How did you start playing the guitar?
I started by singing and playing the recorder. I even didn’t even know the existence of the guitar until at the age of 13, when out of the blue, I got a cheap guitar as a present. As I loved making music I started to play it. Two months later, I received a Segovia LP and that made me fall in love with guitar music.
What was your musical education?
I was lucky to have some good teachers, but it is not always the best teachers who have the most influence. Sometimes by seeing how not to do something, you can learn. Also, if you go to an incredibly good concert, that can also be like a teacher. My main teacher was my music, my instrument, myself, no matter where I went. The experience of life, friends, books, recordings, going into the library to find by chance something you are not looking for! Your teacher is everywhere.
You are one of the most famous 8-string guitarists? Why do you prefer it over the 6-string -string guitar?
I wonder if you ever asked a 6-string player why he is not playing 8 strings!
Anyway, basically it is not that I prefer 8 to 6 strings, but that a lot of the music I’m playing benefits from the basses. The additional 7th and 8th strings give a more full sound. I could simply say that I have a soft spot for basses, but there is more to it. My aspiration is to make music to the best of my ability. I aim for an authentic execution.
So I play a lot of different instruments—both contemporary and historical—because each type of instrument creates a different world. I choose a guitar not because it has a certain number of strings, but because I think it might be the right instrument for the repertoire I’m going to play.
And the 7th string is sometimes very useful for a better, more convenient left-hand fingering.
How and why did you become interested in historical instruments?
It’s a completely different world with an old instrument. it is just more interesting. Not only because of the sound concept, but also because you get closer to what the composer was thinking and to the understanding of the music.
I think it’s the same as driving a car. You can drive in the woods with any car, but some do it better there than others. That same car could perhaps not ride as well on the highway.
How is performing music that you’ve known for a long time different from performing newer music?
Performing music that I’ve known for a long time is a twofold experience. It’s fine to rediscover the things I once saw on a previous journey, but it’s even finer to go deeper and explore new layers in the composition. Now that I’m playing the complete Partita, I see the Chaconne that I played before in a new light. Fascinating!
Note: Raphaella Smits is playing Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, including the Chaconne, during her 92Y recital on Mar 23.
What helps you to perform, whether alone or with others?
Perhaps it sounds obvious, but a lot of musicians do not listen—not to themselves nor to their partner. Good musicians live in two worlds simultaneously: they must be able to think ahead how a phrase is going to sound just before they play it, but then they have to listen very carefully if the phrase sounds for the audience like they intended it to be.
Somehow, playing music is a triple activity: you play physically, you listen and judge the result of the playing and you prepare, and if necessary adjust your next lines.