By Caleigh Carlson
A faint applause could be heard from the other side of the double doors as students in the TCNJ Guitar Ensemble waited, instruments in hand, to perform at the Philadelphia International Guitar Festival. The audience’s response, that would soon follow the performance, doubled in decibels. The group’s success can be greatly attributed to its humble, yet accomplished leader, Michael Newman.
Newman, an adjunct guitar professor and director of the Guitar Ensemble, has created a family environment in the music department that is reflective of his love for teaching and music.
“At TCNJ, the students who come for the music department here have exposure to so many other fields, as well,” Newman said. “With the Guitar Ensemble we have this year a history major, a math major and an accounting major. These are people who’ve had interest in guitar or played guitar since they were kids but are not necessarily looking for a career in music. The department here does a fine job of giving them the outlet for their creativity.”
Newman has also led his Guitar Ensemble to perform in numerous events along the Northeast, including the New York Guitar Seminar, at Princeton University and most recently at the Philadelphia International Guitar Festival.
For senior accounting major Ryan Chui, playing in the Guitar Festival was a life-changing experience that allowed him to learn from professionals and showcase his hard work.
“Philadelphia was great,” Chui said. “We had the opportunity to learn from renowned guitarists while also receiving multiple compliments about our piece Danza Cubana. The piece incorporated percussion and had a Latin feel, which differentiated it from other pieces during the society performance.”
When preparing the music that was performed at the international event, Newman’s dedication to his students was eminent.
“When we chose the repertoire for each semester, I like to find out what the members of the ensemble like to play and what their interests are in music,” Newman said. “Then I choose pieces that reflect those passions.”
“This semester we chose a traditional Cuban Dance and we’ve also played music from the English Renaissance,” he added. “In the past, we’ve played pieces from the Middle East and Brazil, so it gives everybody a chance to play music that they’re not familiar with to expand their musical horizons.”
Having traveled worldwide as a professional performer, Newman certainly understands firsthand what expanding such horizons can do for an artist.
Before working at the College, Newman studied at Mannes College of Music where he received his bachelor’s in music as a guitar performance major in the studio of Alberto Valdes Blain, a disipal of Spanish guitar legend, Adrés Segovia. He then studied with Oscar Ghiglia at the Aspen Music School and Accademia Musicale Chigiana, where he received the Diploma di Merito.
Newman went on to become a guitar soloist with the Atlanta, Seattle and Honolulu Symphonies. He also performed in chamber music concerts with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, violinist Arnold Steinhardt, Celtic fiddler Eileen Ivers and the Turtle Island String Quartet.
Because he worked alongside guitar professionals with such extensive backgrounds, Newman now fully appreciates the cultural traditions of classical music that he has continued to pass down to his own students.
When asked about his favorite part of teaching pre-music professional students, Newman answered that it is “realizing that they are going to continue the musical and cultural traditions that have meant so much to so many people for generation after generation.”
“One of my students from Mannes, a young man from China, who is finishing his master of music degree this spring, was the winner of their international competition in Philadelphia,” he said. “So I had to keep running back and forth between his competition and the TCNJ performance, but it was well worth the effort to hear everybody do so well.”
Newman has kept busy as an adjunct professor at the College for the past five years by teaching Intermediate Private Guitar and Advanced Private Guitar. His ability to treat each of his students with the same respect and encouragement, regardless of their experience with the instrument, is reflective of his personality.
“I find that teaching beginners, teaching intermediate and teaching those who are already professionals, in many ways is the same because always comes back to basics,” Newman said. “The more advanced the player, the more it goes back to the basics, and it never changes. The best musicians in the world who’ve been recording and touring for 50 years continue to practice their scales carefully and slowly. They do the basic research on all the music and they play just as they did when starting out.”
Outside of his work at the College, he serves on the guitar and chamber music faculty of Mannes College at the New School for Music in New York City, where he has worked since 1979.
Newman also plays alongside his wife, guitarist Laura Oltman, in The Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo. The pair has traveled 49 states and five continents to perform for audiences of all ages, an experience that has proved to him the values of being a musician.
“One thing that comes with being an experienced performer is understanding that practicing and performing are two very different things,” Newman said. “The only way to train people to be good performers is to throw them out there and make them perform. If you want to play for people and give them the enjoyment that comes with hearing live music, you just need the experience to get out there and do it.”
Traveling the world also inspired Newman to diversify the selections played by the Guitar Ensemble at this year’s Guitar Festival, which has broadened his students’ understanding of music.
“There’s a lot of great music that takes awhile to grow on you because of its complexity,” Newman said. “Much of pop music is so memorable because there’s so little happening. Some of the pieces we do, even though they’re 500 years old, have incredible complexity.”