Performing the chaconne

On Saturday evening, January 18, I performed the Chaconne for an audience of about 30 people at a house concert organized by my friend (and Chaconne Project reader) Thalia Dorwick. I had previously played the piece for a small circle of guitar friends in December, but this really felt like the first public performance. For one thing, it was the first time playing it from memory. For another thing, I was able to play a few pieces before the Bach in order to adjust to the space and the audience–and my nerves–before tackling the big piece. In December I sat and waited until it was my turn, tuned, and played. I wouldn’t recommend it.

I’m pleased with how Saturday’s performance went. There were glitches, to be sure, but for long stretches I felt that I was doing what I intended to do rather than just hanging on and hoping to hit the right notes. But I really begin to understand the challenge of performing this piece: concentration. Maintaining my focus in a sustained way over such a long piece is really difficult. I find it hard to avoid an internal dialogue about the technical challenges–“OK, here comes that spot where I really have to have the 3rd finger prepared”–and substitute a more musical dialogue: “Breathe…build here…quietly!…hear the bass line.” If I can get to that point then my performances will get better and be more fun.

Although, as it is, it is still pretty fun to play this piece for listeners.

Next up is the Georgetown University recital. Stay tuned!

​​​​​​​Friday Music Series: Chris Freitag, guitar – Georgetown

Part of “The Chaconne Project,” a year-long exploration of one of music’s great masterworks, Freitag performs his adaptation for classical guitar of the final movement from Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin. Music editor at W.W. Norton, Freitag also documents the transcription process in an online journal. The Georgetown University Music Program’s Friday Music Series features acclaimed artists in free concerts on Friday afternoons at 12:30 p.m. in McNeir Hall, and integrated into a new undergraduate course (MUSC 200) titled Live Music in Context. Each concert is followed by a Q&A with the performers. McNEIR HALL, NEW NORTH BUILDING FREE

Source: ​​​​​​​Friday Music Series: Chris Freitag, guitar – Georgetown

In my beginning is my end

One of the most satisfying things to me about the Chaconne is the way it returns to the opening measures at the very end. After all that has happened we hear the music of the first four measures exactly as we heard it at the beginning. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the music is written exactly as it was in the first four measures, for I don’t believe it is possible to play or hear the ending in the same way we play and hear the beginning. Too much has happened, and we are too much changed by the passage from beginning to end to be unaffected by it. Even if, as a performer, I could play the return of those four bars with exactly the same inflection, volume, phrasing, and tone as the opening, the listener—you—could not possibly hear the same thing. 

Thinking about this the other day sent me to my bookshelves in search of my copy of Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, the first serious poetry I ever encountered and a work that, like the Chaconne, retains the power to move me many years and many readings later. Eliot reflects this blurring of endings and beginnings. He opens the second quartet, East Coker, with the line that titles this post:

In my beginning is my end.

In Eliot’s poem this is a great cosmic idea. Every birth will lead to a death, at least in the mortal sphere, and in the first rush of breath and life we begin a journey towards an end that will put a stop to both. But think of the wonders that lie between that beginning and that ending! Joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, ecstasies and pains, the daily routines and extraordinary events, all played out against the dappled waves of a slowly ebbing tide.

One year ago I wrote the first post in The Chaconne Project. As I framed the project, my goal was to learn and perform Bach’s wonderful piece by year’s end, and to gain some skill as a writer. And now that year has ended, and I have learned and performed the piece and written more than 30,000 words along the way. And so the project is done. Or is it? Now another quote from Eliot comes to mind, from the final quartet, Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

There is unfinished business for the Chaconne Project. I promised a video of a performance and I intend to do one when I feel ready. And I have three upcoming performances: a house concert in Florida later this month, a Georgetown University recital in early February, and a New York City recital in April. I’ll be playing the Chaconne on each program, and will come back to write about those experiences. 

After more than 30,000 words of writing, I know that I am just beginning to find a writer’s voice—however small—and that I have more to say. What to say and where to say it remain to be discovered.

