Zane Forshee was described by Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine as “…one of his generation’s finest guitarists.” Winner of the top prize in the Montpelier Artist Recital Competition and the first prize in the National Guitar Workshop International Solo Guitar Competition, Forshee has appeared internationally, from the Palacete de AmezĂșa (Madrid) to the Chimei Museum (Taiwan), from the Joseph Joachim Konzertsaal (Berlin) to the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.) and the New York City Classical Guitar Society.
A Fulbright Grant recipient with two albums to his credit, Forshee serves on the guitar faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University and is Chair of the Guitar and Harp Department of the Peabody Preparatory.
Stay Thirsty Magazine was delighted to visit with Zane Forshee at the Peabody Institute for this Conversation to learn about his views on the life of being a musician and on music education today.

STAY THIRSTY: Why do you believe art is a real job?

ZANE FORSHEE: I see you’ve visited my website!

A big part of this belief comes from years of conversations around the question that is a cultural norm when you meet someone new…typically at a social gathering: What do you do? 

It has been my experience that when you answer this question with “I’m a musician,” or “I’m a guitarist,” or “I’m an artist,” it is quickly followed up with: “But what do you really do?” 

It’s lazy thinking from the person asking the question and implies judgement as to what is “real work” and what is “not real work.” They’re not saying it outright, they’re shouting it through subtext.   

I’ve thought and continue to think about how artists can approach this question, defuse it and redirect it to open up a bigger conversation. “I’m an artist” can quickly turn into: “I am a guitarist that works to explore how audiences listen to and experience music today. With the developments in technology and accessibility of art on demand, I’m thinking about how we program or “curate” an experience for an audience both live and online. What am I creating that is worth showing up for? Why be here in the room with me, my collaborators, and a room full of strangers? Additionally, I’m experimenting with how collaboration via other instrumentalists, performers, or other types of art impacts the engagement of the audience.” 

This approach usually leads to a bigger conversation and reframes the question of “What do you do?” That’s my goal—to develop a conversation around what a life in art can mean and how we all experience art both individually and collectively. Thankfully no two artistic careers look the same, just in the same way no two people will have the same response to a given piece of art. It will mean something different to each artist and each person. Also, at a certain point I had to put a stake in the ground, for myself, and say “I believe art is a real job.” I remember writing it down for the first time on a piece of staff paper while making an arrangement and it resonated with me. As I thought about that statement, it slowly became the catalyst for how I approach my work as a whole. Artists work hard to develop their craft and it takes work to develop and experiment, to stand up projects, to fail, to try again, to stay in the field, and to think about what’s next. If one were to step back and look at the skills involved in building an artistic career at the 30,000-foot level, it’s really no different from that “real job” we’re all thinking about.

Zane Forshee

STAY THIRSTY: Why do you believe different is good and weird is better?

ZANE FORSHEE: This gets to the “why” show up? Why listen? Why care? Questions I mentioned a moment ago. 

I ask “why” a lot in my work. If I’m developing a new piece, making an arrangement or building a concert program there had a better be a reason to show up. If it’s “Well, this is what I’ve got lying around….” To me, that’s not worth getting off the couch to be in the audience. 

I want to experience something as an audience member. That means a work or piece that might challenge me. I don’t mind being surprised and I work to bring that to the table as an artist, too. 

What I mean by “different is good and weird is better” is all about framing within a given context. It’s not unusual to hear solo Bach violin sonata on the guitar. It’s different from the original intention of the piece (for solo violin) yet a quick google search will pull up plenty of options for you to satisfy that desire. Still, what if you situated that sonata in between two works by living composers that were inspired by Bach? And, what if you took the time to share with the audience how these works were linked together: visually, aurally, and structurally? Then played all three works? Some might call that weird, I’d call it a concert I’d be willing to leave my house to experience. 

STAY THIRSTY: Why do you believe that those who do are the best teachers?

ZANE FORSHEE: Studying an art form, to me, is an apprenticeship process. It’s a one-on-one relationship where the student is gaining insight from the teacher through conversation, experimentation, and discourse. The teacher is able to offer insight and guidance to the student’s work as they are further down the artistic road than the student—they are and have been “doing the work.” They’ve been where the student is in that moment at some point.

