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It seems that every year or so when I finally find the time to blog, it is about a recent trip to NYC, and this time is no different. Mostly because I cannot forget the incredible experience that was the New York Guitar Festival Marathon this year. What an honor to share the stage with the likes of Jorge Caballero, Badi Assad, Romero Lubambo, and of course, my teacher and mentor William Kanengiser. 

New Yorkers make a great audience - and I'm not just saying that because I used to live there and once thought I would pretty much be there for the rest of my life. They show up strong, are attentive and educated, and I've played enough there that I am starting to see familiar faces in the crowd every time (mostly friends from the New York City Classical Guitar Society!). 

I played on the afternoon set, which featured music of North America. It was followed by an evening program of music of South America. I opened with Three Preludes by Dale Kavanagh, which I recorded on my most recent album of music by female composers; followed by four of the twelve Concert Etudes by John Anthony Lennon, and closed with a set of pieces near and dear to my heart by Clarice Assad. Clarice is obviously of musical lineage, and she writes gorgeous music that is heartfelt, lyrical, and incredibly beautiful. After being selected in her call for guitarists last year, she presented me with a piece that coincided with the birth of my second daughter, aptly named "Lullaby." As I joked in a brief on-stage interview with John Schaefer, it hasn't quite put the baby to sleep yet...

The really fun part was playing an encore with David Mozqueda, Bill Kanengiser, Colin Davin, Jorge Caballero, and flutist Daniel James. Bill did an arrangement of Copland's Danza de Jalisco (which has become an LAGQ favorite) for the five of us. A great little piece to end the concert. A complete live recording of the concert can be found on the WNYC website.

Now as I'm in a season of raising two young kids and balancing practicing, performing, teaching, and working for GFA, it is such an incredible privilege to still be able to play such fun gigs with incredible musicians. We even got a snowstorm before we returned to our 80 degree winter here in LA. 
 
 
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I hate humidity, but every time I go back to NYC I am reminded of all the things I absolutely love about it. When I moved there when I was 18, I never thought I would leave. So It was great to be back at the New York City Classical Guitar Society, a non-profit organization that hosts concerts, monthly meetings, and now a 30-person guitar orchestra. Its president and fearless leader, John Olson, has done an amazing job growing this group over the years, and it was fun to see many familiar faces and meet new folks that were not part of the society when I used to frequent the meetings as a student.

I was privileged to be the first artist on the Salon Series this season to play in a new venue for the society - the WMP Concert Hall in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. An unsuspecting city block from the outside, it turned out to be a charming little hall with beautiful hardwood floors and gold detailing on the walls, elegant and acoustically vibrant. I was able to play very softly when the music called for it, not worrying that the audience wouldn't be able to hear me, which made me feel like I was creating moments of great intimacy with these 50 or so people that had come to share the evening together. It is a wonderful feeling to realize that your hands, your fingers, your strings and frets can come together just for these short little snippets of time and bring people into the world that a composer created. And for the Emilia Giuliani pieces that I start my program with, it felt absolutely appropriate to be playing in a salon atmosphere where projection was not my enemy. Really, it felt like the space was made for classical guitar!

Some photos from the concert, courtesy of Don Witter, Jr., who you can always count on sitting in the first row at any New York City guitar performance. Will try to upload some video from the concert soon!

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I also gave a talk about Emilia Giuliani, a composer that now feels like a close friend and companion (even though she is dead and that sounds a little creepy!). Delving into the details of her life and sharing my research about her work with people is really exciting! I get a lot of great comments from many guitarists out there who had no idea that Mauro had a daughter, and how they really love her music and want to learn it. Knowing that I may have brought new knowledge and a fresh program to voracious listeners is incredibly satisfying to me. I also sold a good number of CDs, which is always nice!

So what else did I do in NYC last week? Caught up with friends, family, a visit to my alma mater, and - oh yes, the MoMA! I haven't been for years, so I went and brought my 1 year old daughter with me. Here she is snacking with some water lilies. And it always surprises me how small Starry Night actually is in person. Overall, a great trip!

 
 
What a whirlwind the past month has been! As a staff member of the Guitar Foundation of America, the end of June is always a tremendously busy time as we get ready for the annual convention. This year, I had to wear two hats as I juggled my administrative duties with being a convention artist since my program, The Woman's Voice: Original Music for Guitar by Female Composers, was selected for one of the concerts at the convention. The higher powers were kind in giving me a few days off to prepare for the concert after a grueling red eye flight followed by an unexpected 8 hour layover at Dulles airport thanks to a delay causing me to miss my connection to Charleston. I did get a lot of airport practicing in though, and even made a few new friends through it!

