Did you know the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music is home to one of the world’s finest guitar programs?
That’s right. If you want to study classical guitar, Arizona is the place to be. In fact, students flock from all corners of the world to be a part of the Bolton Guitar Studies in the Fred Fox School of Music.
One of the reasons for the success is its director, Tom Patterson, who just entered his 41st year in the program. He says he saw the potential in Arizona from day one.
“The guitar is an emblem of Hispanic culture,” Patterson said. “I saw the Latin culture in Arizona and knew that this was a rich, fertile place to make things happen.”
Patterson explained that Arizona’s proximity to Mexico makes it a hub for guitar culture, guitar lovers and amazing guitarists, like Misael Barraza-Díaz, a current doctoral candidate, who is considered one of the most outstanding Mexican guitarists of his generation. Barraza-Díaz, from Hermosillo, Sonora, has won 10 international competitions.
“We have a tremendous following in the community,” Patterson said. “There is a tremendous pairing with the Tucson Guitar Society, and we have a tremendous amount of very involved donors.”
The Bolton Guitar Studies program supported by an unprecedented gift in 2011 by Sanford and Phyllis Bolton.
“The Boltons were dear friends,” Patterson said. “Their generous gift makes my dream of making this program world class come to fruition.”
In 2011, the Boltons, lifelong music lovers and supporters of classical guitar, gave $2 million to establish the Sanford and Phyllis Bolton Endowed Chair for Classical Guitar, a position held by professor Patterson. And later, an additional $1.1 million, establishing the Sanford and Phyllis Bolton Endowment for Guitar.
The pairing with the Tucson Guitar Society allows the program to annually hosts two visiting artists-in-residence: legendary guitarists and Brazilian brothers Duo Assad (Sergio and Odair Assad) in the fall and Grammy Award winning David Russell in the spring. This unique opportunity gives students in the program the chance to perform in multiple masterclasses and attend the concerts of these world-renowned artists.
Patterson said that guest artists represent a “fantastic example of what these young musicians should aspire to be.” Russell only does an artist-in-residency at one university: Arizona. “He is such a kind, down-to-earth guy,” Patterson said. “He really sets the example for a working professional in the business.”
(Russell will be back at the University in early next year to work with students and perform a concert for streaming.)
All of these “good things” have been attracting students from not only all over the country, but all over the world. In this year alone, the program is home to students from China, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Italy, and Romania.
“My concept is to create a comfortable and familial environment,” Patterson said. “It takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of people, so when students are comfortable with me and with their peers it really helps.”
Senior Yihui Wang, originally from Hang Zhou, China, is a two-time winner of the Creative Achievement Award, while working on her Bachelor of Music. She said that she felt the familial aspect of the program right away.
“I feel the friendly and respectful atmosphere here,” Wang said. “Everyone can understand how difficult it is to study in the United States as a non-native speaker. When I came here, I got a lot of help from Professor Patterson and other students in our studio, both in life and study.”
Doctoral candidate Andres Pantoja from Chillán, Chile, describes Professor Patterson as a “very experienced and open-minded maestro who wisely guides the students.”
“This is very important because many of the students come here with a high-level musicianship and very developed techniques,” Pantoja said. “Professor Patterson manages to bring out the best of each of them without imposing a unique way of playing. So, we can find great guitarists here that play differently, and that is what music is, there are rules, but it is a personal expression in the end.
Tucson’s own Ryan Chen said that many students tend to choose Arizona because of its highly regarded reputation.
“I think so many international and national guitarists pick Arizona because of its reputation,” Chen said. “The school has great connections to the guitar world, so being a part of this program means being a part of the greater guitar world.”
The program’s reach into the Southern Arizona community impacted Chen as a youngest growing up in Tucson. His first guitar teacher was a product of the program.
“In addition to providing expertise and connections in the guitar world, Tom is focused on building a community,” Chen said. “To me, Tom is more than an instructor.”
Patterson compared building the reputation of the guitar program to that of building the reputation of a college basketball team.
“Duke has a great college basketball program, but it’s not great because of the coach or the fans. It’s great because of the players,” Patterson said. “Our program is great because of the students.”
Virtual Lecture Series
Due to the pandemic and throughout the summer the Bolton Guitar Studies program went worldwide in a new way with the launch of the Virtual Lecture Series, featuring students, artists-in-residence, friends and guests demonstrating techniques and discussing various subjects from guitar making, early romantic repertoire, and the production of sound.
“We have been able to reach people all over the world,” Patterson said. “Seriously, the number of countries we were able to reach was bizarre.” The Virtual Lecture Series had over 55,000 people attend its live events and had representatives from New York City all the way to Bangladesh.
While the guitar program has seen so much success through its students and its triumphs, there seems to be one string that ties it all together.
“I am so enthusiastic about what I do,” Patterson said. “I love it. My student’s success is my own.”
After 41 years at Arizona, Patterson is one of the longest-standing faculty. When asked why he has stayed put, he said he is proud of what he has created here in Tucson.
“I have had some very tempting offers in the past,” Patterson explained. “But I am very proud of what I have accomplished here. I have stayed and will stay because I have found fertile ground here.”