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.

Alone in the recital hall

The stage of Mixon Recital Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music is a beautiful place to be on a sunny Sunday morning in early June. An impossibly high glass wall rises behind you and wraps around to your left before giving way to beautiful square panels consisting of small thin strips of wood that are no doubt a function of acoustic design but exaggerate the height of the hall. You are surrounded by light and sky and trees. In front of you, fourteen rows of seats rise steeply to the back of the auditorium. In a few hours those seats will be occupied by the twenty or so listeners there to observe Jason Vieaux’s master class in which I and others will perform. And not long after that, a much larger audience will fill those seats for what will turn out to be the brilliant closing concert of this year’s Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival, given by Petra Poláčková.

But the seats are all empty now.

On the stage is a single black piano bench. It’s not the flat hard wooden kind, but the smaller cushioned version with a knob on the side that adjusts the height.

I give the knob a turn, getting the height just so. One last tweak to the tuning of my lowest string, and I begin to play.

The first note of the prelude to Bach’s first suite for solo cello—in the guitar version I play—is a low D. Its rich sonority comes back to me from the hall and I linger longer than I should before proceeding with the arpeggio figure that carries the music forward. I haven’t played the piece in some time, but Jason played it on this very spot last evening and somehow it is the first music that comes out of me. It flows, my fingers sure and my sound rich. Mixon Hall is as gratifying to the performer as it is to the audience; not every hall provides the player with such sonic feedback. I can hear my playing, and I can hear that it is good. Hearing such good playing, I’m inspired to try and make it even a little better. And I do. I push harder into the strings, coaxing the most sound I can from them without letting the tone become too brittle or rough.

The last high treble notes ring for a moment before fading to silence, and then I launch into a set of pieces from the Italian Renaissance. My time in the hall will be short, so I don’t play each piece all the way through but skip between favorite bits that I want to hear in this space. Still with my lowest string tuned to D, I play a Catalonian song that has been in my repertoire since I was in college. Today I am doing a particularly nice job of singing the melody on the high E string, and when the harmonics come in at the conclusion they ring out like the tiny little bells they are meant to suggest.

Now I tune my low string up to the standard E, adjust my position on the bench, and begin the piece I had planned to play on today’s master class: Nocturno by Federico Moreno-Torroba. It starts well, and I don’t fumble in the usual spots. Perhaps I should play it after all instead of making the change I’ve been contemplating? It has some nice fiery passages, and the ending is really fun to play. I enjoy imagining the effect it must have on someone hearing it for the very first time. I consider the idea as I listen to the final notes fade.

No, I am going to stick to my plan. Who knows if or when I will ever have another chance to play on this stage for an audience? Nocturno is a wonderful piece and I am pretty well prepared to play it, but I know that nerves will take hold, my sound will become thin, and I will begin to concentrate on playing it correctly rather than playing it musically. Today I want to make music and share it with people.

So I begin to play what I have decided only this morning to play, a little piece called “If You Were Here” by a Norwegian guitarist-composer named Per-Olov Kindgren. It’s a wisp of a thing in the character of a pop song, but lovely over the whole two-and-a-half minutes it takes to play. I get to the last repetition of the recurring phrase—in my head, I can almost hear a singer lingering over “if you were here”—play the last slow ascending arpeggio and just touch the flesh of my thumb to the sixth string to sound the final low E.

Suddenly, a small sob rises up from my gut. Then another. My eyes fill. For a moment I can only sit there. I just recover my composure before Colin Davin walks out on the stage from the side door, guitar case over his shoulder and a quizzical look on his face. I am sure he is wondering how I come to be there.

How do I come to be there? And why those tears?

Over the weeks since that sunny June morning I have been asking myself those questions. The answer to the first can probably be teased out of what I have already written over the course of the last few months, or what is still to be written. But the answer to the second continues to elude me. Somehow, I think it might be what this Chaconne project is ultimately all about.