Robert Phillips

About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips holds a doctorate in music from the University of Miami, an M.A. in music from Brooklyn College, and a B.S in Music Education from Hofstra University. He is former student of Rey de la Torre, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, and David Starobin. Dr. Phillips directs the guitar department at the Lois Cowles Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, and teaches music theory there as well. He is also an adjunct professor at Southeastern University, where he maintains a classical guitar studio and directs the classical guitar ensemble. With nearly 40 years of teaching experience, Dr. Phillips’ former students have been admitted to Manhattan School of Music, Florida State University, the University of Miami, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Belmont University, Brooklyn College, Hofstra University, and Yale University. Since making his solo guitar debut to a sold-out Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Dr. Phillips has performed in a diverse range of venues – from traditional concert halls, including New York’s prestigious Town Hall and Lincoln Center, to jazz nightclubs. He has appeared as a guest soloist with numerous orchestras and as a guest artist at the Miami International Guitar Festival, the Guitar Foundation of America, and the American String Teachers’ Association, as well as many regional level performing arts series. Dr. Phillips has recorded 3 CDs, one of them a 2 disc box set originally released by Mel Bay, and now available as 2 separate CDs independently released. The most recent, Lo Mestre, The Music of Miguel Llobet, is available on Centaur Records. Dr. Phillips is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from Hofstra University’s George M. Estabrook Alumni Association, and of a Japan Fulbright.

Notes From the Bo(a)rder: op. 1 no. 1 Extraordinary Individuals – Rey de la Torre

I’ve been acquainted with some truly extraordinary individuals. I first began to edge along the border of Greatness at the age of 22 when I had occasion to study privately with José Rey de La Torre, an experience that lasted for a year.

At the time, I was living on Long Island, and had been reading guitar duets with a slightly older and more accomplished guitarist than I, Don Mantell. I had just graduated from Hofstra University with a B.S. in Music Education, and I was beginning to show signs of serious improvement on the guitar, unconsciously drifting slowly toward the orbit of an esthetic that would eventually become my universe. Don saw that slow drift and gave me the push that I needed, recommending that I study with a guitarist who had concert experience and an international reputation. Living in relatively close proximity to New York City, such a teacher would not be difficult to find.

One day, Don handed me a phone number for Rey de la Torre and told me that he would be an excellent teacher for me. I was well acquainted with Rey’s reputation, and was flattered that Don felt I was ready to study with one of the most important figures on the concert stage. I called Rey and set up a session to play for him and see if he would accept me as a student. The session wound up being the first of a year of weekly lessons.

I have often wondered what it was that has lead great players such as Rey to be willing to invest their time in me. I suppose there is a quality, an evident seriousness of purpose that some students exhibit from early on that makes master artists give certain acolytes entrée to their universe. Perhaps it is a recognition that they are ultimately citizens of the same country. I’ve believed that I’ve seen that quality in a number of students during my own teaching career, and I’ve opened the borders to such individuals. I’ve been right about as many of these students as not. Still, I am glad that I’ve given the opportunity to become something greater to all of them; the ultimate decision of most of them to remain outsiders to this curious and demanding world of creativity is theirs alone, whether conscious or not, and brings them no shame.

During that year of studying with Rey I missed only one lesson – Thanksgiving Day. Interestingly, Rey was reluctant to cancel our lesson on that day. A dedicated Catholic and a dedicated artist, he believed in giving thanks to the Creator every day, and his art was an all-consuming passion. His reluctance to cancel that one day was not a demand though, but rather a suggestion that I felt unable to follow; familial obligations were and still are important to me.

There are a handful of things that could be said about Rey that could be found in a good research resource. There are many other things about him that are probably far more interesting and paint a more complete picture of the man, things that cannot be verified by documentation, things that can make this present discourse more apocrypha than verified biography. This is no scholarly document. My intention is to present the kinds of details that fill the corners of the man’s life, the places that reverberate the whispers that give dynamics to a life that is otherwise consigned to the mezzo forte of history books and encyclopedia articles.

Besides, this is more my story than Rey’s. Who is anyone, after all, other than who they are to someone else? My first impression of Rey was exactly as I had expected it to be. A fit looking man of about 60, he had a full head of silver hair crowning a handsome face that could have belonged to a Hollywood leading man, the quintessential Latin Lover – a little something of Ricardo Montalbán and a little something of Kevin Bacon. He was uncommonly intelligent and spoke flawless English with a slight Cuban accent.