For me, a big part of teaching is working to put myself in the shoes of the student that’s in front of me. If I can understand where they’re coming from, then it gives me a clearer picture as to what needs to be addressed. You have to choose—you can’t work on everything at once. From there it’s about breaking down all the elements of the topic were talking about into manageable pieces and slowly working through each one of them together. 

It’s been my experience as a student that the only way this works is if the teacher does the work themselves.   

Scarlatti K. 213 (D minor) - Zane Forshee

STAY THIRSTY: Why do you believe in collaborating?

ZANE FORSHEE: You can only get so far on your own. Also, you can’t see your own blind spots. I learn the most when I’m working with other artists. It gives me a chance to get new perspectives and to stretch my thinking. It forces me to stay flexible and open. That, to me, is a big part of the job—stay open, stay flexible.

A lot my work involves sitting in a room by myself or on stage by myself. If you do that day after day and month after month, it’s easy to start to narrowing your vision as to how things work in your art. Working with other artists provides the invitation to take off the blinders, to observe others and their approach to the work, to learn how to really listen (when playing with others) and figure out how to come together to share something with the public. It’s a challenge to build something with others as you have to manage yourself and be open to understanding that everyone has a different and valid approach—also, to understand that your idea might not be the best one in the room. How you navigate and work to capitalize on those differences, strengths and weaknesses of the group is when things get interesting. That’s the moment when everyone starts to grow, and the audience is about to receive something that’s worth showing for….

STAY THIRSTY: Why do you believe that practicing is itself performance?

ZANE FORSHEE: One of my teachers told me once: You are what you repeat. 

That really woke me up to valuing my time in the practice room and made me get honest with myself about what was coming out of the instrument during my practice. If you miss it in the woodshed, you’re going to miss it on the stage. If you don’t have an idea about what you’re trying to communicate in a particular phrase, it’s going to confuse your audience. 

The practice builds the performance and the performance helps fuel the practice. They are different in that a practice room can function as a laboratory—a space for you to experiment and explore. At the same time, it’s that space that allows you to express yourself and refine your ideas as you prepare for a performance. The stage really becomes the point of feedback about your work. You get real time data, if you pay attention, about what is working and what needs to be reconsidered. 

STAY THIRSTY: What music do you listen to in your car?

ZANE FORSHEE: It really depends. On tour, I build little playlists of things that I find comforting or that remind me of home. I listen to those in the airport, hotel, and in transit. At home, much of my listening is project focused. So, at the moment I listening to all of these different artists solo over the tune So What by Miles Davis and I’m also listening to all of these different versions of Bill Frisell playing A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan. 

With So What, I’m studying what different artists are doing over the chords of that standard. I’m searching for ideas and transcribing their lines which allows you the opportunity to peek into how they’re thinking about improvisation in that given context at that moment in time. 

The Dylan cover is part of a larger project of arranging songs I heard growing up. I’m studying how different instrumentalists approach arranging and a big part of that is figuring out what they’re doing. It’s been a tremendous amount of fun to stretch myself by studying different artists and their approach to musical lines and arranging.

I also listen around certain pieces. If a composer wrote something in let’s say 1974 that I’m playing, I usually dig around the 3-5 years before that work and the ones right after to see how it fits within the big picture. It helps me get a better perspective on what the composer may have been thinking (if I can’t contact them) and I have, hopefully, a clearer understanding of their sound.

When I’m not alone, at home, I don’t control the radio. That job is handled by my 4-year-old daughter. At the moment, she’s really into Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Randy Newman, AC/DC, and the Coltrane version of In a Sentimental Mood. I love watching her discover new songs.

STAY THIRSTY: Do your students inspire you?

ZANE FORSHEE: Yes, all the time. I’m always surprised by what they’re working on and developing outside of their coursework. You never know what they’re going to do with the skills that they are acquiring. Also, it’s exciting to see them come together and collaborate.

Zane Forshee    

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.