Interlude 10: Practicing

In July 2007 an item in the New York Times caught my eye. It was a listing of upcoming readings at the (now defunct) Barnes & Noble bookstore at Lincoln Center in New York City. One of the listed titles was a book called Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz. The thumbnail of the book cover showed the soundhole of a classical guitar crossed by strings; there was no other information.

I thought perhaps it might be some kind of instructional book on how to practice. In any event the illustration intrigued me, so I went online to find the book on Amazon where it was described as “The remarkable odyssey of a classical guitar prodigy who abandons his beloved instrument in defeat at the age of twenty-five, but comes back to it years later with a new kind of passion.. “

So, of course, I ordered a copy.

I don’t want to say too much about the content of the book; if you have been reading this blog and you haven’t read Practicing then you should. But in brief, it tells the story of a young man who shows early promise as a classical guitarist. He gets a good music education, and sets off to build a career. Then, quite suddenly, he puts down his guitar and walks away. Years later, he finds a way to reconnect with the instrument and with the part of his life it represents. Part meditation, part memoir, part cautionary tale, part celebration, it is deeply felt and beautifully written. I devoured it.

After finishing the book I did something I had never done before: I wrote a fan letter. It read in part: 

Part of my response is a strong frisson of recognition. In some ways your story is so similar to my own that the feeling I got reading it sometime bordered on creepy! (…) The guitar remains in my life, sometimes on the periphery and sometimes closer to the center. My regrets don’t cut as deeply as yours seemed to. Partly I think that’s because in my heart I must have known at some point that I was pursuing a dream that my talent wouldn’t support. My biggest regret remains that when I really had the time to focus and practice I didn’t do enough of either, and now that my desire is strong I don’t have the time!”

Glenn was both prompt and gracious in his reply:

It is very moving to me to hear these stories of return–some involving painful losses, like my own, others more practical or circumstantial. But I’m flattered and grateful that this experience resonates with people, and I’m amazed, each time, by how many people identify with the emotions of returning, the joy of rediscovering a once-lost part of one’s life. 

Practicing made me think seriously, and for perhaps the first time, about just what the guitar meant to me and about what making music meant to my life. The spark of it had never gone out in me, but the author’s story provided a kindling for that spark and I determined that this time I would work harder to sustain the flame. Within days I had arranged for a lesson with one of New York’s best-known guitar teachers and in a happy coincidence my lesson was to take place on the same day that Glenn would read from his book at Barnes & Noble.

The lesson was a disappointment. After hearing me play (decently, I thought) the teacher described a course of study that would involve completely reinventing my right hand technique. At the age of 51 I wasn’t really interested in starting from scratch; I wanted to learn to make the most of what I had. When our lesson ended I told him that I was going to Barnes & Noble and described Glenn’s book. The teacher, intrigued, decided to accompany me.

The reading was enjoyable, and hearing Glenn’s words in his own voice was very moving. Afterwards I introduced myself to Glenn and we chatted for a moment before I introduced the teacher (whose name was well known to Glenn) and explained about my lesson; I think Glenn was pleased to see that his words had spurred me into actual action.

We corresponded once or twice over the next few years…he thanked me for a nice review on Amazon, I congratulated him on the publication of his next book. After starting at W.W. Norton and having the opportunity to do trade publishing for the first time I asked him to lunch to talk about his path to becoming a published writer. Of course the talk turned eventually to guitars. It was an enjoyable lunch and we’ve continued to find excuses to meet once or twice a year. At lunch last December I told him about my plan to start this project and he shared some ideas about what his next book might be. We agreed to check in six months later to check on each other’s progress and met for lunch in June. Soon it will be time to meet again.

I’ve been an avid reader since my youth, and I have read many books that moved me or made a lasting impression. But there is perhaps no book that has had as much impact as Practicing because of the role that it played in bringing the guitar back into my life. 

One thought on “Interlude 10: Practicing

  1. I also have read this book and reread it at least annually. It in turns both fascinates and infuriates me but I also recognise the author’s pain and it speaks to me of my own failure, albeit it in a totally different field. It is a book that every guitarist should read and it has lessons for others as well.

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