Everyone who knew him professionally – his colleagues, students, business contacts – knew him as Rey. At some time in his life he adopted his father’s last name as his first, and his mother’s last name as his. His real name was José. In keeping with the Spanish tradition of using a first name – father’s surname – mother’s maiden name, he was actually José Rey de la Torre. His young wife, Marianne, would therefore have been Marianne Rey. I first met Marianne when my wife at the time, Elena, and I had the opportunity to dine at their home in Staten Island. Marianne was a lovely and gracious woman, probably a bit closer to my age than to Rey’s. Marianne called him Che, a common nickname for José. (I have no idea how Ernesto Guevara came to be called “Che.”) She often called him “schatzie.” She was of Swiss origin and doted on her older husband without seeming to be in any way subservient. Their bond had formed when she, as a physical therapist, was able to give him back his playing after having lost the responsiveness of his right middle finger.

At their home, while Marianne finished her culinary undertakings Rey entertained us by having his pet parakeet perform tricks. He explained to us a little later that he had learned how to train animals as a child growing up around horses near his home town of Gibara, Cuba.

Rey was a great story teller, and his life was interesting enough to provide a raconteur with ample grist. He told us of his time as a teenage boy studying with Miguel Llobet in Barcelona. He would appear at Llobet’s door three times each week at exactly the time that the nearby clock would chime the hours. So precise was his arrival that on the one occasion when he arrived at his door as the last stroke of the bells had already begun to decay, Llobet opened the door before he could begin to knock and in his most solemn voice intoned the words, “You are late.”

Before arriving at Barcelona, Rey had distinguished himself as a young virtuoso in Cuba. Llobet had him drop all of his repertoire and begin almost from scratch, playing nothing but simple etudes until the master deemed him ready to begin repertoire. Rey followed his teacher’s instructions unquestioningly, and moved from being a young virtuoso to being an emerging artist.

Rey may have been an open book to his teacher musically, but in matters that did not pertain directly to his art he could be as evasive as any other adolescent. Llobet would have been horrified had he known that Rey was regularly risking the physical well-being of his fingers by playing on an amateur baseball team. But despite his desire to maintain a secret life of sorts, Rey was not always able to hide personal details from the maestro. Rey was a cigarette smoker, a fact that he hid from Llobet. On one occasion Rey was invited by Llobet to play a piece for a friend of his. After his performance, Llobet, with the smile of one about to reveal that he knows your secret, invited Rey to join them for cigars.

During the year that I studied with Rey he rarely concertized. He was beginning to have health problems and hand problems that would ultimately be diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. He did give an out-of-town performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez. I’ve often wondered if that were his last public performance. If it were, it would be ironic, since it was Rey who gave the American premier of that iconic masterpiece.

I had a formidable drive each Thursday to get to my lesson. Rey borrowed an empty room in the office of a dentist friend of his, Dr. John Richter, who as I recall also studied with him. My lesson came immediately after that of Fred Draper, an affable gentle man (and a gentleman) who was about eight years my senior. Each week I’d make the trip to mid-town Manhattan a few blocks from the U.N. with Elena in tow, and we would either remain in the city for a while or else go out to dinner after the lesson. Dinner was a way to kill time in order to avoid dealing with rush hour traffic, as my lesson ended at 4:00 PM.

I recall one week when at the end of my lesson I told Elena that I had a migraine and would rather just go home. We retrieved our car from the parking garage, and as I pulled out of the garage I discovered that my tire was flat. So there I was, in the middle of rush hour in mid-town Manhattan, changing a flat tire while suffering from a worsening migraine headache. Cars passed close by my crouching body as I removed that heavy assemblage of rubber and steel, now rendered useless by a small nail. The noise of traffic – tires bouncing along pot-holed macadam, imperfect mufflers on eight cylinder engines, the occasional horn blaring – as well as the smell of exhaust from inefficient combustible engines only served to exacerbate my condition. By the time the tire was changed I was in agony. And to make matters worse, I still had to drive home on the Long Island expressway at a time of day when traffic would be at a near stand-still, and the trip was sure to take at least two hours.

Rey was, indeed extraordinary. His command of the guitar was unparalleled and he had an easy way about him that brought out the best in me. Under his instruction I began the process of transitioning from being a student of my craft to being an artist. This journey was not completed under his instruction, but extended on for a number of years. I believe I would not really become an artist for another decade. But Rey did introduce me to the kind of detail oriented process without which no practitioner can truly call him or herself an artist.

