Raphaella SMITS
INTERVIEW Guitar Sessions November 2004









press kit





Stephen Rekas


I first met Raphaella Smits at a José Tomás masterclass in Alicante, Spain in the late 70s. Even then, her musical skills were astounding to the point that after one of her class sessions with Maestro Tomás a fellow Belgian classmate commented, "That was pure poetry."

Among other fine young players, David Russell was in attendance at this same masterclass. By then I believe he had already won a Ramirez 1A concert guitar at the annual masterclass and competition in Santiago de Compostela but, still looking for accolades that would help him establish his concert career, he also competed that year in Alicante. In a surprise ruling, the first prize was awarded to a deserving Japanese player and Russell was awarded an extensive concert tour of Spain.

During the course of the masterclass, Russell offered a concert in the town hall of an adjoining community. [This was a gig he had lined up on his own, rather than a result of the competition.] All those in the Tomás masterclass who had heard of the concert, including Raphaella Smits, showed up at the town hall venue. Russell played almost flawlessly and we were all convinced that we were witnessing the beginnings of an enduring concert career.
As Russell concluded his concert and the audience began to exit the second-floor venue, Raphaella spontaneously stood near the door and held out her white linen dress to take up a donation for the artist. Talk about a captive audience! The crowd couldn't get out of the hall without passing by the captivating Raphaella. Just about everyone willingly contributed the pesetas in their pockets and even some paper money. There was no question about who would be the recipient of that cash. Later I learned that Russell had camped on the beach during at least part of the class; he must have been deeply appreciative of Raphaella's quick thinking.

Enough has been written about David Russell who is now regarded as one of the world's greatest classic guitar virtuosos. Here's more about Raphaella.

In 1986 Raphaëlla Smits won first prize in the XX Certamen International de Guitarra Francisco Tárrega, the famous international guitar competition in Benicasim, Spain. This was the first time that this competition had been won by a Belgian and also the first time it had been won by a woman. This prize was the culmination of the first ten years of her career and confirmed her previous successes in competitions in Granada and Palma de Mallorca.

A graduate of the Royal Conservatories in Antwerp and Brussels, Raphaëlla studied with José Tomas at the Catedra Andrés Segovia in Spain to perfect her art. At that time she started to give her first recitals, and has since appeared in the major concert halls throughout West & East-Europe, North & South-America and Japan.
She is a unique musician and an advocate of both eight-string guitars and historical instruments. So far, she recorded 14 successful albums.
Raphaëlla Smits is also an excellent guitar instructor. At present she teaches guitar and chamber music at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven, Belgium. She has offered numerous masterclasses in many countries worldwide.


Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar? Was the classic guitar a part of your household when growing up?
The only reason I play the guitar is because my parents bought me one as a present for the 6th of December (Sinterklaas/Santa). I used to sing a lot, and my music teacher at school thought I was still too small to play the cello, which was my dream...

How old were you when you began to play?

I was about thirteen.

Would you describe your formal music training?
Music was part of life! At the Waldorf school the education program included music and other arts. We had to learn to sing in choir and play the entire recorder family. At home there was always a piano and the sound of violin.
Besides that I enjoyed several great years as a member of the children's choir of the National Opera of Antwerp.
When I went to college I also entered the music school. There, the main subjects were guitar, chamber music, solfège [sight singing], and music history ...
Three years later an educational pilot project called "Kunsthumaniora" (loosely translated as "Art Humanity") was inaugurated and it suited me perfectly. In another three years I would enroll as a student in the Royal Conservatory of Music in Antwerp. By then, I had experienced seven years of guitar study, all with the same teacher, Victor van Puyenbroeck.
It was Victor who encouraged me to take part in the summer classes with maestro José Tomás in Spain (in Alicante and Santiago de Compostela). It was not only the instruction there, but also the fact that I was able to meet so many good players from around the world and to learn a lot of new music that was fundamental.
Later I sought what was called a "concert level" degree at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, with teachers such as Albert Sundermann and Jef Goor.

What are your most vivid memories of studying with José Tomás?
His sense of humor, and particularly musical humor, like playing Beethoven's 5th Symphony with Leon Ara in Santiago! In a more serious vein- his approach to early music and Spanish music, thoughtful fingering, and the importance of sonority and color!
And then the fact that he was like a go-between to connect me with some of the old masters like de Falla, Rodrigo, Torroba, Manén, Turina, Segovia, Mompou ...

What styles interested you when you first began to play? How do those preferences influence your current music?
In the very beginning I played the guitar only as accompaniment, but that lasted only a few months; it was clear to those who heard me play, that the chances I would become a guitarist were good!

