Thomas Patterson
Thomas Patterson

Thomas Patterson

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery. It’s about igniting the fire within he student, breeding confidence and curiosity, inspiring. As I discovered, Thomas Pattersondirector of the Bolton Guitar Studies program at Fred Fox Music School at the University of Arizona, is such a gifted professor. 

This interview came as a surprise for three reasons. First, I never planned it! Meaning it was just an idea I followed when finding out that his student, Ana Maria Iordache, won the first prize at Festival Internacional de Guitarra de MadridShe’s one of the most talented Romanian classic guitar players  of her generation. And I am not saying this just because I’ve known her since birth! Secondly, I did not anticipated that he would so kindly say “yes” to the interview for iscodescu.ro. Thirdly, because Ana Maria had no idea I would consider an interview with her guitar professor and mentor. 

Once discovered, talent must be helped, guided, protected, kept safe from corruption (namely, cheap success pursuits, from the practice of clichés, hooks, platitudes), sheltered from death and from faux guides who force it to play as they should not.
Camil Petrescu (1894-1957)
Romanian novelist, philosopher and poet

That is one quote represents well my personal belief of what it takes to grow a natural talent of any kind whether is classic music guitar, robotics, writing, acting and so on. Yes, some would argue that a proper educational system is also needed. I totally agree, but that’s not the main topic of this interview. That being said, I now invite you to discover Thomas Patterson own thoughts.   

Music - life's destiny

Ana Maria Bogdan: Mr. Patterson, one might say you are an extremely lucky man! 🙂 You discovered your passion for the classic guitar at an early age and yet after so many years, it does not seem to have faded? Is there something in particular that you do to keep alive the fire of passion?

Thomas Patterson

Thomas Patterson: I was fortunate to come from a musical family. My grandmother taught piano and my mom was a choir director and organist for the church. Music was just part of life, so at the point the guitar revealed to me my destiny, I never looked back. 

Of course, there are points where we lose a bit of energy, but I have been on a mission to create something special here in Arizona since I arrived in 1980 and I am very goal-oriented by nature. 

The fact that I have wonderfully talented students like Ana Maria Iordache to work with and a very supportive local audience makes my work a pleasure and keeps me striving for excellence.

Bolton Guitar Studies - world's best

You have been leading Bolton Guitar Studies Program at The University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music for almost 40 years. Today is considered among the world’s best guitar programs. It offers students from all over the world a home and opens them the doors to a future of music. It’s an amazing accomplishment, congratulations! So, tell me, what makes this program great?

Boston Guitar Studies
Students and professors at Boston Guitar Program

We have a community that loves classical guitar — their support fuels the students’ work. We have generous patrons who help our students with everything from the basics of food and rent to the cost of tuition. There is also a diverse and talented group here from very different cultural backgrounds– presently the class is from Romania, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, China and the USA.

The cultural exchange plays a huge part in their experience and will lead to exchanges professionally in the future — I must state that the comradery this group exhibits makes my job a pleasure. The Tucson Guitar Society has a wonderful series and we work together as a team sponsoring concerts and masterclasses that only major cities would normally have. David Russell and the Sergio and Odair Assad are key to our success with their annual residencies. Finally, we have 5 in-house competitions to keep our students focused throughout the year.

Best of the most talented students

Your students have won countless prizes at prestigious international competitions including the GFA, Tarrega, Segovia, Montreal, and Stotsenberg Competitions. As far as I know, and please correct if I am wrong, each year you have a very small class of students you prepare, around 10-11. Yet, the number of candidates is far larger and they are all extremely gifted. So, my question to you is what are those treats you are looking for in a guitar student besides the talent? ​

Thomas Patterson and his students

I absolutely love what I do! I think it is paramount to place the student’s success as your own, to create trust that you would find in a family so that the very intimate process of constructive criticism can occur. There are generally between 15 and 18 students in my studio and 20-25 in the program overall. I look for a level of talent that shows me there is flexibility for change and improvement. Often, I will receive tips about a talented student from a former student or from colleagues in the other parts of the world who are well aware of my values.

Feeling lucky

How does it feel to nurture such talented young guitar players from all over the world? Is there a secret for being a great teacher and mentor? ​

I must say that I feel lucky in life. I am an optimistic person by nature, but I am very fortunate to be in the position to work with so many talented students. I love different cultures so the fact that we have such diversity in our group is an enormous source of pride for me.

Celebrating success as a family

I believe recognition, whether it’s an international contest award or a great performance enjoyed by many, is one of those rewarding moments for any professor. Only yesterday, one of your students, Ana Maria Iordache, won the first prize at Festival Internacional de Guitarra de Madrid. How does it feel when you see such accomplishments?

