and its own critical mass, and even some superstars, some of whom raise an awareness and level that brings all of us up.