From Tech to Music: A Conversation with Guitarist Cristián Varas
Music and technology can be wholly disparate worlds, and yet for many people, they are complementary and intertwined. We spoke with Cristián Varas, a Chilean classical guitarist now based in Berlin who transitioned from a career in computer programming to one in music. For Varas, music had a stronger pull in the end. He told us about the beauty of discovering what really spoke to him and the challenges that came along with it.
What part of Chile are you from Originally?
When and where did you start playing music?
In Chile, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I started playing guitar. My teacher in school saw I was really motivated with music. She recommended a good teacher for me. I found a good classmate who was advanced in violin playing, and we started playing gypsy music. That was my beginning. Playing in duets — everywhere, everything. I studied a bit in the music school after that.
When did you end up coming to Berlin?
I came in August of 2007 to study for awhile as an exchange student in computer science for TU Berlin. That while ended up being many years because I found everything to be so cool here in Berlin. Even the university, the cultural life, everything was so fascinating. I decided to recognize my studies here. I found a cool job as a programmer, and everything was really shiny for staying.
Can you elaborate a bit about your involvement in technology and in music?
I started working [in Berlin], and it was okay at the beginning, but it started getting really really hard. My programming job and studying were hard to do — especially with all the homework. It was a bit stressful in starting a life, not being a visitor anymore. At the same time I had all these questions with music, I had been playing it for my whole life. I was saying, “I will someday take care of that. Let’s wait.” And then I decided to give it a try. The more I played music, the more I realized it’s the thing that fills me up the most. Not only playing the guitar or putting myself in front of people, just making the music happen. It was such a big delight for me compared to any nice program I wrote or any success at my job. Business trips can be at times glamourous, but they’re nothing compared to what you do when you make music happen.
At some point my job stopped making sense. I didn’t see anything further than what was being requested of me. I began investigating a bit more into this music thing. And it’s been a very interesting experience since then. To make something you can sell out of music, it’s the most fascinating part, because I’m discovering every day what to do. It’s a different way of thinking when you’re coming from the tech industry, where you’re solving problems that are practical and concrete. Music isn’t “useful” in a concrete way. From that point, it’s strange. So I was thinking, now I’m gonna do music — but why? What do I want to say?
You play classical and flamenco. What’s the reception like for both types here in Berlin?
Berlin is hard to understand. There are so many different kinds of audiences here. Classical is well received. Germans love the guitar. Every time some guy comes up and to me and says he loves it. I play flamenco — not that it’s huge in Chile, it’s just a personal interest. That’s also surprising for people here. They love it. But normally I play in intimate venues. For the guitar, it’s the best kind of venue — a maximum of 80 people. If you make a program that makes sense, people will come. I never played flamenco music in Chile. When I came here, people were like “Ah, Latino!” But I didn’t have any experience with that kind of music. Then I started meeting people in that kind of music and it became a practical thing.
The unusual here tends to be usual. You get used to being surprised. People are very open here, and I can mix anything.
When you transitioned from tech into music, did you have any fears about the new changes?
Of course I was scared. I had a safe income. Even as a freelance IT guy, you still get a lot more money for your time. Sometimes if you know what you’re doing, you might not have to do much, and you get very well paid for it. With music, it’s such a big effort, you care so much for it. So yeah, I was scared, it’s normal. The other part of the fear is to open up your pandora’s box and see what’s inside. Investigating your feelings and what you want to do and why, that’s also amazing, scary and many things at the same time.
What kinds of changes did you make in your personal life when you decided to give up that steady income?
I got used to spending a lot less money. That’s a really cool thing, because now if I earned the same as I did then, I could save so much money. I didn’t change too much in my lifestyle at home.
What’s going on in your life right now in terms of musical projects?
Right now I’m planning a record but it’s not a concrete idea yet. We’re jamming and speaking about it. I’m in many projects. One of them is my solo project — I played two nights ago. The other one — I play with a violin player from Russia. We play oriental music and adapt it to any venue we can. We’ve played it at cocktail events very softly, and the other day we played at Urban Spree with electric guitar and distortion and drums and bass. I play jazz guitar with a female singer. I play the double bass for a rumba singer. It’s a big mix of things. It’s helped me have a great impression of the many faces of Berlin.
What advice do you have for people who are making the leap into doing music full time?
That would be a whole new interview! [Laughs] There is fear, financial problems or not. It’s a scary thing to do your thing by yourself and earn money to live. Be patient, there’s a lot to figure out. Some people have everything so clear, but this is my way of doing it. Be patient with your own self, because it takes time to have self knowledge and figure yourself out. Even if you sell products, the inner development still takes time. I’m having so much fun.
Did anyone ever discourage you from the change?
There was a storm of opinions. If you tell people your issues, they give you advice like crazy like they know exactly what you need! My family had mixed opinions — mostly the conservative part of my family. They were part of the fear I had because your family’s voice resonates differently in your head. They told me I had to finish [my studies].
My wife supported me a lot. That was big. Regardless of anyone else’s opinions, she helped me be sure of my own things. With space and time, you can do lots of things. That’s another piece of advice I have for someone who’s jumping into a crazy thing. Space and time.