I traveled armed with many copies of the new CD as well. I was quite proud that they arrived on my doorstep a whopping two days before I left for GFA. How's that for punctuality?
I loved the city of Charleston and was glad to spend some time in this charming little town despite the thick, humid heat. The seafood was fantastic and the architecture was quaint and lovely.
Well, talk about an intimidating audience to play for - I was only performing in front of hundreds of the most serious classical guitar fans in the country. And despite Sottile Theater being a little bit big for the intimacy of the guitar, the concert went well and I got lots of good feedback on my performance. The biggest challenge was the freezing cold air conditioning that was used in the hall - my hands were literally like ice through the whole thing! But somehow muscle memory powered me through.
My concert was shared with ChromaDuo, Rob MacDonald and Tracy Anne Smith, both guitarists that I have been friends with for a long time.
I also got to hang out with Dale Kavanagh, one of the composers whose music is on the new album. She proved to be down-to-earth, hilarious, and lots of fun to chat with. Her concert was fantastic - she brought authenticity and flair to well-known pieces in the repertoire that captured my attention the entire time.
Christopher and Theresa Parkening were special guests at this convention. It was a bittersweet moment when Chris announced while receiving his Hall of Fame award that he would be retiring from the concert stage. I grew up listening to many of his recordings and it feels like we've lost a hallowed icon of our world, though I completely understand and respect his decision. I heard a recording of Chris playing the Elmer Bernstein concerto on the radio just yesterday, and was reminded of his incredible virtuosity and musicality.
Next stop - onto Lake Tahoe! I had a couple weeks at home before hitting the road for this one. I'd never been to the SIerra Nevada Guitar Festival before, but it was a most beautiful setting in the middle of Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe, CA. I loved every minute of being out there, and this festival was small enough that it was nice to get to know quite a few folks - auditors and artists alike. My concert took place in the beautiful Squaw Valley Chapel, and it was received quite well. I didn't expect to be asked for an encore! Note to self - always have one ready...
I was judging the competition that was a part of the festival, and was very impressed by all of the players that entered. I also had a fun time getting to know my fellow jury members, Matanya Ophee and Mesut Ozgen. Here we are with the finalists.
My next concert isn't until September, so I'm looking forward to kicking back a little bit, learning some new music, and continuing to promote my new CD. I might even play some stuff that wasn't written by women (gasp!). Funny, someone asked me this weekend if I was a feminist. I told him I wasn't - I'm just in search of some fresh, underplayed music that nobody else is performing. And the list keeps growing! I've gotten quite a few new ideas this month from some of the folks that I've met. Stay tuned to find out what!
 
 
Well, it's finally up - I've just launched my Indiegogo page to fundraise for my new album. I'm trying to raise $2000 in two weeks to cover a portion of the costs that are required to produce this album. These funds will go directly to paying my recording engineer, graphic designer, duplication and distribution costs. Check out the full details of the campaign here. I could really use your help to make this happen! I've got perks at every level of giving, so won't you have a look at the page?

Also check out my video below. Thanks for watching!
The full details of the campaign can be found here:

http://www.indiegogo.com/conniesheu

A big thank you in advance for your support!
 
 
It's been awhile since I've blogged, for one main reason - busyness! Between student juries at the conservatory, quartet rehearsals, getting sick a few times, and being deep in the throes of recording my second album, I haven't had much time lately. But I did feel compelled to share about the process with you, dear reader, because perhaps you have been in a situation where you have also felt overwhelmed by all that you have to and want to do. And you felt at such a loss that you didn't know what to do.

I've had many moments this past month or two in which I have felt exhausted by just the thought of how much I have to do. Putting out an independent album takes a LOT of work, with very little payback financially (if any) and a huge investment of time. It starts with dreaming up a program that you love enough to live and breathe for many months, or even years. And then it takes a good amount of searching to find the talented and affordable people that will help you make the project a reality. Then comes the recording, producing, and mastering; the overseeing of the graphic design; the taking of new headshots; getting the thing duplicated and shipped on time. And then on top of all that, you gotta sell the darn thing.

