“It’s the sound of the classical guitar that I love. And its history and repertoire. And the wide range of music you can play. And also, the uniqueness of the way the instrument can be played…”
Oliver Howes could happily go on about the guitar – and does. At 21 years old, the friendly New Zealander can talk about J.S. Bach’s lute suites and metal guitarist Devin Townsend with the same ease. He recently finished a Bachelor of Music degree in Classical Guitar Performance at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. The program turned out to be not just a natural extension of his childhood, but a way of understanding his connection to music.
Drawn to music since his early years, Oliver started lessons young. “I started acoustic guitar lessons from a family friend when I was seven. I began classical guitar lessons when I was ten and started electric guitar a year later. All that carried on until I went to university, where I focused on classical guitar, which is the main instrument I play now.”
While he has no distinct memory of liking classical music when he was young, the hours spent practicing classical guitar pieces paid off. “As I became more accomplished, it grew with me. And it’s always been a very nerdy obsession of mine to explore the classical guitar repertoire, which is vast and goes back hundreds of years. My favorite is probably 20th-century music, though there’s some amazing, beautiful music from the 19th century as well.”
His interest in classical guitar also coincided with developments in hearing loss technology. “Growing up with hearing loss, I had no comparison to my ‘normal’ – so along with the challenges of adapting to my environment came a deep appreciation for Phonak technology. When playing guitar and listening to music, for example, my hearing loss in the upper and lower frequencies often make it hard for me to distinguish small intervals, and the sound is dull. But with significant advances in the technology over the last decade, I’ve been fortunate to experience greater clarity and definition of sound. Hearing technology brings the sparkle of sound back and really makes a huge difference to enjoying what I do.”
After studying classical guitar at Victoria College of the Arts Secondary School in Melbourne, Australia, Oliver returned to New Zealand to start his three-year bachelor’s degree. He focused on solo and ensemble performance while dealing with what he calls the emotional roller coaster of studying music. While he felt fortunate to be there and learning from others, he faced challenges. “You put in a lot of work, and you don’t always see the results. There’s so much behind the scenes, practicing and preparing, and it’s quite solitary.”
What kept him going was the music. “For me, written music is like a tapestry. I really enjoy the work behind reading, interpreting and translating a piece of music through the instrument. It almost feels like a collaborative experience, where you get to realize your ideas through what came before and feel there’s a history attached to it.”
Oliver also found that there was always something to learn. “The guitar has always been a folk instrument, so music from South America and Spain was a big part of the repertoire. And with the earlier music like baroque, there was a lot of improvisation and a sense of freedom within the structure.”
Since graduating in November, Oliver has been taking a break at home with his family in Wanaka. He spends his days running, swimming and working in a grocery store. And tackling some Bach, Giuliani and Tansman to keep things going on the guitar.
The next step will be a move to Auckland University of Technology (AUT) for another four-year program – but one that trains his hands in a different way. Inspired by a great aunt and the idea of helping people for a living, he will major in physiotherapy as part of a Bachelor of Health Sciences degree.
“Back in 2020, when I was training in gymnastics, I had several experiences coaching young children. I was able to help a boy with a physical disability achieve some basic skills and help him with his walking. This was incredibly rewarding and, I think, my main motivation behind looking into physiotherapy as a career. Also, my family environment was very close and supportive growing up, which made me appreciate the impact empathy can have on others.”
Still, Oliver will be bringing his faithful concert guitar up to Auckland next month. “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next few years, when I’m studying for a completely different degree. We’ll see what the balance is like.” In the meantime, he will keep on playing and listening to all kinds of music – as long it’s authentic and, as he puts it, “not trying to be anything it’s not.”
Note: Oliver wears Phonak Virto™ Black hearing aids.