And then there is the Chaconne itself. I’ve come far in my quest to learn the piece and it lies more or less comfortably in my fingers. But the last few weeks have been challenging, as with each repetition of the piece I become more aware of my shortcomings. The distance between the performance I hold in my head and the one I can produce with my hands and ears is still very great; sometimes the ultimate goal seems to recede from me like a special effect in a Hitchcock film where the protagonist runs through a passageway that suddenly seems to extend into infinity. But what I wrote in June (See “Why Bother?”) has turned out to be even more true than I might have guessed and I relish my daily conversation with Bach.

I’m grateful to all of you who have followed my journey and encouraged me along the way. Nearly 1800 readers from 44 countries, including one reader in Japan who read every post in one sitting! Arigato. Knowing that someone was reading made the writing more enjoyable and kept me motivated.

Sometimes things take us in unexpected directions. I first encountered Eliot’s Four Quartets in a passage quoted by John Fowles in his novel The Magus. The passage he quoted is my favorite from the work, and it resonates with me today more than it ever has. It seems a fitting way to mark the day and to end this phase of the journey:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

In my end is my beginning.

Interlude 13: Cleveland

I enjoyed my 2013 trip to the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival so much that I resolved to go back in 2014. By then I had been taking online lessons with Jason Vieaux for almost a year—although, to be honest, I had only managed to upload a couple of videos for him to comment on—and I thought it would be nice to do an in-person lesson with him while I was there. He agreed to meet with me and we had a nice lesson together on Thursday. At the end of it he said “Why don’t you play on my Saturday master class?”

Now the thing you have to understand is that all of the master class students at the festival that I had seen were college students…music majors pursuing their degrees. All very good. All very, very young. It hardly seemed that I would fit in.

So, of course, I said yes!

And that is how I ended up on the stage of Mixon Hall on a bright Saturday morning. I played the third prelude by Villa-Lobos, and I played it well. Jason commented on my intensity and my absorption in the music. And of course he gave me some good pointers. At the remaining festival recitals, people who had been in the audience for his class stopped me to complement me on my playing. One woman who sat near me in the audience the next afternoon asked if I was a professional. I was hooked.

The next year I played in three master classes, and have played in classes each year since. I’m no longer the only adult doing so; a couple of other “later in life” learners have joined me. It is one of the things that has made the festival so special to me. I particularly value the classes I have had with Petra Poláčková and Ricardo Gallén.

And the concerts! Duo Melis playing in a thunderstorm. Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro. Elizabeth Kenny playing 21st Century music…on the theorbo! Colin Davin’s Nocturnal. SoloDuo’s Beethoven. So many wonderful recitals.

Another aspect of it that I enjoy is the chance to mingle with and get to know some really wonderful musicians.  Armin Kelly, proprietor of Guitars International and the artistic director of the festival, assembles amazing talent every year and creates a wonderful atmosphere. The festival is small enough to foster a nice sense of intimacy and I have gradually become a part of the scenery. I’ve made new friends and connections that have allowed me to feel a part of the guitar world in a way I never would have expected.

Then, too, there is the friendship I have formed with Jason Vieaux that only could have happened because of the festival. Mind you, it’s not hard to make friends with him; along with being a wonderful musician and guitarist he is a genuinely nice guy, impossible not to like, and very easy to be around. In addition to seeing him at the festival and at other concert appearances, I’ve had some lessons, some meals, and a memorable trip driving him to Newark airport from Beacon NY. And on top of all that, at the 2017 festival he gave me one of the best moments of my life so far.

I’ll let Jason tell the story…

Jason Vieaux at the 2017 Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival

I never had any thought that he would play my piece in public. It was just a little something that I thought perhaps he might play for his little daughter. But to be in that hall, to hear him play music that I had written—however slight—was amazing. And what made it magical was Evangelene’s reaction from the back of the auditorium! It’s something I will never forget, and one more reason why the Cleveland festival will always be special to me.

The French Connection, reconsidered

In a previous post I discussed the idea of making the Chaconne more French in style by changing the manner in which I play the characteristic dotted-quarter/eighth-note pattern. This emerged out of the master class I had with Petra Poláčková along with the consideration of various sources. I also listened to a lot of violin performances and found that some players—particularly those who identify as Baroque specialists—embraced the French manner as well.

