Ana Vidović on Prodigies, Performance, and Perseverance (Ep. 140)

A child prodigy explains why natural talent is overrated.

Is genius born or made? For Croatian-born classical guitarist Ana Vidović the answer is both. Born into a musical family, she began playing guitar at five and was quickly considered a prodigy. But she’s seen first-hand how that label can trap young talents into complacency, stifling their full development. She’s also had to navigate changing business models and new technologies, learning for instance how to balance an online presence with her love of performing for live audiences.

She joined Tyler to discuss that transition from prodigy to touring musician and more, including how Bach challenges her to become a better musician, the most difficult piece in guitar repertoire, the composers she wish had written for classical guitar, the Beatles songs she’d most like to transcribe, why it’s important to study a score before touching the guitar, the reason she won’t practice more than seven hours per day, how she prevents mistakes during performances, what she looks for in young classical guitarists, why she doesn’t have much music on streaming services, how the pandemic has changed audiences, why she stopped doing competitions early on, what she’d change about conservatory education for classical guitarists, her favorite electric guitarists, her love of Croatian pop music, the benefits and drawbacks of YouTube for young musicians, and what she’ll do next.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded December 27th, 2021

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Ana Vidović of Croatia, who is one of the world’s great classical guitarists. Ana, welcome.

ANA VIDOVIĆ: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

COWEN: Now, what is it about the compositions of Bach that make them such great classical guitar pieces?

VIDOVIĆ: It’s a very good question. My love for Bach’s music actually started when I was very young, growing up in Croatia. It was part of our repertoire that we studied at the academy and in the school of music. So I was introduced to it from a very early age, and I just connected with it immediately for some reason.

Throughout all these years, Bach’s music is something that I always play and always continue to play. We’re so used to hearing Bach on violin, piano, cello, but we’re not so used to hearing it on guitar, and it’s a completely different quality when you hear it on a classical guitar.

All the voices come out very clearly. The bass line is obviously very, very important, so I think it comes out completely in a more beautiful, organic way on a guitar. Also, it has to do with the performer, of course. If you love Bach’s music, if you connect with it, it comes through what you do, and the audience recognizes that. For me, personally, there’s a special connection with Bach’s music from a very, very early age, and it continues to be so, so I probably will always be that way.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of cellists, violinists, pianists — how they interpret, and I tried to apply that on classical guitar, which is not easy. Just that in itself is a challenge for me. It always challenges me. Bach’s music, in general, challenges me to become a better musician. I think all those things together combined just makes it very special. Personally, like I said, for me, it’s the most beautiful music that was ever created.

COWEN: Say, Beethoven doesn’t typically work well on classical guitar, right? What technically makes Bach feasible for your performances? Is it the limited dynamic range?

VIDOVIĆ: A lot of it also has to do with the quality of the arrangement. Obviously, Bach didn’t compose for guitar, so we have a lot of arrangements, and that’s when the arranger comes in. You have to be familiar with the classical guitar, how it works. I perform a lot of arrangements by a Croatian arranger, Valter Dešpalj, who is actually a cellist. He comes from a different world, but he understands guitar very well.

On a cello, you cannot bring all these voices out as clearly as on a classical guitar. I think that’s part of it. You can bring the bass line. You can bring the middle line. You can bring the upper line very, very clearly. That’s part of it, but also, as a performer, you have to find ways to make it interesting. Like I said, all the voices come out very, very clearly. I think that’s number one.

Obviously, as a guitarist, we don’t have a lot of repertoire. We have beautiful pieces that were composed originally, but mostly from Spain. There is a lot of Spanish repertoire for guitar, but Bach in itself is a challenge.

COWEN: Why is Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal so successful a piece for classical guitar?

VIDOVIĆ: It’s an amazing piece. It’s a fabulous piece. Very, very difficult technically, musically. You have to work very hard to make it sound beautiful. That is probably one of the most difficult pieces in guitar repertoire. It’s a challenge for every guitarist. I, myself, have been working on it for many, many years. I still don’t feel comfortable playing it, but it’s a very, very challenging piece.

COWEN: Is it possible to compose well for classical guitar without being able to really play it?

VIDOVIĆ: I think so. There are many, many pieces — beautiful pieces — for guitar, composed by composers that didn’t actually play the instrument, but I think they understood it very, very well. Or they, perhaps, worked with a classical guitarist. Segovia was very important in our classical guitar world. He brought many, many composers a lot of music for classical guitar. He was a catalyst for classical guitar.

Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo is one of the most famous pieces for guitar and orchestra. Personally, for me, the piece that represents guitar completely — the technical aspect, the musical aspect. Yes, it’s possible to do so.

COWEN: What’s the correct way to think about the actual innovation of Segovia? Because classical guitar seems to take off after he produces recordings. What exactly did he do that was a breakthrough?

VIDOVIĆ: He did so many things. I think he was the — I don’t want to say the first or the only one — there are so many great artists, so many classical guitarists that brought classical guitar to where it is now. They’re all equally important, but Segovia is just at the highest level. I don’t think classical guitar would be here in this level and recognized by so many people if there wasn’t Segovia.

We owe, actually, a lot to him. Through repertoire, through the level of performing, technique, I think he still stays one of the most recognized classical guitarists of all time. He always will be. For me, personally, he was an idol, something that I aspired to be. I grew up listening to his recordings. And many, many other artists — we grew up with him.

COWEN: If you would wish for one composer to have written for classical guitar but who didn’t, who would that be?

VIDOVIĆ: Like I said, I listened to a lot of Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff. I wish all of them composed for classical guitar. Vivaldi. We’re lucky to have arrangements, but sometimes I wish that we had more repertoire to choose from. For classical guitarists, it’s difficult, so we have to rely on arrangers that arranged all these beautiful pieces for us.

COWEN: You mention limited repertoire. For you, what are what you might call the limits of transcriptions? There are versions of the Goldberg Variations for guitar. Kazuhito Yamashita — he’s done almost everything on guitar. Mussorgsky, Stravinsky — it actually seems to work. Where is it going too far with the transcription?

VIDOVIĆ: Well, you have to be careful. Of course, a guitar — as every other instrument — has technical limitations. Whenever you play something — and again, we’re all human, so we have to try to — something that was composed for piano, it’s very difficult to play on classical guitar no matter how well you arrange it. Of course, you still want to sound natural. You still want to sound good.

Obviously, Yamashita is an amazing guitarist. He can play anything he would like to play. When you choose the repertoire, you have to be very, very careful. You have to be mindful of your own limitations and what you’re capable of. For me, personally, I’m very, very careful. I want something that I play to sound good, technically and musically. There are limitations, but I think it’s everybody’s choice. It’s a personal choice, what you would like to play.

Goldberg Variations are very, very difficult. It takes many, many years to get it to the level where you want it to be. Also musically, dynamically, we obviously don’t want to sound like a pianist, but we have to apply that to our own instrument and what we do.

COWEN: Except for the G to B string, as you know, guitar is tuned in perfect fourths. How much of a limitation is that? And why aren’t there more alternate tunings in classical music the way you find, say, in country blues guitar?

VIDOVIĆ: There are certain musicians that experiment with that, but I think, as a classical guitarist, this is what we do. We usually stay in standard tuning. There are not many alterations, but for me it’s inspirational to listen to other styles of music: jazz, blues, even country. I learn from that. It’s my inspiration to listen to not just classical music, but other styles of music. But there are certain standards in classical guitar, and we must follow that.

COWEN: What do you think of playing with seven or eight strings like Anders Miolin or Göran Söllscher? He plays Bach with extra strings. Why not?

VIDOVIĆ: Why not? I guess it’s a personal choice. Like I said, many of them experiment with alternate things, but for me, personally, I think six strings are enough. I try to stay within that limit.

COWEN: You mentioned in one of your interviews that you were working on transcribing some Beatles for classical guitar. What might you transcribe and why would you pick that piece?

VIDOVIĆ: Because I do love Beatles. Everyone loves Beatles, of course. There are some beautiful songs. Of course, “Yesterday” is one of my favorites. I played that piece, that song arranged by Toru Takemitsu. He arranged a book of different songs, not just by Beatles but other artists as well, but I chose that one. There’s another one, “Here, There, and Everywhere.”

I’m not so skilled in that regard. I try to do it, but I leave it to the people that actually know how to transcribe well. Like I said before, the arrangement part is very, very important, so if the arrangement is bad, obviously it’s not going to sound so good. I would rather leave that to someone that actually knows how to do it, but I experimented a little bit with that.

COWEN: Mark Prendergast, in his book on ambient music, makes the argument that a lot of earlier classical guitar works — Rodrigo, Villa-Lobos — that they’re really anticipating very recent trends in ambient music, and they’re much more pathbreaking than classical music critics had realized, even up until now.

