The Power of Performance with Austin Wahl (guitar & mandolin)
Welcome to the Power of Performance
Hours of instruction and practice. Breath work, visualization exercises, and perfecting one’s technique. Why do gifted musicians put so much energy and focus into their craft? To perform!
At MacPhail Center for Music, accomplished faculty dip into their own, considerable stage experience to help students unlock their potential. The power of performance—a sacred, uplifting communion with an audience—isn’t easy to put into words. But we are asking our teaching artists to try.
Austin Wahl | guitar, mandolin, educator
“In classical music, there’s an emphasis toward museum culture,” says the internationally acclaimed guitarist, Austin Wahl. “You know– quiet clapping. If you clap in the wrong place, you’re ostracized!”
Austin’s not that kind of performer.
Despite dozens of competition prizes and years of high-level engagements (from a classical repertoire ranging from well-known works of Bach, Sor, Tarrega, and beyond), Austin’s first goal in performance is simple: It’s to entertain.
“I talk to the audience between songs, telling them the background information about the pieces and the composers, so they know what they’re hearing,” he says. “I explain what it is I’m depicting. And if I’m in a recital for a general audience rather than a trained musician audience, I communicate those facts in a way that’s not too jargony or complex.”
It’s not unlike the approach he takes with his students at MacPhail.
“A lot of people think of guitar as a pop instrument, and it is,” he says. “But that’s not the only thing it can do. Some people are unaware of the complicated polyphonic music you can create with a guitar. I like to change peoples’ assumptions about what this instrument can do.”
Austin himself was a guitar student at MacPhail, studying from age five with Alan Johnston, a founding member of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet.
“As an adult, I’ve tried to think of performance not as showing off, but rather just communicating,” he says. “Music isn’t like a photo or painting, where you put a frame around it, and it’s done. It’s happening in the moment, or it’s not. I crave sharing it with others and being able to inhabit the music as a conduit.”
Of course, it takes a lot of preparation to show up and “inhabit the music.” In his role as instructor, he re-engages in thought processes that have long ago become second nature for him.
“With students, I emphasize making themselves comfortable, putting their chair in the right place in the room, making sure they’re in tune,” he says. “Don’t start until you’re ready! The audience is much happier to hear you tuning for 30 seconds than for you to be out of tune for a half hour.”
His students also benefit from the tips and tricks he’s developed during his many competitions and engagements.
“When I’m preparing for a concert, I tend to practice starting and ending pieces quite a bit,” he says. “In my experience, when you start it well, it’s going to go so much better. On the other hand, if you’re nervous or timid sounding in your interpretation, you’ve lost the audience.”
He discourages the mindset of “I’m being judged.” Sure, he himself has performed (many times) for judges in competitions. But most of the time, when you’re giving a concert, the audience is there because they want to hear you.
“Your performance is an act of generosity and they are there to share something that you are giving them,” he says. “They are ready to see and experience whatever happens. In most cases, my students are performing for people who know them—friends, family, fellow students. There’s no risk in trying something new and maybe not having it go the way you want.”
For Austin, it all goes back to the original mission: You’re there to entertain.
“In the world of classical guitar, there’s a vanishingly small number of people who say anything on stage,” he says. “During their recitals, they play a piece, bow, play another piece, bow, and so on, and then they leave the stage.” But his own experience has taught him that a guitar performance can be completely different.
“I once played in Mexico,” he says. “I don’t speak Spanish, but I wrote down some program notes and had them translated and practiced it in Spanish.” In between songs, he spoke to the audience, as he’s wont to do.
“People went nuts,” he says. “They weren’t expecting that. But the experience is so enriched when people know what they’re hearing.”
Austin Wahl is currently accepting new guitar and mandolin students. Visit Dr. Wahl’s faculty page for more information.
Visit the Suzuki Talent Education program for more information about Suzuki and guitar.