I recall my first lesson with Rey, and the first assignment that he gave me. I had already studied the Fernando Sor etude opus 6 no. 8, known to all of us at the time as Sor’s Etude no. 1 because of the position it held in Andrés Segovia’s marvelous collection of Sor’s etudes. It mattered not a bit to Rey that I had studied it years earlier. He wanted me to approach it with new ears and a new mindset. It was with this piece that I first began to pay close attention to details of note duration, damping strings while plucking others, listening to the beauty of the counterpoint, and tracing the progression of multiple melodic lines as they wove in and out of each other.

The year that I worked under Rey’s tutelage I learned a great deal of music. Not only did I relearn several of the Sor etudes that I’d studied in college, but I learned some staples of the Spanish guitar literature that I’d not looked at before – La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados, Torre Bermeja by Isaac Albéniz, Torroba’s Sonatina. I also learned a number of works that were more contemporary in their esthetic – Quatre Pieces Breves by Frank Martin, Theme, varie, et finale by Manuel Ponce, and Preludio y danza by Julián Orbón. Most significantly for the trajectory that my life would eventually take, I learned Miguel Llobet’s set of ten Catalan folk melodies that he had arranged in such creative ways that they are regarded as original compositions.

I also learned a valuable skill – I learned how to come up with good left hand fingerings. Rey was meticulous in this regard, but not doctrinaire. He had clear ideas on fingerings, but he never disregarded my own suggestions when I began to make them.

It had been almost a year of studying with Rey when he announced to me that he and Marianne were moving to San Francisco. I don’t know exactly what precipitated the decision. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. Still, I spent the last several weeks gleaning as much as I could from this remarkable maestro. When the time came for him to move he asked me to hold on to a few of his guitars until he could settle into his new home, and then ship them to him. I did so dutifully, and resisted all temptation to play his instruments. In retrospect, I believe I should have asked him if I could play them once in a while. I believe he would have said yes, and it would have benefitted me to be able to practice on concert quality instruments, my own guitar being a student model made in Barcelona by Juan Estruch. Some time went by; I phoned Rey a number of times, and we wrote to each other somewhat regularly. After I sent him his guitars our contact became a bit more sporadic. We eventually fell out of touch with each other.

Throughout our lives we go through many transitional periods. These are the turning points that in the young are referred to as “coming of age” but are really not limited to those embarking on some imagined final path to maturity. I believe that we have many comings of age. This was my artistic coming of age. While I still had a long way to go before I could regard myself as a master, it was during this time that I realized that I felt compelled by something bigger than myself to pursue the classical guitar, and to dedicate myself to mastering it. Rey’s impact on me has continued to resonate through my life, even inspiring my decision decades later to write my doctoral dissertation on the influence of Miguel Llobet on the direction that the guitar took in the 20th century. I’ve had several excellent guitar teachers, each who affected my life and my artistry in profound ways, but there will always be something special about Rey de la Torre. I always think of him when I play El Mestre by Llobet, a piece that I studied under him. Fittingly, the title means “The Teacher.” In my life Rey was indeed THE teacher. Here I present a video of me playing this miniature masterpiece.


Prologue: What is a Bo(a)rder?

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past. -T.S. Eliot

I am the Bo(a)rder. In many ways, everyone is a bo(a)rder. We inhabit our lives not as a permanent resident but as ones given permission to stay in them until it is time to go. We move around the edges of our existence creating boundaries and then wantonly crossing them. Or, perhaps, we wait by the borders of our lives like some would-be immigrant hoping to be granted asylum to a life that we would rather be living.

I am the Bo(a)rder. I am a product of tenants who occupied similar space for generations and bequeathed me the lease on a rent controlled life, neither a luxury condo nor a tenement. Every choice I have made has been preordained by their status as bo(a)rders, and yet every choice I make, good or bad, is completely mine. To them goes credit for my triumphs and blame for my failures as much as credit and blame must be assumed by me for both mine and those of my descendants. This will be my story, my testament. This will also be the story of my ancestors, and, who knows, perhaps my descendants.

I live my life on the periphery of greatness. The worst and best that can be said of my life is that it has been and continues to be interesting. Those who interact with me daily, people whose lives are interesting in the most elegantly private and beautifully subtle ways, think of me as extraordinary, partly because I have accomplished some modestly extraordinary things – and yes, I know that is an oxymoron.

