Interlude 2: Starting the guitar

I found my first guitar under a bed. It was a Sears Silvertone, with six steel strings, a pick guard, and a sunburst finish. My older brother left it behind when he went off to join the Air Force. It was the summer of 1969 and I wasn’t quite thirteen. Awkward, bookish, a nerd before the term was invented—and so, of course, perfectly prepared for the high point of any adolescent life: junior high school (or, as most people know it, middle school). I didn’t know it at the time, but the guitar was one of the things that would help me get through the next three years.

In my earliest guitar memories I am sitting on the steps outside our apartment building on summer evenings and playing through pop song collections, using the little diagrams to learn how to strum the chords. Later I began to learn things by ear. It took several days to learn my first fingerpicking songs from a Peter, Paul, and Mary album called “In the Wind”: “Freight Train” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” No lessons…just trial and error mixed with persistence.

After about a year, while I was in eighth grade, Shirley Bertsch (introduced in the first of these Interludes) asked if I wanted to be in a little folk group: me on guitar, a guy named Dan Anderson on upright bass, and three singers, girls whose names I have forgotten. We learned some songs and played together after school and it was the first really social activity I participated in. It wasn’t about who was “in” or “out” or who was “cool”; it was just making music together.

By ninth grade I had become good enough on the guitar that Mrs. Bertsch suggested I teach a beginning guitar class under her supervision. I took myself down to a music store in downtown Sioux Falls, and picked out a textbook for the class— “Jerry Silverman’s Folk Guitar Guide.” And on a Friday afternoon in January I found myself standing in front of a classroom for the first time as a teacher. Occasionally I wonder if any of those kids are still playing the guitar.

Tenth grade was the start of high school, and sometime during that year my mother scraped together money to buy me an electric guitar– an Epiphone hollow-body like this one, modeled on the Gibson 335– and a small amplifier. I started learning rock songs and was soon playing rhythm guitar and singing backup in a cover band called Motion. Led by a really good lead guitarist—an older student named Nick Arntz—and with a decent singer, drummer, and bass player, Motion played school dances and one memorable outdoor concert in a Holiday Inn parking lot in 40-degree weather where I smoked pot for the first and only time. My brother was stationed in Thailand by this time, and he sent me a rock-star care package: dark purple leather pants and a bright orange silk shirt that he bought from a street corner tailor. I loved those clothes, but I am grateful that no photographic record survives. You should be too.

I continued to play guitar all through high school but it wasn’t my primary—or even major—focus. I was deeply involved in debate competitions on the weekends, acted in some plays, and sang in the concert choir, which really became the focus of my musical interest. Our choral director was Rolf Anderson, a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota. He organized a bus trip to Aberdeen so we could hear The Concordia Choir perform while they were on tour and I was amazed by their sound…so much so that I added Concordia to the list of schools where I planned to apply. I thought I might go there, major in music, and perhaps become a choral conductor. It never occurred to me that I could major in guitar.

In the end I did go to Concordia, but instead of majoring in music I majored in something far more useful: French. And yet, in a way, that is what led me to the classical guitar. But that’s another story.

Interlude I: First Bach

As I have been studying the Chaconne I find it ties together a lot of strands from my musical life: an early love of Bach, some wonderful teachers, and a 50-year relationship with the guitar in various forms. From time to time in the course of this project I will take time to write about some of these strands, and these interludes will show up here. Those interested in the purely musical aspects of the project will certainly be forgiven for skipping over these reflections!

The Chaconne Project really began one day in a South Dakota classroom, thanks to Shirley Bertsch and J. S. Bach.

I grew up around music. My father, of whom I remember very little, was a salesman by trade, but by all accounts played a mean jazz piano. I retain a vague memory of sitting on his lap while he played a piece that I later learned was Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys.” My older sister was—and still is—a gifted pianist and I am sure I heard her practicing. My own piano lessons started and ended at an early age, and my siblings still enjoy taunting me with the story of my one and only performance on a student recital at age 5. Apparently, after having played my tiny little study or prelude, I stood and basked in the no doubt feeble applause, bowing first to the right, then to the left, and finally to the center. My mother was mortified.

Still, in my own mind the start of a lifelong love of music was a moment I remember with perfect clarity: In a classroom my seventh-grade music class sits assembled, with light streaming in through tall windows to my left and little posters in colored construction paper on the walls. At the front, before a large dark green blackboard, stands a young teacher named Mrs. Bertsch. She puts an LP on the phonograph, and I am transfixed by the sound that emerges, like I’m a butterfly pinned to a card. It is strange music, but with logic so compelling that it seems familiar. Spare and precise and beautiful.

It is Bach—the “Little” Fugue for organ in G minor played by E. Power Biggs:

I was a pretty shy kid (despite all that bowing at the recital). But when class was over I went to  Mrs. Bertsch and asked if I could take the record home. She said yes, and I cradled the flimsy dust jacket on my walk home as if it contained a great treasure. Of course, in a way, it did. I played it over and over again that evening, trying to imprint it on my brain. I was amazed by the way the little tune at the beginning—for I did not yet know subject and countersubject and episode and all the terminology—kept coming back, always the same and yet somehow not. The power and colors of the organ impressed me too. This was a whole world to explore!

Reluctantly, I returned the record the next morning with great reluctance, but as it turned out this was the first of many records that Mrs. Bertsch sent home with me. And in the remaining two years of my time at Axtell Park Junior High School she encouraged me as I started teaching myself to play guitar using the old Sears Silvertone that I found under a bed, including me in a small folk group and pushing me to enter a talent show. In the ninth grade she supervised me while I taught a basic guitar class in the same room where I heard that Bach recording.

After junior high I lost track of Mrs. Bertsch, but thought of her often when I eventually went on to study music—especially whenever I heard the “Little” Fugue in G minor. As I grew older I began to regret that I had never taken the opportunity to thank her for all she did for my life and feared the chance to do so had passed me by. But I’ve had my share of lucky breaks in life. In 2014 I connected with her on Facebook and wrote her a letter trying to put my gratitude into words. Even better, I invited her to come hear me in a recital I had been invited to give at the University of South Dakota, where I got my undergraduate music degree. I was so excited when she said she would come, and wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. One morning in the shower, the theme from that little Bach fugue got in my head and somehow morphed into a little waltz theme with a kind of South American feel to it, and I was inspired to write my first piece for flute and guitar for the occasion: Waltzing Bachwards. It’s dedicated to Shirley Bertsch, who was in the audience for the premiere:

Bach and Mrs. Bertsch: two themes that return regularly in my life, always the same and yet somehow not.