All Jazzed Up with Branden Nguyen


The Coffeehouse Invite is kickin’ it  with Branden Nguyen this month! He is guitar instructor and performer. We sit in his cozy music studio in sunnyvale as he enjoys a Yerba Mate from Philz Coffee. We started writing music together several years ago and played at many shows around the bay. We’ve taken a little hiatus, but we are dipping our creative little minds into songwriting again. I am glad to catch up and feature him this month. The creative journey has its dips. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. He gives us an inside look on his experience as a guitar instructor, shares advice on pursuing a music career and also tells us his creative strategies. Relax, vibe and grab your favorite drink as we learn more about Branden Nguyen!

The Coffeehouse Invite: Hey Branden! Thanks for joining us at CHI! Tell us about what you do?

Branden Nguyen: Hello Lani! Thank you for having me! I am a guitar instructor based out of the Sunnyvale. I have students spanning all over the South Bay, from San Jose to Los Altos, to Cupertino and even San Mateo.

The Coffeehouse Invite: Who are your musical influences?

Branden Nguyen: I think the biggest musical influence on me has been a jazz guitarist by the name of Joe Pass. He was one of the pioneers of fusing the classical and jazz genre on guitar. He was able to incorporate different elements of a jazz song (bass line, chords, improvised solo) into a single guitar, thus developing the solo jazz guitar genre we hear today.I adopted that style and made it in my own.

Beyond that unique fingerpicking style of jazz, I am also influenced by soul, R&B, and hip hop. These genres often draw inspiration from jazz but filter it through a contemporary prism. That sweet spot where the past and the present meet is where I want my future projects to be.

The Coffeehouse Invite: A while back I attended your students recital held at the Sunnyvale Art Gallery. It’s great to see kids learning and being engaged in the music. What’s the best part of your job as a Music Teacher?

Branden Nguyen: Music is ultimately about creating your own voice---finding what exactly you have to say as a unique individual. I often encourage my students to find what inspires them and pursue it. That own personal journey of discovery is what inspires me as a teacher: the moment I see their eyes light up after a successful performance, the moment I see their eyebrows unfurrow after finally being able to connect two musical concepts, the moment of awakening after they play their first classical song. Ultimately, my favorite part of teaching is igniting those moments inspiration and bringing out their inner artistry.

The Coffeehouse Invite: I started writing music with you several years ago. We were only about 20 years old!  Fast forward to the present, How is your writing and creative process now compared to before?

Branden Nguyen: To be honest, it is rare that I write anything anymore. In the recent instances that I have written, it was material drawn from strong emotions that I needed an outlet to convey. From a musical standpoint, there is less busyness going on. I now aim for a clarity of melody that can feel nostalgic and familiar. Contrasting sections is still one of my trademarks that I continue to incorporate into compositions. Much of my creativity now directed towards the realm of teaching. Examples of this include: arranging ensemble music for my students at varying levels, creating exercises on the fly to better convey a concept, creating musical programs that best exemplify the different personality of my students, carefully crafting a curriculum that is personal to each student. Along with that, having my own teaching business brings forth a sense of entrepreneurial creativity that I had yet explored until now.

The Coffeehouse Invite: Share with us 3 Tips on staying creative.

Branden Nguyen: Write down everything! I mean everything! Those momentary flickers of inspiration should be documented. Even if it may seem insignificant at the moment, having it written somewhere will allow you to draw back to that moment and develop it more. If not that , then it could also become an integral part of a project in progress.

Explore new hobbies! Work towards something new that enriches your life. Find something that is challenging and that helps fill out that “life resume”. While this may not directly affect the development of your craft, it does clear up any clutter that may accumulate from forcing creativity. I’m referring to the habits that make its way into your current product that may keep it from feeling fresh.

Listen! Find new artists that you find inspirational. Internalize their works and see what direction you are able to draw from it. Look beyond your own comfortable realm and explore genres that feel unknown. Search out those artists that have a unique sound so to craft your own unique sound.

The Coffeehouse Invite: What advice would you give to others who are pursuing a career in music? What keeps you motivated?

Branden Nguyen: From years in the music world, I found that my success relied on these key factors: my ability to adapt and my fundamental skills. Read and understand music theory! I can not stress it enough. Any serious musician needs to makes strides towards figuring out the fundamentals of music. For me, it is what keeps students continually enrolling. Parents like to see metered progress, and a method book is a sure way of showing it. Having something tangible allows a more concrete feeling of achievement. Most students will be able to see through “bs-ing” after a few weeks, so it is in one’s best interest to truly be good at their craft.

Being musically flexible is of the utmost importance. My strong fundamentals in music is the reason I am able to play and understand such diverse repertoire. In the teaching world, there is a value in being able to play any genre. In the past, I have had students request metal, classical, jazz, pop: every genre you can imagine. The adaption comes in when I have to create a step-by-step process to get them to their goal. My understanding of guitar pedagogy allow me to find a learning path that they can enthusiastically journey down.

The Coffeehouse Invite: Any current projects? What do you have planned for this year?

Branden Nguyen: I set out a few performance goals this year. I wanted to revisit our [Lani and mine] songwriting after years away. In addition to that, I am looking to start a jazz combo. Jazz is where my heart always resided, and I felt it was about time I made strides in that direction.

The Coffeehouse Invite: Any performances coming up or open mics that you would recommend?

Branden Nguyen: Unfortunately, many of my favorite open mics are now defunct, or reduced their frequency. Two of my favorites still standing Cafe Lift and Art Boutiki. Unfortunately, they only hold open mics once a month, so be sure to keep an eye out for their schedules!

The Coffeehouse Invite: At CHI we encourage others to reach out and find people to collaborate with. Are you looking for anyone to work with? if so let, our CHI community know.

Branden Nguyen: I have been on the lookout for singers, bassists and drummers with an understanding of the jazz genre. Beyond that, we could delve in soul, R&B, hip-hop, and funk as those genres deeply influence my playing as well.