I have become acquainted with some truly extraordinary individuals, people whose accomplishments change the world in dramatic ways. I count among my acquaintances people with Grammy awards, people who have made fortunes, people who have been knighted. To these people I am quite ordinary. So my tenancy is one that sees me edging along the fringe of true greatness without ever quite crossing that border. I trade cordially with those on the other side and they know my name and deeds, but although I have visited them, I am no citizen of their country.

It may appear that before entering this world I chose parents who were also modestly extraordinary. They chose likewise, as did their parents and grandparents. This choice, the truest natural selection, was given then to my children.

Who, then, am I? The obvious answer is that I am a musician, a guitarist, a teacher, a writer, and a scholar. I have spent my life as a passionate servant to the greater cause of music, giving concerts whenever I can in order to find some meaning to my life by sharing that passion with a receptive audience. I have performed in bars, cafes, and restaurants, I have provided music for brides to walk in and out of their public ceremonies, and I have played music to create an atmosphere for people at social gathering, all in order to make a few dollars plying my craft. I have made a few recordings that, while not commercial successes by any stretch of the imagination, have represented the best artistry that I was capable of at the times of their recording. I have taught more students than I can count over nearly a half century of giving instruction. Some of those students have satisfied my soul by becoming accomplished artists themselves, and most have given me some real pleasure by simply becoming enriched by the experience. All have helped me to feed my family. I have written articles about the guitar and am still amazed when 25 years after the termination of my monthly guitar columns I am still contacted by guitarists who thank me for inspiring them to stretch artistically and become the better players that they now are. I have even made a small contribution to music history by resurrecting the reputation of one of the most significant classical guitarists of the 20th century, Miguel Llobet, by way of my doctoral dissertation.

I am a husband, a father, a stepfather, an uncle, a son and a friend. I am married for the second time in my life, and my wife will inevitably figure in my writings – it was she who inspired me to write. My son, my daughter, and my step daughter will also be a part of my writing. How could they not be? I am not sure how far afield my writings will take me. How uncomfortable am I willing to make myself? How uncomfortable am I willing to make others? Although I will continue to write about who I am and to, hopefully, reveal to someone the inner workings of an everyday artist I also believe that I am a product of my forbears, and so I will also write my family history. And who knows? Perhaps someone will find this history interesting.

My mother possessed a brilliant mind, and accomplished a remarkable feat before settling into the comfortable life of a suburban wife, mother and professional. My father, although less obviously gifted than my mother, had his own share of accomplishments. My paternal grandparents are shrouded in some mystery, although there are some clear moments that distinguish their lives. This is a veil that I intend to lift over time, but my father’s quiet nature provided me with little on which to proceed. My mother, on the other hand, was gregarious. In her final years of dementia her past became her only reality which meant that there were stories of her childhood and her parents that seemed as if they had happened yesterday. My story is their story, and theirs is mine – my parents, my grandparents, their parents and their grandparents. My roots extend back to Spain, France, England, and who knows where else. I hope to discover more as I research and write. I am writing for them (my predecessors) as much as for me, and hopefully someone will find this all interesting.

I will leave off with a composition of mine, Agenbyte of Inwit. The title means “The Pain of Conscience” in an early dialect of old Kentish. It reflects regrets that we all have. It is a view of conscience as a nostalgia for one’s own innocence.

Notes on the new recording: a project diary, part 2

No recording of guitar music that has been influenced by the Impressionist composers could be considered complete without a work by Miguel Llobet, and the piece of his most associated with Impressionism is El Mestre.

Llobet spent several years as a young musician living in Paris, where he associated with Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Manuel de Falla, to name just a few.  He is known to have had a number of discussions with Debussy about the possibility of his composing a work for guitar, an idea to which Debussy seemed receptive.  Sadly, this never came to fruition.  He also spent years asking de Falla for a guitar composition, which eventually resulted in de Falla’s little masterpiece, Le Tombeau de Debussy.  These associations had a profound impact on Llobet, and his compositional style evolved from the Chopin influence of his earliest works to a more Impressionistic aesthetic.

I have already recorded El Mestre – it was the “title piece” of my Centaur Records release, “Lo Mestre, the music of Miguel Llobet.”  (A word about the title discrepancy in a bit.)  So the jury is out as to whether or not to re-record it and include it in the new album.  Certainly many musicians have recorded the same pieces multiple times, but on consecutive albums?  On the other hand, there will be a couple of years in between my last album and my next.  Also, I believe I have something different to say about the piece interpretively.  And, of course, as I said in the first sentence of this post, no recording of Impressionism for guitar would be complete without it.  In any event, since I am at least considering including El Mestre, I am including it in my youtube channel playlist, “Impressions”.

