I don’t know how many college music programs in 1978 offered a major in classical guitar. It can’t have been very many, and in that dark pre-internet age I am not sure how I would have found out. For that matter, I can’t remember how I discovered that the University of South Dakota offered one. In hindsight a guitar program seems an odd thing to offer in such a small department, with a freshman class of perhaps 40 music majors each year. But sixty miles from my home town, and with in-state tuition, it was the sensible choice and I set about filling out my application and making an audition tape. Fifteen minutes of music was required, which was my whole repertoire at that point if I played everything slowly. I recorded on a small cassette machine with a microphone from Radio Shack and sent it off with some trepidation, as I did not really have a plan B. What if I couldn’t get in? But in due course an acceptance letter arrived, along with the offer of a modest scholarship. I was officially a music student.
The first semester was thrilling. I loved almost everything about it…my classes, the other music students, the practice rooms. The fact that I was older than my peers gave me, for perhaps the only time in my life, a certain allure. The biggest fly in the ointment was my roommate Larry. Like all freshmen—even 21-year-olds—I had to live in a dorm. Larry was a junior, and a business major. He didn’t know what to make of me. I knew exactly what to make of him. He was a big man from a small town whose tastes ran to cheap beer, loud music, and parties. Within a month we had engineered an exchange and I wound up with an older student named Brad, a quiet English major who taught me backgammon and liked to listen to me practice.
The other fly in the ointment was something I didn’t recognize for some years; my guitar teacher. Our relationship was, obviously, an important one that would be central to my four years in Vermillion and my study of the guitar. It had never occurred to me that I needed to audition my teacher to see what our chemistry would be like, and I wouldn’t have known how to go about it. As it is, we never met in person until I arrived for my first lesson.
I can’t reach back now and remember the details of our lessons, and I kept no notes or journals. All I have are the pencilled indications on the sheet music for pieces I worked on with him. The impression I retain is that our lessons consisted mostly of Teacher saying “Well, that could be better.” In fact, in our four years together I only remember one specific conversation.
Getting a second undergraduate degree is not something I would recommend, but it did have some advantages. All of my required courses—freshman English, science, language—transferred from Concordia, so the only courses I had to take were those required for my music major. I took some interesting electives, like mythology and presidential history, but also had time for activities like singing in choral groups, and even taking a minor role in a production of Mozart’s opera “Le Nozze di Figaro” in my junior year. No one would ever mistake me for an opera singer, but it was Vermillion and baritones were scarce. I sang the role of Doctor Bartolo, appropriately costumed and bewigged, and was part of some comic stage business as a result.
After the first night’s performance, Teacher came backstage bubbling with enthusiasm, his blue eyes alight and his normally pale complexion flushed. For a moment I wondered if he had been drinking. “That was great!” he said. “You know, you should think about doing some guitar thing where you dress up like Fernando Sor (an important early virtuoso) and play concerts of his music!”
At this point he had heard me play in weekly student recitals, my own junior recital, and a full concert of music for flute and guitar that I organized and performed with a fellow student. He had never been as enthusiastic about anything I played as he was at that moment. Initially I was delighted by his reaction, natural ham that I am. In the days that followed, though, it gradually dawned on me that his eager response masked something darker. He didn’t see me as a future recitalist in the mold of a Segovia or Parkening—even on a much smaller scale—but more as a kind of jester. A Victor Borge of the guitar…or a Liberace. It stung. To be honest, it still stings.
I was the strongest player in a very small program—the proverbial big fish. In that same junior year, I won a state-wide competition, and the regionals, and advanced to the national finals of the Music Teachers National Association Collegiate Artist Competition. I played a concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in the finals and received an honorable mention. By any objective standard I had come tremendously far in just three years.
And yet, suddenly, uncomfortably, I saw myself through Teacher’s eyes. I was performing in costume and acting out a role. Guitarist.