In the wake of Petra’s class and the reading and the listening, I began to experiment with playing the piece in this way and got to like it. Even at my relatively slow tempo it makes the piece feel a bit more dance-like. But there are sections where it doesn’t seem to fit, and I don’t care for the idea of changing back and forth; it seems important to keep that basic rhythmic pattern consistent each time it appears. And as I have continued to read about the Chaconne and its interpretation I have come across some fairly persuasive arguments for playing the rhythms as written. So I decided to revisit the question

One of the strongest advocates of the “play what Bach wrote” position is Frederick Neumann, who wrote extensively about performance practices in early music. Over the course of several essays and books he looks carefully at the sources of the overdotting idea like Quantz and C. P. E. Bach, as well as looking at J. S. Bach’s own notational practices. In his book Essays in Performance Practice (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982) he deals with the question in three of the essays.

Since one of the essays is in response to criticism by another scholar it has a somewhat polemical tone:

When we play the overtures, sarabandes, chaconne, etc., of Lully, Rameau, Handel, and Bach, it is a mistake to deprive them of their majestic dignity in favor of the frantic style of jerks and jolts.

Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 98

But elsewhere he argues in a more convincing and dispassionate vein. One thread of his argument is that Bach was perfectly capable of notating music in a very specific way, and Neumann shows a number of examples where the “French effect” is actually notated by Bach.

He also raises the problem of polyphonic music when a dotted note appears in some voices but not in others. Specifically in the Chaconne, he points out that there are often places where the main rhythmic pattern (quarter note, dotted quarter, eighth note) appears in one voice against, in the other voice, a pattern of straight eighth notes, like this spot in measure 141:

In this example, the bottom voice with stems pointing down is the characteristic chaconne pattern, while the top voice is all straight eighth notes.

Neumann suggests that the final eighth note of this measure needs to be given its full value in both voices; so, no double-dotting of the dotted quarter note in the lower voice. This sort of thing happens quite a bit in this part of the Chaconne and I find his reasoning compelling.

He writes elsewhere that what may indeed be needed in the style is a certain lightening of the final eighth note of the Chaconne pattern to keep the whole thing from becoming ponderous. That’s something that seems well within the purview of the performer…in this case, me.

Finally, there is this passage from elsewhere in the book:

The baroque performer enjoyed vast latitude in interpretation of the score; one of the many ways in which he used this freedom was an elastic treatment of rhythmic notation. Guided by the “Affect” of a passage, he applied agogic accents, used rubato techniques of all kinds, varied the tempo, sharpened a rhythm here, softened it there. No rules governed this performance style; its only law was musical instinct and arbitrary judgment.

Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 55

As a governing principle for playing Bach’s music it works for me! In other words, there is probably not a definitive answer to the question of over-dotting, and a performer who choses to do it is not wrong. But I have abandoned my French ways and will rely instead on “softening” or “sharpening” a rhythm here and there to get the effect that seems right to me.

Sei solo

There are at least a couple of myths that attach to the Chaconne, or more generally to the set of pieces to which it belongs.

The first myth concerns Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. She died, unexpectedly, in 1720 while Bach was away from home on a trip with his employer at the time, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. He returned home to the tragic news and a fresh grave. The musicologist Helga Thoene proposed that the D minor partita—and in particular its Chaconne—were composed as a lament for his late wife. Certainly the somber quality of parts of the piece might seem appropriate, and it is the kind of story that can fire the popular imagination. In fact, there is an entire recording dedicated to this premise. But I don’t find the story very convincing. For one thing, it seems far more likely that Bach would have written a sacred work for such an event, as we know quite a bit about his deep religious beliefs. For another, the sheer inventiveness of the Chaconne seems out of character with a piece for mourning.

The second myth concerns Bach’s title for these pieces. The first page of the autograph manuscript reads Sei solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato. This is generally translated as “Six solos for unaccompanied violin.” There is nothing so unusual about Bach using Italian for the title; although German, he was well-acquainted with the music of Italy and France and the musical terms of those languages.