Now, about the title discrepancy:  The work is published under the title “El Mestre“, but in 1975, when I studied it under Rey de la Torre, Maestro Rey put an X through the “El” in the title and wrote “Lo” above it.  Since he was Llobet’s most significant pupil, it is pretty hard to ignore the probability that, as Rey told me, Llobet originally called it “Lo Mestre“. For this reason, I decided to use what I believe is Llobet’s original title as the album title, but continue to use the published title when referring to the piece.

So, here is my recording of El Mestre as I recorded it back in 2011 (2 years before the recording that found its way into the album).

Notes on the new recording: a project diary

It’s been quite a while since my last blog entry.  I suppose I’ve felt that I haven’t had anything of importance to say.  But it has also occurred to me that I probably have a great deal more to share than I give myself credit for.  But now that I’ve begun to take some steps toward my next recording project, I feel that I ought to begin keeping some sort of public record of my progress.

This will be the first of a series of blogs that will journal the progress of this next recording.  In each of the blogs I’ll discuss one facet of the process, focusing on the works that I will record.  As a sort of  pre-production process I’ve decided to video record myself playing each of the compositions that I plan to record.  I’ll include these videos in each blog.

After some discussion with my producer, I’ve decided that my next recording will be a CD of music by composers who have been influenced by the Impressionist movement.  It might be argued that the only true “Impressionist” composer was Claude Debussy, and to the extent that I’ve examined the structure of his music, and his harmonic and melodic language I’d have to say that it is a position that I share.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the closest composer to Debussy in any way other than the most superficial may well be Edgard Varese, whose music sounds nothing like Debussy’s!

Nevertheless, there are plenty of composers who owe something of a debt to Debussy, and it is those composers that I’ve decided to record.  My recording will focus on works that are, for the most part, originally for guitar.  The only exception may be a work by Albéniz, which although it was originally for piano has become so closely associated with the guitar that I feel compelled to include it.  It may also be argued that much of the music of Albéniz was composed for the piano with the sound of the guitar in mind. Maybe, maybe not, but at any rate I plan to include Torre Bermeja in the recording.

That Albéniz was influenced by Debussy is never questioned, and although Torre Bermeja is not from his most impressionistic suite, Iberia, predating it by some 15 years, I felt that there are enough elements of the Impressionist esthetic to warrant inclusion.  It was, in fact, written at the same time that Debussy was first beginning to explore his own unique sound.

The transcription of Torre Bermeja that I play is by Miguel Llobet.  This makes is an excellent follow up to my last recording, which was the complete compositions of Miguel Llobet.  I fact, as a child of the same era and a friend to the most important composers who were associated with Impressionism, Llobet’s fingerprints will inevitably be all over this next recording.

So here is a video that I recorded a couple of years ago of the little masterpiece by Albéniz, Torre Bermeja.

Fast Tube by Casper

Prepare to Face Your Audience

The title of this post sounds a bit threatening, doesn’t it?  It’s as if your audience is about to pass judgement on you, and your fate will be decided.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is your audience actually loves you, expects that you are going to do very well, and is excited about the prospect of showing their love. (How many concerts have we been to where we, as sophisticated listeners, were amazed at the standing ovation and wondered if the rest of the audience was actually listening?)

However, you still have to deliver the goods! You owe it to your audience to deserve the love that they will shower on you.  The problem is, if you get too fixated on deserving the applause you put yourself in that frame of mind I talked about above, and that makes it pretty hard to play well.  So how do you prepare yourself to be conscientious and calm at the same time?

Part of the trick to this is accepting that you will be nervous.  Some nervousness is a good thing.  It proves that you care, it energizes you to give that extra 10% that makes the difference between an indifferent performance and a great one.  It is also the result of excitement, and let’s face it, if you aren’t excited about performing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.  You also have to pre-forgive yourself for making mistakes.  You are not going to give a perfect performance.  You’ll probably even make some mistakes.  When students tell me that they are nervous about performing because they are afraid that they will make mistakes, I’m fond of saying, “Don’t worry.  You will!”  A somewhat different take on this came from Pepe Romero several years ago, when someone asked him if he was afraid of making mistakes when he performs.  He responded, “No. I’m afraid of making mistakes when I practice.”

