Helen Avakian

Notes From Helen

What a Week! Day 6 Post Contest
September 30, 2014

The top 3 winners in the Fingerstyle Championship play a show at stage 1, the grandstand stage at the Walnut Valley Festival. I was excited and a touch apprehensive as it was one the largest venues I have played so far. Plus, I would follow Hirotaka and David after one of my favorite WV Fest bands, The Greencards! It was after a very late night as you may well imagine, so I rested up a bit that morning and then got ready and went to the festival to make my grandstand debut. The day was sunny and warm but nice and breezy. It was so fun to finally get backstage of Stage 1. (I have played the other 4 stages before. They are great too!)

I crossed paths with Kelly of  Still On the Hill. Kelly and Donna run the NewSongs contest and they are a fabulous married couple duo based out of Arkansas. Between them they write great songs, play banjo, fiddle, guitar and other instruments as well as sing, harmonize and exude good cheer. I have had the pleasure of getting to know them and their music for the past 9 years. Kelly had heard I won and gave me a joyous hug. Then I met Carl Miner, guitarist extraordinaire of the Greencards after he came offstage. David Youngman came back after a fabulous 2 song set and said "it felt great out there!" The crowd wanted Hirotaka Keneto to play another song but he was out of time. Then I went up and performed "Rhapsody in Blue" and "I Love the Moon." David was right; it felt great. All nerves flew away and I thoroughly enjoyed playing on the stage where I had seen Tommy Emmanuel, The Greencards, Mountain Heart, Hot Club of Cowtown, Still On the Hill, John McCutcheon, fingerstyle and flatpick champions and so many other artists I admire and enjoy. Afterwards my fingerstyle buddies and I took a couple pictures. I met the Greencards again. Carl Miner said "you are a star!"

Later that evening I went to Pete Huttlinger's show. It was great as always. He is one of the most fluid, clean and sparkling players I have ever heard. He also had Mark Sganga join him for a few tunes. They are an excellent duo. Afterwards I went to Pete's merch table and said "hi." He said "I have a show tomorrow at noon. Would you like to join me for a couple tunes?"!




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!



What a Week! Day 4 Pre-Contest
September 28, 2014

The day before the Fingerstyle Championship I had to take something of a day of rest. I had a bad headache so after going out for a delicious lunch from The Purple Carrot Co-op at the WV Fest which I could barely eat (so sad) I went back to my motel room and took a nap. Then I got up, did laundry and practiced. Thanks to Brian Henke I had an appearance scheduled on Stage 5, the most "official" of the "unofficial" festival stages, located in the Pecan Grove camping area. Brian has a collection of us fingerstyle competitors take turns playing a short set; the perfect opportunity to run our contest pieces. Then I ran over to stage 3 on the festival grounds in order to see Mark Cruz, the 2013 International Fingerstyle Guitar Champion. I was so impressed with his classical guitar style and performance at last year's championship! Mark played a beautiful and exciting set which included his wonderful arrangements of "New York New York", Ode to Joy," "Malaguena" (which he said he plays differently every time), and a lovely hymn. We chatted after and I picked up his CD, Hymnody Volume II. I have been enjoying it very much. http://www.markanthonycruz.com/

Then I had a chance to do a soundcheck on stage 4 with some other competitors. This is where the contest is held so it was quite the opportunity to get to do something of a preview. Then over to the camps again where I performed the contest pieces again for some kindly campers. That is how it is at Winfield. Walk by a circle of musicians in a camp and they are very likely to invite you over to jam and they will happily listen to you as well. So much fun!

Back to motel where I was up until past 2 am changing guitar strings. (As usual the night before the contest!)

What a Week! Day 3 Chef 's Table Show
September 27, 2014

Due to staying out late Monday evening I took it slow Tuesday morning. Slept in some, took a pretty summer walk, visited with the sunflowers...


