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Our Q&A with guitarist Gary Ryan

10 months ago

Creating a new ABRSM syllabus is always a team effort, involving ABRSM staff and external experts. World-renowned guitarist Gary Ryan was one of the consultants for our new Guitar syllabus, and has also worked on our new Guitar Prep Test and composed and arranged the pieces for our new Guitar Star book for beginners. We asked him to share his thoughts on guitar playing, teaching and learning.

When and why did you first pick up the guitar?

I was given a guitar for Christmas when I was seven. I can still picture it clearly.

What was it about the instrument that appealed to you?

I'm not sure I remember! I played the piano a bit by ear already and just liked being able to play simple tunes and chords on the guitar. I also liked playing it (showing off) at school. I do remember thinking it was a beautiful instrument to look at and it's more portable than a piano!

When did you first realise that music would be an important part of your life?

I think that happened gradually but I was aware that I was very good at music. I used to love TV theme tunes and worked them all out by ear. I was obsessed by the Dr Who theme tune and wanted to work for the BBC Radiophonic workshop. 

Can you tell us about an inspirational teacher (or teachers)?

I have four main teachers to thank. Mavis Masters, my first teacher at primary school (who was actually a cellist who taught a bit of guitar). She encouraged me to apply to Junior Guildhall (London) where I studied with David Miller for almost 10 years on Saturdays.

Then at 17, I won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, where I studied with Timothy Walker, who gave me the freedom to start developing my own approach to the instrument. I'd also like to mention my brilliant piano teacher at Junior Guildhall, Michael Blackmore, who I loved learning from (and who was incredibly tolerant of my long right-hand nails!).

Do you have any tips or advice for young guitarists?

Listen to lots of music, practise regularly with a good posture and sitting position, and try to develop your knowledge of music theory. Learning to read notation well opens the door to a whole musical universe!

As a consultant for the new ABRSM Guitar syllabus, do you have any stand-out favourites from the new repertoire lists?  

It's hard to choose, but hopefully all the pieces have something interesting to offer. Bridget Mermikides' arrangement of Down to the River to Pray at Grade 4 is very beautiful, and I have always loved Sergio Assad's Valseana from Aquarelle at Grade 8. I think it's also great to have the option to play a duet alongside solo pieces. 

Any advice for choosing exam pieces?

Aim for contrasting items from each list. Different keys, different historical periods, different tempi, etc. It can help if the teacher is able to play through the pieces so students can hear which ones they are drawn to most strongly.

What do you enjoy most about being an ABRSM examiner?

I enjoy hearing a huge variety of music performed on different instruments, and hope that I help candidates to enjoy their exam experience. There are a lot of very talented young musicians out there! Every once in a while you also get to hear a truly incredible performance, and it can be when you least expect it.

Can you tell us something about your forthcoming projects? What’s coming up?

We have an International Guitar Day planned at the Royal College of Music on 4 November, which is open to anybody to attend. I will also be playing in India and doing some more concerts with John Williams and John Etheridge in the UK as part of a trio called 6 Hands.



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