I love dreaming up a cohesive package to give to people that represents a piece of why I love the music that I play. I love that some of the pieces on this new album have never, ever been recorded before. I love finally getting to that point of feeling ready to kick some ass in the studio. I love that there is a tangible, physical result to all the work that goes into this project. And when I think of all the room that these CDs are going to take up in my storage closet, yes, they are tangible indeed!

On the other hand, there are things I don't enjoy about the process. The fact that I must fundraise, publicize, practice, create, imagine, edit, produce...well, that's an awful lot of verbs for one person. A friend of mine who is an actor/comedian empathized with me over lunch today. Anybody who makes their living as a creative person is hence their own publicist, advocate, producer, and agent all in one (unless they hire someone for any of these jobs, which many people do) while having to constantly work on artistic content as well. That's like five jobs in one! Oh yeah, and did I mention that I have a nine-month old baby at home? And I have fifteen students. But that's besides the point.

I could just not do this, but yet I can't. I believe too strongly in this project to call it quits or just leave it be. So I was reading a book by an author that my sister got me into - Anne Lamott, a Bay Area writer who writes about writing in her book Bird By Bird. It struck me how much I could identify with her description of the process of writing because it sounded an awful lot like the process of practicing. You just have to start with something. In consolation to anyone overwhelmed by writing, Lamott describes a moment from her childhood where her ten-year old brother had left a school report on birds to the last minute:

"He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"

And that's where I am. Bird by bird, I have 9 tracks done and 5 more to go. I'm reminding myself that little by little it is getting done and there will be a finished product. Someday. Someday soon. And I look forward to sharing it with you.
 
 
Ah, New York.  The fast pace, the cabs, the delis, the grit, the grandeur, the cold.  The efficiency of public transportation.  Even for this transplanted Angeleno, its charms still haven't worn off.  I had an amazing time there a few weeks ago and am only getting to putting up photos now after a busy week in the recording studio back here in LA!  I go back to NY often enough that it still feels a lot like home, but this time it was slightly different because I brought a little tourist with me... 
Here's my sweet girl visiting me in the green room at the 92nd St Y.  I kept imagining what it was like for her to be experiencing all the sights, sounds, and smells of New York for the first time, and it made me feel a bit like I was seeing the city for the first time through her eyes even after living there for seven years.

The Y was generous enough to give me a full hour for a sound check since I was there a couple days early.  A sound check is a meditative place for me.  It's a sacred time where you get to just listen like you never do at home in a space that will only sound that way temporarily.  It will not sound the same once it is filled with people, making this place of solitude even more private and awesome.  I hungrily soaked in every minute of the hour and played my loudest, my softest, my favorites, and my hardest parts of the program.  I asked for the house lights to be exactly as they would be for the concert.  And then I just imagined being there with the energy of the crowd - and had fun!
What a lovely hall to play in after seeing many, many concerts there myself when I was a student in NYC.  The Guitar Marathon is a really special presentation at the Y - it's a part of the New York Guitar Festival and features a whole 5 hours of classical guitarists presented back to back all interwoven with a common theme.  Here I am warming up in the ladies' dressing room.  I had a great time chatting with the lovely Zaira Meneses while we both waited for our turn to play.  (photo courtesy of Emon Hassan)
This year's theme "Bell' Italia" was chosen by co-curators David Spelman and Elliot Fisk, two amazing advocates of the guitar.  It was emceed by John Schaefer of WNYC, who briefly interviewed all the artists before we played.  A friend of mine got a shot of me on the monitors in the foyer outside.  I look a little dazed...we weren't prepped too much on the interviews ahead of time so it brought me back to my Junior Miss days of thinking on my feet in the spotlight (ok, that's a story for another time...)
I think I was talking about Emilia Giuliani.  Probably, since I played a 20 minute set of her music!  I also played a duo set with Jason Vieaux, a brilliant, intelligent musician and all around good guy who graciously filled in for my former teacher, Bill Kanengiser.  I didn't get all that many photos during the concert of course, but we did take a "cast" photo afterwards in the green room.
It was a blast to be there, and check out a preview of the documentary that is being made about the event by Emon Hassan of GuitarKadia on the New York Guitar Festival blog here.
 
 
Hello December!  I love the holidays, mostly because it is a great excuse to be inspired by the music of the season and spend quality time with friends and family.  It truly is a magical time of year, and I love Christmas music that reminds me of why I personally celebrate the 25th.  Here is an arrangement of "O Holy Night" that I did a few years ago.  I hope it makes you look towards the light of the season.
 
