Great Romantics 2018

Interview with Miles Johnston

In the lead up to the 2019 Great Romantics Competition on September 29, we sat down with classical guitarist Miles Johnston, last year’s winners of the Elisabeth Murdoch Prize.

We found out what the future holds for this talented young musician, including a USA move to study at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.

Why did you choose your instrument?

I wouldn’t exactly say I chose the guitar. My parents told me at an early age that I was going to learn guitar, so I just went along with it. They knew the benefits of learning an instrument, and they both love the guitar. I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic teacher at the start, Peter Draper, who taught me mainly classical, but also a bit of jazz and blues on the side.

When did you start playing your instrument?

I started playing the guitar at age 4 ½, which is when I started prep. The more I played the more I fell in love with the guitar.

Who are your musical heroes?

Since I was about 7 or 8 my musical heroes have been the Grigoryan Brothers. I first saw them play in 2006 and was in awe of what they could do on the guitar. They are also incredibly versatile musicians being able to play any style of music. They inspired me to learn jazz guitar on the side of classical which I did throughout high school. I started having lessons from Slava in 2013 on a mixture of solo and duo with my brother Ziggy (who also plays classical guitar) which has been nothing short of incredible.

One of my other musical heroes is mandolinist Chris Thile, who is known for being the front man of the blue-grass band ‘The Punch Brothers’. Similar to the Grigoryan Brothers, he too can play a range of styles, and has created my favourite recordings of the Bach Violin Sonata’s and Partita’s.

What does it feel like to play in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre?

The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is the greatest venue I have had the pleasure of performing in. Its acoustics are second to none and playing in a hall this good inspires you to play your best. As a classical guitarist it’s particularly special as the guitar is quite a soft instrument, and because of the acoustics you need no amplification to be heard anywhere in the hall, which is truly amazing.

What was it like to win the 2018 Great Romantics Competition?

Winning this competition was extremely special for a few reasons. Firstly, I didn’t think I was going to win as the other competitors were of a very high standard and I only really had about a month and a half to prepare. Secondly, I was the first classical guitarist to win the competition. My brother Ziggy came 2nd in the 2015 and 2016 Great Romantics Competitions and decided not to enter in 2018 but instead helped me to win. The piece I played in the competition, Introduction et Caprice by Giulio Regondi, was a piece Ziggy was very familiar with and had played in the past and I was always seeking his advice on certain aspects about the piece. Without his help, the outcome of the competition could have been very different.
It was a huge honour to win, and I have formed many connections with influential musicians since winning, and played at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, directed by Ben Opie, as part of the prize.

What has been your performance highlight so far?

I can’t say I’m able to narrow it down to one performance highlight, as I have had lots of memorable performances as a solo musician, but also as a duo with Ziggy. My performance highlight as a soloist would be winning the 2018 Adelaide International Guitar Competition, which is the biggest guitar competition in the southern hemisphere. Performing in this competition was something that I was familiar with, as I had made it to the final round in 2014 and then came 2nd in 2016, and finally winning in 2018.

For me personally, the most memorable duo performance was when we participated in the Music Always tour with the Melbourne Recital Centre. This was a 2-week tour performing 12 concerts over 6 days in various retirement homes and aged care facilities. It was such an enjoyable experience playing music we love to the residents who rarely get the opportunity to see live music. The response was at times overwhelming, as we have never played to such thankful and humbling audiences.

Rumour has it you have just been accepted to The Juilliard School in New York? Tell us more…

Yes, Ziggy and I have both been accepted to study Master of Music, majoring in classical guitar at The Juilliard School, commencing in September this year. This was especially special for us as we learnt during our audition that only 5 guitarists can study at Juilliard at any given time across undergrad and postgrad combined, and we got 2 of those places.

Ziggy and I both had 2 university auditions in America, first was at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore on Feb 20th, and the second at Juilliard in NYC about 2 weeks later. For both the auditions we had to prepare approximately 45 mins of solo music, which they then ask you to play 15 mins of it from any point in any piece. For me, the audition at Peabody went good, but not great in my opinion due to absurd amounts of traveling instead of practicing in the days leading up to the audition. We then had 2 weeks to get back into shape before the Juilliard audition. I especially had to work hard because due to certain audition guidelines, I couldn’t play one of my pieces in the Juilliard audition that I played for the Peabody audition, which means I had to essentially learn an extra piece which went for about 14 mins. As soon as we arrived in New York City we quickly realised that it is such an awesome place with an incredibly vibrant music scene. Then going to Juilliard for the audition solidified in our minds that this was the place for us. The guitar teacher at Juilliard, Sharon Isbin, is one of the most important and influential guitarists of today and one of the best teachers in the world, and we are so thrilled that we were both offered a place.

Overall it was about a 3-week trip and was probably the most enjoyable 3 weeks I’ve had, even though it mainly consisted of hotel practice, walking in the cold, and eating too much food in restaurants.

Where do you hope to take your music in the long term?

I love playing guitar solo, but I love performing with my brother more. If I get the opportunity to make a career internationally out of both that would be the dream. Going to Juilliard is the first step in making it a reality.

Any advice for 2019 Great Romantics applicants?

This might sound a bit cliché but the best advice I can give is to just work as hard as you possibly can. This is a very prestigious competition and is very competitive. Imagine someone of professional standard was entering the competition. You should have the mentality that you need to be better than the professional, that way you’ll never settle for 2nd best.

Then in the final round you kind of have to toss all that pressure out the window and just have fun and enjoy performing the music you’ve been working so hard to perfect. Over my years of doing competitions I have found that I always play best when I’m having fun, focusing on the music and not worrying too much about mistakes or the other competitors. It is your performance and your time to share your music with the audience.