An Interview with Classical Guitarist Raphaella Smits

The following interview with Raphaella Smits first appeared in Soundboard magazine, Volume XXX, No.4, released June 2005, which is published by the Guitar Foundation of America. Guitars International wishes to thank Dr. Brad DeRoche and the Editor of Soundboard and the G.F.A. for allowing us to reprint its contents. (Reproduction of this interview in any form - in whole or in part - without the expressed written consent of the Guitar Foundation of America is prohibited).

Author Brad DeRoche is head of the music department at Delta College in Michigan. He received his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the Eastman School of Music and is an active guitarist:

I first became aware of Raphaella Smits through her recordings. I remember thinking that she had an extraordinary sound and her playing had great depth and artistry. After buying (and nearly wearing out) all of her recordings, I decided it was time to bring her over from Belgium for a concert. I remember the unique sight I had at the airport when she came in: One petite lady and two very large guitar cases! It was to be the first of many meetings I have had with her.

I thought it would be nice to capture some of her thoughts and print them for others to enjoy. When I asked her to do an interview, she wanted me to write down the type of questions I would ask. After a brief perusal of my notes, she said it wouldn't be interesting. So, you don't get to learn about which diameter of strings she uses, the competitions she has won, or how she keeps her nails; but I think the conversation is interesting none-the-less. Our talk took place on a lazy summer afternoon in Upstate New York as we slowly paddled our rental boat down the river

Brad DeRoche:
Do you remember this quote from the NY Times which said that you were "uncommonly musical?"

Raphaella Smits:

BD: I'm curious, do you think you approach or hear music differently than other people? What is it that makes you so "musical"? Is there a formula?

RS: No, of course there is no formula. But that you are different than someone else, is because you try to go your own way and not follow someone else. That is very important. You can take an example (from another player), but what is important is what you make of it, what you need to do with it, what the possibilities for you are.

BD: But that's what makes you exceptional, it's not what makes you musical. But what is musical? Is being musical playing the music in such a way that it is understandable?

RS: Perhaps.

BD: What do you think about when you play? What's going through your mind?

RS: So many different things, of course. The main thing is to think about the music.

BD: How so? Do you think about fingerings for instance?

RS: Sometimes. Sometimes we need to think about that. We need to think about where the voice is going, what that voice is telling you, what its meaning is. As we play a polyphonic instrument, there are many voices saying many things.

BD: True.

RS: It's like an orchestra, it's like a whole story, an entire world. So, it depends on the piece. What controls your thoughts, apart from everything technical, is the piece. That's what makes each piece so special. And I think you feel more about the music than you think about it. I'll give an extreme example: If you feel like it's heaven, you are not thinking about the sky and the clouds and the sun and the stars. That would be nonsense of course. If you think about heaven, that's something very spiritual. If you think about something earthy, it could be a very primitive feeling. So, it's never very clear. Somehow music is not very human. How you move your fingers, how you sit, how your memory works; that's the physical part. It's like building a house, you know?

BD: How so?

RS: Well, building a house is one thing, but when you go inside the house you're not thinking about the stones it is made from. When you go inside the house you feel the product of what has been done before, it is the spirit that makes it a home. A new house where no one has lived, even if it is very beautiful, is just cold, it feels empty.

BD: It seems you are always looking for what is beautiful or spiritual.

RS: Yes, that is also why some very simple things can be so beautiful.

BD: Tell us about your education.

RS: I was lucky in my education to develop a fast way of examining the musical language.

BD: What do you mean? Is it something you learned in the Interpretation of Early Music course of Jos Van Immerseel?

RS: Yes, but also from Oscar Ghiglia for instance. He was giving me a class on the Homenaje (Falla). It was pure rhetoric. He is very rhetorical himself. He says a lot of things; he pays attention to silence and to opposites. I think contrast in life is the same as contrast in music. If it is getting monotonous, even when you are a great performer, it will not tell much of a story any more. But, of course, you can learn by theory. This can help you to learn it faster. Like figures - you can learn how to play them.

