Christiansen: 'Guitar has been my life'
By David Baker
October 11, 2006 | The old saying, "Those who
can't do, teach," doesn't apply to Mike Christiansen.
Although he has been a teacher for 30 years, and was
named USU's Professor of the Year in 1994, Christiansen
is also a stellar guitar performer, recording artist
Christiansen, 56, has been playing guitar for almost
50 years. In his office in Utah State's Chase Fine Arts
Center, he is surrounded by guitars, amps and guitar
cases. His first guitar, a 1952 Silvertone, still hangs
in his house.
"[Guitar] has been my life," he said.
Christiansen is a professor of music and the director
of the guitar studies program at Utah State. He has
published 42 books, appears in 21 instructional videos,
recorded 26 compact discs and averages 130 performances
a year. He is a very busy man.
It's a "juggling act," and balancing the
time is the hardest part, he said.
Christiansen said he teaches 250,000 lessons a week
-- if you count instructional videos, books and private
He likens teaching to mining for gold. The way to get
to the mother lode is different with every student,
he said. And although teaching can be frustrating at
times, Christiansen said he gets a great satisfaction
in seeing students succeed.
"The goal is to have the students play better
than you," he said.
That would be an accomplishment, because Christiansen
truly is an artist. He has played with a lot of well-known
guitarists and has had a lot of great experiences, but
he doesn't like to name-drop. However, he has backed
up Glen Frey of the Eagles and many famous jazz guitar
players, including Joe Diorio.
Whether playing in a small venue like a restaurant
or at a larger concert, he said there have been a lot
of great moments.
"There is a rush that comes from performing that
is a different kind of satisfaction than teaching,"
Christiansen said. "Not a lot of people get to
finish their work to a round of applause."
Along with some work as a soloist, Christiansen does
a lot of smaller gigs with the Lightwood Duo, his collaboration
with clarinetist Eric Nelson. The group has issued five
compact discs, and performs around the United States.
They play in Cache Valley at Le Nonne and Hamilton's
restaurants, and at Deer Valley during the ski season.
He said he enjoys playing smaller gigs where people
come to hear the music and are into it. The connection
he has with Nelson is also an important part of these
"Sometimes things click, they just work,"
Christiansen said. "We feed off of each other all
the time. We can read each other's minds musically.
"Over the last two years, Christiansen said he
feels his playing has improved, both as a soloist and
with Nelson in the Lightwood Duo.
Recently he took time off to study Brazilian guitar
in Rio de Janeiro. During his time in Brazil he was
turned into a student again, learning Brazilian music
like the samba and bossa nova. He said he had forgotten
how fun it was to get up in the morning and go to lessons.
The new things he learned in Brazil added to an already
diverse knowledge of playing styles. Christiansen has
published books about jazz, blues, rock, bossa nova
and classical guitar. Also, in 1977 Christiansen studied
flamenco guitar in Madrid, Spain. But when forced to
pick his favorite, Christiansen chooses jazz. He said
jazz is special because of the freedom created by improvisation
and the way a song is never played the same way twice.
"It's on a higher level than just screwing around,"
he said. "Constructing a really nice solo is a
work of art."
Christiansen said he will always try to have a hand
in teaching people how to craft these works of art,
but he does have other interests -- including the occasional
game of golf, working in the yard and being outdoors.
He advises budding guitarists to let the guitar make
their lives more well-rounded. He tells a story about
one of his students, a retired man, who sits around
playing chords just because they sound so beautiful
"People forget to recognize the beauty of it,"
Christiansen said. Playing guitar isn't a competition
to be better than anyone else, just play to enjoy it,
Even after all the years of teaching, performing and
playing, his love for the instrument and the enjoyment
he gets from it are still apparent. Just ask Christiansen
what he plays for fun, and he will tell you, "I
always play for fun."