May 10--A lot of people love playing music, but George Sakellairou's love of the guitar comes out in conversation like he's speaking about a lifetime romance with a childhood sweetheart.
"I'm 68, so my whole life has been playing guitar and teaching," says Sakellairou in a call from his home in Marin County, Calif.
A native of Athens, Greece, Sakellairou began playing guitar at the age of five. The youngest of eight children, he learned a great deal from an older brother before going to the Conservatory of Music in Athens. At 19, he became a student of classical guitar legend Andres Segovia. An older brother moved to San Francisco and Sakellairou followed him and landed a position teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he became chairman of the guitar department.
Sakellairou has been praised for his ease with the instrument, his exacting fingerwork and his clean tone.
"Clarity has always been part of my style," says Sakellairou. "I don't like people who play with a scratchy tone. I like the tone to be clear."
He found a like-minded compatriot in Knoxville in guitarist/composer/teacher Larry Long.
"I had a performance years ago in Knoxville and during intermission he introduced himself and told me he was a composer and handed me a couple of pieces he'd written," says Sakellairou.
Sakellairou read the pieces during the break and liked them so much that he decided to perform one for his encore that very night.
The two spent a couple of days together later when another Knoxville appearance was snowed out. That eventually led to Sakellairou recording the songs for Long's book of compositions, "Conversation Pieces," published by Mel Bay.
"At the time when Larry started composing the fad was this atonal music, no melody," says Sakellairou. "Larry stuck to his style -- beautiful, simple melodies. Well, they sound simple, but really they're not."
Sakellairou will perform five pieces by Long at his upcoming Knoxville concert.
He says growing older may eventually be a hindrance to his physical ability to play some pieces, but, so far, it's been an asset.
"As we grow older, we become a little bit fearless," says Sakellairou.
Making a mistake isn't the end of the world. He chuckles talking about one performance in which the sun came through a window in such a way that he couldn't see his fret board during a very difficult section of a song.
"That part had to be so precise! But then you have to say, 'Well, I'll get the next one!'"
He says, as long as his hands are working, he'll be learning new things.
"I learn new pieces all the time. It's exciting and the process of learning is very healthy. Of course, more than anything I just love playing the guitar."
Sakellairou says a musician's psychological state is as important as their ability.
"I have a student who is really a powerhouse, but his playing was a mess. There was all this nervous tension and it affected the musicality. I found out he had family issues, some issues with his father. When we started working on that his playing improved tremendously. I don't think your playing can be at peace if your life is in turmoil."
For his part, Sakellairou has been happily married for 46 years, tends a garden and tries to stay peaceful. He generally plays guitar two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Yet he still gets nervous before concerts.
"Oh, yes! As performers, we know what can go wrong! You have to play with such precision on the guitar. ... But some of the best performances I've given have been when I'm nervous. I played with a guy once who said, 'No, I'm not nervous. When he played I understood why. He made a mess of the entire performance and didn't know it!"
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11
Where: Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan, 425 N Cedar Bluff Road
Admission: $20, adults, $5 students ages 12-18, free for under 12 with adult admission
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