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Guitarist Moorhead tunes up for solo career


March 15, 2007

Keep the name Austin Moorhead in your mind. Someday he'll be famous, and you can say, “I heard about him when he was a student at ASU.”

Moorhead, a shining star in ASU's guitar program in the Herberger College's School of Music, has won numerous prizes in national guitar competitions, and now he has his eye on international events – and a career as a solo guitarist.

“I don't want to be a ‘gig musician,' ” he says. “I want to be a concert performer.”

Moorhead has been playing for a dozen years, inspired by his father, Matthew, who plays the guitar for fun.

Though Moorhead, who graduates in May, loves the guitar, he says he would have been content to play any instrument, as long as it made music.

“I love music,” he says. “I could be just as happy playing the piano.”

Moorhead says playing the guitar poses special challenges, however.

“The guitar is a unique instrument,” he says. “It's very easy to play the guitar badly. It's a very tough instrument to play well at the concert level.”

So why is the guitar so difficult to play?

Moorhead says it's a matter of coordination, and getting a good tone. The angle of the fingers on the strings can make a huge difference, for example, so keeping fingernails trimmed just right is crucial, he says.

“Guitarists just use the nails on the right hand, the hand that is doing the picking, and the nails are kept longer than usual because it's necessary to get a good sound on the guitar,” he says.

Moorhead, who won first prize in the 2006 Music Academy of North Carolina, Eastfield College (Texas) and Rosario (Ohio) guitar competitions, and was one of four first-prize winners in the 2006 ASU Concerto Competition, said entering national contests serves several purposes.

“You can gauge the competition, and you get your name out there,” he says. “You see a lot of the same people at the competitions, but you also see new players who are great. You really have to work at not worrying about the competition, but about how good you are. I want to keep getting better.”

At an average competition, Moorhead goes against anywhere from 15 to 60 other players, and the typical prize is $1,000.

The competitors have to have all their music memorized. Sometimes there are “set” pieces that every contestant plays, followed by several rounds where they get to play their favorite music.

“I've played a Sergio Assad piece, ‘Fantasia Carioca,' at all the competitions,” Moorhead says.

To reach his goal of someday becoming a concert artist, Moorhead tries to practice six hours a day.

“I do finger exercises to warm up, then I'll work on a specific piece,” he says.

Moorhead recently practiced Spanish composer Rodrigo's “Concerto de Aranjuez,” which he performed with the ASU Symphony Orchestra Feb. 28 in ASU Gammage on the Tempe campus.

He plays a new guitar handmade by Jeremy Cooper, a Tucson luthier, which has a spruce top and rosewood sides. It's one of a dozen guitars at the Moorhead household in Phoenix , “but it's the only one I play,” Moorhead says.