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 »

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.Read More »

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.Read More »