An award-winning classical guitarist makes her mark in the South

By Jessica Mejia (from Columbia Star Newspaper):

Marina Alexandra is a classical guitar player originally from the Ukraine. The virtuoso has made a lasting impression in the musical landscape of the South through her relentless work ethic in teaching music and her entrepreneurship.

Alexandra’ s musical aspirations began at the tender age of six, when she was accepted to the government-sponsored School of Music for Talented Children in Kharkiv, Ukraine. She began playing the guitar, the most popular instrument during the time, to accompany her singing and because her mother wanted her to.

Alexandra eventually earned her bachelor’s degree at the Kharkiv State College of Music. In 1996, she moved to South Carolina with her husband and pursued her master’s degree at the University of South Carolina. Today, she keeps a busy schedule by teaching private guitar lessons, instructing students at Columbia College as an adjunct professor, and running the Southern Guitar Festival and Competition, which she founded.

Musicians such as Leo Brower and Juliam Bream have inspired her throughout her journey. Even though she values technique, she admits the music world has changed since she started.

“These days, I think the audience is looking for a whole package. They look for charisma in the artist’s playing, not just the right notes at the right time,” she said.

Alexandra’s talent has been noticed by many publications. Classical Guitar Magazine said, “She is of the elite class of musicians where technical assuredness is just taken for granted, and the listener hears and listens to the music, not the technique required to produce it.”

Throughout her career, Alexandra has received many awards in competitions. Some include the Music Teachers National Association State and Regional Competitions and semifinalist in the sixth annual Edwin H. and Leigh W. Schadt National String Competition. She has performed for National Public Radio and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, to name a few. Her most recent album, A Moment of Magic, is a repertoire of Russian composer Nikita Koshkin’s works. Alexandra has dabbled in baroque and modern music guitar arrangements.

Marina Alexandra

From Undefined Magazine

By Tony Lee, November 2012

Marina Alexandra’s passion to play and teach classical guitar is changing our corner of the world.  Her brainchild, the Southern Guitar Festival and Competition, held its inauguration on June 23rd and 24th, 2012.  Bringing world-caliber guitarists to this city and inspiring its current guitarists is the realization of a decade of planning.  Ms. Alexandra, by way of the city of Kharkiv in the Ukraine, explains her desire to enrich our city’s culture in the following interview.

What brought you to Columbia?

I came to Columbia in 1996 to join my husband when he was offered a computer programming job here. I arrived with my bachelor’s degree in guitar performance, with a minor in pedagogy and conducting. I applied to the USC School of Music and was truly overwhelmed when I found out that I was offered a scholarship and assistant-ship to continue my Master’s Degree under Christopher Berg.

What inspired the organization of the Southern Guitar Festival and Competition?

It has been a longtime dream of mine. For several years, I have been competing and performing at national and international guitar competitions and I have seen the great impact such events have on their communities.  I discussed this idea with Christopher, on and off for about 10 years. In October 2011, I laid out the plan of how this guitar festival would be a great success and why it would contribute not only to the South Carolina guitar community but also to the general community. Christopher gave me his “blessing” and encouraged me to start making my dream a reality. He also went beyond providing moral support by becoming the first donor to the Guitar Muse fund that I created to sponsor all guitar activity in Columbia. Classical guitar still is not as well-known and respected as piano or violin is in the musical world, so classical guitarists are always looking for ways to promote and introduce our instrument to the general public. A festival and competition is an ideal situation for inspiring guitar students of all ages and an opportunity to feature some of the best guitar virtuosos in the world. To take advantage of this opportunity, I invited Romanian, Russian, and American guitarists who enhanced the culture in SC. The Saturday concert on June 23rd featured an amazing flamenco trio and on Sunday, June 24th, featured classical guitarists that focused on more traditional guitar repertoire such as Classical, Spanish, and Modern music.

What motivates you to be its director?

Even though I am the official director of the Southern Guitar Festival, I couldn’t do it without a strong team of guitar players, my friends, and teachers on whom I rely for advice and expertise. Their support has been invaluable. I believe and am confident in how this event can benefit South Carolina. Having performed in many competitions, I know exactly what I want and I am trying to avoid the mistakes of other guitar competitions. I am sure I will make my own mistakes and I will do my best to avoid them in the future.

How were you able to secure funding?

Well, as crazy as it might seem, I had absolutely no funding at the beginning.  Being a musician, not a businessperson, I always focused on what inspires me and how I can become better at what I do (teaching or performing). Money was never my priority or agenda. Well, money is a very important part of any project! As a director, I knew I had to create a fund to secure the artists’ concert fees and competition awards. We musicians, always underpaid, learn how to be creative in raising money. My colleagues and I came up with the idea of a Guitar Gala fundraising event, at which the artists mentioned earlier agreed to play for free.  I also invited several local visual artists to become part of this event. They allowed us to sell their works and donated 50% of the sale toward the Southern Guitar Festival and competition. Thanks to this collaboration we were able to raise enough money to secure the necessary funding.