 
No, this is not a post about the latest fitness craze.  We've all had those times in life where a break from guitar was needed for whatever reason - whether it was due to a physical injury, vacation, or just general busyness.  I think I've had a pretty good excuse this summer as I just had my first baby about six weeks ago.  She is healthy and well, slowly adjusting to her new world as babies do, so I decided it was time to get my fingers back into shape again. I spent some time thinking about how to strategically go about doing this, as it's an important topic that applies to all of us from time to time.

A guitarist's hands are very much like an athlete's body.  Muscles atrophy when they are not used for long periods of time.  Callouses shed and disappear, and nails become long and unwieldy.  Getting back into tip-top performance shape will take time, and is best to go about it gradually - after all, you wouldn't run a marathon after not working out for a month, right?  Same thing with guitar.  Ease into it and be smart about your practice time, and you'll be back up to gear in no time.  Here are a few tips that I've been trying to follow as I do the same.

1. Always warm up.  It's like doing your stretches before you exercise - start with some basic technique drills that you are familiar with.  It helps if they are drills that your hands know well so that you are firing up the muscle memory that has not been used for awhile; there's no sense in having to teach your hands brand new exercises while trying to rebuild your strength at the same time.  My go-to exercises are a series of slur exercises that I learned from Sharon Isbin, and the Segovia fingering scales practiced in different groupings and right hand combinations.  The scales give tons of benefits for training your hands: they build up your left hand callouses, boost agility in shifting between positions, give practice to the coordination between the right and left hand fingers, work up right hand speed, and the list goes on and on.  Meanwhile, slur exercises are incredible for building up the strength in your left hand and increasing the flexibility between fingers. Stretching in the left hand can be learned, and for those of us with smaller hands, a stretch from index to pinky is an absolutely invaluable thing to have. 

2. Do slow practice on an "old friend."  An old friend - that's what I call those pieces that you absolutely love and have played forever.  It's a "go-to" piece that makes you remember that you simply love to play the guitar.  For me this week, it was Villa-Lobos's Valsa-Choro from the Suite Populaire Brésilienne, a beautiful piece that I love playing and have missed.  Practicing a familiar piece fires up your muscle memory, just like the familiar warm-up exercises do, and doing it slowly eases your hands back into the facility that they had while you were at the peak of your playing.  This is also a great time to relearn a piece with better technique or to focus on improving one aspect of your playing that you've always wanted to work on.  For example, if your left hand fingers tend to flail about while playing, take this opportunity to relearn an old piece but with an additional goal in mind - to relearn it with better left hand technique than before.  You'll enjoy the benefit of getting back into shape while improving an aspect of your playing in the process.  An old piece is also necessary for building up your confidence again in playing and reminding you that you do this because it is enjoyable.  Often times, the biggest hurdle in practicing after a long break is just the discouragement we feel from having been at a certain level and not being there anymore.  So let these old friends give you a little boost of confidence and spend an evening with them - you'll be glad you did!

3.  Sightread.  I love to sightread, not because of my ability at it, but just because of the challenge of turning notes on a page into sound.  Sightreading is a necessary part of practice for any guitarist, since we are known to be abominable sightreaders compared to violinists or pianists who need to sightread in many more situations than we do.  Sightreading fires up all the synapses in your brain that link your visual intake to your muscular output, and the fact that you can go slowly and have a great excuse for not feeling like the piece has to sound perfect is an added plus.  You're exercising the ever important relationship between your eyes and hands, and getting to learn something new.  This adds to the joy of playing and having the excuse to take a little time to do it slow.

4.  Create goals.  No practicing is ever that efficient without goal-setting.  Organize your practice time so that you can work towards a deadline or project.  Then, identify the steps you need to take that will get the piece in performance shape and work on one goal per week (or whatever amount of time makes sense for you).  For example, dedicate one week to practicing the piece slowly, another to redoing your fingerings, another to analyzing your interpretation, and another to memorizing it.  Suddenly a mammoth amount of work becomes accessible and mentally manageable.  There's no way to get us working like the threat of unpreparedness - so start early!  Even if you have a performance six months or a year from now, you can start learning or relearning the music for it now, and you will have nothing to fear when that day comes even if you managed to take a nice summer vacation from the guitar. 

