Interlude 12: Lose a job, get a life

In December of 2012 I arrived at work one morning, turned on my computer, and saw an email summoning me to a conference room for a 10AM meeting. An HR representative was copied on the email. I hadn’t pilfered supplies, cheated on my expenses, or made inappropriate (or even appropriate) advances on any coworkers. I called my wife Ellen and told her about the email. After a pause she said “Well…I don’t think they are going to promote you.”

That made me laugh hard, a laugh that carried me through the next few hours and days as I dealt with losing my job in a restructuring. After nearly 20 years at McGraw-Hill I was offered a very healthy severance package: fourteen months of full salary and benefits starting in February 2013. Nobody arrived to bundle me and my belongings out of the office, so I spent a couple of weeks putting things into order, writing notes for my boss about projects in progress, and saying goodbyes. I was gone before Christmas but collected my salary for the next two months.

In those weeks there were occasional moments of panic (“What am I going to do??”) and anger (“How could they do this to me after all I did for the company??”), but mostly I felt relief. A new management regime had made work life unpleasant and it didn’t seem likely to improve. A combination of inertia and investment kept me from leaving on my own. Getting the axe turned out to be a thinly disguised blessing.

After the start of the new year I had a few conversations and applied for a couple of jobs, but nothing came of it. Then, in March, a phone call, a lunch, and the offer of the job in publishing that I had always wanted: music editor at W.W. Norton.

Reader, I said no.

Well…not exactly “no”–it was more “not yet.” Having been assured of future employment I resolved to maximize the benefits of my severance package. I agreed to do some work under contract for the balance of the year and Norton agreed to a full time start in January 2014.

And that is how I came to have a sabbatical. We did a little traveling. I worked on my golf game. And I played guitar. A lot of guitar. For I now had an abundance of the thing I had been lacking: time. 

By this time Jason Vieaux had become one of my favorite performers. I loved the sound of his guitar on his debut CD so much that I bought an instrument from the same maker, German Vasquez-Rubio. When I discovered that Jason was teaching online lessons through a new company called ArtistWorks I signed up and prepared a video to upload for his comments. Suddenly I was taking lessons with my favorite guitarist. How cool is that!?

In the spring of 2013 I attended the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival sponsored by Armin Kelly at Guitars International. Jason was one of several wonderful performers, and there were recitals and master classes galore. I even got to hear a talk given by the maker of my guitar and pose for a picture with him.

With German Vasquez Rubio at the Cleveland Institute of Music

And I marveled at the wonderful Mixon Hall, perhaps the best guitar recital space I have ever seen. 

I didn’t know at the time that this festival would become an annual event for me and an important part of my life, and I’ll write more about that in a future post. But this first experience seriously boosted my return to the guitar.

But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t lost my job. Life opened up the door, and I walked through. 

Interlude 11: Julian and me

Whenever I get a call on my iPhone it’s announced by a hearty, chipper, and distinctly English voice saying “Hello, Christopher!” over and over again. The voice belongs to Julian Bream—one of the greatest classical guitarists of the modern age. How it came to be my ringtone is a story.

Bream, whose concert and recording career spanned sixty years, was one of the first artists to build an international career after Segovia really established the classical guitar as a modern concert instrument. But their approaches to the instrument and its music were decidedly different. Segovia’s playing focused on beautiful tone and his best performances reflect a somewhat Apollonian personality. Bream, by contrast, was decidedly Dionysian. His tone was not always lush and beautiful, but his performances crackled with life, color, and occasional flashes of impish humor.

He was not my first guitar crush (Christopher Parkening) or my second (John Williams). But I loved the two duo albums that Bream and Williams did together, and when I first heard Bream perform live in Minneapolis in 1976 I was smitten.