For example: one repeated note wouldn't have any function if it is just a repeated note. An ornament wouldn't have any function if it is always the same. It wouldn't be an ornament any more. I always give this example and use it myself: "If you come into a Baroque church and you look at the ceiling - it all looks the same. But, if you get closer, there is not one section the same." And that's exactly what happens when you create music. Because I think it's always a creation and never a re-creation. The second you feel you are repeating yourself, you need to do something different.

BD: Really?

RS: Yes, I am absolutely convinced of that. But I am not talking about technical things.

BD: I noticed after hearing you perform your Romantic program on the 19th century guitar, that you changed a considerable number of things from one concert to the next.

RS: Yes.

BD: Dynamics, rubato, articulations - they are changing each time. You are feeling it right in that moment and are able to respond to that. It seems truly spontaneous.

RS: Yes, it also depends on the acoustics. It would be ridiculous to play the same in a church as in a dry concert hall, or to play the same with or without amplification. How the sound is moving - it inspires you in a certain way.

So if a concert hall has a lot of echo, it will be necessary to make the articulation very accurate. If you would do the same in a dry hall, it would sound horrible. But if you always play legato in an over-reverberant hall, even in the very rapid passages, it would become unclear. These things do contribute to the inspiration of the moment. So it's not only the inspiration of yourself, of the composer or of the music; it's also the inspiration of what is surrounding you.

BD: The building aesthetics or the audience?

RS: Even the heat of a place can make you play different. If you are completely freezing, or very hot. Sometimes even who is listening to you can make a difference. Sometimes the public may be less sympathetic to you, so you need to overcome that difficulty. It's like speaking to someone who is not really listening. Then you will need to do more, make a special effort. Or, if you feel that the audience is dreaming together with you, you can make it more dream-like. They are enlarging whatever you feel. Because they can feel much more than you can, you need to be more concentrated. And I think the magic is, our message is, to make an affect on the listeners. If someone is crying in the audience, it doesn't mean that we should be crying on stage. That is something different.

But, for instance, about expression: if you play a 6th, or an octave, or a 5th, major, minor, or whatever tonality, each has its own expression. You can approach it in a theoretical way. But once you've acquired this technical approach, it becomes your own language.

BD: Do you teach this way?

RS: When I am teaching someone who doesn't really understand the whole idea of the piece, where can I start? I could suggest the simplest thing, like put a hesitation where you would put a comma - where you would breath. Which is your shouting note, where is your question, your answer? That is the simplest way of how to speak in music. But when you are speaking about something, it is more complex. There are many ways you can question something or doubt something. How can a relationship from one phrase to another be established, etc.? The same thing happens harmonically. I think the more you understand about what you are doing - really understand - not only with the brain, but with your whole being, the more it seems you are making music. You are really making the music which you are playing more understandable.

If for instance I read a Japanese poem phonetically, but I do not understand what I am saying, it will be very hard for Japanese people to understand me. If, however, they are very sympathetic, they will know what I am speaking about. Perhaps the menu of a restaurant will be clear, but if it would be something more complicated like a poetic phrase or a philosophical work, then more goodwill from the people who are listening is needed. In order for them to understand it, it will become more and more important where you put your accents and rests!

BD: Do you think guitarists and other musicians were more in tune with that type of thinking in the past than they are today?

RS: Oh yes.

BD: We hear people say that many guitarists today are overly concerned with precision and accuracy, perhaps due to recordings, but at the expense of beautiful, artistic playing. Do you agree?

RS: I don't believe so. I think the more perfect we are, the more we need to be really perfect! That is - to say something artistically. If we are imperfect in the learning process, then we must first learn to play correct rhythms, to play a scale, the right ornament, to play cleanly. At least this is something. If we are not able to do that, it will be very hard to do anything else that is musical. But if it is just that, it doesn't work because then we are again back to the phonetic thing.

The more people there are who are playing well - being able to play their notes - the more important it is to be artistic. It also depends on the age. If someone of four is playing the Concierto de Aranjuez perfectly - I've never heard that happen, but can imagine it - then of course everyone is going to say it is fantastic. But, if you compare different ages and levels, there will always be differences. Also, the bigger the personality is, the more likely it will survive in the end. Every year there are new prizewinners. So if they are just a prizewinner, they will not survive. But those who get through the initial success - they will stay on as winners.

