Pavel Steidl: world-class musician sounds note of warning - beware of guitar-jealous women

My guest today is Pavel Steidl, a Czech guitarist who has been listed among the eight best guitarists in the world. He has performed in 30 countries with Mexico being his second favourite after his native Czech Republic. He returned to the country after many years of emigration in the Netherlands. He is always travelling around the world, but he feels at home in the little village of Skryje on the River Berounka. This is the river of his childhood, and from his exile, he always dreamed of coming home. I met him at his house and after he had explained his problems with chimney sweeps and finished cooking chicken soup he sat down and started playing.

"I wrote this for one girl in the Netherlands. She was my neighbour. Her name was Eugene she had very funny teeth. She was very funny, very nice. When I write music my first goal is not to write something original but more or less something that is nice and makes me happy. If something makes me happy I can make other people happy and that is very important in music."

How do you choose the repertoire for your concerts?

"I have periods in my life. When I was twenty or thirty I didn't play romantic music. It was too easy and too sweet for me. I played only contemporary music and J.S.Bach. But later I started to love romantic music and I started to play it on old instruments. I combined it with my own pieces. If I play pieces for a longer time I think I have to play something different and I am looking for new pieces."

What is the most difficult piece to play?

"Well it is a piece I cannot play yet. For example I play Bach's Chaconne. It is maybe one of the most beautiful pieces that were written for a solo instrument. It is growing with you. Every time I play it I play it differently because there are always new ideas."

You started playing at the age of eight.

"You start your music already when you start to sing. When you sing with your parents in a car it is more important than playing an instrument and then the moment when you hear an instrument from a radio and it touches you so deep that you say 'Oh my God I want to play it.' I remember that moment. I think at that moment I was ten years old but before I had already played guitar, violin, mandolin, banjo and I had played a lot of blue grass music. I was twenty-one when I won the competition at Radio France in 1982. When you are twenty-one you don't know much about the world, you don't know much about yourself. I remember when I won it was a big surprise to me and people here because they thought I was a little bit strange. I played different kinds of music. But I won it and at that time it was the biggest competition for guitar.

"After I came back I got a letter from the Ministry of Interior. It was an invitation to their office to talk to a lady who was very friendly. During the conversation appeared an idea that maybe we could help each other. When I would travel to Western Europe that maybe I could find out some information about a friend of mine who had escaped to Germany. I don't think it was very important. It is something like a devil, something very dark enters your life and you have to make a decision. Just like Faust.

"I didn't accept it and I am happy that I didn't accept but I am unhappy that I didn't send them to hell immediately. So this was very important when I was making the decision to leave this country because I really only wanted to play the guitar. A good thing about making music is that you don't need your language very much. It is much more difficult if you are an actor or a writer. So I left the country I got political asylum in the Netherlands and I stayed there for 17 years."

It was very difficult at the beginning, wasn't it?

"Oh yes, it was terrible. The first two years were very difficult. You think you have freedom but the first thing you have to do is to wait for at least one or two years to get your passport. You have to come to the police station every week. It had a big influence on my playing. At that time I didn't play many concerts. I played so few concerts so when I went on stage I started to shake."

What was the breakthrough when everything changed?

"One of the first invitations after everything had changed here was to come and play at a festival in the Czech Republic in Mikulov. These people helped me more than the best manager. They said to another people 'You should take this man for your concert or a festival.'"

So you now play all around the world. Do you do anything else apart from that?

"Cooking. [laughs] You say 'You just play concerts.' but it also means a lot of work on a computer, to write letters, prepare programmes, to combine flights. I've just spent 14 days in Mexico and Argentina. In fourteen days I spent five days on a plane. It makes me very, very angry because I just like to play a guitar I like to make music. You can of course practise in your brain. You can make a visualisation of the pieces that you play. As a musician you have to practise with notes and an instrument together, only with notes and only with instruments and without notes and without an instrument. That is really very nice."

You practise long hours every day.

"I remember ten hours but it doesn't make much sense. Very important is how deep you practise. It is very nice for me if I get to practise between three and five hours."

What about composing?

"Well, I am not really a composer that I want to make something original. I don't want to write many compositions. But if there is something nice I like to write it down to give it a form and to play it."

What does a good musician have to have?

"I don't know, I am not sure what a good guitarist should have but I know what he definitely should not have: a wife who is jealous of a guitar."