Neither the host of accolades utilized by industry notables to describe her talents, nor the list of her accomplishments, quite prepares one for the enchantment Lily Afshar elicits from her guitar.
Afshar was brought to the Valley to teach a master class to local students and perform a one-woman concert August 20. Born and raised in Tehran, she is currently the head of the guitar program at the University of Memphis.
The classical guitarist was the first woman to earn a doctorate in Guitar Performance. With four CDs under her belt, she was featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” for her musical talents and for creating “fretlets,” which allow her to generate the quarter tones so vital to the music of her homeland. When not teaching at the University, Afshar frequently tours – often overseas – performing both concerts and master classes. She has created instructional material in the form of books and videos which can be purchased online.
“I just wanted to hear someone amazing,” said 18-year-old Ben Brown. “The Persian ballads were really incredible.”
The evening of music offered to the Valley was enjoyed by an almost full house of attendees whose ages spread the gambit from those just old enough to learn to play, to those whose fingers have been robbed of ability by the passage of time. Little ones implored parents to sit close so they could watch the fluid movement of the artist’s hands, then sat spellbound.
Eleven-year-old Rachel Staude sat at the edge of her seat, her long hair just catching the ambient light from the stage, eyes transfixed. Not so different, one might guess, than the little girl Lilly who long ago sat watching her cousin’s painful attempt to make her way through a guitar lesson.
“I came from a musical family,” says Afshar of her father and sisters, who all played violin or piano,” but nothing grabbed her until Afshar heard the guitar. It was “Sevilla” that stole her heart, but ultimately it was her father’s encouragement that led her to winning it back – his encouragement and her cousin’s painful lesson Afshar watched from afar.
“She couldn’t do it,” Afshar said of her cousin’s attempt at the instrument. “I wanted to grab it from her.” Instead, she went home and told her father.
The very next day, her father presented her with the same pretty little red guitar her cousin had so struggled with, and a pile of music. “I think she was glad to be rid of it.” Too shy to sing in public, Afshar was drawn to classical music, opting to let the guitar sing instead. She would spend hours practicing. “Lily, come out of your room so we can see you,” she recalls her father pleading.
He encouraged her not only to come out of her room, but onto the stage – believing from the outset in her ability to reach an international audience. Sitting on a couch in Solvang’s own Song in My Heart Studio, battling both exhaustion and her eyes’ sensitivity to the Valley’s flora, Afshar looks momentarily away. She smiles. “When I held the guitar in my hand, I wasn’t shy anymore,” she says, explaining her love of performance. “When I could perform, it didn’t matter how many people it was for, as long as I had my guitar.”
Afshar also loves teaching, watching her students develop the same love affair with their instruments that she enjoys with her own. But nothing beats performing, she says. “It gives me so much self-confidence that nothing else matters.”
For a moment, she grows quite, remembering. She shares the story of her father’s visit. Get me pen and paper, he instructed first, and then to play.
“He wrote me a poem about the guitar washing away all his sorrows. He wrote it while I played,” she recalls. Afshar doesn’t normally compose music, her expertise is in arranging. But perhaps, someday, she’ll set her father’s poem to music, she says. “It is absolutely important for parents to encourage their children. I could not have succeeded without my father’s encouragement. He knew me well.”
And she knew well the music of her homeland. But last Saturday’s performance spanned the musical greats from across the world, from a Spanish Dance to the music of Mozart and Bach to Persian Ballads, which rounded out the first half. “I’m doing what I can to perform a multicultural program – to bridge the gap between cultures. Music doesn’t know nationality. Music is for everybody,” says Afshar.
“It was really good,” says Riley Huffman of both the performance and Afshar’s master class, which he attended earlier in the day. “She’s really artistic.” He had a chance to pick up tips on precision and on identifying which notes in any given interval to emphasize. He brought with him a piece to work on that Afshar is an expert on, and as a consequence, got a lot out of the class.
The second half of the performance began with Joaquin Rodrigo’s Invocation and Dance. “The piece is all about magic,” Afshar told the audience. Light and playful, both the music and her fingers danced like rain on a rooftop.
Although expected of professionals, she nonetheless has great facility with both her right and left hands, fast and sure. Always highly musical, her tremolo is particularly noteworthy, impressively fluid and even.
She is able to bring out great tonal variations by alternating her hand position over the body of the guitar from the bridge on to the neck. Her technique is virtuosic, but it is her musicality and sensitivity, and commitment to the composer’s intentions which really shines through.
The fretlets Afshar invented were not used during her performance here. She designed them when she was preparing to perform a piece composed for her with quarter notes that come in rapid succession.
Unlike blues guitarists who can bend notes to achieve quartertones, the technique was impossible to utilize, given the rapid fire pace of the piece. Unwilling to abandon any aspect of the music, Afshar simply created a tool to enable her to give the piece its due.
It doesn’t seem to matter to Afshar if a body of music was originally intended for the piano or Settar – a traditional Persian instrument, Afshar is able to find a way to play it on her 1992 Thomas Humphrey, which has become very much an extension of herself. “I like to be a pioneer,” she admits. But it is a secondary passion.
“There is nothing like performing on stage. I feel more at home there than at my home, but I love to teach, too,” says Afshar, who has taught at the University of Memphis for 21 years. “Sometimes I learn about my own technique as I explain it to children.” What she really enjoys is seeing them get inspired. “That’s really nice.” Afshar has already achieved all goals of her youth, and her little red guitar was (the last time she looked) still in the closet in Iran, but her future both as a performer and teacher remains open for the myriad of possibilities that await her.
Afshar’s visit was arranged and sponsored by Song in my Heart Studio with the assistance of Carol and Wymond Echardt, Management Innovations and Arts Outreach. For more information about Afshar and her products, visit lilyafshar.com.
by SaraLloyd Truax, Staff Writer
Santa Ynez Vally Journal, CA