What teachers did you seek out or was there any method book that was particularly helpful?
Besides the ones mentioned before, meeting and working with figures such as José Tomás, Oscar Ghiglia, and Leo Brouwer was of paramount importance. At about seventeen, I was very interested in early music, and I crossed paths with several musicians including Eugene Dombois, Konrad Junghänel, Jos Van Immerseel, the Kuyken family, René Jacobs ... every one of them pioneers in their field and therefore more than interesting.

Do you play any other instruments besides the guitar? If so, is there any particular advantage or disadvantage to being a multi-instrumentalist?
I am a multi-instrumentalist; I play 6, 7, and 8-string guitars as well as historical instruments. There are no two guitars the same; one has to adapt to every instrument. On the other hand I stoped playing the lute andthe traverso (historical transverse flute) as these simply became too much.

How did you become interested in early music?
It was simply through the beauty of the music. Also, we have a lot of good early Renaissance music which is not difficult to play on the guitar. Moreover, I was attracted by the Baroque opera and its musicians, and particularly by some great recordings featuring the music of Claudio Monteverdi, Tomas Tallis, Peter Phillips, etc.

How did competing in the Tárrega competition influence your career or musical choices?
Just playing in such a competition was already a big opportunity for me. Winning it was for me like a confirmation. Afterwards, there was one tour in Bulgaria which came as a direct result of this victory, and then a few concert opportunities in Belgium as well as in Portugal and Spain. It is always difficult to find out why exactly they invite you to perform. But a first prize in a competition certainly helps.

Did you adopt any particular competition strategy?
Only go [to a competition] if there is a real chance of your winning.

What musical avenues do you wish to explore in the future?
That will depend on how many years of future I have in front of me! You know I love to change, so right now I'm in the middle of my Romantic guitar period; the program [repertoire] is successful and it is very exciting to play this music. Meanwhile, I've begun working on some new pieces like "Saeta" by Wim Henderickx. The energy and feeling of this kind of music is really challenging, and I hope many people can experience these elements in my recitals.

What do you think the principal differences are between an American and a European musical education?
In general: European students have a broader background. The principal instrument in music education forms a large part of the program, but a lot of attention goes to other important elements like chamber music, ensemble playing, choir, and all the theoretical subjects, not to mention music history. Sometimes it seems as if too much information is provided, but in the end we need to be capable of more than just "moving the fingers".

Tell me about your new recording, "Harmonie du soir".
This is a recording of Romantic guitar music written by Giuliani and Mertz, two Viennese composers from the first half of the 19th century, played on a Roudhloff (1830) and a Mirecourt (+/-1820) guitar. For me, Giuliani is a Haydn-Mozartian composer, a model of good style, well-balanced in form and harmony. His Sonata is a superb example of that style in which he just happens to use the guitar as an instrument, as a medium for his universal music. No wonder he was a celebrity during his stay in Vienna.
In 1986 Jim D'Addario introduced me to Mario Maccaferri. This legendary figure then played me several pieces by Mertz, who was completely unknown to me. It was a revelation. Incidentally there appeared soon afterwards a reissue of the complete Mertz _ouvre from Chanterelle Verlag [distributed in North America by Mel Bay Publications], including a wealth of material à la Schubert and, even more à la Liszt. Mertz is the supreme romantic with his inevitable vibrato, rubato and his demand for a personal artistic investment.
[Click here to see the text of a speech given by Pieter Andriessen at the release of Harmonie du soir in April 2004]

How has your family affected your music?
My mother played a bit of piano and my dad was a lifelong violinist, not as a professional, but almost. My brother Johan played the violin very well, even professionally. He was a genius at playing with the best tone possible. Most important was the fact that culture was a part of our daily life! With my father being an artist himself (a sculptor) and as my mother was a teacher at the Waldorf School, we were always aware of cultivating our imagination and developing our creative skills.

Apart from music, what are your interests?
I love theater, film and literature. But my biggest passion is that I love to cook. The culture of 'cuisine' brings together family and friends. For me, food has always been something enjoyable to make and to share with those closest to me.

Technique & Teaching Ideas

What is the nature of your teaching activities in Leuven?
At the Lemmens Institute I only teach solo guitar. Previously I also taught chamber music but there are more guitar students than I have hours to teach.

What sort of practice routine would you recommend for the beginning, intermediate or advanced player? Describe your own practice routine.
It is important to be alert when you begin practicing. I have the feeling that a number of players use their warm-up to get in shape to be able to use their brains afterwards. I use my warm-up time to do some housekeeping or gardening.
Before working on repertoire, I play some slow things for a few minutes, always being aware of having the guitar well- tuned and producing the best possible sound. Then a few scales and arpeggio [exercises] and that's it!