In the fall of 1978 I was at a party at my guitar teacher’s house in Vermillion when someone told me that Bream and Williams were on a tour together that would bring them to Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the spot, another guitar student and I decided to go. He had a VW Beetle that he thought was up to the 800-mile trip, so I called the next morning and ordered tickets. We drove all night, with a stop at a rest area to clean up, ate dinner at McDonalds, and went to the concert. Afterwards we went backstage to meet the artists and I got them to autograph my program.

Three weeks later I heard Bream in a solo concert in Minneapolis and once again went backstage to meet him after the concert. He recognized me from the Ann Arbor concert and asked if I was following him, and we shared a chuckle.

A more meaningful encounter came about 8 years later. I was in graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Bream was booked on a campus concert series and I was given the opportunity to pick him up at the airport and to see that he had what he needed while in town. This led to conversation over beers in a local establishment. During our chat I mentioned that I was preparing a recital of my own that would include Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal, a pinnacle of the repertoire that was written for Bream. He asked me if I would like to play it for him.

Gulp!

It was a very generous offer, and I was terrorized at the prospect. But, of course, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And so, the morning after his recital, I arrived at his room with my guitar and played for him. It is perhaps the most nervous I have ever been, but after my first halting beginning I found some calm and played. He was kind and helpful with his suggestions, although he observed somewhat acerbically that I was not following the fingerings given in the score; fingerings he had put there! Afterwards he signed my score and then I took him to the airport.

In 2014 an English author named Thea Abbott posted on an internet forum dedicated to the classical guitar that she was working with Bream on a biography. I contacted her and learned that the project was not under contract so I decided to pursue it. With Norton’s blessing I made a contact offer. Weeks went by without a response, and when it finally came it was disappointing: author and subject had had a falling out and it appeared that the project could not move forward.

I did not want to lose the opportunity to do the book, so I wrote the most persuasive letter I could to Bream. It read, in part:

In your many collaborations with composers over the years you must have faced situations where the composer’s ideas didn’t quite work. Sometimes these problems were technical: an interval that the left hand couldn’t quite stretch, or a chord voicing that didn’t fit well on the fingerboard. Sometimes, perhaps, the problem was broader and involved your understanding as a performer of what would or would not work for an audience. You persevered through these difficulties and the guitar’s repertoire is much the richer for it.

I believe that the literature of the guitar, guitarists, and music in general will be the poorer if your biography does not move forward and I hope that I can help you and Thea to move past any obstacles to continue your work together and bring this book to completion.

I posted the letter and waited.

A few days later I returned from lunch to find a message on my office phone. It began “Hello Christopher, if I may call you such. It’s Julian Bream here…” I called him back and we talked about how things might proceed. He was amused to hear that we had met previously and recalled our encounter in Ithaca quite clearly. This was the first of several exchanges we had about the project.

I wish I could report that the result of all this was a happy ending and that a biography of this important and colorful artists is forthcoming. Alas, I don’t believe it will ever come to be. But I have some wonderful memories.

And a great ringtone.

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. 

Interlude 9: A Performance Nightmare

The dream takes a different shape for everyone. Sometimes in the dream you are giving a speech and realize that you are naked. Or perhaps you’re onstage in a play and realize that you haven’t learned your lines. Maybe you stand up to address the jury, your client’s life in the balance, and find you have no voice.

Or you are playing in a concert but don’t know the music.

In the early fall of 2003 I attended a University of South Dakota alumni event in New York City. The focal point was a performance by the Madrigal Chamber Singers, a group with which I had sung when I was a student. During the post-concert mingling I met Larry Schou, then chairman of the music department. On learning about my background he said “Well, you should come back to Vermillion to perform.” I said that would be great, certain that nothing would come of it. But a few days later I got an email from the violin professor and director of the orchestra—we’ll call him John— inviting me to come play a concerto the following spring.

At that point I wasn’t really playing at all, and the most recent concert experience I had was 10 years in the past. But I had a full six months to prepare and figured I could master the Vivaldi D major concerto. So John and I spoke by phone and agreed on a date in April 2004 and the Vivaldi with a small student group. In addition, he suggested we play a chamber piece with a cellist—did I know the Paganini Terzetto in D major? “No, but I have heard it on recording and I can get the music.” So we agreed on that as well.