What do you think of that argument? There’s something about this creation of a hovering sound world that, say, Villa-Lobos did that we still haven’t caught up to fully in our musical understanding. It’s a precursor of Brian Eno’s, say, among others.

VIDOVIĆ: Whenever you choose a repertoire, a piece that you like to play, it’s important to study and learn about the composer and what they were trying to do. A part of it that I think we still struggle as guitarists — analyzing the music is very, very important. Looking at the score, understanding what is going on. Pianists, violinists, cellists are taught to do that from a very, very early age. We, as classic guitarists, don’t fully understand that yet. I think that’s a very, very important part.

Also, learning about the composer, learning about the history — when they lived, why they composed in a certain way. Going into the background is very, very important. I think, as classical guitarists, we still have to learn how to do that. It’s an important part. Guitar is a very interesting instrument. Sometimes we just want to sit and play, and not so much go into the depth of the actual piece and learning about all the aspects of the piece.

Like I said, the background is very, very important. Then the music that you play comes out differently. It’s a different quality when you actually know what the composer was intending to do.

COWEN: What can you learn studying the score without a guitar nearby or without touching the guitar? What happens in your mind?

VIDOVIĆ: You just see everything much clearer. I think it’s good to do that before you actually start learning the piece. What I just started doing recently is, just look at the score, look at the notes, write things down. Maybe I’m just a visual person that understands music more that way. Then when I actually pick up the guitar and play it on the instrument, again, it’s a different quality because you understand more where all the ups and downs are and how the music moves.

It’s a very important part of studying the score. Even visualizing the music and memorizing it that way, without the actual instrument, is important as well. It makes you learn the piece in a more secure way. Again, it’s a very, very important part of what we do. Studying the score is important.

COWEN: You once said that you don’t practice past seven hours a day. What would happen in that eighth hour if you were to go there?

VIDOVIĆ: [laughs] I would probably go crazy.

COWEN: Is it mental? Is it physical? Or . . . ?

VIDOVIĆ: I just had a conversation with a friend of mine about that — how the amount of hours are actually not important as much as the quality of the practice. As a child, I used to practice many, many hours because I didn’t know, I didn’t find a way. You kind of experiment over the years. At this age, I finally learned that it’s more about concrete work, focused work, working on things that give you trouble, either if it’s technical or musical, and then you practice in sections. That takes less time.

You practice very slowly before playing fast, and then you put it all together. It just takes a lot of years to get to a point where you know what you need to work on. Two or three hours of focused practice is more efficient than seven or eight hours because sometimes there is a danger of just playing the piece through and not really working on sections and things that we should work on. I think at the eighth hour, we should all stop. [laughs]

COWEN: What’s the main physical constraint on what you do? Is it the wrist, the back, concentration, memory? What gives out first, so to speak?

VIDOVIĆ: It’s all of those things together, I think. Of course, as we age, there are physical limitations. Our mind decreases as well, but you can be careful and be vigilant about that.

For example, our body, of course, cannot sustain seven or eight hours of continued practice. It’s just too much. There are injuries that happen, so people have to be very, very careful. You also have to make sure that your posture is correct. Your back is straight, and your shoulders are relaxed. Your hands should be relaxed. That’s a very big part of it. Our body decreases as we age, so we have to find a way to compensate that.

Also, our mind is a very, very important part. Actually, I think it’s more important than the physical because everything comes from your mind. If your mind is relaxed, if your mind knows what it’s doing, then everything else will fall into place. For example, when you perform live, your mind has to be very, very relaxed because if your mind is constantly worrying, that creates a lot of tension in your hands, in your shoulders, in your back.

Everything has to come together, but again, that’s something that takes many years of experience. Learning how to — as we talked about — efficiently practicing how to relax on stage. There is a way to preserve that over the years, and I think as you age, there is a different quality. You mature, and your music starts sounding different, more mature. But it’s a good question.

COWEN: What’s the hardest thing about keeping your nails in shape?

VIDOVIĆ: I really don’t worry that much about it. I try to keep them short as possible. I don’t like to have them too long because they tend to break when they’re too long. Every year they seem to get shorter and shorter. I just use a nail file and file them a little bit, maybe every few days. When I practice, I try to practice not too loud because that damages the nails, so you have to be careful.