What challenges have you faced in directing the Southern Guitar Festival?

I have encountered nothing but great support from local guitarists, students, and their parents. I was sincerely surprised by how eager guitar teachers were to become a part of this event. The teachers who chose to collaborate created several projects that are extremely beneficial and educational for the community. We had performance classes that were intended for everybody interested in learning how to perform in public. These classes also gave guitar teachers the chance to exchange teaching ideas and network. Achievement Day, a biannual event, focuses on examining the progress of students. Students perform in front of a panel of judges and receive verbal and written comments on their progress and recommendations.

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

This is a hard question for me to answer. I do have goals and dreams that I hope to realize, but in my culture, we don’t talk about things that have not taken place yet. I sure hope to bring more awareness about the potential for classical guitar to this community. I would love to see the younger generation picking up this great instrument and learning something more interesting than just a few chords. I also hope that the principals of our public schools will become more open-minded about hosting the guitar programs that will be taught by professionally trained guitarists.

What are some positive aspects of music culture in the Columbia area and what do you think could stand to improve?

It is amazing that so much is happening in Columbia. Somebody can be entertained daily by going to very affordable, often free, concerts, exhibitions, and theater productions. There is lots of creativity going on to promote new music and to make art very affordable, but with all this creativity comes the reality that we artists are dependent upon what people are willing to pay to go listen to a great musician or a concert. We often find ourselves playing for free or for a laughable fee. I truly hope that people will start placing as much value on the arts as they put on their food.

Marina Alexandra

From the Free Times newspaper:

By Rodney Welch Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Marina Alexandra’s near-lifelong interest in playing the guitar covers a lot of ground. Born in Ukraine, she started learning the instrument at the age of 6, mostly at the insistence of her mother. “I was singing non-stop, near the mirror with a hairbrush in my hands, imitating a microphone,” she says. Her mother “thought it would be nice if I could learn to accompany myself on a guitar, learn a chord or two.” Her mother’s preference was for “bard music,” which Alexandra explains is a kind of Soviet folk music popular in the 1960s. “It was a genre developed by Soviet intellectuals,” she says, referring “to singer-songwriters who wrote songs outside the Soviet establishment, similarly to folk singers of the American folk music revival.”But Alexandra had no intention of becoming Ukraine’s answer to Joan Baez. Instead, her preference leaned toward the kind of classical sounds that will be featured this weekend at the fourth annual Southern Guitar Festival and Competition in Columbia, which she founded. The festival, which runs June 5-7, is equally divided between entertainment and education. It opens this Friday with a concert at 7:30 p.m. at the Tapp’s Art Center. Featured will be Finnish guitarist Otto Tolonen, along with Alexandra, Craig Butterfield (bass), Chris Teves (guitar), Matthew Slotkin (guitar), Teri Forscher-Milter (flute) and Brett Floyd (guitar). Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and children under 15. The educational part follows on Saturday and Sunday at IT-oLogy. IT-oLogy will host competition round performances, workshops, lectures, and master classes given by teachers from around the world. On Saturday evening, the festival returns to the Tapp’s Arts Center with a performance from the New Flamenco Trio at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and children under 15. The festival ends Sunday afternoon at Tapp’s with performances at 4 p.m. by the three young virtuosos who won last year’s competition: upcoming Brazilian guitarist Andre Machado and an American flute/guitar duo, Galestro-Smith. Tickets are $15.Since emigrating with her family to the United States in 1996, Alexandra has been learning and teaching classical guitar at an academic level. She has served on the faculties of Furman University, University of South Carolina-Aiken, Wingate University, and Columbia College. She is also the guitarist in Duo de Vista with flutist Teri Forscher-Milter, and she performs regularly on stages throughout the Southeast. Though Alexandra has dedicated herself to classical music, she did have some flirtations with popular and rock music. “When I was young, my boyfriends would try to influence my taste by playing The Beatles, Metallica, and Scorpions,” she says. “But it never kept me entertained for more than a few days … All I can say is that when I hear beautiful classical music, no matter on what instrument it’s played, I stop thinking, moving, and breathing.” Even though the guitar has such a prominent place in popular music, Alexandra bemoans the fact that many still don’t know it in its classical form. “Everybody knows musicians from the pop culture, but so few are familiar with classically trained amazing guitar players who can play anything from jazz to classic,” she says. Hence the need for the Southern Guitar Festival. “Our festival is one of the very few festivals in the USA that is not produced with the common support of the college or the local university,” Alexandra says. “We are very proud of the fact that our event is independently organized, and not associated with any local institutions. This production is supported by guitar lovers and professional musicians throughout South Carolina.”