One of the things that had always held me back from reaching my full potential as a player was a lack of preparation. I would play a piece in recital that was just at the point of being ready, but not fully in my command. I promised myself that I would be ready—really ready—for my first return to the USD recital hall. So I set about learning the music, and by March I felt very confident. I had a “Music Minus One” recording of the concerto and could breeze through it at a good performance tempo, secure in my fingerings and interpretation. The Paganini had some very challenging solo parts for the guitar, but I felt equally confident that it was ready to go. I looked forward to the trip, and to showing my wife the places where I grew up and having her in the audience for these performances.

We were due to leave for South Dakota on a Wednesday morning, and on Tuesday evening I spoke to John to confirm details like meeting times and rehearsal locations. At the end of the call, almost as an afterthought, he asked the question that changed everything: “By the way, you did prepare the Terzetto in D for viola, cello, and guitar, correct?” My response took a long time to work its way to my mouth: I had prepared the Terzetto in D for violin, cello, and guitar.[1] I mean, he was the violin teacher! I’d been around the music world long enough to hear all of the viola jokes and it never occurred to me that anyone would willingly play the viola instead of the violin.[2]

Well, no problem, right? String players learn new music all the time, and it would be easier for them than for me, surely? But the cellist was not a professional and John didn’t believe he could adjust. He thought the best course was to muddle through, and he would arrange to get the music to my hotel in Sioux Falls before I arrived. I said I would do my best.

What happened after that is a little blurry. We made it to Sioux Falls, and I know that we did some sightseeing because I have the pictures. Sometime on Thursday we drove to Vermillion and I huddled in a practice room in a waking nightmare. A first read-through of the Paganini with John and the cellist. Much of the guitar part consisted of relatively simple accompaniment, easy to sight read, but some solo passages were fiendish and whole sections had to be simplified, or cut altogether. 

One more rehearsal on Friday morning and then a noontime performance of the Paganini at the National Music Museum before a mercifully small audience. It was better than it might have been, but that isn’t saying very much. 

That evening, John had arranged for me to play in an informal setting at a downtown cafe; very much the sort of thing I did when I lived in Vermillion. That was the first time during the trip that I was able to relax and enjoy the experience.

The Saturday performance was held in the art gallery of the Fine Arts Center on campus, and several of my former USD professors were in the audience. The Paganini was better, although still very rough around the edges. But the Vivaldi was all that I had wished, and my careful preparation resulted in a lively and confident performance. When, in the third movement, the orchestra began to speed up I had no trouble keeping up with them, and managed to bring them back to earth by slowing down the solo sections.

The trauma of the Paganini was intense, and even today the thought of that first performance makes me very uncomfortable. But something even more powerful came out of that South Dakota trip—for the first time in many years, I felt like a musician again. 

[1]The source of confusion? The work for viola, cello, and guitar is titled Terzetto Concertante; the work with violin is simply Terzetto. Both are in the key of D major.

[2]For example: How can you tell a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving. Seach “viola jokes” online and you’ll be both amazed and amused. Unless you play viola.

Interlude 8: Life (mostly) without guitar

A condition of my assistantship at Temple University was that I major in music history as well as guitar performance. Given the nature of the financial support offered—full tuition as well as a living stipend—I would have majored in horticulture. But I was happy to add music history, as it was a subject I really enjoyed as an undergraduate, and the assistantship gave me the opportunity to teach music appreciation. I had no way of knowing at the time how important that teaching experience would be in my eventual profession editing and publishing college music textbooks.

