Appreciating SGS Guitar Orchestra Conductor -Sean O’Connor

The Sacramento Guitar Society would like to recognize the excellent service that Sean O’Connor has been providing a conductor to our community orchestras over the past decade. His dedication to creating a welcoming an musically inspiring atmosphere is a huge part of what our community thrives upon. His tireless efforts have been greatly appreciated and valued by so many. Thank you Sean!

Here is a little Q&A interview with Sean to share his background and journey with the guitar. Enjoy!

Sean, tell us about your journey with the guitar.

I officially started playing during my freshman year of high school in 1995, when I took a beginning guitar class offered as an elective. I never imagined back then that my journey would lead me to become a professional musician and teacher, let alone one who is releasing an album this year (more on that later). Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method is what we had to work with, so I started reading music right away, for which I’m very grateful. Of course, I also picked up a lot of tips from my classmates, some of whom were not beginners and signed up to have an excuse to play guitar at school. I was hooked, and continued taking music classes through the rest of high school, including jazz band and choir. I also played electric guitar in a very heavy metal band that never went beyond playing a backyard concert or two, and did a lot of noodling and jamming with friends.

When it came time for college, the only major I could imagine enjoying was music. So I majored in classical guitar performance at CSUS, studying with Richard Savino, and eventually graduating Magna cum Laude. During this time I also studied lute for a couple semesters, which planted the seeds of fascination with early music and multi-string guitars. I also started teaching privately while still in college, picking up teaching gigs through a program called Community Music Division, and later starting to teach at Music-Go-Round and Kline Music, thanks to my friend and colleague Joshua Ray’s referral.

Since graduating, I’ve been teaching 40-50 private students per week. In addition, I’ve played solo classical guitar gigs and concerts, and also played in two rock bands. I joined SGS in the early 2010s while taking lessons from Daniel Roest, who helped me recover my classical chops after a long period of focusing on electric guitar. Daniel got me coming out to see what the group was all about, playing at open mics and in the orchestra, and I was hooked. At that time, the orchestra was under the direction of Greg Williams. I took over the orchestra director gig in 2014 and have been having a blast doing it ever since.

On the teaching end, I taught at both stores for a while, but eventually moved exclusively to Music-Go-Round because it was closer to my home. In 2013, that store went out of business, so I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, rented an office space in the neighborhood, and started my own independent music teaching practice. I’ve been flying solo ever since, and loving it, despite the challenges of running my own business.

The latest step in my guitar journey has been learning (and eventually recording an album on) the 11-string alto guitar, an instrument invented in the 1960s by two Swedish gentlemen. Georg Bolin, a luthier, created the design in collaboration with guitarist Per-Olaf Johnson. Johnson wanted an instrument he could use to play lute music, but using guitar technique. So Bolin redesigned the classical guitar, giving it a shorter scale, raising the tuning up a minor third (three frets), and adding five extended bass strings that were tuned down step-wise from the sixth. This gave it a tuning similar to an eleven string tenor lute, specifically g-d-a-F-C-G for the main six strings, and then down step-wise for the extended basses, typically F-Eb-D-C-Bb, but often adjusted to match the key of the piece. You play the extended bass strings only as open strings, with the right hand thumb, similar to a harp guitar. One of the especially cool things about Bolin’s design is that the extended basses increase in scale length progressively, so you don’t have to use big thick strings as you would on a ten or seven-string guitar. Instead, you use more “low E” strings and they work just fine.

I discovered this instrument in 2016 via YouTube, where I stumbled across Göran Söllscher playing pieces by Bach and Weiss. I was instantly captivated by the full, clear sound of the instrument, and its expanded range. My friend and colleague, Matthew Grasso, encouraged me to go for it, and in 2017 I took the plunge. Since then I’ve learned a great deal of repertoire, the bulk of it being lute music, but some in the form of arrangements, and original pieces by Matthew Grasso and myself. I’ve since played many concerts and gigs with it, some solo, and some with Matt’s Multi-String Guitar Ensemble in Davis.

In September of 2022, I began recording my first full-length album on the instrument, again with Matt’s help (he did the audio engineering and co-produced). It’s called Journey to Eleven, and releases on 12-11-23. It’s comprised of lute repertoire by Giovanni Zamboni and Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Göran Söllscher’s transcription of the Sarabande and Gavottes from Bach’s sixth ‘cello suite, and my own transcription of Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses. I’m very proud of it. It’s available via BandCamp here. The download/streaming package has been up since 11/1. The CD and CD+streaming+download package will be up as soon as the CD shipment gets to me, which may happen before this is published. I’m also very happy to announce that I’ll be doing an album release show and party at Cal Cap Black Box theater in Rancho Cordova on January 13.

What drew you to the classical guitar style, repertoire?

It all started with my grandfather, and John Williams. Grandpa lent me a cassette of John Williams album “Spanish Guitar Music” when I was a senior in high school, and it had a huge impact on me. I always enjoyed playing alone, and discovering that it was possible to play a complete piece music with melody, harmony, and bass on a guitar completely blew my mind. That’s when the quest began. I also loved the depth of feeling that came from the Spanish repertoire, and had always been captivated by the big classical composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Learning that this type of music could be played on the guitar got me very excited.

Name a few pieces that are very special to you and why?

Carulli’s Waltz in E minor was one of the first two classical pieces I learned, so it will always have a special place in my heart. Weiss’s G minor Chaconne was the piece that drew me in to playing the 11-string alto guitar, and it’s on the album for that reason. I absolutely adore that piece’s melancholy feel, and rich contrapuntal texture. Finally, Bach’s first ‘cello suite was the first full baroque suite I ever learned, and I still go back to it for the beautiful melodies and incredibly clever melodic counterpoint. These are just examples, though. Every piece I’ve played is special to me in some way or another.

What makes a good student?  Teacher?

I think the qualities are the same for both. Hard work, clear communication, empathy, and a collaborative spirit. I believe that the adversarial style of teaching often portrayed in Hollywood is the worst possible approach, aside from total apathy. There is a relationship between the teacher and student that I feel should be based on trust and mutual respect. You don’t establish that through bullying or emotional manipulation. As a teacher, you try to guide your students to the habits you want them to form by making the path forward as clear as possible, but they have to walk that path.

What goes in to orchestra piece selection?

The first concern is, will this be rewarding to play? That means the piece must be musically interesting, and also within the technical capacity of the players. The other thing I try to do, with varying degrees of success, is create a program for each season that is either thematic or has an interesting variety of pieces, so that we can keep both audience and performers engaged.

10 years in now, what have you learned, and what keeps you coming back?

I’ve learned a great deal about leadership, in particular leading by example. The harder I work as the director, the more motivated my players are. It’s generally pretty obvious to people when you are invested in something, and they tend to respond in kind. I’ve also greatly improved my conducting and arranging skills along the way, which is very valuable to me.

What keeps me coming back? Mostly it’s the people. When you play music together, and put on a performance, there are bonds that form between people that you just don’t get any other way. We have a lot of fun in rehearsals, but the biggest reward is hearing the improvement as we go through each season, then giving that big performance at the end and giving everybody a metaphorical (or literal) high-five. It’s immensely satisfying.

Thank you Sean for your great service to the SGS and our guitar community.