Sholin Guitar Competition - in the middle, Thomas Patterson with Misael Barrazza-Diaz (Mexic, 1st place) and Ana Maria Iordache (Romania, 2nd place)

Summertime in Arizona is quite hot, so I wake up at 4 AM to walk my dogs. I received a wonderful news email from Ana at 3:45 AM and I immediately called her – we were both exuberant. This is fabulous for me because it validates to some degree the work we are doing here. It provides a huge amount of positive energy not only for Ana and her family and teachers but for my entire class, even those who have graduated and are leading their own programs. We celebrate as a family here. This is fabulous for me because it validates to some degree the work we are doing here. 

What makes you unique

There is something Jimmy Page once said and stuck with me … every guitar player inherently has something unique about their playing. They just have to identify what makes them different and develop it.” Would you agree? And if yes, what makes Ana Maria’s guitar playing so special?

That is a great quote from Jimmy Page! Ana has extraordinary clarity in her playing – every note stands out like a shining jewel. Her Scarlatti and Bach performances are absolutely fabulous.

Romania's got talent

And one final question … you have travelled, worked and played with people from all corners of the world.You had the chance to get to know a little bit about their culture and the music of their native country. Romanias have a strong connection with music in general. There are Romanian names knows across the world – music composers and violinists such as George Enescu, Ciprian Porumbescu and Alexandru Tomescu, Sergiu Celibidache (conductor), Vladimir Cosma (music film composer) or performers such as Maria Tănase (folk music singer), Gheorghe Zamfir (pan flute) or Angela Gheorghiu (soprano). So, I would be extremely curious to know about your experience with the Romanian music?

We all know about George Enescu, the teacher to Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Grumiaux. Pablo Casals described Enescu as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”. I have been introduced to the Romanian guitar school through Ana Maria Iordache. And just a few days ago, I watched the Guitar Foundation of American Youth Competition, the most important for young guitarists. Tudor Torge a young Romanian boy was a prize winner and must say he has a very bright future as does the guitar in your country.

What about Prof. Thomas Patterson?

Ana Maria Iordache

What Professor Thomas Patterson did not know during the interview 😊 … my last question when talking to Ana Maria Iordache. And it had nothing to do with her prize at Festival Internacional de Guitarra de Madrid!

“Ana Maria, we have known each other our entire lives, and prior to this interview, we had talked leisurely. It was then, as well as today when mentioning Tom Patterson’s name I felt respect, a special dose of admiration, I would say even reverence. Am I mistaken?”

Ana Maria Iordache
Ana Maria Iordache, Romanian classic guitar player

Ana Maria Iordache:  No, you are not wrong at all! Prof. Tom Patterson is an extraordinary human being and an extremely dedicated and gifted teacher. He has a huge talent in modeling and guiding students. He notices the strengths in each one of us and knows how to insist on grinding them. Plus, he is very perceptive and always tries to propose to you the most efficient way to solve a problem. What I like about him is that he doesn’t monopolize his students. He even suggests that we go and ask other masters for opinions in order to have an overview of things, and only then to make our own decision. He is the kind of mentor who allows you to grow, to evolve, in our own way. He does not create a dependency type of relationship with us, even though it would come him easily. He encourages us to discover ourselves as artists. 

You know, there’s a Romanian saying: “nothing grows in the shade of big trees.” Tom Patterson totally contradicts this saying and I am extremely happy about it!

One personal last thought ...

Talent is not everything

Talent determines what you can do, motivation and passion within determine how much you are willing to do. As well, your attitude determines how well you do it. Yet, as life proves it over and over again, having a good professor who nurtures our natural talent is not enough! The golden secret key is the way he does it! Reaching excellency requires a teacher or a mentor who knowns and altruistically awakens the joy and freedom in your creative expression.

Key Takeways

Thomas Patterson

Talent determines what you can do, motivation and passion within determine how much you are willing to do. As well, your attitude determines how well you do it. Yet, as life proves it over and over again, having a good professor who nurtures our natural talent is not enough! The golden secret key is the way he does it! Reaching excellency requires a teacher or a mentor who knowns and altruistically awakens the joy and freedom in your creative expression.

Takeaway #1

Mutual trust is built by the professor who treats student’s success as his own. 

Takeaway #2

Success is a family celebration – students, parents, professors, friends

Takeaway #2

Cultural diversity nurtures camradery and inspiration

Note: This interview was first published in Romanian language on iscodescu.ro, July 2, 2020. 

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