A couple of my graduate history courses at Temple were taught by a young man named David Brodbeck, who was finishing his musicology PhD at Penn. David was a wonderful teacher, full of enthusiasm and insights about music of the Romantic era, and through him I fell in love with the music of Schumann and Brahms. David suggested that I consider doctoral studies in musicology and, having concluded that I didn’t have the makings of a professional guitarist, I decided to pursue that course. I’d get a PhD and become a college professor. In the fall of 1984 that led me to Cornell, to marriage (eventually), and to a career in publishing. It did not lead to a PhD.

I kept up with the guitar for a while, teaching a few private students in Ithaca and giving a solo recital; a decision which was actively frowned upon since it took me away from the library. I accompanied a singer at Ithaca College in a program of lute songs (on the lute, no less). There was a walk-on role in a production of Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” where I accompanied a singer in Schubert’s “Who is Sylvia” while dressed in Venetian carnival costume and wearing a mask. But once I started in publishing, first as a sales representative in Buffalo and later a marketing manager based in New Jersey, I went through longer and longer periods of not playing. When I did pick up the guitar, I played poorly…and so I would put it away again. Even so, being a guitarist remained a part of my identity; I know that because I always kept my nails at playing length.

When my first job as an editor took us to Madison, Wisconsin in 1993 I began singing with the Symphony Chorus. That led to a wonderful, and unexpected, opportunity when the the conductor, Roland Johnson, asked me if I would accompany a mezzo-soprano from Madison named Kitt Reuter-Foss in “I Wonder As I Wander” as part of the 1993 Christmas Concert.  I made an arrangement of the piece for voice, guitar, and strings and we performed it twice in front of audiences of 1800 people—by far the largest audiences I ever played for. I wish I had a better recording of the piece (and that Roland had rehearsed it a little more), but I am still very proud of the work:

I put aside the guitar again after that as my work life became more demanding and life in general became more complicated. In 2001 the publishing operation in Madison shut down and we prepared for a move to New York. On my birthday, September 4, I flew to LaGuardia, took a taxi into Manhattan, and checked in to an executive housing apartment on West 57th Street so that I could start my new job and continue house hunting.

That’s how I came to be in the city on 9/11.

In the aftermath of those horrific events, far from home, alone and lonely, what I wanted was a guitar. I rented an instrument, bought a foot stool, and started playing again. I didn’t care how I sounded; the embrace of the guitar and the feel of strings beneath my fingers were great comfort.

That September in New York was particularly lovely, with day after day of clear blue skies and pleasant temperatures. I kept the windows open in the apartment in the evenings while I played, and the pungent smell from Ground Zero drifted north and mingled with the sounds of Sor and Bach in the dry autumn air.

Interlude 7: A deep fly ball to left field…

Toward the end of my undergraduate music studies I decided to apply to some graduate schools. My own self-confidence was enough to carry me past any discouragement so I wasn’t intimidated by the idea of further guitar studies. Besides, at that point in my life what I had gotten really good at was going to school, so more school seemed like a good idea.

There were not a lot of graduate programs in guitar in 1981. I had enough self-awareness to realize that I was probably not Juilliard or Peabody Conservatory material. I applied to some local schools, like the University of Minnesota and Indiana University. My sister and her husband were living near Philadelphia at this time and that prompted me to apply at Temple University. I did a round of auditions in the spring of 1982, ending with a trip to Philadelphia to visit my sister and audition for Peter Segal, head of the guitar program at Temple.

I retain a very vivid memory of that audition, which was my first meeting with Peter. My teacher in Vermillion lived in a cramped frame house on the outskirts of town. Peter lived in a large apartment looking out over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in center city Philadelphia. The building had a doorman, which impressed me immensely. Peter’s living room, where I played for him, was capacious and welcoming, with overstuffed furniture and dark wood and music posters and art on the walls.

Peter himself was equally welcoming. Tall, thin, with a somewhat sallow complexion punctuated by a dark mustache, his intense gaze was relieved by a twinkle in his eyes. He made me feel at ease, completely overwhelming my inward feeling of being the little country mouse in the big city for the first time. I was relaxed enough to play up to my capabilities, and his comments were a perfect mix of honesty, encouragement, and insight. By the time I met my sister downstairs I knew that Peter would be my next teacher.