And therein lies the key.  Good consistent performances are the inevitable result of good consistent preparation.  Good preparation means that you practice to the best of your ability all the time.  You don’t waste time with mindless practice that is counterproductive and only embeds bad playing while undermining your confidence.  After all, just because you are going to be nervous doesn’t mean that you can’t be confident.  You want to use your practice time to learn not only the notes, not only the nuances, but also to learn confidence.  If you get it right every time at home, you know you will get it right on stage.

So it’s the day of the concert, and you have been working diligently.  You get to the hall, you know you can do this, but your adrenalin kicks in, your hands begin to shake ever so slightly, you notice that your respiration is a bit shallow, and you begin to question your readiness.  Now is the time to do some good self talk, reflection, and then some sort of ritual that will keep you in control.  The self talk is a kind of pre-game pep talk, except that you are both coach and team.  Then reflect realistically on how well you really have prepared, and how exciting this experience is for you.  In your reflection, note that some of what you are experience is nothing more than excitement.  Give yourself permission to be a little nervous, because, after all, pretending it isn’t there isn’t going to make it go away.  And, acknowledgement gives you more ability to control how you will respond to the nervousness.

Finally, go through some sort of ritual.  Ritual is reassuring.  It is familiar, it focuses our minds, it helps us to prioritize.  Some people do yoga.  Others find that deep breathing is helpful (breathing is really important no matter what!) or perhaps some sort of relaxation technique.  I’ve seen players pull out a picture of their spouses, kids, parents, or pets,  someone who loves them unconditionally.  Are you religious?  Maybe a prayer for guidance, or better still, a prayer of thanks might help you.  Christopher Parkening once told me that he doesn’t get too nervous because he is performing for and in service to God.  I would think that this would take the ego out of the picture, and with that removed there is much less at stake!

The bottom line here is that your preparation is what makes or breaks your performance.  That preparation begins in the practice room, and ends in the dressing room.  With solid and consistent preparation you can walk onto the stage confident that you will do what you always do, your best.

Some really good blogs on performance anxiety can be found on The Bulletproof Musician, the website of Dr. Noa Kageyama, a doctor of psychology with a background in music, who is on the faculty at Juilliard, where he helps students prepare for orchestra job auditions.  Another website that I have found very helpful is Search Inside Yourself, which was put together by Google under the direction of Chade-Meng Tan, and gives some scientifically based, data driven techniques involving self awareness and meditation.

Bring your “A” Game

I just came from conducting a concert of my students from Harrison School for the Arts.  They are a great group of high school students, but I often have to remind myself, they are high school students! The music that they played was challenging, and their playing was on a very high level, but the past week has been very stressful because their playing has not been consistent.

So when I got home this evening, my wife, Kathy, asked how the concert went, and I was able to tell her that they pulled it off!  Kathy wondered out loud how it is that they were able to play well in the concert, but were so inconsistent in rehearsals.  That set me to wondering, and I reached a conclusion, a kind of “aha!” moment.

As a professional player, I bring my “A” game to every rehearsal.  When my instrument comes out of the case, I am giving all of my energy and all of my attention to the music and to my playing.  When I perform with other professional players I take for granted that they will do likewise.  But at some rehearsals the students played poorly, and in others they were outstanding.  I couldn’t make sense out of how they could play well one day and poorly the next. The inconsistency in the rehearsals left me wondering if they were really up to the level required by the music.  But faced with an audience, and with Mom, Dad, grandparents, and friends sitting in the house they played well.  Then it occurred to me that the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t play the music.  The problem was that they were not giving 100% at the rehearsals!  They were not bringing their A Game.

So, when push came to shove these students were able to pull off a pretty impressive performance.  But here is the problem.  By not bringing their best to every rehearsal, these students were bringing an element of risk to the concert that is, to my way of thinking, unacceptable.  They pulled it off this time, but can I be sure that they will the next?  I can not! And as well as they played in the concert, how much better might they have played if they had been completely present at every rehearsal?

So it occurs to me that one of the differences between a group of talented kids and a group of seasoned professionals is this work habit.  A pro gives 100% every time.  Thinking back to a recent concert in which I played with Andrew York, he and I had two short rehearsals prior to the concert.  During the first rehearsal we had little to say to each other (in a good way) to make the music better.  We both played all the notes, all the rhythms, all the nuances, and played with each other.  By the second rehearsal we were engaging each other in a real musical conversation, and by the concert, we were interacting deeply and playing off each other with conviction and passion.  We were both confident in the playing because we had both been completely involved from the first note of the first rehearsal.