BD: The first time I heard you, I was very impressed by your sound. How did you shape your concept of sound?

RS: The concept of sound goes together with interpretation. So how can you improve? The key is to listen. If you listen, and it is not good, you will not be enjoying it. By listening carefully you'll learn the beauty of sound.

BD: Tell us something about your first contact with the guitar.

RS: I was not listening a lot to guitar music when I was young. I think I got my first guitar recording when I was 12 or something. Before that I didn't even know what it looked like - the classical guitar. My first guitar was a very cheap one, but somehow it was ok. Then my father went to Germany to buy a better guitar (which meant an instrument of $100 including the case). There were students in the conservatory in Cologne who were helping out in the shop. My father, who is a fine violin player, didn't know anything about the guitar. He could pluck a few open strings. The students were playing the guitars for him and being very helpful, so that's the reason he picked that particular guitar. I played on that Helmut Hanika guitar until I was about 17.

Then, a six string Ramirez guitar was sent to me with the help of José-Luis Vallejo, a Spaniard who was living in Belgium. That was very special, it was a very good guitar. I entered the conservatory with that guitar. And then, my eight-string Ramirez guitar. I was lucky to have it chosen for me by Jose Tomas. He was in the position to have the best available instruments from the shop of Ramirez. I was very honored that he did that.

BD: When did you get that eight-string Ramirez?

RS: I think I was 19, because at that time I was playing both six-string and eight-string. I wanted to graduate on the six-string because my teacher in Antwerp, Victor Van Puyenbroeck played the six-string guitar.

Then I went to an eight-string John Gilbert guitar. That was my first experience of having a guitar that was easy to play. And that's another thing: everyone needs to find out what is easy for himself or herself. Some need to have an instrument that is very challenging for them, which makes them work. Others need an instrument that is effortless. John made for me what is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful guitars.

BD: Did you ever make any recordings with the Ramirez guitar?

RS: The first recording with the tenor Guy de Mey - old Flemish songs - was with my Ramirez six-string. All my other LPs & CDs are on the Gilbert except the ones with historic instruments.

BD: What made you decide to use historical instruments? Did an opportunity present itself, or had you always wanted to do that?

RS: For many years, I knew that I would. But I held back because I knew it would complicate my life. Instead of just taking the beautiful Gilbert, putting some new strings on it, taking a footstool and going on a trip. It is so easy, you don't need to doubt anything. But I was convinced it was a completely different world with an old instrument. You can hear this on recordings with good orchestras using period instruments. If it is played well, 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.

It doesn't mean you can't make incredible music on a modern guitar. There are so many beautiful instruments nowadays, but when making music on a historical instrument a completely new world opens up. When you play this (19th century Mirecourt guitar) lightly but accurately, it sounds in every corner of the hall. But if you use an instrument with a fatter sound, it can sometimes be unclear. Some of the things one must reconsider with this kind of instrument are tempo, character, pronunciation, balance, and color of the different voices. I knew from before that there would be a very big difference.

Then I had an opportunity to buy this instrument from Narcisco Yepes: an old Arias guitar from 1899. When people found out I was going to do that, they said "no, your Gilbert is just the end, everybody recognizes you by the Gilbert". That was true, but I thought I needed to give it a try, to make up my own mind and see how it works. By playing on that guitar, I found that you have to play completely differently. This was the first big factor. Then it ended up - against the opinion of the public that recommended "don't do it" - being a big success. Everyone said "Wow, is that really the original music?" They didn't speak about me changing my instrument, they were so amazed about the music.

If you play Bach's Chaconne on the guitar, or lute, or violin, or harpsichord, or organ - it will always be beautiful. But that is not the same with Giuliani for instance, or even more so with Manjon. Some music is more idiomatic to a particular instrument than others.

BD: In other words, that's what it was supposed to sound like.

RS: Yes, you give this music the possibility of surviving. That's what musicians are for. We are not there to kill the music you know! If we are going to do something, we must do it as well as is possible.

