Wizards on six-strings

Peninsula teens' guitar quartet to be featured on NPR

Award-winning middle and high-school guitarists are headed to San Francisco this weekend to show what a lifetime of guitar playing, practicing and hard work sounds like.

National Public Radio's "From The Top" has selected Ashwin Krishna, Chase Onodera, Nicholas Padmanabhan and Alexander Stroud to play a quartet in front of a live audience at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Saturday, Feb. 14. The NPR program is designed to showcase and support young, classically trained musicians through live events, scholarships and leadership programs.

All four young classical guitarists have been training at a conservatory because their respective schools only offer limited music programs and band, neither of which focuses on classical guitar or rise to the level of mastery reached by the teens. It was at the conservatory that they began working together, and it was there that NPR selected them to be featured on the show. The four will be playing a guitar quartet arrangement of "The Song of the Earth," composed by Gustav Mahler.

Closer to home, the quartet will be performing in a recital at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 30, at Mountain View High School's Spartan Theater (3535 Truman Ave.). The performance is free and open to the public.

Stroud, a senior at Mountain View High School, said the quartet has only been playing together since September. Playing as a quartet is definitely a different experience from playing solo, he noted explaining that quartet members have to coordinate with the other musicians and keep their music at the same pace.

"When you're playing as a soloist, you can slow down and speed up almost on a whim if you want to," Stroud said.

But with well-practiced coordination, there's certainly a payoff. Padmanabhan, an eighth-grade student at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, said playing in a quartet masks individual mistakes which can crop up during a live performance.

"As a soloist, the pressure is on to get everything right," he said. "When you're in a quartet you help each other out. No one person is the star."

In a phone interview, the teens were split on whether they preferred classical works to modern music. Krishna, a junior at Los Altos High School, said he finds himself drawn towards modern pieces, while Stroud described modern songs as more difficult, with "funkier tunes" and more bending of the rules.

Stroud said he appreciates the innovation in modern pieces, but finds himself drawn more to classical harmonies.

"There's a reason that this music has persisted for 300 to 400 years," he said.

Onodera, a student in Sacramento who was featured as a soloist on "From The Top" in 2013, plays both classical music and flamenco, a form of Spanish folk music.

Before performing on Saturday, the quartet will perform for students at San Francisco schools that lack strong music programs, according to Padmanabhan. He said they'll be visiting Jefferson Elementary School and Malcolm X Academy to host workshops and introduce students to classical music.

Krishna, Padmanabhan and Stroud all started playing guitar between the ages of 3 and 4, when their parents decided to sign them up for lessons, launching more than a decade of diligent practice, competitions and awards.

Stroud said he couldn't really remember a time when he didn't play guitar. In the beginning, he said, he wasn't a fan of having to practice and work to get better, but he always took it more seriously than a casual hobby. When he was 14 years old, he won his first award at the Sierra Nevada Guitar Festival.

Krishna started competing seriously around fourth grade and began attending classes at the conservatory around the same time. Since then, he said, he has been striving to win not just regional competitions but also the Guitar Foundation of America competition. This year will be his seventh try for first place -- he's finished in second place twice in the past.

Padmanabhan said his parents got him started early, enrolling him at age 3 in a music class to learn about quarter and eighth notes. Two years later, his parents enrolled him in guitar classes, kicking off seven years of training prior to joining the conservatory. Besides winning numerous awards, including second place at the Pacific Musical Society Annual Competition, he performs regularly as a volunteer at a Palo Alto assisted living center.

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