This is the quality that is missing in many student performances.  As I said before, they are talented high school students, but they are high school students.  So it is incumbent upon me as the teacher and as a professional to impart this work ethic on them.

I’ll make a point of having them read this blog, and hopefully they, and all of my readers will be inspired to consistently bring the A game to every practice and every rehearsal.

Mix it up

When anyone asks me what I do I tell them that I play and teach classical guitar.  And yet this doesn’t really describe all of my activities.  I’ve discussed the need to diversify stylistically in order to make a living as a musician, and this is a concept that I take very seriously.  For example, this past Saturday I gave a concert with the North American Choro Ensemble, which is certainly not classical guitar.  In fact, even in the choro ensemble we have recognized the importance of mixing things up a bit, and our concert included some sambas and bossa novas.  When playing choros, I try to improvise short licks and runs when repeating verses, and on the sambas and bossas the members of the ensemble go for straight ahead jazz improvisation.  This keeps things interesting for the audience, which is vital if one wishes to perform regularly, and it also keeps it interesting for me.  There is the added benefit that all of these musical activities contribute to making me a better musician, something I strive to do every day.

On Sunday I played in a concert that was billed as “Geert D’Hollander and Friends”.  So I was one of Geert’s “friends” for the evening (and hopefully his friend for life),  This was a classical concert, with Geert playing several solo works on the piano (Chopin, Brahms, Faure, and Scriabin) and me playing solo guitar pieces by Miguel Llobet, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Augustín Barrios, and me.  The setting was a large living room at an historic mansion on the grounds of Bok Tower Gardens.

Which brings me to another subject: diversification of venue.  What is a concert space?  Easy! A concert space is any location in which you decide to give a concert.  Sunday it was a mansion, Saturday a church.  A couple of months ago I performed in what can best be described as a night club.  Downtown Lakeland, FL is home to a venue called Preservation Hall, which is a restaurant/bar/performance space, etc.  There have been rock bands there, burlesque, and now, classical guitar!  And that concert was, indeed, traditional classical guitar.  It was my release party for my new CD, “Lo Mestre, The Music of Miguel Llobet”. (Available for purchase below.)

lomestre orange_buynow

Interestingly enough, I must have driven this point home to my son quite well.  He exemplifies diverse artistic expressions as a way of both making a living and growing artistically (and he seems to be having fun, which is equally important).  Classically trained on violin, guitar, and piano (and also trained on jazz saxophone) he produced my Llobet recording.  But what really makes this surprising is that he makes a good portion of his livelihood playing lead guitar with a heavy metal band, plays slide guitar and mandolin with a bluegrass/country band, and owns a recording studio!  Now that’s what I call mixing it up!

My recovery from surgery

In my last post I wrote about my surgery.  Literally the day after that post, Christmas eve, I began to play again.  It was the best Christmas present in the world!  I began playing in increments of 15 minutes at a time, a couple of times a day.  I was amazed by several things.  First of all, I had no endurance, and no strength.  Moving the middle finger across the string was like lifting a heavy weight, and the little movements involved felt like I was really stretching my tendon.  The 15 minutes were all that I could take without being in pain, and pain is never a good thing when you are playing!  (As opposed to physical therapy, where if you aren’t in pain you aren’t doing it right!)

Over the course of the week I was able to increase the number of times I practiced to 3, then to 4 times, and felt pretty good. By New Years day I felt confident that I could increase my sessions to 20 minutes at a time.  The additional 5 minutes made a difference; I could definitely feel more fatigue in my hand, but there was no pain involved so I kept it up.

The following week I was out of town at a conference of the Florida Music Educators Association, where I had students performing, and where I presented a session geared toward helping classroom music teachers with no real guitar background, but who found themselves having to teach guitar.  Because of the exhausting nature of conferences, and because I knew that my entire schedule would be upset I didn’t attempt any changes in my practice routine.  In fact, although I stuck to my 20 minute limit, I was not able to get to it 4 times every day.  I was surprised that I had any time to practice at all!

January 13 I tried to increase my practice time to 25 minutes. At the very end of the first 25 minutes, my hand began to cramp, so I backed off to 20 minute sessions for the rest of the day – still keeping them to 4 total.  The next day I tried 25 minutes again, but made a point to pay close attention to my hand and keep it very relaxed.  I was able to do the full 25 without any pain, and repeated it 3 more times.