Title page of the 1720 autograph manuscript

The notable thing, and the basis of the myth, is that the Italian title is not quite correct. It really should read Sei soli—six solos—since soli is the plural form of solo. But sei, in addition to being the Italian word for six, is also the second-person singular form of the verb essere (to be); tu sei (you are). And in Italian it’s not unusual to drop the pronoun subject and let the verb alone carry the meaning, as in Sono americano (I am American). That results in a second possible meaning for Sei solo:

You are alone.

This too is the kind of thing that can fire the imagination. How appropriate it would be to give this collection of six pieces—pieces of unmatched musical depth and technical demands—a title that emphasizes the alone-ness of the performer? 

And Bach was not above a little wordplay. The last of the Goldberg Variations is a quodlibet—a mash-up, if you will— of two folk songs. The words of one are “I’ve been away from you so long” and the other is “Cabbage and turnips drove me away, if you’d cooked me meat I’d have opted to stay.” Since this is the last of 30 variations before the theme finally returns, the choice of tunes does not seem accidental!

Still…I think Bach just made a mistake with his Italian.

Moreover, I think it’s wrongheaded to think that the performer of these works is alone. I certainly don’t feel alone when I sit down to play the Chaconne. Segovia is there with me. So is Hahn, and Podger, and Parkening, and Petra, and Shirley Bertsch, and all my teachers.

But mostly, Bach is there. I think about all the performances that this piece has had in the 299 years since Bach wrote it down. How many times has it been played? Thousands, surely. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? In homes and practice rooms and recital halls and churches. In Carnegie Hall, and a living room in Short Hills, New Jersey. Bach has been at each and every one.

Non sei solo.

You are not alone.

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. 

A Milestone

In January I set out to create a guitar edition of Bach’s Chaconne, to learn it, and to perform it in public. The edition is complete, although I continue to tinker with fingerings as I try to achieve different musical effects. And, depending on how you want to define the word learn, I have learned to play the entire piece from beginning to end.

And yesterday, for the first time, I performed it in front of an audience at the monthly meeting of the North New Jersey Classical Guitar Society.

But let’s not hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet.

There were parts of the performance that were good, and parts that were not; I’d say it was about half and half. It opened well, and much of the middle section went quite well…there were definitely nice moments. The transition back into minor—my favorite moment in the piece—was quite nice, as was the section starting in measure 229 that is the long pause before the end.

But there were lots of small stumbles. And, much to my surprise, the long arpeggio section that is normally so comfortable and fun to play didn’t go well. My right hand suddenly turned into the Beast with Five Fingers and took on a life of its own, disconnected from my will for a dozen measures.

The setting was challenging, of course. We all sat together in a room and before my turn to play I listened to several players struggling with nerves on comparatively easy pieces. And there was no opportunity to warm up; when it was my turn I sat down, tuned, and launched into the Chaconne.

Honestly, though, the main issue was my own incredible nervousness, even before such a small and friendly audience. Many of the people in the room knew about my project and that I had been working on the piece for a year. But the real source of pressure was internal, the result of all of the work and expectation and anticipation.

Performing the Chaconne for the first time

Even though this was not the performance I envisioned in my head, I am not discouraged. There has to be a first time, and this was an important opportunity to see exactly where I am with the Chaconne. I know the spots that need more polishing. I know where I will tend to rush and, more important, I know how and where to slow things down if I do. I can now begin to practice performing the piece and not just playing it.

And the nerves? Well, it’s part of the deal. Every performer deals with them. I certainly have. But I know that they can be managed, and I’ll think back on one instance in particular.

When I played my recital in Vermillion at the University of South Dakota in 2014 I was very well prepared and confident. And yet, on the morning of the performance I went to practice room to do a little warming up and found that, suddenly, I couldn’t play. Nothing seemed to be working and pieces had fled from my memory. It was so bad I thought I might have to cancel the recital. But I had a few hours and decided I needed to get out of my own head. 

I packed up my guitar, got in the car, and drove west out of town to a county park by the Missouri River. It was a clear, crisp, September morning. I found a nice place to sit  with a good view of the river. I felt the warmth of the sun and listened to the susurration of the water as it flowed inexorably by. I just let myself be there, in the moment, and I found calm.

When I returned to the Fine Arts Center the calm stayed with me. I tuned backstage. And then the stage door opened and I stepped out into the light.

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.