Sometimes I take vitamins to make them stronger, but I really don’t do anything special with it. It’s just keeping them short. I find it’s very helpful, also gives you a larger sound when you perform. Other than that, I really don’t do anything.

COWEN: As you know, you’re an extremely accurate player, but obviously, you had to get to that point. How is it that you teach yourself how to handle mistakes without falling apart or it leading to more mistakes? Is that something you practice? Or it just comes with experience, or you’re born with it? How do you do that?

VIDOVIĆ: Well, it’s also a combination of things. When I practice at home, I’m allowed to make mistakes because nobody can hear me. I’m alone in my room. But obviously, when I’m on stage, I cannot afford that to happen. I have to find a way to make that not happen. For me, number one is the preparation, the preparation for the concert many, many weeks in advance, many months, many years. Actually, I think it’s your whole life that you’re preparing. It’s not just a week before or two weeks before.

All the years leading up to this, I’ve learned things. I made mistakes, I did some things wrong, but you learn from it, and then you don’t do it the next time. Yes, number one is good preparation — finding the repertoire that fits you, that you connect with, that allows you to be honest, to be true to who you are, and then you automatically feel more comfortable. If the preparation part is not done well, then I will, of course, feel nervous, and when I sit on the stage, I will feel insecure, so I have to be 200 percent well prepared.

When I practice, like I said, I go through sections. I already know which parts of the piece are giving me trouble and that I don’t feel secure enough with, and then I make sure that I practice them very well — 20, 30, 40 times — as much as it takes. When the preparation part is over, then you’re ready to go and present the piece to the audience. I never really play something that I’m not fully secure with.

When you’re on stage, like I said, your mind has to be very, very relaxed. You cannot worry that something will happen because, psychologically, it will happen. If you constantly worry about making a mistake, the mistake will happen. You have to find a way to ease your mind before you go onstage and perform for the audience because the audience will sense that. Again, many, many years of experience, it’s learning. Sometimes mistakes will happen, but you have to relax and just keep going, find your way in the music.

That’s where the memory comes in. Your memory has to be very secure because, naturally, we get nervous when we are in front of the audience, and it’s a completely different feeling. I have to say, 90 percent comes from your mind, so your mind has to be very relaxed.

COWEN: Let’s say you meet an aspiring young classical guitarist, and they obviously have musical talent, and they have a good work ethic. What else is it that you look for to see whether or not that person can make it?

VIDOVIĆ: I think you sense when someone has something special. Sometimes in the past, I’ve judged competitions. I guess, because it’s my life and I do it since I was five, I just know when I see someone that has something special.

Of course, there’s always an aspect of a natural talent, but some people are just more prone to being talented for music or for a certain instrument. A lot of it is also the commitment, the perseverance. That’s a very, very important part. If somebody wants to be a professional artist or professional musician, they have to . . . Even if they’re not as talented, they can still find the way to make it work.

Working hard, having good working habit, and making sure they’re very disciplined is important. I don’t know how, but I just know when I see that natural technical ability and somebody that plays with ease. There are really no guarantees in this industry. Sometimes you have to work for many, many years to get to a certain point where you feel comfortable performing in front of the audience. Everybody’s different. You just have to find your way to navigate through this maze.

COWEN: How does your approach to teaching differ from what other classical guitarists do?

VIDOVIĆ: I love teaching.

COWEN: You do a lot of master classes, right? You must have students also.

VIDOVIĆ: Yes, I usually do. If I play at a university, I’ll do a class with the local students or local university. I do love it, and I wish I could dedicate a little more time to that. I’ve learned a lot from just teaching. It’s amazing. When you have to explain something to a student, you learn automatically yourself.

COWEN: When you do teach, what is it you do that’s different from what other classical guitar teachers might do?

VIDOVIĆ: Well, I think, number one is to make the student feel comfortable because a master class setting is a very nerve-racking setting. I know from my own experience, when I used to play in front of artists in school, I always felt nervous. So I try to just put them at ease so that they can learn and register what I’m saying more easily. You can just see the difference. I also like for them to ask me questions, either technical or musical.

The message that I want to convey to them has to be very, very clear. I try to be as clear as possible. Usually, a master class lesson is about 30 minutes, so you don’t have a lot of time. You have to try to give them as much information as you can in that short amount of time, which is not easy, but you try to connect with them in those 30 minutes as much as you can. Number one is to just make them feel comfortable.

