Nicholas Mah is obsessed with music.
But obsessions are good: “You know how, when you are an adolescent, you can get obsessed with things?” he asks. “For me, it was music. All I wanted to do was to be a professional guitar player.”
You don’t get to make a living as a professional musician, by accident.
Mah studied guitar along with trumpet, through high school and at the University of Ottawa, but dropped out of school when he realized the only teachers around were just a few years older than him and didn’t have the knowledge and experience that would help him achieve his goal.
Ontario was full of young guitarists trying to be “the best” and make names for themselves, in the 70s, in a rich and dynamic environment of fierce competition. To everyone’s surprise, it was Mah who came away with the top prize at what amounted to Canada’s national guitar competition, winning over players who had studied for years at university.
It was one of those best days ever. Studying under master teachers, not available in Canada, helped make all the difference.
At 38, after taking some years off, he decided it was time to change to a more practical profession and went back to school to study sciences. That was when he realized that all he really wanted to do was play for people, so it was back to music.
Listening to Mah describe how he approaches a new piece of music, I know why he made that choice.
He described how, as a classical guitar player, you must be an engineer and a scientist as well as an interpreter of beauty. Performing a great piece of classical music is like building a great building: you have the architect that is all emotion and artistry and you have the engineer that makes sure it doesn’t fall down.
The structural and technical nature of music supports and allows the beauty to be realized.
Mah admits to being totally in love with the beauty of music. He recalls a lesson with a flamenco teacher. “I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of what he was showing me, that my analytical self went ‘out the window’.”
Mah has performed around the world, and three years ago he found himself moving to Whitehorse. He now splits his time between teaching music, playing and being a Dad. He acknowledges how much he feels appreciated by the Yukon and Yukoners.
His teaching allows him to pass on what he had to travel to find, but more importantly, to connect others with the feeling. His students range in age from 6 to 60 and include some with special needs. It’s a different kind of teaching: less structured, more being responsive in a playful way and definitely a special love.
With regards to his two-wheel obsession, Mah is in his 50s and does not have a driver’s licence. He rides bicycle where he needs to go, and always has.
“I used to play the kind of gigs in Ottawa where I had to wear a tuxedo. I swear that people would pay my fee just to see me ride up to the event on my bicycle, in my tuxedo, loaded down with three amplifiers and my guitar.”
Mah will be riding his bike to play at the Yukon Employees Union: Human Rights Day Open House on Dec. 11 between 2 and 7 p.m. The public is welcome. For more information, call 667-2331.