SMG Experience: Classical Rocks with Robert Johnston

The amazing and always inspirational Steve Vai jammin’ on his Ibanez

Since I was a teenager, long before I’d seen footage of Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen doing it, and a few years before YouTube came about, I’d dreamed of performing my compositions on electric guitar with an orchestra. After all, the electric guitar was the only instrument that had yet to find it’s place among the prestige of orchestration.

I was a diligent student of classical music. During my college years, I spent a great deal of time transcribing the works of J.S. Bach and recording them on my electric guitar. My solo guitar arrangements included the infamous Cello Suite, all of the 2-part inventions  as well as the entire 13-minute-long masterpiece The Tocotta and Fugue in D minor. I spent a great deal of time composing music of my own as well.

In the summer of 2002, I attended a concert by world-renowned Japanese classical guitarist Masanobu Nishigaki. After the concert, I went up to him to introduce myself, mentioning that I also played classical music…on my electric guitar. With a scowl, he abruptly turned a cold shoulder and began speaking to someone else. This reaction only strengthened my ambition.

Robert Johnston performing an original song live with the Gadsden Symphony Orchestra!

As the years went by, I tried out other genres of music and slowly began to evolve my own musical style and sensibility. My compositions began to sound less like Bach and Mozart and more like Robert Johnston. Having studied a variety of styles, I began to weave influences of not only classical, but also rock, blues, and jazz into my music. In short, I was becoming myself.

Then a day that I thought would never come about happened in the fall of 2010 when the director of the Gadsden Symphony Orchestra approached me in one of the practice rooms at the Cultural Arts Center where I was teaching at the time. He told me how every year they invite a guest performer to try and attract a broader following and asked me if I’d be interested in performing with the Gadsden Orchestra. Short and sweet, my answer was “Absolutely”.

An interesting thing about the GSO is that, because it’s a small town orchestra, there isn’t actually enough local talent to have a full professional orchestra, so a good 80% of their members are comprised of musicians hired from the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. I was told that, due to budget constraints, I would only be allowed one rehearsal the night before the show with only enough time to run through everything once, but not to worry, that these were professional musicians who could sight read anything you put in front of them perfectly. It was a scary thought, but I was determined to make it work.

I went home that day, cracked open my laptop and immediately began composing the score. In my spare time, I spent the next three months arranging and orchestrating the music for a 40 piece orchestra, and rehearsing to the computer-generated midi track. I personally printed out and taped together all of the music for all the instruments of the 40-piece orchestra. There was only one part that I hadn’t written out; my part. It was in my head!

Marketing was no easy task either. I printed up flyers and made sure that all the local music teachers were encouraging their students to attend. I also made sure to schedule an interview with the local paper, and made guest appearance on two local radio stations to promote the event. It all came down to one night.

The night before the show I wasn’t able to sleep, the rehearsal had felt a little rushed, and I stayed up all night printing out CDs of my classical guitar recordings to sell at the show. I might have slept an hour on the couch the day of the performance, that was about it. I was on edge.

The night of the show I sat anxiously backstage waiting for my introduction. I imagined myself in the shoes of great performers whom I admired. When they called my name and I walked out to a packed theater….was I scared? Nah, I was excited!

Looking back, I realize there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be doing this every night somewhere. After all, it’s what I was born to do…

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