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Jeffrey Cheah on stage in the 2017 Sydney Eisteddfod. Photo: WinkiPoP Media

An interview with Jeffrey Cheah

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Finalist in both the 2016 and 2017 NSW Drs Orchestra Sydney Eisteddfod Instrumental Scholarship, Jeffrey Cheah speaks about how his passion evolved from electric guitar and metal, to classical guitar and complex pieces. He also shared some advice for young musicians thinking about entering Sydney Eisteddfod.

What inspired you to start playing the Guitar?

I come from a pretty musical family. My two sisters grew up playing the piano and the flute from around early primary school. Me? I actually didn't really want to learn how to play an instrument at the time. I liked video games and reading books. I didn't pick up the guitar until I was 13 after hearing some of the music one of my sisters was getting into at the time (it was metal music) and I became obsessed with it.

I was lucky that my Dad also played the guitar at the time, so he supplied me with my first guitar and amp. I got a few lessons here and there at the beginning but was mostly self-taught afterwards. My sister eventually stumbled upon a few small pieces arranged for flute and guitar and suggested to me that I learn classical guitar so I could accompany her. I was obsessed with finding complex and technically difficult music at the time and the classical guitar seemed to tick those boxes so off I went and I haven't really looked back since!

You chose to perform the Canto and Finale from Ginastera's Sonata for Guitar in the semi-final, tell us about this piece.

There's a general consensus among classical guitarists that there's a dearth of excellent repertoire originally written for the instrument - especially repertoire written by iconic composers across the musical periods.

Ginastera's Sonata for Guitar is a piece we are so incredibly lucky to have, not only because it came from one of the more prolific composers of the 20th century, but also because the writing is absolutely superb in both a musical and idiomatic sense. Despite not being a guitarist, Ginastera manages to explore such a great breadth of the guitar's expressive capabilities while maintaining part-writing that doesn't demand too much of the performer (a common problem with many people who try to write for the guitar). Each movement has its own distinct character and really pushes the guitar to its limits in all ways. Not many pieces in our repertoire do it like Ginastera does!

Which other performers do you most like to listen to, and why?

It really depends on what I'm working on and what I'm in the mood for, but I try to listen broadly. If I wanted to prepare a set of folk-song transcriptions, I would listen to singers perform them in their original language to get an idea of the phrasing/nuance, if I wanted to prepare movements of a Bach Cello suite, I would listen to some cellists (Wispelwey, Isserlis, and Bylsma come to mind). If I just want to get away from classical music for a while, you'll probably catch me listening to Taylor Swift or music from 90's Disney movies.

The common thread between the classical artists I enjoy the most is that I believe that they all transcend their instrument in a way that speaks beyond the notes that I don’t feel like many performers can do and that’s something I can’t get enough of and would love to be able to do one day.

What have you learnt from your Sydney Eisteddfod experience?

As a guitarist, I find myself often playing for other guitarists which can be both a blessing and a curse. While I can get very specific advice on how to do certain things more convincingly and all that, guitarists are very guilty of making concessions on the compensations we have to make to perform certain passages. Realistically, in a concert situation, the audience will probably be filled with mostly non-guitarists and they aren’t necessarily aware of the instrument’s limitations so if something sounds off, it’s off. Being able to play not only for panels comprised of non-guitarist musicians, but also colleagues, peers, and friends has helped me greatly in my strive to become a much more empathetic and thoughtful performer.

What would you say to a young Guitarist that was thinking about entering Sydney Eisteddfod?  

Go for it! Especially the multi-instrumental and chamber music events. You’ll hear lots of really cool repertoire, you’ll get great feedback, you get a chance to perform, and you will come away a better musician just from listening to other instrumentalists. 

What do you hope to achieve next? 

I’m really hoping to get better at acknowledging and appreciating all of the support the people in my life have given me so far. There are so many times I can think of where some form of encouragement at the right time has really pushed me to work harder and I would really like those people to know how much it means to me that they were there when they were.

What are you most looking forward to in the second half of 2017? 

A trip to Europe is possibly on the cards as well to check out a few classical music festivals and schools where I also hope to get some lessons off some of the greats they have over there.

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