What are your technical strengths and weaknesses?
I don't speak about my weaknesses and about my strengths- I let the others speak.

Do you recommend that your students participate in competitions?
If someone would improve by playing in a competition, then yes, but very often this is not the case.

What do you do to keep your repertoire sounding fresh?
Enlarge your point of view, play a lot of different music and most importantly, listen to what you are doing! Be involved, engaged and stay alert like an interpreter-translator; the musical language has to be spoken clearly.

What are the key elements of your technique/style?
Any movement whatever should be done as relaxed as possible, but also as fast as possible and as loud. That way we avoid ending up with tendonitis.

In your role as a teacher, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
As a teacher you have to be a leader, a role model. Musicality and technique have to be developed hand-in-hand as well as the fingerings that will direct the phrasing, etc. The teacher should be like a trusted friend to whom the student can always reveal his or her weaknesses, listening to whatever has been practiced and suggesting ways to improve. We have to recognize and confront what is "not good" in order to improve. This is a very delicate and open relationship and it's easy for the student to get hurt.

Any particular techniques or pieces you would recommend for warming up?
I suggest the Aguado arpeggio study [in E minor]. Personally, I like the "Caprices" by Legnani. A great book on technique is Ricardo Iznaola's Kitharologus/The Path to Virtuosity (MB95727).

How do you approach the teaching of interpretation?

My approach changes, of course, from student to student; a good teacher has to be very inventive. If someone hasn't enough inspiration, it might be interesting to have them do some improvisation. If a student is playing the guitar very well but without any understanding of historical context, that is- without even knowing something about the music, than we have to start with the "alphabet", the lyrics, the phrases, the meaning, the story ...the composition, the composer and his time. But just interpreting without technical mastery, that's not going to sound good either! Don't forget, we always have to go for it wholeheartedly [the whole nine yards].

Any suggestions on forming a concert repertoire or memorization?
In terms of concert repertoire, don't underestimate your public! For memorization- working from the end back to the beginning is the safest way. At least that's what works best for me. My memory absorbs material slowly but lasts a long time. We have to know the music, at least the left-hand fingering and the areas where there are doubts about the right hand too. Speaking about "the music", I mean the notes themselves and their harmony, melody and rhythm.


What are your preferred instruments and guitar strings? Do you endorse any products? Are you still playing the Gilbert 8-string? Anything on your wish list as far as equipment or instruments?
My Gilbert guitar from 1980 is still one of the best guitars I've owned and for me my number-one instrument. I do have several historical instruments, each of which is my favorite for a specific type of music. In general, I've used D'Addario strings since 1982, and I'm an enthusiastic endorsee.

How do you tune your 8-string guitar?
My guitar was constructed to accommodate two additional bass strings. The 7th stays tuned to D and the 8th changes from C to B or A, depending on the needs of the music.
There is another tuning option which provides an amazing challenge, with the first string tuned higher [than the usual six strings] and one bass more. You can learn more about this tuning concept by listening to Paul Galbraith. He is the only one I know of who is doing this.

Would you comment a little more fully about the repertoire available for the 8-string guitar or any particular techniques that might be required?
As you can hear on my various recordings there are a lot of opportunities to discover guitar music written for more than six strings. Some of it is almost impossible, if not more difficult to play on the 6-string guitar. Just to name a few: Napoleon Coste, Kaspar Mertz, Antonio Jiménez Manjón, and of course the early music repertoire including works by J. S. Bach, S. L. Weiss, J. Dowland, etc.
A few modern composers are writing especially for this instrument too, Gilbert Biberian for instance. And don't forget the transcriptions we love to play, the piano music. I made adaptations or transcriptions for a duo with the singers Liliana Rodriguez or Guy De Mey.
Regarding right-hand technique on the 8-string guitar; it's exactly the same as on any other guitar. We have to stop the notes that we don't want to hear, and play those we need. The A string can serve as a point of reference. The thumb doesn't have to rest on the lowest string.
[Editor's Note: At one point during the masterclass, I noticed that José Tomás had inserted an eraser between the 7th and 8th strings of his Ramirez 8-string guitar, I thought to damp unwanted sympathetic resonances in pieces written for 6-string guitar.]

Current Activities

What has your experience been like with record companies?

I was very lucky to meet Andreas Gladt, who has produced me for the ACCENT Records label since 1986.

Any upcoming performance dates, tours?
Please have a look at my website: www.rsmits.com

Thank you, Raphaëlla!

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