I was lucky to find several other instruments that are more than 100 years old. And every time it was the same question again. These instruments are so special - and that's a difficulty - so you need to see what music is going to suit the instrument most perfectly.

BD: So that is how you approached these instruments. Instead of finding music that you wanted to perform and then searching for an instrument, you found an instrument first and then looked for the music that fits its character.

RS: The more you get involved with music, the more you find projects you would like to do. You think a particular instrument would be a perfect fit.

It was true what I was thinking when I was 18, that it would complicate things. But on the other hand it simplifies; it's worth it to overcome that little complication, because everything else is made more simple.

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.

It depends on what you are using the instrument for.

I'm still not a fanatic, but more and more, some modern guitars sound like plastic to me. I must say I love ancient instruments more and more. We've got used to their incredible, transparent sound: a human sound, a more voice-like sound. When you have a choir, the soprano sounds so different from the tenor or the bass. I feel the same with these old instruments.

BD: Why do you think some of the modern guitars tend to be moving away from a "natural" or "traditional" wood sound?

RS: I think what they are trying to do, which is very sympathetic of the builders, is to create the most excellent instrument for the musicians.

BD: An instrument that can do everything?

RS: Yes, but we should remember that it is for the music. That is a big difference. That's also why there have been differences in the music; it depends on which instruments the composer chooses. Because a particular one just fits the music better. I am sure that Sor wasn't playing Lacote just because he wanted a Lacote, but because it fits his music. Italian music will not sound so fantastic on that guitar. The instrument will serve the music, not only the musician.

BD: Makes sense.

RS: But it is very difficult for a guitar builder nowadays. Because all of the players are saying what they want and the luthiers are trying very hard to accommodate us. They want to make the most perfect guitar for everyone, but that's absolutely impossible. Also, we play so many different kinds of music. The guitar is becoming universal.

BD: Can you tell us something about your education, your teachers. Were you influenced by other players?

RS: It is not always the best teachers who have the most influence. Sometimes by seeing how not to do something, you can learn. I was lucky to have some good teachers. Also, if you go to an incredibly good concert, that can also be like a teacher. I remember going to a concert by Nicholas Harnoncourt, and it was great! Or being able to sing in a production of Monteverdi's Orfeo conducted by Jos Van Immerseel, that was more than a class you know. Just by being able to work with these people, to see how they work on a music score. It is so different than what we do as an individual musician.

On the other hand, my first teacher, Ward De Beer, had not previously had a guitar himself. We started the guitar together! He went to a guitar concert to see how you hold the guitar. He said: you just put two telephone books under your foot, and that will be ok. Then play!
Afterward I went to college. I studied with another guitar teacher who was actually a violinist: Victor Van Puyenbroeck. I was about 13 and stayed with him until I graduated - about seven years. I did a lot of things in those seven years; I did a complete program in the music school, a special program in the humanities, and then I stayed in his class to graduate at the conservatory in Antwerp. He was a big help in that respect that he never took away my freedom. He never was dogmatic in interpretation, he would suggest some things and, if I was ready for it, I would take it, and if not, he wouldn't make me play the same piece the whole year until I would do exactly what he wanted. I was about 16 or 17 when he insisted that I would study with José Tomas in Spain in the summer. I spent several consecutive summers studying and practicing in Spain.

Once I participated in a "Musica Antigua" course with lute player Eugene Dombois. These were important steps. I can't say that these people were really my teachers, but somehow they really were because today they are still in my memory. These people were also pioneers. They were not by definition the most perfect, but they were the most interesting musicians of that time! They learned by making mistakes, they were enthusiastic, they were not yet spoiled, they were just into it. I think I am a product of that environment.

BD: You absorbed things from them and learned from them.

RS: Yes, and then there was one major teacher, Jos Van Immerseel, who is a genius at conducting, playing the piano, harpsichord, organ and more. At that time, he needed someone to help him while he was playing the organ. Page turning was one thing, but whenever I could do something, I was learning. I learned what it was like to live an artistic life. In everything that was happening, I found my inspiration. It is important to be open-minded. It is important to trust your teacher, but it is also important not to "walk behind him."