Marina Alexandra

Poetic Beauty

By Bill Piburn from “Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine” (2007)

Marina Alexandra was born in the city of Kharkiv in the Ukraine. At the age of six, she was accepted at the School for Music for talented children.

She graduated with honors and continued her studies with the highly respected Vitaly Petrov at the Kharkiv State College of Music. At the age of seventeen, while still completing her bachelor’s degree, she was invited to direct a classical guitar program at a public school in Kharkiv. Within a year, Marina received an offer to work as a full-time teacher at The School of Music for Talented Children.

In 1998, Mrs. Alexandra was awarded a scholarship in music and a graduate fellowship in guitar to study with Christopher Berg at the University of South Carolina. In 2001, she received her Master of Music degree in Guitar Performance from USC.

Q: You were accepted at the School of Music for talented children at age six. Was that based on your guitar skills?

A: No, but it is very competitive since it is sponsored by the government, and there are limited spots available every year. Exams are designed to check for general music skills such as rhythm, pitch, and tempo. They were pre-selecting musically inclined children.

QWhat got you interested in the guitar at such an early age?

A: It was my mother’s idea. She liked bard music, a type of Russian country music, that was in a way an underground movement cultivated by Soviet intellectuals. She said I would sing non-stop, and she thought it would be nice if I could learn how to accompany myself on a guitar. In addition, the guitar is a very popular instrument and has always been a big part of the Russian tradition of singing after a meal and at gatherings.

Q: Do you come from a music family?

A: Not at all, my parents were engineers.

Q: You now have studied in the American universities system and taught in it as well. Tell me the difference in the systems in the Ukraine and the United States.

A: It took me a while to get adapted to the “gentle style” of American teaching. I came from a culture where everything is expressed in a very direct way. My Ukrainian teachers never hesitated to show true emotions. They could be extremely happy with the results and would give me a big hug and kiss on the cheek, or they wouldn’t even speak to me if they didn’t like my performance. My American teachers were always nice and logical and probably way more reserved in showing their emotions.

When I came to the USA and started teaching, I remember asking my American friends to print out for me a list of “nice“ phrases that I could use to articulate my reply to my students’ playing. Often, within the first 5 seconds of a student’s playing, I would say in my head: “This sounds pretty bad.” And then I would spend the next five minutes thinking of how to say it nicely. I think the European system can make a tough player into an excellent musician, but it may destroy a fragile individual. In the American system, everybody has a chance to become good without being pre-selected.

Q: While I am not condoning the government, I have always admired the fact that the Soviet Union always funded the arts and gave opportunities to young people to work early on with good instruction. Tell me about this system and do you wish the US government funded the arts in the same way?

A: I think that art and music education was one of the few positive things that were happening in the Soviet Union. Most of the kids who wanted to study and had a talent got the opportunity to do so for a relatively small monthly fee (5% of their monthly salary). Every student accepted into art school received around 5 hours of training per week. It included 2 hours of the main instrument (in my case guitar), 1 hour of piano (a secondary instrument was required), theory, and history. When I came to the USA, I was surprised by the absence of such music schools for kids. There were lots of small music studios that were commercially based and were not focused on well-rounded musical education. What surprised me even more is that most of the parents were not even interested in well-rounded music education. Music lessons were just another activity aligned with soccer practice, karate, and other “fun things” to do.

I do wish the American government would sponsor music and art schools, so truly talented kids will have an opportunity to study music, dance, and any type of art regardless of their families’ income.

Q: Do you think there is a great discipline in studying in your homeland?

A: Absolutely. The majority of parents are very dedicated to the nourishment of a child’s work ethic. In our families, when children took music lessons, parents understood that 45 min minimum practice daily was a must. Most of the parents wanted to see the results and were ambitious about their kids’ achievements on the instrument. I guess it made them feel that their kid is special. The ability to play a musical instrument or dance well are highly regarded talent in Ukrainian and Russian cultures. It is kind of like an attitude toward sports in the USA. 99% of American parents truly believe in the absolute importance of sports. They are willing to spend hours a week shouting in the fields. But when it comes to practicing an instrument or any kind of art, it is treated as an option.

Q: You now live in Columbia, South Carolina. Have you become a US citizen?

A: Yes, I did become a US citizen and am truly proud of it. When I went back to Ukraine a couple of years ago for a visit, I realized that I am much more American than I thought I was. I love so many things about this country, to the point that I became very subjective and willing to argue with my Ukrainian friends about American ideals.