Interlude 5: A teacher appears

While a freshman at Concordia I got a job at Marguerite’s Music in a little strip mall south of campus. It was a big store with a very good inventory of electric guitars, amplifiers, drums, keyboards—so good, in fact, that any bands that came through the area on tour would stop by. I sold guitars and gave lessons to beginning guitarists. On slow days, when I had finished dusting and polishing and straightening, nobody objected if I sat in the guitar section and played. Since I taught lessons for the store there was always the chance that I might pick up a new student—or sell a guitar.

I was playing on just such a slow afternoon early in the fall of 1977, staring at the floor and lost in the music, when I noticed a pair of shoes. Looking up, I saw they belonged to a young man dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt, and leather jacket. He had a stubble of beard, an olive complexion, and dark eyes that peered at me intently from beneath unruly black hair. He didn’t look like he was from Minnesota.

I finished what I was playing.

“You study guitar?” he asked me in a thick accent. He was definitely not from Minnesota.

I told him no, that there were no classical guitar teachers in or around Moorhead.

“I come from Spain to teach at Moorhead State this year. I can teach you.”

And that is how I met my first guitar teacher, Manuel Estevez Cano.

How could it be that a classical guitar teacher from Spain would suddenly appear in Moorhead? Somewhere in my life at that time I had heard or read the saying “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” I thought it was something Buddhist (it’s not). But meeting Manuel certainly had that feeling for me. I’d gone about as far as I could go on my own, and no doubt had already developed some bad habits. Manuel’s appearance seemed like an act of fate.

As it turned out, Manuel was a student of Demetrio Ballesteros, who had given the master class the previous spring at Moorhead State, and Ballesteros had arranged a one-year appointment for him. Manuel was staying at the home of the same faculty member who had translated for Ballesteros in the master class. He gave me the address and we agreed on a time for a lesson.

We had lessons once or twice a week through the fall and into the winter. Our meeting place was a room that had been converted from a porch, and I remember the dim lamplight by which we played and the view through the windows into the living room of the house. Manuel’s English wasn’t very good and we conducted the lessons primarily in French, working on the first of the preludes by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and some studies by Fernando Sor. Our lessons were long–an hour or more—and afterwards Manuel would make tea and we’d talk.

It was during one of these talks in the early spring that Manuel asked, “So, Chris, what do you want to do with your guitar playing?”

“Well,” I replied, “I’d like to study seriously, perhaps get a degree and become a teacher. But that’s not realistic…I’m too old to start now. I’m nearly 20!”

He looked at me for a long moment, and then he smiled. “Chris, I am only 25 it is true. But I didn’t start to play seriously until I was 17. You have talent. If you want to study, you should study.”

In that moment many things came together for me: my love of the guitar, my abandoned plans to major in music, my worry about what I would do with a degree in French. But to go back to the beginning as an undergraduate to major in music seemed like a whimsical, foolish, impractical fantasy.

So, of course, that is what I decided to do. In the weeks that followed I prepared audition tapes and submitted applications, taking the first steps along a new path.

A postlude. I lost track of Manuel after I left Moorhead that summer. He returned to Spain, and I went to South Dakota to start my music degree. Many years later with the arrival of the internet, I  learned that he ended up teaching in Madrid at the Royal Conservatory. In 2015 at a guitar festival in Cleveland I met one of his successful students—Susana Prieto of Duo Melis. She gave me an email address for him that turned out to be a dead end.

Then, late last year, I signed the musicologist Walter Clark to write a biography of Joaquin Rodrigo. Walter’s coauthor on the project is a Spanish musicologist and guitarist from Madrid named Javier Suarez-Pajares. When I introduced myself to Javier by email I mentioned my early lessons with Manuel. Madrid’s a big city, but the guitar world is small. Javier wrote me back immediately: “I have lunch with Manolo almost every Friday!”

And so it was that I was able to write Manuel to thank him for those lessons, and for that conversation—which led me in to the life I’ve lived.

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