Now that fall is quickly upon us, hopefully these tips help you shake off that summer laziness and start practicing today!  There is such a thing as taking a break from work guilt-free, and you, my friend, deserve it.   

 
 
Most of you probably know that I am about 37 weeks pregnant now, waiting for our baby girl to make her grand entrance into the world.  At this point, I have finished all my teaching for the year and am now on what feels like a well-deserved maternity leave from my job at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.  I'll be taking the summer off, but am pretty sure that I'll be itching to get back to work in the fall. 

And why is that?  Because this short few weeks off has made me realize that teaching makes me feel alive.  Even though it can at times be exhausting and frustrating, there is the constant challenge of making the guitar an exhilarating means of self-expression and more than just a wooden box from the music store down the street.  When I sit back and think that some of my intermediate and advanced students had absolutely no knowledge of this instrument when they walked into my studio, I feel a deep sense of pride in helping them find this gift that I was also given at such a young age. 

But my favorite thing about teaching guitar goes beyond the music and the technicalities of the instrument.  I think in the end, I could be teaching anything and my favorite part about it would still be the same.  I really love getting to be involved in a student's life, investing in him, seeing him consistently week in and week out, and having a relationship that is different from the category of parent, friend, colleague, or classroom teacher.  I'm trying to coach him to get to a place in which musical expression, this new language to replace verbal language, is easily accessed, even second nature.  I'm helping him into this new world in which playing guitar becomes something more important each week, something deeply personal and integral to his identity.  It's hard to get this level of depth with a student every week, but on those rare days that it does come out, I'm reminded that this student is a person, and I am a person, and life is really about the connection that one person makes with another person who makes a connection with another person, and this is how communities form.  That's so simple yet so refreshing to me as I sit here idly at home, waiting for my baby to arrive and be yet another participant in this thing we call community that makes our lives fuller and more beautiful to be lived.

As a closet extrovert, I go a little crazy without social interaction of some sort on a daily basis.  Although I absolutely love my moments of alone time, at times the hardest thing about being a guitarist is that it is a pretty solitary instrument.  Luckily, the hours that I might spend practicing alone is offset by time spent teaching.  So to all my students who may or may not be reading this that have made this year a fulfilling and productive one, I wish you a wonderful summer and look forward to seeing you again in the fall... probably more than you think.
 
 
If you ever had music lessons through the Suzuki method, this is a mantra that you are well familiar with.  Dr. Shinichi Suzuki was known for coining this clever saying that made me giggle when I was a kid and makes me scoff now that I'm a teacher.  I mean, I love to eat, but do I love to practice?  Not always.  Actually, I'll be completely honest and say- no way!

It's taken me a long time to figure out how to mentally approach the subject of practicing.  Practicing, I decided a few years ago, is work.  Work is hard and toilsome.  It's not usually fun and games.  When I think of work, I think of people farming the land, typing in a cubicle, or doing any number of things to be a producer of goods or services for society.  I don't usually think of a person sitting in a practice room doing slur exercises all day.  But if you are called to be a musician, this nitty gritty stuff is your work - and the strange thing about it is that the end product won't necessarily be something useful to society or any type of tangible item that one can treat as a commodity. 

The greatest thing about being a musician is that your end product is something beautiful.  But it doesn't happen overnight.  It takes hours of fingering a piece that you are entirely sick of.  It takes waking up early to squeeze in an hour before you go teach so that you can get some technique drills in because you're too tired when you get home.  It takes slow practice, fast practice, mental practice, metronome practice.  It takes recording yourself and playing it back even when it makes you want to vomit to listen to yourself.  All of this is the process of work for us musicians.  For me, it's a battle to sit on my practicing stool every day that I do it because practicing is also a physical activity that is more difficult if you're out of touch with your body.  The stool and the stand for me are like a battle station.  I'm battling my own flesh, and the battle is everywhere.  I struggle to train my fingers into controlled, precise movements, keep my posture correct and my spine straight, create an internal pulse of the music within me, and somehow channel musical expression into all of it in the process. 

So the next time you struggle with practicing, just think: this is your work.  Don't think of it in terms of how much you are making or not making for all the hours or preparation you do for one gig or concert.  If artists allowed money to be a motivator of productivity, we would never get anywhere.  Instead, remind yourself that you were wonderfully and fearfully created in God's image (Ps. 139:14) and that everything you say on your instrument is individual, important, and can make another human being experience beauty - and that, my fellow musician, is priceless.