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An interview with Guitarist Simon Cheong

“What I love most of the classical guitar is the intimacy one gets when playing the instrument” ~Simon Cheong

Simon Cheong was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia He founded the Classical Guitar Society (WP/Sel) Malaysia in 1993 and has been the President ever since. He is the festival director of ‘CGS Malaysia International Guitar Festival & Camp’. In 2004, with his students, he formed the Kuala Lumpur Guitar Ensemble II (2004-2014). He has performed at guitar festivals in Turkey, Thailand and Germany. Abhijit Ganguly speaks to Simon on the sidelines of Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival & Competition 2014.

What is it that drew you to the classical guitar and what do you love about the instrument?

Simon Cheong - “Firstly, on my mother's side of the family, I have two uncles who are violinists and an aunt who is a ballerina so you can say that music and the arts does run in my blood. I remember when I was 8, I asked my mother for guitar lessons but during those days I was of pretty small build and there were no smaller made guitars and when my mother asked her brother about teaching me the guitar, he said I was too small! This was the case again when I was 10 and then when I was around 13 years old, my uncle finally started giving me lessons. Why the guitar? I guess I have a natural affinity with the instrument although I have tried learning the violin and piano. What I love most of the classical guitar is the intimacy one gets when playing the instrument. The very personal touch where every sound that is played is with both your hands with no mechanisms or inanimate objects, cajoling a beautiful tone that really touches the heart.”

Who or what are your inspirations?

Simon Cheong – “If I recall correctly, I guess the family chatter of my uncle, Andrew Chye, getting scholarships and winning many awards at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and then being the assistant first violinist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra ... all these would have been inspiring to a young imaginative mind. Obviously, there is Segovia, John Williams and Julian Bream. What are my own inspirations? My own development in my understanding of music and all the discoveries in my never-ending search for this understanding of music and of perfecting the art of playing the guitar through its interpretations, technique, performance and teaching within me spurs me on.”

What recent trends have you been noticing with respect to the classical guitar scenario?

Simon Cheong – “The classical guitar scenario is getting on fine with the very many active people we see today. As we all know, any and every activity would not survive without the enthusiasm of those involved and even more importantly, the generating force who has the capabilities to bring in and to fulfill his dream that will benefit all. For example, here with the Calcutta International Guitar Festival & Competition, attributed to Avik Saha for his forward-looking perspective and great dynamic energy towards bringing the very best to India, bringing India to international attention, creating enthusiasm and exposing the people of India to international standards that would be a benchmark to the Indian classical guitarists. This in turn creates a very healthy situation for the betterment of the classical guitar all over the world.

As the President of the Classical Guitar Society Malaysia, I have organized my festival/camp for many years in Malaysia and have helped inspire others to follow suit and now there are about four active festivals in Malaysia alone. This shows that the guitar is thriving and the general base for it is growing. I am also proud to say that those who had attended my festival were inspired to organize their own like when Matthew MacAllister was at my camp and saw what I did, he mentioned that he would do a retreat festival and the following year he started his Classical Guitar Retreat in Scotland. Just recently, I was just performing at the 1st Saigon International Guitar Festival (12-16 Nov 2014) and the organizers gave us credit in their opening speech. With all these festivals and competitions flourishing, the trend for the classical guitar will keep growing to greater heights despite the onslaught of the commercialistic popular music. Classical music, or as I would like to also call it intellectual music, would never have the popularity of the masses as the masses needs to be educated in order to appreciate. Hence, as music in history for its development has always needed patrons, today too, we would need well wishers, patrons of the Arts, sponsors and the vision of someone like Avik Saha.”

Over the last decade, we have seen significant usage of technology in music. Your take on it?

Simon Cheong – “Technology in music is a very wide topic. Firstly, technological improvement helps eases the people's basic chores and frees the person to explore more creative aspects of whatever he or she is indulging in or working on. It also has its drawbacks especially when there is an over-reliance on technology. As we are really in the midst of technological advancement, only history can really be able to define the effects it has on us and our music. The biggest advantage with the Internet is that information if used wisely is for the betterment of humankind. I have always forewarned my students to be able to differentiate the good and the bad, the amateurs and the professionals. One should not be impressed with views that are baseless without questioning the integrity and background check of the proposer especially the validity of extremist views or those that are for profits only. The biggest setback to musicians is the dwindling audience in life concerts caused by technology. The experience of a life concert is something that cannot be replicated in recording. The eclectic feeling created by the enthusiasm of the audience, their expectations and the pleasant surprises of the personality of the performer, his demeanor on stage, his persona that emanates through his playing...all this will only be filtered out in a recording. A poor perspective by the techno-crazed person is the laziness to get out of the seat in front of their monitor to go and attend a concert! A poor excuse being, I hear on 'YouTube' what I want or I have a CD on it. The perfection on a recording is unreal and misses out on the human personal affections. Something which has affected everyone is the lack of interpersonal interactions. People have begun to not know how to communicate with each other and have become very impersonal.“

A word of advice for aspiring guitarists?

Simon Cheong – “Be true to yourself! Remember that success comes from hard work and there are no shortcuts to it. The fire within yourself is of utmost importance but yet it should not burn so fervently that it just dies when faced with a little setback nor should this fire burn so slowly that nothing happens! Just practicing for hours is not enough if the practicing is not intelligent practicing (that means solving and looking for problems during practice), one must read books and magazines on music , attend all live concerts no matter what instrument you are playing - a violin, piano orchestral concert... mix around, get views good and bad, learn from both. And finally, improving oneself means falling down often, yet not letting setbacks pull you down but take it as an experience to change and learn.”

Contributing Writer, Abhijit Ganguly, is an extensively published journalist based in Kolkata, India. His stories cover the global arts scene and the fusion arts movement with the culture and art of India. Ganguly’s work includes personal interviews with world renowned dance troupes, film directors, fine artists, sculptors, as well as jazz, hip hop and classical musicians. He is known for presenting an inside view of the artist's craft and what motivates their creativity. Ganguly also delves into the artist's take on what a young person in Kolkata can learn from each artist, so that the youth of the city can learn to master these skills.

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