COWEN: What’s the best piece of economic advice you could give to a talented young person who wants to make classical music their career? Not musical advice — economic advice, like, don’t go on streaming, or give as many concerts as you can, or whatever.

VIDOVIĆ: [laughs] That’s a very good question. When I started, the world looked very different. The world has changed, and today everything is online. It wasn’t like that when I started and when some of my colleagues started. Today, they really have to — actually all of us — we have to learn how to present ourselves online, and there are many, many different aspects of that world.

From my own experience, I always wanted to have a touring career, so I focused on that. I didn’t focus so much on recording. I just wanted to be out there and perform as much as I can, so I did that.

Then YouTube came, and I had to find a way how to present myself online. I don’t do too many online performances. I do a few because I still want to continue to perform and tour and play live for the audience because there’s nothing that compares to that. Online is great — you can present yourself to the listeners, but you still have to be successful performing live in front of people.

Most of my performances online are live. They’re not prerecorded because I find that when you play live, this is who you truly are. There’s one take, and that’s it. It sounds natural, and that’s what I like to do, personally, but it’s everybody’s choice what they want to do. The only thing is that, of course, you have to make a living with this, so you have to learn the few tricks. They’re not tricks, but it’s just you have to find your way, to navigate.

For me, still, number one thing is to always work on my ability, my craft, and I always want to get better because the audience, the listeners — they always expect more. Every time you perform, you have to be better. I respect my audience. They’re very loyal to me, and so I’m loyal to them, and I always try to do the best I can. That always comes first.

COWEN: Now, if I type your name into Spotify, only seven pretty short items come up. How do you think about that decision? Because streaming doesn’t pay much —

VIDOVIĆ: No. [laughs]

COWEN: — and it’s maybe a substitute. Or does it enhance the demand to see you in concert? Or do you prefer people watch you on YouTube?

VIDOVIĆ: Over the years, I found that people like to see and to hear. Of course, YouTube is amazing. Everything is on there. I remember 2005 was the year that I played one of my first concerts in the States, and that’s where YouTube was just starting out, and they put up that video on YouTube, and it’s amazing what happened since then.

I thought I’ll focus on live performing, I’ll just go out there. I’ll maybe release one video a year because I still want the people to come to the concerts, come to the live performance. I don’t want them to just be at home and look at the video. I still want to have that connection with my live audience.

Maybe it’s not good to do too much, not to have too many videos, not to have too many recordings because you still want the audience to come and see you in person, so you have to find a way to balance that. Recording was never my priority. Also, honestly, I don’t really enjoy recording in a studio that much. Again, I prefer to be live in front of the audience. There’s nothing quite like it.

I’m not saying no to recording completely, of course. I think we just live in a different time when the videos are perhaps more appealing to the listeners. Because classical guitarists also like to watch the hands, and they like to see what the right hand is doing, what the left hand is doing. The visual, and of course, the audience is equally important. I hope that answers you.

COWEN: Yes. If you ever were to do an explicitly crossover album, what would it be? As you know, classical charts are often dominated by crossover albums.

VIDOVIĆ: I thought about it. There are some really good crossover albums. If I would do something, I thought often, just playing with a rock guitarist. To merge those worlds would be interesting. Maybe collaborate with — I don’t know — there are so many great electric guitar players. I think it would be interesting to merge those two, classical and electric.

That’s perhaps something that will come in the future, but I think one has to be careful with the crossover. That was, perhaps, more popular a few years back. This was a new term that came — crossover music — and then everybody was doing a lot of that, but perhaps now it’s not as popular as it used to be.

Because there are a lot of crossover recordings, you also have to be careful to do something interesting, something different. There’s that aspect to consider, but I still have to do what I feel most comfortable. I don’t want to do something just because I want to sell a lot of records. It’s not what I want to do. It’s just not my personal choice. I want to do what feels right and what I give to listeners. I cannot do something that’s off the charts, even though it would be fun. Maybe, in the future.

COWEN: How do you know when a concert hall is too large?

VIDOVIĆ: I know when the guitar doesn’t project well. Guitar is a very soft instrument. Even though my guitar is a bit louder than the regular — it’s just the way it was built, and the wood that was chosen, and the technique of building — so it’s a bit louder. It projects very well.

For guitar, the ideal hall is about 500 seats, and that’s already pushing it. When you have a hall that is a thousand, you have to use amplification. It’s impossible to play without amplification. We have some beautiful systems today where you don’t even know that the guitar is amplified. I have no problem using amplification as long as it’s natural. But of course, for guitar, it’s best to hear it without amplification — the most natural sound, which is up to like 500 seats.

