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[Herald Interview] Strings of inspiration: Classic guitarist Deion Cho talks about decadelong journey to victory

Nov. 28, 2023 - 17:51 By Hwang Dong-hee
Deion Cho (center) plays the guitar at the 56th Francisco Tarrega International Guitar Competition in Spain. (Courtesy of Deion Cho)

The story reads like a movie script where the protagonist, after 10 attempts, finally clinches a grand prize.

Such is the story of classical guitarist Deion Cho, who emerged triumphant at the 56th Francisco Tarrega International Guitar Competition in Spain this September.

Previous winners of the prestigious competition established in 1967 in honor of Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909), the composer of “Memories of the Alhambra,” includes world-renowned guitar virtuoso David Russell.

Cho, 31, made history by becoming the first South Korean to win the competition.

Cho’s decadelong journey began in 2010 when he first entered the competition. He returned to the competition consistently since 2013, except for a two-year hiatus when he was serving his mandatory military service.

Deion Cho poses during an interview with The Korea Herald, in Seoul, early November. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald)

"Last year, I couldn't even make it to the finals. So, this year, I went without expectations. I had been too obsessed all those years,” said Cho speaking to The Korea Herald, at a cafe in Seoul’s Yongsan district in early November.

“It was quite surprising for me as well. I had been desperate to win all these years, but winning wasn’t my goal this year. Instead of practicing, I just relaxed by the beach, soaking in the sunlight. I performed with pure enjoyment without any worries. After the win, my friends and family all cried, but I didn’t shed a tear,” he said.

Even if he hadn't won this year, Cho said he was going to participate again next year. Classic guitar competitions often allow participants to continue well into their thirties. The Tarrega Competition is also open to competitors up to the age of 35.

"Last year, I saw a group of people -- guitar fans and the audience -- gathered in the square. They were furious for me that I didn't make it to the finals … This year, when I went out to the square, some hundred Spanish people applauded. One elderly lady came up, grabbed my hand and said ‘Justice prevailed.’ It was truly heartwarming.”

Deion Cho (center) at the guitar at the 56th Francisco Tarrega International Guitar Competition in Spain. (Courtesy of Deion Cho)

Cho began playing the guitar in the sixth grade, picking up simple chords from his father.

The following year, while originally intending to buy an electric guitar album at a local record store, Cho ended up choosing the legendary classical guitarist Andres Segovia's album "Art of Segovia" instead.

“When I was younger, I used to see the guitar as a symbol of rock and roll. Then I saw Segovia in his suit, in such an elegant setting. Without realizing it, I had bought the CD and that day changed my life. I was completely captivated and it was as if the guitar was telling me, ‘You need to stick with me until the end.’”

Cho's mentor, Shin In-keun, advised him to go to Spain to study the guitar as it is a traditional instrument there. Shin told him to “understand Spanish culture to truly comprehend the guitar." Following this guidance, Cho enrolled at the Madrid Royal Conservatory, a renowned music college in Madrid, and graduated with top honors.

"I have never once considered giving up on the guitar. There were some challenging times, but every moment with the instrument brought me happiness.”

According to Cho, the stage is where he can be most honest, allowing his emotions -- whether it's sadness or joy -- to naturally unfold.

Deion Cho (left) and Shin In-keun (Courtesy of Deion Cho)

Having achieved his long-pursued victory at the Tarrega competition, Cho is now moving on to the next chapter of his career.

“If there's anything I've learned from years of competition, it is that I've come to think of winning a competition as just another step in the process. But to move on to the next step, I needed that recognition from 'tradition,'” he said.

“Actually, classical guitar is not a familiar instrument in Korea. There are many star pianists, and people recognize Chopin or Schubert. But not many people know that classic guitars derive from the Spanish tradition.”

“I would like to promote classical guitar more. And at the same time, I want to collaborate with new composers or musicians from different genres.”

Cho has received an offer of a teaching assistant position at the University of Arizona for the upcoming year, and is scheduled to perform in Europe, the US and South America starting in the second half of next year.

In December, he will continue with his annual tradition of hosting a charity concert during the Christmas season in Hongseong County, South Chungcheong Province, where his parents live.