By Catherine Revland
I had the pleasure of hearing Andres Segovia perform in 1977, when he was 84 years old. Although I was sitting toward the back of the concert hall, I heard every note he played. “How does he do that?” I thought, “this little old man?”
Not by playing loud, I have learned.
The acoustic guitar is a quiet instrument by nature, and banging away at it may increase volume but the sound won’t be musical. Segovia developed a new technique of plucking the strings with the fingernails as well as the fingertips, which increases volume while producing those rich, warm, sonorous tones I love so much. Achieving volume as well as beauty of tone—without force—is one of the many contrary aspects of studying the classical guitar.
When I started taking lessons from Helen Bates (the smiling woman in white in the accompanying photo), I spent years unlearning a lifetime of bad habits—left-hand fingers that flung themselves off the strings, hysterically lost in space (still a problem); right-hand fingers so rigid they could barely move. It took many years before I learned how to play fast. How? By practicing slow. And soft. Another dichotomy.
When tension invades the body, the muse departs, which brings me to another classical guitar conundrum—performance anxiety. Legend has it that Julian Bream always wore red socks when he performed to ward off the terror of playing before an audience. Why is it so scary, even for the best of players? I started taking piano lessons at eight and never feared recitals—just marched up to the piano like a little soldier, played my piece, and sat down. Maybe the difference is that pianists benefit from sitting behind a veritable fortress, in profile to an audience they can choose to ignore. The guitarist, however, sits full-face before the audience, embracing an instrument that is pressed close to the heart. I feel insecure even as I write.
But what is the point of a lifetime of practicing music if it’s not shared? For many years, Helen has put on yearly recitals in her West Village apartment (crowded but cozy affairs) and encourages her students to take part in the performance classes she holds prior to each recital. “Thorough knowledge of a piece is essential, but it’s not enough,” she says. The only way to overcome performance anxiety is to—oh no—perform. At these classes, we discover hidden trouble spots, listen to suggestions, and most importantly, learn to get over ourselves and let the music in. Then, when the fateful day arrives, Segovia’s comment about performing is my guide: “I have to be present at every note I play.”
It’s been 30 years since the death of the man who elevated the acoustic guitar to respectable “high art,” and there’s been some revisionist thinking of late about his place in music history. One famous former student complained that the master was too conservative, snobbish about some South American composers who weren’t classical enough for him. But others vehemently disagree, pointing out Segovia’s efforts to promote New World music. One defender brings up a Star Trek episode in which Data plays poker with Isaac Newton, Steven Hawking, and Albert Einstein. Hawking tells a joke about relativity using jargon unfamiliar to Newton, who doesn’t get the punchline. “Don’t patronize me, sirs,” he says. “I invented physics.” Such is the homage I would like to pay the inventor of the classical guitar. As he said, every note matters. I feel the same way about words.