The sound of guitars will occupy the Fine Arts Building at the University of Alaska Anchorage this week. From Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 guitar teachers, students, professional players, novices and members of the public who can't tell a capo from a C string have the chance to attend free and ticketed concerts, go to workshops and lectures and sit in on master classes.
UAA guitar professor Armin Abdihodzic said the universality of the instrument helps make the Guitar Symposium possible. As instruments go, guitars are fairly inexpensive, he noted. They're also highly versatile, with a presence in classical, jazz and Latin music as well as rock 'n' roll. And they're incredibly popular. Schools in Anchorage, like schools around the state and around the country, are finding ever greater numbers of students interested in learning to play them as part of their curriculum.
"For instance, East High has three guitar classes, and ukulele, too," he said.
Abdihodzic began training to become a virtuoso guitarist as a child in Bihac, Bosnia. "There was a war on while I was growing up, but somehow my father found an old guitar some place and took me to a teacher."
Guitar players can go through a lot of strings, which were harder to find in Bosnia than the guitar in those years. "We used fishing line," Abdihodzic said. "We ended up visiting a lot of fishermen and looking at the different thicknesses of line to see what might work."
He enrolled in an elementary school that focused on music, part of the state-sponsored education system that continued through his high school years. He took lessons for his instrument and took part in choir and guitar ensembles. He studied music theory, counterpoint, solfege and other skills specific to the art. "I didn't have any math or chemistry," he said.
In high school he began attending guitar summer schools in neighboring Croatia. The instructors, who taught at American universities, took note and helped him get a scholarship to William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
"I landed in New Orleans," he said. "Such a shock! We study English in grade school in Bosnia. I thought I knew English pretty well, but I couldn't understand what the fast-food clerks were saying."
Fortunately, the classes were conducted in formal English. He pursued a master's degree at Eastern Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, where he was surrounded by classical guitar recitals, festivals and competitions, all within easy driving distance. He earned his doctorate at the University of North Texas in Denton and began sending off his resume. In 2013 he was hired by UAA.
"For a city of its size, Anchorage has an amazing music scene," he said. "It really surprised me. In four years I've played jazz, Latin music, opera. I've played with the Anchorage Civic Orchestra, Kenai Peninsula Orchestra and Alaska Festival of Music. So many things spring up!"
But there are challenges here. "It's not easy to travel back and forth," Abdihodzic said. "In Dallas you can afford to bring in guest artists. In some cases that's cheaper than using local performers. Here, though, we're more dependent on people in the community."
That interdependency is sort of the sub-theme of the symposium. "The guitar is a very solo instrument," he said. "Guitarists can feel isolated when they study their craft. So I said, 'How about we all get together and meet each other and learn and perform together?' "
Performing in ensembles is not as common in Anchorage as it is in guitar hot spots. "I get a lot of students here at UAA who have a rich musical culture in their family, but they're not used to playing with other people. It's an adjustment to be able to focus on their own playing, listen to the other players in a group and still enjoy the music."
Band and orchestral musicians, on the other hand, are used to performing as a group. Part of the symposium — and two of the concerts — will be devoted to ensemble playing.
At the same time, many public school music teachers come from band or orchestra backgrounds and know little about the guitar. This can present a problem as more and more students ask for the instrument. So another component of the symposium will be addressed to non-guitar playing music teachers.
"Basic technique, what things to pay attention to, easy exercises they can get the students to do," Abdihodzic said. "I want to initiate a dialogue with the schools and find out what it is we can do for them."
The workshops from the symposium are being carried over the long-distance education system of the University of Alaska, allowing out-of-town teachers to learn from them and get continuing education credit at the same time. Classes will include left- and right-hand technique, Alexander Technique for avoiding unnecessary posture stress, and teaching beginners in a classroom setting.
The faculty for the event includes Abdihodzic; UAA voice instructor Mari Hahn; Ryan Nitz-Maile, an Anchorage-based guitarist with an international performance resume; and Adam Kossler, winner of numerous guitar competitions.
Kossler will present a solo recital while in Anchorage, on Saturday, Oct. 1. On Sept. 29 Abdihodzic will join flutist Tomoka Raften, a former student of James Galway who now lives in Soldotna, in a program of music for flute and guitar. Two additional programs will bookend the symposium — a performance by the Borealis Guitar Quartet on Sept. 29 and a guitar orchestra concert presented by symposium participants on Oct. 2.
The scope of the symposium is ambitious. "Even the big schools don't do something like this," Abdihodzic said. "This is a first-time thing. We might have to make some adjustments, but I'd like to keep having it happen."
No less impressive is the fact that it's being conducted on a tiny budget. The major contribution was the donation of a ticket from Alaska Airlines to fly Kossler up from Virginia. The rest of the team is Alaska-based.
"As artists, I feel we all have to invest our time to raise the culture of music in the community," Abdihodzic said. "To do what we can to see that students in Alaska get the same opportunities as people in bigger cities.
"We all have to work together. We're all in this together."
UAA GUITAR SYMPOSIUM will take place Oct. 1-2. Details are available at uaa.alaska.edu/guitar. Four concerts will be given in conjunction with the symposium, all in the UAA Fine Arts Building Recital Hall.