Thomas Koch is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man with the trace of a German accent. He’s not a self-promoter. If he were, he’d immediately tell you that he’s the president and founder of GuitarSarasota and a member of Trio Voila, a Sarasota-based chamber-music ensemble. Koch might also boast that he plays a mean guitar. He does. But he’d rather talk about the classical guitar than himself.
As Koch sees it, musical instruments, like musicians, can get typecast. It doesn’t always happen. People accept that a violin can play a country reel or a Mozart arpeggio. But somehow, the guitar is different. The legacies of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan have eclipsed the classical guitar in the public mind.
“Most people don’t see the guitar as a classical instrument,” he says. “I want to change that perception. That’s really my mission in life.”
Koch’s own perception changed at the age of 12. That’s when he first heard classical guitarist Andres Segovia at a concert in Wuppertal near his home in Cologne, Germany. The auditorium was filled with more than 2,000 expectant listeners holding their collective breath. Then Segovia began to play — no amplification. But his acoustic performance had an electrifying effect.
Marc Bolan and Eric Clapton had been Koch’s guitar heroes before the Segovia concert. Afterward, his heart belonged to the classical guitar.
“My first guitar teacher was a classical musician: Franz-Josef Petri,” Koch recalls. “He was just as cool as any rock musician.”
After a year or so of study, Koch could play “Greensleeves” and a few easy pieces by Bach. The concert opened his ears to greater possibilities. “A typical pop-music band is divided into a bass player, a speed player, a rhythm player and a singer,” he says. “But I realized I could play all the parts on my little guitar. The polyphony I could create was truly intoxicating. I realized I could be my own band.”
Three years later, Koch began studying under Alfred Eickholt. His new teacher led him to study at the Hochschule für Musik Köln, where he graduated as a student of professor Dieter Kreidler in 1983. Koch continued his studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover, where he graduated from the class of professor Hans-Michael Koch in 1984.
Koch took master classes and encountered such celebrated guitarists as Alexandre Lagoya, José Tomas and Julian Bream. A 1984 master class with Spanish guitar legend Alberto Ponce further opened his mind.
And Ponce opened more doors. Koch became his student at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, France. Ponce’s teaching style went beyond mere mechanics.
“I was still a total beginner,” he recalls. “He took me under his wing and pushed me to a totally different level. Technique was never a problem. If I would say, ‘I have a technical problem.’ He’d say, ‘I have the same problem. Go back to the music. You will find the answers there.’”
Classical music studies are no cakewalk. But Koch isn’t complaining. While studying in Paris, he met the love of his life — and his future wife, Jennifer Ahearn-Koch. “That was a nice benefit of my higher education,” he says with a laugh. Today, Jennifer is GuitarSarasota’s marketing director and creates the website, programs and promotional materials. “Jennifer has all the visual talent in the family,” he says. “I’m just the guitar player.”
Koch recalls the years his early lessons turned to concerts. After graduating, his career took off. He performed throughout Paris, played Carnegie Hall in New York City, created a sensation in Berlin and put out an acclaimed CD. At the German Ambassador’s invitation, he performed a recital at the German Embassy Auditorium in Washington DC. Before long, America became his new home. And Sarasota his new address.
He fell in love with our area’s commitment to the arts. But he quickly noticed a gap in our cultural ecosystem. Guitarists like Julian Bream and Segovia had transformed him with their music. But in Florida’s famous arts town, the classical guitar was seldom heard.
“I began to notice a preconception that the guitar is not a classical instrument,” he says.
And he decided to do something about it.
In 2004, he co-founded Trio Voila. The chamber-music ensemble changed a few minds about classical guitar. It opened the door of prejudice … just a little. But not enough.
So he hatched the notion of a nonprofit organization devoted to classical guitar. In 2006, GuitarSarasota was born. It was a way of creating musical delight. But also education.
Koch makes a comparison to the martial arts. A karate student who learns he has a duty to teach others. As he sees it, classical guitarists share the same responsibility. Good musicians have a responsibility to pay it forward.
“My teachers made me who I am today,” he says. “It’s only right that I pass on what I’ve learned. It’s a kind of duty, and it also takes me to a higher place. To teach is also to learn.”
He quickly adds that this duty isn’t for everybody.
“Musical prodigies who knew how to play the first time they picked up an instrument make terrible teachers,” he says. “They just say ‘Do this.’ They never had to learn, so they don’t know how to teach. But I remember my struggles and how hard it was. That makes me very patient with any beginner who wants to learn.”
Currently, Koch teaches private lessons from his home studio and also teaches daily classes at Booker Middle School and Booker High School. He’s also on the faculty of the State College of Florida. It adds up to a long list of students, from newbies to future sensations.
His music groups are also opening minds. Trio Voila is still going strong. Koch, flautist Jane Hoffman and violist Laura Jensen-Jennings create the musical tapestry today. GuitarSarasota still brings a lineup of top-flight guitar talent to our area every year.
Hard work, but Koch doesn’t see it that way. He loves teaching as much as playing. And loves mentoring musicians as much as making music.
He’s deeply grateful for what music has given him.
“Classical guitar got me all the way from Germany, to France, to Florida,” he says. “Without it, I’d never have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have my two children. It was meant to be in the greater scheme of things.”
He teaches constantly—and he’d never stopped learning. “Every performance I go to, every record I hear is also an education,” he says. He quickly adds that guitar playing isn’t an intellectual exercise.
He points to his beloved instruments: a spruce-top guitar by Sergio Abreu of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and a “sandwich” top cedar guitar by Antonius Müller of Germany.
“Guitar playing is a physical art,” he says. “You must constantly play, or your skills will become sloppy.”
His skills haven’t. Koch’s home studio takes up one corner of his big, open living room. “I practice every day to the annoyance of everyone else,” he says. He’s kidding. Jennifer and their children, Oliver and Tobias, aren’t really annoyed. But they aren’t quiet either.
“Thomas has wonderful powers of concentration,” Jennifer says. “He practices. We go on with our lives. The kids play with Legos: ‘Bang! Bang! Give me that!’ Thomas remains totally focused on his playing.”
And he’s also focused on the guitarists he’s taught to play. The budding musicians he’s nurtured are making music at acclaimed music schools around the country. Many are studying for their doctorates.
“It’s very rewarding when one of your students follows in your footsteps and continues to learn,” he says. “Your job as a music teacher is to pass the music on. This tells me I’m doing my job.”