BD: So not to become a follower, but to become your own person?

RS: Yes.

Then I had the possibility to study two years more in Brussels with Albert Sunderman and Jef Goor. It was not only what I learned there: they were never content with how I played, they always wanted more. But that is also what made me stronger.

BD: How so?

RS: For instance, I didn't like to use the right hand ring finger a lot. I used it as little as possible. And the same for the little finger on the left hand. I could play the Grand Overture like that, it was no big deal. But of course it's much easier if you do it with better technique. They were telling me that what I was doing was ok for a certain level, but if I wanted to grow, I had to do much more than that. I remember thinking that I wished I had met them much earlier: I would have been so much better. But I realize that that is not true, because I had the opportunity to develop different things earlier. I was finally strong enough to do the things I needed to do. It was another good step in the right direction.
Eric DeQueker, the late flautist and a friend and a former duo partner, said that one first had to learn to speak the music before to play it. I use that when I teach. It makes it so much easier. The main thing is to open your ears and use what you learn.

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.

It's not so long ago one of my colleagues and I were laughing together after a concert. He was saying that I had been someone special to him, because I was always searching for something. You will not see what you have on your side if you are only looking in front of you! I guess my whole life has been like that. For example, you can go to the record shop and look for a recording. There are so many, what do you buy? It happens that I saw on the cover of a recording a beautiful expression of an artist. It was not someone I knew of. But I thought I would buy it, and it ended up being something very beautiful.

BD: You certainly trust your intuition.

RS: Yes, I have always been like that. Most of the time it leads me right. Sometimes the way may have been shorter, but I learned something important nevertheless.

I have been teaching officially since I was about 17. It was to the highest level of the local school and I needed to make a great effort to be able to play what the students were playing. But I learned a lot from it. It was great for sight-reading. Even by teaching the worst student you can learn a lot. Everyone has some qualities, there is no one without qualities. Every quality is so different. So even if it is a bad player, there will be something special we can learn from.

BD: Being around you I have noticed that you have a great curiosity about things in life, and that you are not afraid to ask about something.

RS: Oh no.

BD: I think some people have too much pride or ego and are afraid to ask if they don't know.

RS: So much the worse for them. Once you get rid of inhibitions, you are not afraid to ask. It's because you don't want to admit there are many things you do not know. That's a problem. Everyone can ask something. We can also try to find it ourselves. It also has to do with what energy you are able or willing to put into something. You can live a life without much energy, it's not so hard, but it is also not so enjoyable. It is exactly the same in making music. It happens often when I am teaching, that I say "just play it with energy". I could say make an accent here, crescendo there, etc. It is only because the student is lazy, because as soon as I say that, they can do it! It has to do with effort and aesthetic. Everything we do is important.

BD: When you were developing your sense of aesthetic, of beauty, do you think it was an advantage to grow up in an artistic household? Your father, who is a fine artist, must have been an influence.

RS: That's a big advantage of course. It's not the only thing that matters, but to be able to absorb whatever information you get is important. We didn't have many records around the house though, only about 30 or so, not many. To listen to a record was something very special. Two notes of Cesar Franck's Sonata and I know it. Same with Schubert or the New World Symphony by Dvorak...

BD: I feel a quality of your playing is that you don't sound like a copy of someone else; you have an unmistakable sound. It doesn't matter which instrument you play.

RS: That doesn't have to do with the instrument, it has to do with your approach to music. I think I have always had a sensitive sound, even in the first years when I was playing without nails. Jose Tomas, who had a tremendous sound, was also a very good example. Finally by going to the Brussels conservatory where I found they focused on being very theoretical, because there is a technical aspect of making a good sound.

For example, when you play piano, there are certain movements you must make to create a good sound. Same with any instrument. And I would call voice also an instrument. There is a point where you can shatter the sound, making it hard and loud, but not good any more. So you can play loud and scratchy or loud and beautiful. Meeting different musicians, hearing different instruments, everyone learns from each other. Knowledge is not coming from only one person. Life is so rich, with so many interesting people you can meet and places to go .... (Learn more about Raphaella Smits).