That evening was our "Music Crawl" show at the Chef's Table. Dave Irwin and I hosted the show and thoroughly enjoyed  appearances from Brian Henke http://www.brianhenkeguitarist.com who played his beautiful and ethereal compositions, Winfield singer/songwriter Julie Sutton who brought down the house with her big blues song and voice, http://www.reverbnation.com/juliesutton and Tim and Myles Thompson who were featured performers at this year's and the 2013 WV Festival. Tim and Myles are a father and son, high energy, virtuoso guitar and violin duo. They also sing, have great harmonies and excellent songs. They are from Nashville TN (where Tim was a staff songwriter for a while). He is also the 2008 International Fingerstyle Champion. www.timthompsonguitar.com They played a lot of songs from their new album and also sat in on some of my tunes. It is so amazing to get to hear and play with these world class musicians! It was an honor to have them come perform.

Once again we enjoyed the excellent food and hospitality of the Chef's table. I had the same meal as the day before followed by the best piece of apple pie I have ever had in my life! I later learned that proprieter Chef Stan has a most amazing and rare knife that he uses to cut these exquisite thin slices of apple. The flavoring and crust were all so delicate and delicious I am getting totally nostalgic and hungry thinking about it. www.facebook.com/chefstablewinfield


Brian Henke                                                    Tim and Myles Thompson                    Dave Irwin, me, Chef Stan Lerner

What a Week! Day 2 Library Concert
September 26, 2014

Arrived in Winfield from Kansas City MO around 1:30 PM very hungry. My friend and fellow competitor Dave Irwin and I decided to get lunch at a restaurant we like to go to in town called Biederman's. But it was closed as many restaurants tend to be on Monday. Just a few doors down was an intriguing looking establishment called "The Chef's Table." It was a large open room with a lot of attractive wood; counters, floors, walls, tables, shelves. It also had a large New York City subway map which took me right back to my Hunter College days. I used to study these maps in the subway in order to find my way around or figure out where I was if I got lost. Although we later found out the owner is from Los Angeles CA.

Anyway, back to the food. The meal  struck me as gourmet fine dining meets comfort food served in a laid back manner with very reasonable prices. I had the bowl of 15 bean soup and a generous half turkey sandwich on delicious homemade bread. Top rate! I am getting hungry describing it. Turns out they get their coffee from a Madison WI roaster called Johnson. It was smooth and energizing. We got to talking with Stan Lerner, the chef/owner and his assistant Caitlin Waits. Mr. Lerner had a restaurant in downtown LA for a number of years, and he decided to make a big life change and move to Winfield after visiting a few times and going to the Walnut Valley Festival.


On Tuesday evenings right before the Walnut Valley Festival the town of Winfield has a "Music Crawl" where local businesses have musicians play from 5:30 - 8:30 PM. We asked if there woud be music at the Chef's Table and since there was none scheduled we offered to come perform and bring some friends. This was met with immediate enthusiasm and the next thing we knew it was posted on facebook and posters were being made. Cool, a gig to look forward to!

Speaking of posters, I spotted a poster for the Monday night concert at the Winfield Public Library in a shop window. I was going to appear in that concert (entitled Wizards of Guitar) with Mak Sganga (international Fingerstyle Champion) and Brian Henke (harp and 6 string guitar virtuoso) that evening. I noticed the time was listed for 5:30. Uh oh, we were all under the impression the show began at 6. I notified Mark and Brian who were a bit shocked and still on the road so  it was up to me to get there, set up sound and be ready to play by 5:30 so that is what I did. It was a lovely evening with a very good crowd. It was fun as well as great practice for the upcoming fingerstyle contest to perform, and as always Mark and Brian played magnificently. We had fun performing impromptu versions of "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" U2, lead vocal sung by Mark, and "All Along the Watch Tower" with the vocal by Brian. I enjoyed singing some harmony and Dave Irwin sat in on guitar as well. So inspiring to be with my guitar buddies!

International Fingerstyle Champion 2014!
September 25, 2014

I was so excited to win the International Fingerstyle Guitar championship this past weekend at the Walnut Valley Festival, Winfield KS.

That little dot on stage is me!


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