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Guitar Hero

by: patrick sherman, Young Travis Johnson practices before his trip to Washington, D.C.

Classical guitarist Travis Johnson has led a distinguished career, winning top honors in national and international competition, recording an album of his music and amassing awards from institutes and foundations.

His accomplishments are especially remarkable because Johnson is just 13 years old.

'I've been playing for five years,' he said. 'I started on the ukulele, because my hands were too small.'

A Milwaukie resident, Johnson hails from a musical family.

'My siblings have all played instruments, so my mom wanted me to pick one up, too,' he explained. 'I wanted to play the accordion, but she didn't want me to - she didn't see much of a future in it.

'My grandpa played classical guitar. She grew up listening to him play, so she encouraged me to take that up, instead.'

Classical guitar is distinguished from its folk cousins both by its repertoire and the characteristics of the instrument itself. Folk guitars use steel strings, and performers typically use picks or metal cups on the ends of their fingers to play, whereas the classical instrument uses softer nylon strings and players use their own nails and flesh.

'The classical guitar repertoire begins in the Renaissance, beginning in the 1400s and continues up until this very day,' said Professor Peter Zisa, Johnson's instructor at Marylhurst University. 'We're talking about roughly 600 years of music or a little more, and one of the challenges is to become aware of the stylistic differences between the different periods, such as baroque, classical, romantic and modern.

'For example, Bach wrote music to express his religious faith and to glorify God. A later composer would use music to express his or her art or individuality.'

Playing the classical guitar well means more than being the perfect robot, reproducing the music as it is written on the page precisely and without error - performers are expected to add their own nuances to each piece, even one written by a master like Bach.

'It's an awesome responsibility to add to the music of J.S. Bach. Almost all of the great composers since have been influenced by his work,' said Zisa. 'We'll sit down together and I'll show Travis some of the things he could do. I present him with a few ideas, but I'm trying to lead him to it, not just provide it for him. Music is personal expression.'

Johnson meets the challenge with an eye on the historical context of each piece.

'It's not so much that I take the music and try to make it into a different piece,' he said. 'Take Bach, for example. Originally, it would have been played on a lute, so maybe I will add in some more base notes, because the lute had more strings.'

Boppin'

'From the very beginning, Travis has enjoyed performing,' said Zisa. 'I think that's a strong motivator for him.'

Johnson confirmed Zisa's observation, saying, 'What I like about performing is that you are on stage, and you are the center of attention. I can play the music and share it with my audience, and that's fun.'

He is a regular performer at the Portland Guitar Society. Two years ago, at age 11, he earned a place in the semi-final round in the organization's annual festival, competing against doctoral students in music more than twice his age. His extraordinary talent brought him to the attention of the society's director, Brian Johansen.

'Travis showed a lot of promise,' Zisa said. 'For the following year, we thought it would be good for him to learn a modern piece, and it just so happens that Brian is a great composer.'

Seeking to commission a piece from Johansen, the young performer scheduled an interview with him

'Brian had two pieces he had just begun to write,' Johnson recalled. 'One was more of a mystic piece - it was really cool. The second piece started out with just a few notes, and it instantly got stuck in my head, and it got stuck in my Mom's head, and we just couldn't get it out of there.'

Johansen completed the piece, which he titled Boppin'.

'It's so much like Travis' personality,' said Zisa. 'It's cheerful and upbeat - Brian said that he thought about the type of piece he would have enjoyed playing when he was Travis' age.'

Working hard to learn Boppin' as well as pieces drawn from the classical guitar repertoire, Johnson entered the First National Youth Solo Guitar Competition, held by the prestigious Guitar Federation of America.

Held in October 2005, Johnson faced off against 27 other accomplished young performers from around the country, some as old as 18.

'He got into the final round, played Boppin' and won first place,' said his mother, Marietta Johnson.

In May 2006, he was invited to play at the Parkening International Youth Solo Guitar Competition, held at Pepperdine University in southern California. One of only 11 competitors, he ended in the semi-final round.

'It was really hard,' said Johnson.

Trails of Hope

Amid the swirl of festivals and competitions, Johnson and his mother learned about the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. A non-profit based in Reno, Nev., its mission is to recognize and support profoundly intelligent young people.

'We didn't know what we were getting into,' said Johnson's mother. 'I thought it was just going to be a matter of filling out an application, but you have to complete a project. We went to Peter and said, what kind of project can we do? He's a nice kid who plays the guitar!'

In response, Zisa suggested that the collaboration between performer and composer that Johnson had experienced while working with Johansen on Boppin' would likely qualify as such a project.

'There was an education for Travis that came out of that process,' he said. 'It was a wonderful experience - we didn't even know how wonderful that project would be for him.'

He continued the project by recording a CD of his music, and the search is ongoing for music label to distribute it.

Setting aside his guitar, Johnson took up a pen and wrote his story for the Davidson Institute. He submitted his project alongside the work of other prodigies across fields as diverse as astronomy, medicine and art.

Winning entries had titles such as, 'HIV-1 Tat and Igk-Chain Secretion Based Protein Transduction: A Novel Strategy for Molecule Delivery' and 'The Effects of Age on Brown Dwarf Spectral Features in the Near-Infrared.'

Johnson entitled his own paper, 'Trails of Hope.'

Zisa explained the title: 'In classical guitar, Travis found something that he very much enjoys. He's hoping that his experience and joy is something that might inspire other people, and remind them that there are options.'

When the winners were announced, Johnson's name was included among the rarified list of Davidson Fellows. The second-youngest of all those recognized, he received a $10,000 scholarship as well as a trip to Washington, D.C.

Reflecting on the attributes that make his young student so successful, his professor identified four distinct factors.

'First and foremost, there is his love of the music,' said Zisa. 'Second is the discipline he has to master the craft of performing. Third is the support he receives from his family - it is so hard for a child to practice quarantined in a room, but his mother is ever-present.

'Last, is Travis' ability to hear a critical correction, wrap himself around it and go with it, maybe even to a level that I didn't expect.'