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Guitarist Michael Poll – My Instrument

I cannot remember wanting to play anything but the guitar. One of my earliest childhood memories is the trip to the music shop to buy one. I had begged for some time by then, which makes sense as I am told my first exposure to the guitar was via Segovia in utero.

A recital by the great Jorge Morel sometime in the early 1990s really knocked me off my feet. From that point on I dreamt of doing what I saw him do.

I come from a family of physicians and scientists, so I assumed I would follow into the family profession. I remember being 14 and interning for my Uncle Alan of blessed memory in his laboratory that specialised in cancers of the blood. I was being looked after by an MD/PhD called Carl who taught me to run electrophoresis gels. While I was so drawn to helping people with cancer, I couldn’t imagine myself in that kind of workplace. It was a revelation when I discovered I could have a major positive impact on peoples’ lives through music.

I love practicing, so being able to join my civic interests and musical soul has been a dream come true. I still play often in schools, hospitals, and for people who are unable to come to a concert hall, which keeps my artistic energy-level high.
My family has always been extremely supportive. My parents love music but are not musicians themselves, which has given me the space to grow and thrive in my own field. There are other pros in the family though–my brother is an extraordinary composer and conductor.

I grew up listening to my mom’s favourites like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Doors, and Janis Joplin as well as some of my dad’s like Bernstein, Karajan, and the Philadelphia Orchestra—I was so lucky to grow up in an environment of such diverse genres. My Uncle Jon is a jazz fanatic, so that added richness to the mix. The Heath Brothers played his wedding.

Perhaps because of such a broad and early introduction I have eclectic taste. When I was little I drew inspiration from many extraordinary artists–far more than I can think of now. Off the top of my head, Jim Hall, Mango Santamaria, Paco de Lucia, Paul Odette, Manuel Barrueco, John Scofield, John Williams, Itzhak Perlman, the Oistrakhs, Mitsuko Uchida, John Coltrane, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and my early teachers Emiliano Pardo and Ben Verdery all played outsized roles in my musical development.

I have historically listened to lots of recordings of guitarists. Among my favourites are Manuel Barrueco playing Scarlatti and Albeniz, Nigel North playing Bach (on the lute, so not strictly guitar but very close), and Friday Night in San Francisco, with Al di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia all playing together. I have also recently discovered Jacaras, a Polish band specialising in the Spanish Baroque, and one of my teachers Robert Brightmore has just had some of his vinyl recordings issued on CD and online for the first time which have been a joy for me to discover.

I listen to myself on recording from time to time to check in and see how I am feeling differently about a work now than I was at the time I recorded it. I also record myself on my phone to see if what I think I am communicating is what I am hearing when I listen back.

In addition to the guitar I am very fortunate to be a conductor, which is another great musical love. I think working with an orchestra is the perfect complement to working as a solo guitarist because the guitar is so introverted and personal and an orchestra is so communal and colossal. The other great thing about working with orchestras is I get to play some extraordinary 19th century repertoire that works far better for orchestra than it does on the guitar.

Conducting keeps my ears fresh and engaged, and allows me to explore the art of crafting an interpretation without any of the physical constraints of touching the sound directly. It also improves my ability to listen to myself when I go back to playing. I also really enjoy singing. I am not properly trained, but I have always sung in choirs—I especially love singing one-on-a-part.

If I performed on another instrument, I think it would be French Horn because of its incredible versatility of colour and character. It is also capable of such extraordinary extremes—from the opening of Act II of Siegfried to the Second Movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, the horn can do it all.My designs on the horn aside, I would encourage everyone to take up the guitar. What makes it so wonderful is that whether you play four chords or the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, there are so many ways to make the instrument sing.

I have been practicing nearly every day for over two decades and absolutely could not imagine it any other way!

There is a quotation attributed to Chopin that goes something like ‘there’s nothing more beautiful than the sound of a solo guitar…save perhaps two.’