Temple University accepted my application, provided a generous teaching assistantship, and my sister and her husband offered a place to live while I got myself settled in. And so, in the fall of 1982, I began the next phase of my studies in Philadelphia. There is so much that I could say about the next two years—one of the best parts of my life so far—but I’ll focus on just one aspect of my studies with Peter.

At one of our very first lessons together I was playing the Fandanguillo by Joaquin Turina. A long scale passage in the piece was giving me trouble, and Peter stopped me after I played it through the first time. 

“Try it again,” he said.

I played it again, more or less the same way as I had before.

He thought for a moment, and then said something unexpected.

“Chris, try to play that like Gary Matthews running for a deep fly ball.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I did not know who Gary Matthews was. Over the next few minutes I learned that he played left field for the Philadelphia Phillies, and that in order for me to get the most out of my lessons with Peter, I was going to have to learn a lot more about baseball in general and the Phillies in particular. Peter was an ardent fan.

Like many men of my generation, I played some sandlot baseball as a kid. And on weekends with my father after my parents divorced, he would often fall asleep to the afternoon game on TV after he had mowed the lawn, leaving me to watch by myself in the cool quiet of the shaded living room. That was the entire extent of my baseball experience.

I started watching Phillies games on TV and then started going to games when the team was in town. And, odd though it may seem, the first time I actually got to see Gary Matthews run for a deep fly ball in person I understood exactly what Peter had been trying to tell me. Matthews had this way of moving in the field that never felt rushed, no matter how much ground he had to cover. A ball would be hit in his direction, and he would just arrive at the right spot to snag the ball. Watching him, it looked easy. Peter wanted my playing to sound easy, so that the listener would get the effect of the speed without being aware of the effort.

Over the next two years baseball remained a (dare I say it?) running theme in our lessons. Peter’s passion for the game was infectious, and he guided me to some amazing writers like Roger Angell who helped me to understand its intricacies. It was a good time to be a Phillies fan, and I was at Veteran’s Stadium screaming like a maniac along with 60,000 other people when they —when we—won the National League Championship in October of 1983. About the ensuing World Series against the Orioles I will say nothing.

Peter Segal was everything a good teacher should be; earnest critic, unstinting supporter, mentor, and, ultimately, friend. He helped me to be a better musician. Along the way, he turned me into a lifelong baseball fan.

I never did manage to playing that passage like Gary Matthews. Oh, I could sound like Gary Matthews if he was recovering from an injury. Or had a stone in his shoe. But capturing the ease of the man in his prime, loping deep into the outfield to snag a well-hit baseball? No. And perhaps that is why my formal guitar studies ended with my graduation from Temple. I had realized that the major leagues were beyond my reach.

Interlude 6: Major anxiety

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.

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.

Interlude 4: First Master Class

On a spring day in 1977 I saw a flyer announcing a master class to be given by classical guitarist Demetrio Ballesteros at Moorhead State University. I didn’t know what a “master class” was, but since it was free and open to the public, I decided to go. I was entirely self-taught at that point and thought I might pick up some technical tips. As it turned out, I was more right than I could have known.

I’d been in Moorhead a couple of years, but this was the first time I went across town to the MSU campus. I arrived at the music building’s recital hall, guitar case in hand, well before the master class was supposed to start to guarantee myself a place in the front row. As the audience gradually filled the seats, it struck me as strange that no one else brought a guitar. Perhaps all of the students would arrive together? Maybe they were back stage? Or would the whole thing be more of a demonstration than a class?

A few minutes after 4 PM a man walked onto the stage and introduced himself as the chairman of the music department. He explained that Ballesteros’s visit to the school had been arranged by a member of the Spanish department and, since MSU had no guitar program, this was an exciting opportunity. Further, given Ballesteros’s limited English, he would speak through an interpreter. With that, he welcomed the guitarist to the stage.

