“Embrace the Joy of Discovery and
the Challenge of the Creative Process”
An Interview with 2022 All-National Honor Ensemble
Guitar Ensemble Conductor Chuck Hulihan
Chuck Hulihan also conducted the 2020 All-National Honor Ensembles Guitar Ensemble, which performed virtually in January 2021.
The 2022 All-National Honor Ensemble (ANHE) Guitar Ensemble will rehearse and perform November 3–6, in National Harbor, Maryland, with five other All-National Honor Ensembles. Chuck Hulihan will lead the Guitar Ensemble. Learn more about Chuck Hulihan here. Here, Hulihan shares some of his thoughts on favorite repertoire, his musical inspiration, and the upcoming ANHE Guitar Ensemble.
When did you first fall in love with music?
Music played a huge part in my childhood, listening to records, the radio, and eventually MTV. Heavy metal was my first “love,” and still is a major part of who I am and my listening tastes. When I first discovered an instrument, the guitar, it was through friends, and for me music was a form of communication and identity for myself and my friends.
Music was not something I learned in a classroom, but in basements, bedrooms, and backyards. I had a great private guitar teacher, John McCarthy, who inspired my creativity and musical exploration, but I was not involved in music in school until college. Once I started playing the guitar, it became my constant companion in life, and I knew it was more than a hobby or a phase. I always enjoyed the energy of concerts, the excitement of hearing a new work, and the accomplished feeling when you learn to play something you love.
What inspired you to become a conductor? Describe the process in getting to where you are today.
My undergraduate college mentor and teacher, Mark M. Davis, has had a major influence on my life. A guitarist, chamber musician, and conductor of the Providence Mandolin Orchestra, he was a model for me to follow, as I assumed that was the norm, that as a developing guitarist, you would pursue chamber music and conducting. I’ve been engaged with conducting guitar ensembles in some way for the past 25 years since my graduate school teacher, Frank Koonce, gave me some of my first opportunities leading guitar ensembles at Arizona State University and encouraged me to develop that asset of my career.
The last 10 years I’ve had a real burst in activity as the medium gains traction and really has become an established ensemble. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve had so many opportunities come my way to collaborate with composers on expanding the repertoire, collaborate with colleagues and students with festival orchestras, and be fortunate to work with guitar ensembles all across the United States. Most recently I’ve had the honor of leading the All-State Guitar Ensembles in New Mexico, Virginia, and Florida, and next year I will lead first All-State ensembles in Arizona and Nevada.
What are some of the greatest accomplishments, and challenges, you face as a conductor of a large ensemble?
First and foremost I’d say the greatest accomplishments are something I share with my many wonderful colleagues including the 2018 and 2019 All-National Guitar Ensemble conductors Michael Quantz and Bill Swick, that our collective work with guitar ensembles has created a connected community of programs, players, and educators who have dedicated a large portion of our creative energy toward elevating the guitar ensemble as a recognized format. This has taken a generation of educators, and I’ve been proud and fortunate to be a small part of that journey. The success has come from meeting the challenges head on: availability of great repertoire for all levels of experience, the number of programs offered in schools focused on developing guitar education, and the overall level of experience and expectation that young musicians bring to rehearsals.
What factors do you consider when programming music for a concert or honors ensemble? What are some of your favorite pieces of repertoire?
I always want to make sure a high level of artistry can be achieved with a program given the players and the amount of time allotted for rehearsals. There is a world of difference with the music I program for my college groups that have months to prepare and rehearse as compared to a one-day festival with a mix of abilities and experiences. The ANHE provides an opportunity to really challenge what can be done in only a few days and balances it with the confidence of knowing that students have gone through a selective audition process. I love to leave the majority of the musical decisions up to the ensemble, so though I bring a lot of experience to rehearsals and repertoire, I do like to leave it relatively open so that each ensemble can craft their own interpretations and create a unique musical experience.
My favorite repertoire is typically new repertoire, particularly premieres, and I am beyond excited that we will be able to premiere a new work at the 2020 performance, a piece being written now by composer and guitarist (and NAfME Council for Guitar Education member) Darin Au from Hawaii.
What excites you the most about the ANHE program? What do you hope your young musicians who attend will take away from their experience?
I have selected a program of mostly contemporary works by composers who know the guitar and guitar ensemble very well. Writing for the instrument in a way that takes advantage of the capabilities and works with the limitations is critical, and utilizing the unique sonorities, chord voicings, idiomatic techniques, etc., to allow the ensemble to shine. I have selected music by Annette Kruisbrink (Netherlands), Mark Houghton (UK), and Bernard Piris (France), along with a gorgeous arrangement of the Faure Pavane expertly crafted by Arnaud Sans to compliment the new work by Darin Au. These are all composers who spend a great deal of their artistic energy enlarging the guitar ensemble repertoire available today.
“My hopes are that the musicians will fully engage with the repertoire, embrace the joy of discovery and the challenge of the creative process, and … leave with new friends … as well as a sense of accomplishment.”
My hopes are that the musicians will fully engage with the repertoire, embrace the joy of discovery and the challenge of the creative process, and of course leave with new friends and colleagues as well as a sense of accomplishment and a wonderful life memory. They have worked so hard to get there; I hope they each can take a moment and reflect on their journey and appreciate the opportunities that music education has provided them.
What advice would you share with young aspiring musicians?
Several pieces of advice, all tied together.
- It’s so important to embrace the journey and not be too set on your destination. The paths we cut through school, through work, and through life are unique to each individual, so be careful if you find yourself following the path of another. This is all too common in the arts, and musicians in particular need to really identify their individual strengths, talents, and interests and be creative and open with what success means to them.
- Keep all your options open, don’t limit your focus too much too soon. You truly don’t know where your path will lead.
- Find your purpose and your creative passion, and identify what makes you special, what sets you apart from the rest.
- In terms of auditioning for an ensemble, of course you always want to be prepared, have done your research and homework, and come into any audition with a positive attitude, because you have already gained by simply working towards that goal. You may not “win” the audition that day, but you are already further ahead of where you were by simply having worked towards that goal.
- In the end, always be yourself, and always be proud of your work.
Why do you think music education is so important for all students?
Music education offers students another means of exploring their inner self, another way of having a voice, a form of communication often without words, a way to express one’s emotions, and a path to exploring the creative mind. Music provides a means to connect with the world, other cultures, other times in history, and provides a vehicle to project one’s identity. Music can be completely personal, or shared with the world, a communal experience or a deeply personal inner reflection. Music can allow a student to thrive in a subject, it can motivate one to work tirelessly towards a goal, and above all else it can allow you to dream and imagine.
Music allowed me to escape into records and listening sessions as a youth, enabled me to find focus and motivation in college, and has challenged me to be a better teacher for my students each day as a professional.
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Original interview published March 20, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)