We have rehearsals before the performance. We try out the hall. There’s always somebody listening in the audience. There’s a lot of time that is spent doing that, and then you just make a decision — either you will play without the amplification or with the amplification, but it has to be natural.

COWEN: Although you’re young, you’ve been playing professionally for quite some time. Over that time period, how have audiences changed?

VIDOVIĆ: That’s a good question. It’s interesting, in the past two years, I’ve noticed a change. When I went back to playing live after a while, after the pandemic started, I feel more appreciation. I feel that they’re hungry for live performances. I feel that they listen more attentively. I don’t know, it just feels different. This is just in the past two years, but I think I wouldn’t say that they changed.

What’s interesting is that it depends where you’re performing. Every culture is different, so if you’re performing in Europe, the audiences are usually very serious and very quiet, and they listen very, very carefully. In the States, they’re also, of course, very appreciative, but after the performance, they stand up and they’re very responsive. They appreciate, and as an artist, it’s very special to feel that attention after the performance.

COWEN: We clap more.

VIDOVIĆ: In Japan — Sorry.

COWEN: We clap more — Americans.

VIDOVIĆ: Yes. In the States, people are just beautiful. At the end of the concert, everybody’s happy, and you can feel that. I love that feeling.

COWEN: And the Japanese?

VIDOVIĆ: Sorry to interrupt. In Asia, they don’t really feel comfortable doing that, but they’re also very attentive. I think it just depends where you play, which country and which culture.

COWEN: If I listen to classical guitarists from early to mid-20th century, they seem to me far more subjective in terms of tempo, phrasing. Segovia — he’s playing the right notes, but you can be surprised fairly often by what you hear in terms of how he presents the music. Do you feel, today, that guitar competitions have led to too much homogeneity of style amongst younger guitarists, that they’re technically perfect but you’re surprised less often?

VIDOVIĆ: It might be. When you listen to Segovia, even if you just put the recording . . . if somebody else puts it on for you, and it wasn’t you, you just know when you hear it. When you hear Bream, you just know it’s Bream. When you hear Williams, you know it’s Williams.

Perhaps that is a little bit lost today. I don’t want to be a judge, but I think it’s important for each of us to find something unique about our way of playing. All these things that we talked about studying about the score, about the background, about the artist, about the composer — all these things are important. Working on our sound, the quality of our sound, and experimenting with a lot of different things — all this makes us unique. There’s no one way to play guitar.

With competitions — they’re an important part of building a career, but there’s a little bit of danger with that because, in a competition setting, it’s not a concert setting; it’s a competition. All these young artists — perhaps they feel like they have to play in a certain way to win the first prize. As long as that doesn’t interfere with what you still want to accomplish, and what you still want to develop, it’s okay. You just have to be careful for the competitions not to be a part of your life. It’s not everything.

The first prize is, of course, great, but it doesn’t mean always that you’re the best. The individuality of the performers is very important. For me personally, I stopped doing competitions very early for that reason, because I didn’t want to just be someone who will go to competitions. I wanted to develop my own way of playing.

I hope that young students still find a way to develop their own way of playing. It’s very important. The times of Segovia and Bream — it was a different time. They had to develop their own way. They all defined their own way. It’s just a different time that they were living in.

COWEN: What would you change in conservatory education for classical guitarists?

VIDOVIĆ: I wouldn’t necessarily change anything. We have some great places in the States, wonderful guitar departments with great teachers, and many, many young students come from there. The guitar in the States is very strong, also in Europe. The only thing, it would be helpful for . . . Once you graduate, it’s difficult because you’re on your own. You have to find your way. At least for me, personally it was like that. I had to find ways to decide what I’m going to do, either have a teaching career or performing career.

It would be nice to have a little bit of help that way after you graduate. Also, another thing that is important is that, in a conservatory setting, we don’t learn so much about what needs to be done in a live performing setting — how to deal with your nerves, how to relax. All those things are important. I think we don’t talk as much about that in a conservatory setting. Then again, when you graduate, you’re on your own, so you have to learn from your own mistakes. That would be helpful for every young student that would like to pursue a performance career.

COWEN: Other than your father, who’s your favorite electric guitarist?

VIDOVIĆ: There are many. Of course, my dad comes first. I listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan. I listen to Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, many others. I couldn’t even . . . Malmsteen. I love electric guitar.

