Helen Avakian

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What a Week! Day 5 International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship
September 29, 2014

Thankfully it was warm and sunny. After a morning of guitar playing at the motel it was time to go to the festival. All the contestants gather around next to Stage 4 in a sort of bull pen under a tent. It is a friendly cacophony with guitarists from all over the world warming up, greeting old friends and making new ones. Eventually we are called to order and our names are called for "the draw." 40 contetstants take one number out of a hat held high above their head so they can't see in. I was number 23. That gave me a bunch of time to get ready and also watch some of the other competitors. As always the standard was very high, one might say intimidating! At least that is what I would say!

Incidentally I was the only female this time. That has happened in the past. At most there have been 3 women participants the times I have competed. Come on lady guitarists, this is fun! You can meet many male guitarists in case that interests you! : ) In all seriousness, the fingerstyle guitarists are incredibly kind and supportive. I find it very uplifting to be in their midst. Each musician brings their own unique way of interacting with their instrument and creating music to a very high level. I have learned and improved my playing so much from seeing these great musicians.

For round 1 I played "Rhapsody in Blue" and my latest version of "Signed Sealed, Delivered." (I am still revising my SSD arrangement.) It went well, especially SSD which seemed to generate a lot of enthusiasm.

Toward the end of the first round (4 hours later) I went back to the bull pen to warm up in case I made round 2. Then back inside to await the results. Numbers were called and I made it! Yes! Now it was down to 5 of us. We drew numbers again and I was 5 so I would go last, the last contestant of the entire contest. The same thing happened to me last year when I made finals for the first time so I was ready. I practiced the whole time (as silently as possible) in a little room backstage so I did not get to hear the others play. I could not help but notice some very big applause and cheering, however.

All the finalists are excellent players. I know and have competed with all of them except Hirotaka Keneto who was the Japanese Fingerstyle Champion this year. In some fingerstyle championships (Japan, Canda, Indiana) part of the prize is the winner is automatically entered into and sent to the International Fingerstyle Championship. I heard Hirotaka play his first round and I instantly became a fan. I was not a bit surprised he made finals. As soon as I heard him play a little bit I thought "finalist, could be the winner." He had it all, virtuousity, excitement and lovely original compositions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxtkQjpUlHc

Roger Hardin was the Indiana Fingerstyle Championship winner this year and he came in second at Winfield last year. He plays in a Chet Atkins style sometimes and he has the most beautiful and impossible sounding arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" that I have ever head. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EplkRpC3RLo

Jack Wilson is from Chicago and he has won many shredding contests in the past before he took up classical guitar, he won the first Indiana Fingerstyle in 2012 and he has been a Winfield finalist a number of times. He plays rock tunes like Steeley Dan's "Reelin" In the Years" with all the parts on one guitar. He is truly a one man guitar band. His tour de force is "Low Rider". In that he creates a cowbell sound on the guitar which he keeps up while playing basslines and melody. http://willsphoto.smugmug.com/Videos/Finger-Style-Guitar-Contest/i-wL9KNBQ

Then there was David Youngman who I have been impressed by since I first saw him at the Indiana Fingerstyle in 2013. He writes wonderful percussive and tuneful compositions, and he can do things like sound like a digital delay and play amazing cascades of harmonics. He came in second both at Indiana and Canada this year. http://www.davidyoungmanmusic.com

I performed "Zambra," a Flamenco piece I became acquainted with from accompanying Flamenco dance classes at Bard College. I followed it with "Ashokan Farewell." A number of my friends were in the front row and they kindly gave me a standing ovation! It felt quite amazing! Then it was to the backstage to await the results.

Eventually the five of us were called into the little room to be told the outcome. Roger Hardin and Jack Wilson were top 5 finalists. That meant I made top 3, my high hope for this contest after making finals the year before. David Youngman came in third. Wow, I must have come in second(!) then I thought. Then Hirotaka Kaneto was congratulated for second place. The presenter turned to me with a big smile and said "this is a historic moment, you are the first lady to win the Internatinal Fingerstyle Champinoship!" My response was "you're kidding!" I was actually rather stunned. Then I was asked to try three gorgeous looking and sounding guitars that were laid out in a line on a long table. They were all wonderful! It was such a surreal moment! I chose the Taylor 814e. It felt like home to me as I have been playing and loving Taylor guitars since 1998.

Then it was time for the awards presentation. We each took turns onstage to get a trophy. The top 3 finalists each played what I like to call a victory song. I thanked a lot of people in a sort of acceptance speech and performed "Icarus" by Ralph Towner. It is one of my top favorite pieces of music by one of my top favorite guitarists ever.

Then there was more celebration to come, believe it or not!




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