Notes From the Bo(a)rder: Why the Guitar?

From July 23, 1950 until August 7, 1956 America’s singing cowboy, Gene Autry righted the wrongs of the old west on national television on a weekly basis. At the end of each show he would sing, often accompanying himself on the guitar. I don’t know how I am able to recall things that happened that far back in my life, but I have vivid memories of being entranced by his choice of instrument, and by the time I was 4 years old I had declared my intention to play the guitar.

No, I didn’t really begin playing that early! But that IS me.

For a few years afterward I would regularly request an instrument and some sort of instruction, but was met with paternal stoicism and maternal skepticism. My mother steadfastly opposed my plans, arguing that the strings would hurt my fingers and I’d only wind up quitting. Mother seemed to believe that quitting was a sign of a deep rooted moral weakness, so her reluctance to allow me to embark on a venture that would, in her mind, doom me to certain damnation, or at least set a precedent that could result in nothing good was, I suppose, understandable.

When I was 8 years old a friend of mine brought his accordion to school. He played for the class, and although it wasn’t the guitar, it was music, and I realized that I wanted to make music. I could envision myself making wonderful sounds come out of my instrument, manipulating this source of aural pleasure like some magician controlling the ether. I could imagine taking great satisfaction from the act of making music. I could see the pleasure that my classmates shared when my friend played, and I too wanted to be someone who could bring that joy to others. The prospect of playing an instrument looked to me to be a “win-win” endeavor, with the performer reveling in the joy of music making and the audience being transported. Of course, at the age of 8 I could not have begun to express these imaginings, but looking back I can recognize these longings and emotions with crystal clarity, and can now describe them with an eloquence bred of years of self-reflection and self-expression.

No, it wasn’t the guitar, but it was music, and given the nature of my mother’s objections to the guitar I had no reason to believe that she would in any way deny my desires to so express myself on a different instrument. Armed with the confidence of certain success I approached my mother and asked if I could learn the accordion. She hesitated not one instant, giving me one of the most influential affirmative answers of my life. It was decided. I would play the accordion. More importantly, I would play music.

Marie. She was our next door neighbor. I’ve heard it said that there is something different about people who buy corner houses. They are not bound on three sides by neighbors, but have at least two open spaces bordering their properties. Their houses often occupy slightly larger plots of land. There is, supposedly, something different about their personalities that leads them to prefer this particular living arrangement. Of course, generalities are as often as not untrue. The exceptions to the rule outnumber its adherents. But there really was something different about Marie. For one thing, in this bedroom community filled with successful blue collar workers and a smattering of business men, all married to full time home makers (except for my mother, who was also different) she made a living giving music lessons from her home.

Marie was different from other people in our neighborhood in other ways as well. She lived with her elderly mother and her teenage daughter. The house was devoid of masculine influence, and I’m sure the neighbors had plenty of theories regarding Marie. Was she widowed? Divorced? Or worse (for 1961), a single mother who had never been married? Her property was surrounded by hedges, creating more than just a fence, but rather a boundary between her miniature nation and the rest of the world. Her daughter was forbidden to leave the confines of her little city-state unescorted except to go to school. She appeared to have few friends, although my cousin, who lived in the house on the opposite side of ours from Marie’s corner lot was the same age and would occasionally go and spend time with the young internee.

It was wonderfully convenient living next door to a music teacher. My mother made arrangements with Marie, and I was soon crossing that green barricade on a weekly basis. My first accordion was a small one, a kind of starter accordion with only 12 buttons on the left side (hence, referred to as a 12 bass accordion) and a 2 octave keyboard for the right. I was a pretty good student, and had a natural musicality, allowing me to graduate in short order to the more professional accordion with 120 buttons on the left and a three and a half octave keyboard on the right in. Being small for my age, I looked quite the sight holding this instrument that appeared to be bigger than I!

The accordion creates its sound by forcing air through a series of internal reeds by expanding and contracting the bellows. Marie was an excellent music teacher. She demanded constant growth from her students, and exposed them to the rigors of technical exercises, written assignments, etudes, and progressively complex songs to learn. So, it should be no surprise that she insisted that I never change the direction of the bellows in the middle of a musical phrase. I had to time the expansion and contraction of the bellows with the length of the phrase. I firmly believe that this training has continued to influence my guitar playing to this day, creating a habit of examining phrases, and breathing life into music that could all too easily become a moribund succession of notes performed by what for all intents and purposes is a “push button” instrument.