COWEN: Someone like Malmsteen — he’ll sometimes play Bach or Paganini riffs. Do you get anything from that? Or is it just amusing to you? Or do you learn something?

VIDOVIĆ: Oh, there was a time when I listened to him a lot because I really appreciate that he loves Bach’s music, and you can tell in his playing, sometimes. I think it’s fascinating. He’s actually someone that I would like to collaborate with. It might never happen, but it’s just interesting to me because perhaps we share the same love for Bach’s music, and it would be interesting to collaborate with someone like that.

Yes, I do learn. I do get a lot from people like that. It’s interesting because electric guitar and classical guitar are completely different. You would think, “Okay, is there anything in common?” But yes, there are. There are things you can apply in your own playing. Absolutely, I learn a lot from these people.

COWEN: Paul McCartney plays Blackbird, and that’s taken, in part, from Bach. Do you get something from that, or are you just chuckling? What does he bring to that?

VIDOVIĆ: Not just him, but everybody that is trying to create something — I learn from that. I don’t know, it gives me inspiration. There are other examples, of course, but it just makes me think in a wider way, more interesting way. If I was just listening to classical music all day, my mind would be restricted, I think. There’s so much great music out there.

Sometimes I hear something in the background and then I think, “Oh, maybe I should apply that into what I do.” Because it opens up your horizons. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I think you play differently. You have to surround yourself with a lot of music. Classical music is not the only type. There are many, many, many other musics. That’s just one example. I listen to it. Then I listen to it again. I think, “What is he doing? Why is he doing that?” It just gives me inspiration.

COWEN: Severina — do you like Croatian pop?

VIDOVIĆ: Yes. Oh, great, you know about her.


VIDOVIĆ: You did some research. I do love pop music. Croatian music, like Oliver Dragojević. I love him. He’s a beautiful singer, with probably the most Croatian hits ever. When I feel a little nostalgic, I’ll listen to Croatian music. Severina — she’s very famous. There are many, many other musicians. They’re all great. Because I come from that part of the world, it also means a lot to me.

COWEN: Do you ever think of yourself as somehow bringing a Croatian perspective to classical music? Because Croatia — it was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mozart, but in a way, it’s slightly outside of the normal classical tradition. There’s not a famous Croatian composer. Has that shaped what you’ve done — that you’re Croatian?

VIDOVIĆ: I think so. Coming from that part of the world, perhaps there is a certain way you perform and you play music. There’s not, perhaps, one major composer, but it’s just the culture that I was brought up with. And even though I lived in the States for 20 years, I still have that in me, so perhaps I perform music in that way. It’s natural. It’s just who I am.

I think it’s more that — just coming from a certain culture and studying and learning about the music the way I was taught. It was a very — I don’t want to call it rigid, it’s a negative word, but we were taught from a very early age to work hard. I was taught in the right way. I had great teachers. So, all that shaped me — who I am — and to be serious about what I do and to be completely focused on it.

I think perhaps all this comes a little bit through my music and what I do, but we have a lot of beautiful music. Even many, many beautiful artists, and then there’s a long tradition of classical guitar in Croatia. Long, long tradition. Many, many guitarists come from that part of the world, so I’m proud of that.

COWEN: Given that YouTube is such a wonderful instructional medium, can you imagine America developing more of its own, like, house music tradition — Hausmusik, as the Germans said. Is that in the cards? How is YouTube going to change guitar playing and classical guitar instruction and performance?

VIDOVIĆ: Well, I think it has changed it already a little bit. We just have to be careful not to have too much of it in our life. Sometimes I find myself even, personally, looking for videos and watching, and then I have to stop and say, “Oh, I still have to go back to what I do.” Of course, every influence is good, but if it’s too much, then it’s not so good. You still have to preserve what you’re doing and stay true to that.

Sometimes I meet students that don’t have a teacher, so they learned from YouTube. Sometimes they learn in the wrong way, which is a mistake. If you learn in the wrong way, it’s very, very difficult to change it and fix the mistakes later. So you have to be careful what you search for in YouTube and from whom you learn because there are so many videos.