Ballesteros was an imposing figure, with thick dark hair and a regal bearing. He sat with his guitar, adjusted his footstool, and played something that surely impressed me but I have since forgotten. After the applause a student brought out two additional chairs, and the translator joined Ballesteros on stage. He made a few welcoming remarks, duly translated, and then, peering into the audience, asked a question.

The translator said, “Very well. Who would like to play for maestro Ballesteros?”

There I sat in the front row, with a guitar case standing by my seat, my head swiveling back and forth, wondering who would step forward! But Ballesteros had already noticed me and, with a nod in my direction, said something to the translator.

“You, young man,” he said. “Would you come up and play?”

There is a wonderful kind of fearlessness that comes with ignorance. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but this wasn’t my first time with an audience. I’d spoken at debate tournaments, acted in plays, and even played the guitar in front of people before, so I didn’t hesitate. I opened my case, took out my guitar, grabbed my folding footstool, and took my place on stage in the empty chair. Both Ballesteros and the translator smiled, and the translator asked me to introduce myself and tell the audience what I would play. Easy enough, since I knew my name and had a total of one piece in my classical repertoire.

“My name is Chris Freitag, and I will play Romanza.” I took a deep breath and played.

After the applause died down, Ballesteros made a brief remark.

“Very nice,” said the translator.

Then Ballesteros made a much lengthier comment. The translator, who was not a guitarist, looked a little puzzled and asked Ballesteros a question. Ballesteros looked puzzled in turn. The translator turned to me and said, “Maestro Ballesteros wonders why you do not play the melody ah-poi-YAHN-doh?” (Only later did I learn the proper spelling: apuyando.)

Now it was my turn to look puzzled. “What is apuyando?” I asked.

More consultation with the translator, then Ballesteros held up his left hand in my direction, palm downward and fingers splayed out. He placed his right hand above it, and with his ring finger he stroked the middle finger of his left hand, allowing the tip of the ring finger to come to rest on the adjacent left-hand finger. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Understand?”

Ah. So, he wanted me to play the melody notes on the top string with my ring finger (which I was already doing), but to play “through” the string with the fingertip coming to rest on the second string. As I was to learn later, this “rest stroke” is a basic technique in classical guitar. It gives more weight and emphasis to a note than the “free stroke,” where the tip of the fingertip arcs above the adjacent string.

Here is the opening of Romanza played with a free stroke:

And here it is played with a rest stroke:

Rest stroke is not hard to do. Unless you are doing it for the first time, on a stage, in front of an audience.

A few uncomfortable moments followed for all of us. But finally, I found the flow of the thing and he asked me to play the piece again. It didn’t quite have the ease of my first version, but the melody now sang out much more distinctly over the accompaniment.

“Bravo,” said Ballesteros quietly after I finished, and the applause this second time was a little more heartfelt in recognition of my struggle. I nodded to the audience, thanked Ballesteros and the translator, and returned to my seat. Since I was the only player, that was the end of the class.

I played in many other master classes over the years, but never again would I enjoy the happy ignorance that got me through this first one. In future classes I would be an aspiring professional, with much more at stake. And now I fully understood just how exposed I could feel.

Some 40 years later I still play this little piece from time to time. Here is how it sounds today. I wonder what Ballesteros would say?

Interlude 3: Parlez-vous guitare?

In my senior year of high school, it seemed clear that I was bound for college and then law school. I’d become a very successful debater, winning regional and state tournaments and placing in the nationals. Scholarship offers came in from several good schools, but somehow I knew that I didn’t want to debate my way through life. I was really, really good at it, and I loved being good at it. But I didn’t love it. The thing I loved was music. So when the acceptance letter from Concordia College arrived in the spring of 1974, I decided that’s where I was going to go. I’d major in music, sing in that wonderful choir, and become a choral conductor.Read More »