A number of years went by, and I continued to progress, playing more and more complicated pieces, and eventually reaching that benchmark of superior achievement, deemed the apotheosis of accomplishment by young accordionists my age in the early 1960s, Lady of Spain. But at that point my interest had already been beginning to wane.

It’s not that I had lost my ardor for music. But by this point I was approaching puberty, it was 1964, and the British Invasion launched by the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show had reminded me of where my real passion lay. I wanted to play the guitar. My mother saw this loss of interest and fought to rekindle it. She tried changing teachers. But the problem wasn’t the teacher. It was me. Or, more accurately it was the instrument. To be precise, it was what the instrument wasn’t. It wasn’t the guitar. It wasn’t cool. I wasn’t a suitable arbiter of the modern esthetic that was so much more aptly expressed by the instrument that I had wanted to play since I was 4 years old. And when I thought it over, the accordion just wasn’t me. I expressed a desire to quit the accordion, and it doesn’t take too much to realize how that initially turned out. In my mother’s estimation, that made me a quitter. She told me point blank, “I am not raising you to be a quitter.”

My parents did, however, buy me a guitar. It was what is often referred to as a GSO – Guitar Shaped Object. It was a piece of junk, virtually guaranteed to discourage any budding virtuoso from pursuing that mode of expression. And I do not believe for an instant that my parents were being in any way devious, or that they were even aware of how bad the guitar was or how difficult it would be to play. They just didn’t know the difference. Nevertheless, I persisted, and as they saw me refuse to give up the guitar, and as they began to realize that I had lost all interest in the accordion, they let me put it aside for the last time.

I progressed slowly on that thing that I hesitate to call an instrument. I learned a handful of popular guitar riffs and a few chords, stumbling over the chord that every young guitarist sweats over, the F chord. The F chord has defeated more than one would be guitar player, letting them know in no uncertain terms that they don’t have the Right Stuff to be guitarists. The F chord was even more daunting on what might be thought of as an instrument of torture. But I soldiered on. I got to where I could play through a handful of songs without making the guitar sound worse than it already was, and perhaps better than could have been expected.

But it was in the summer of 1967, visiting my cousins in Miami that something happened. We were visiting my mother’s brother, Pepi, and his family. They had a few guitars that my cousins played, and these were real guitars. They played “like butter” and sounded full and clear. My first afternoon at their home I was able to learn several new songs of far greater complexity than any I had attempted before, and what’s more, I made them sound good. My parents, to their credit, recognized the difference, and asked my uncle what he thought. He told them that I needed a better guitar. That day he took them to a music store and helped them pick out an instrument for me. At the end of that wonderful vacation we returned to Deer Park NY with my new guitar.

My mother wasted no time in getting me enrolled in guitar lessons at a local music store. I began lessons with a young man, Greg, a 19 year old long haired college student who continued to feed the flames of my passion for the guitar and for music. Under his instruction I learned many new chords, learned to read music on the guitar – an easy transfer since I had already learned to read music on the accordion – and learned how to use my right hand fingers instead of a pick.

After a year of lessons Greg transferred to a different college, and the music store hired an older man, Ray. Of course, when I say “older” I mean relative to his predecessor. Ray was a pick player, and didn’t feel comfortable teaching finger picking. He felt that I was pretty advanced and would be better served by studying under a classical guitar instructor. There was only one classical guitar instructor in town, and Greg had supposedly studied under him. Greg had told me how strict this teacher was, and succeeded in intimidating me. The result was that when Ray recommended him I decided that I wasn’t ready. We all have regrets in life, and this particular sliding door moment remains my greatest regret to this day. I’ve often wondered what kind of career path may have been open to me if I’d had a few years head start on my classical playing.

My first exposure to classical guitar was in 1970 as a self-taught player, preparing for my college audition. Fortunately, my years of finger picking and of reading music put me in a position to be able to pass the audition at Hofstra University. It was there that I met Stanley Solow, the man who would guide me through four years of classical instruction, and who lit a spark whose resultant fire continues to burn brightly nearly half a century later. I was on my way to becoming a classical guitarist.

Below is a video of me from several years ago playing the first movement of the Sonata by Federico Moreno Torroba. It was recorded in the Danforth Chapel at Florida Southern College in Lakeland FL. The chapel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

It was a real honor to receive some very positive comments coming from the estate of the composer when I sent his family a copy of this video. I think Stanley Solow would be pleased.


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