For me, I think there is a little bit of danger in that because, in Europe, you usually had one teacher, and you would work with him for many, many years. There was no YouTube. We had live concerts that we would go to, and that’s how we learned, but we didn’t have outside influences. Sometimes it’s very difficult to even conceive that we live in a world that now everything is just there. You just type it in, and it’s there. It’s great. It’s wonderful, but again, we still have to be true to who we are and develop our own way.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it will be there for many, many years. YouTube is a very important part of our lives, and it’s wonderful. For me, personally, it has helped me a lot in my career. I just hope that people still would want to go out and visit live concerts and be there in the same room with the artists.

COWEN: László Polgár once said, “Geniuses are made, not born.” Now, if you think of yourself — your brother is an excellent guitarist, your father an electric guitarist. One of your brothers is a pianist. There’s yourself. All from the same family. How do you think about this? Is it common training, something in the water, genes? What’s your take?

VIDOVIĆ: Well, perhaps many things together. I think there is something about that. There were times when I wasn’t sure if this is something that I want to do. Growing up and starting very young is difficult because you’re always looked at as someone talented and then there’s a danger that you won’t develop your talent to the full extent.

Sometimes the term “child prodigy” is not always true. It’s something that you have to outgrow. You have to still develop your talent. Talent is not enough. I’m fully convinced that it’s not enough. You have to work hard throughout your whole life to develop whatever you were given. Yes, if you have a little bit of natural talent, of course, it’s helpful, but you have to work at it. I think, from your 20s and further, you have to work hard. You have to find ways to always develop your natural ability. It’s something that never really stops.

COWEN: As you made the transition from prodigy to adult and professional performer, was there a moment where you deliberately recommitted yourself and decided you weren’t going to quit? Or was it just inertia — you kept on going? What was the key moment there?

VIDOVIĆ: I think there were a few. There was definitely a point where I decided, okay, I know this is going to be difficult, but I have to continue. This is all I know. My whole life, that’s the only thing I know. I never really had a chance to do anything else in my life.

Of course, I love it. It’s great to have music in your life, but you have to make a commitment. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’ll see what happens.” It’s a commitment because it’s a difficult profession. Like I said before, there’s no guarantee. Sometimes you won’t make it. Sometimes you’ll work hard, and then nothing happens. There were times like that when I thought, “Nothing’s happening. Am I doing something wrong?” But you keep going. I never really looked back.

There were difficult times, but yes, I made a decision. “Okay, I have to do this. There is no other way. I will do this and take necessary steps.” Perseverance is a very important part of what we do, and you have to keep going. But that came in my teenage years, when I said, “Okay, I’m doing this. I’m probably going to do this for the rest of my life, so whatever comes, I’m going to have to deal with it.” I think for everybody it’s different, but for me personally, it was that way. I had to really consciously make a decision.

COWEN: The last two questions. First, what will you do next?

VIDOVIĆ: Next I will, well, celebrate. You mean long term or short term?

COWEN: Well, each, and then I’ll still ask you one final question.

VIDOVIĆ: Christmas is gone. I’m taking a little break because the last concert was on December 5th or 4th. Usually, during the holidays, we have a break. I am just getting ready for New Year’s, and then next year, everything starts again. I’m going to have to prepare for my concerts and for my tour, start practicing, very, very focused work. And I have a nice lineup of concerts that I look forward to.

I very much was excited to be back on the road and to perform because I really, really missed that during these two years. I think every artist missed it. That’s coming up next year. I’m trying not to make any long-term plans because it’s just impossible to do that right now. I’m taking every day or month at a time and see what happens.

Speaking of recordings, I would like to release a new recording in the next year or so. Hopefully that will happen, but the main goal is, just keep performing and touring if it’s possible. We’ll see what happens next year and if the venues are still comfortable doing live performances.

COWEN: I saw you live in concert last month at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. I very, very highly recommend to all of our listeners that you absolutely go see Ana live. That’s the single best thing you can do, and see her more than once.

But most generally, if a listener, reader — they want to learn more about you, hear your music, what should they do? Where should they start? Final question — tell us all what to do.

VIDOVIĆ: [laughs] What to do — it’s just the two main places, my website and then YouTube. If they would like to hear me live, there’s a lot of performances on YouTube, and then my schedule is on my website, and that’s if they would like to hear it live. That’s where everything is posted. Those are the two most important places where all the information comes from.

Then, of course, I’d love to see the audience back in the halls. That’s a great, great feeling. We hope we have more, of course, with restrictions and being very careful at this time. But yes, I’d like to see the audience back in the halls, definitely.

COWEN: Ana Vidović, thank you very much.

VIDOVIĆ: Thank you so much. This was wonderful. Thank you.

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