My plan at this point is to try for 30 minutes, which has been my normal practice session for many years now.  I’ll do it 4 times a day this week, and try increasing it to 5 the following.  If that works out well, the week after that I can try 6, which brings me to the normal amount of time that I practice while school is in session.

My goal has been to be back up to speed by February, and I’ve been particularly motivated because my new CD will be released then.  I have been planning to have a “release party” – more concert than party actually – at the end of the month.  I’m feeling pretty good because I seem to be on target so far.lomestre

And, of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I’m already selling copies from my website, and I’d like to invite all my readers to consider purchasing a copy by clicking the link below:


My Surgery

I debated long and hard with myself as to whether or not to discuss this publicly, but in the end decided that I would, so here goes.

Last month I had surgery on my hand.  It began late last spring or early last summer when I developed a “trigger finger”.  The correct term for this condition is stenosing tenosynovitis.  What happens when one develops this problem is that the finger gets stuck for a fraction of a second on contraction and extension, and then snaps into position.  It is caused by a narrowing of the sheath that surrounds the tendon of the finger that gets stuck.  The number of remedies available is limited – either a cortisone shot into the sheath, or a minor surgical procedure in which the sheath is severed.

In my case, it was my right middle finger that was the problem.  The point at which it would stick in contraction was not problematic because it occurred after the string was already plucked, in other words, in the follow through.  The problem was that in re-extending it would also stick, and it was interfering with my timing because the finger wouldn’t get out quickly enough.

So in the early fall I went to a hand specialist who gave me a cortisone shot along with a warning that the effect would be temporary, and that I would be limited to 3 such shots in my life.  This, of course meant that surgery would eventually happen.  I went for a follow up a few weeks later, and the shot had not completely eliminated the problem.  Surgery was the only solution.  A few other factors impacted my decision to have it immediately.  I had a gap in my performance schedule that would allow for recovery without having to cancel any concerts.  Furthermore, I was getting ready to sign a contract with Price Rubin and Partners artist management, and did not feel that I could in good conscience sign such an agreement until I was ready to perform without any encumbrances.

On November 22 I had the surgery.  It was an out-patient procedure performed in a hospital under general anesthesia.  I was told that I would not be able to play at all for about 6 weeks, and could lift “nothing heavier than a cup of coffee” for that period.  I awakened from the surgery to find my hand bandaged very heavily, so much so that it actually looked as if I had a cast on my hand! A couple of weeks later I had the stitches removed and was given a referral for physical therapy.

I am writing this a month after the surgery, and my PT is going very well.  There was very little pain after the procedure, but the PT is a whole different story!  The main objectives of the therapy are to regain full range of motion and to prevent any internal scarring.  The exercises designed to stretch my tendons are only a little painful, but the deep massage required to break down scar tissue is pretty painful.

I have been allowed to move my fingers lightly, tapping on the strings delicately in playing patterns.  This helps my dexterity, and makes me feel like I’m practicing at least a little.  My therapist has told me that she believes I’ll be able to play by Christmas.  I won’t be able to dig in and play hard, fast, or long, so everything will be adagio and pianissimo, but at least I’ll be playing again.  This is the longest I’ve gone without playing in over 40 years!

I’ll have to admit that I’m pretty upset by the idea of having surgery on my hand.  Right before the procedure I told my wife that open heart surgery would be less scary for me!  And I’m a bit bothered by the fact that my hand stopped working the way it should.  But I suppose that at the age of 60, and with half a century of playing behind me, a certain amount of wear and tear is somewhat inevitable.  However, the main thing for me now is that I believe I have sufficient movement to be able to play anything, and that I have full sensation in my hand and fingers.  I’ll post follow-ups as I begin to regain my  playing.

Crazy Busy: How to make a living as a musician

In 1980 I was working on my master’s degree at Brooklyn College, where I studied with David Starobin.  David was teaching from his apartment in Brooklyn and was also traveling to Purchase, NY to teach at the state university there.  That’s about an hour drive.  As I recall, he would also take weekly trips to teach at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  All this plus performing and recording!  So one day I commented to him that I was amazed by his insane schedule.  David’s response was, “If you want to make a living as a musician you have to be willing to work very hard.”

I’ve taken David’s words very seriously, and have almost never turned down work, irregardless of how busy I think I am.  I’ve already blogged about my practice/teaching schedule (June 17 – Daily Schedule), but this didn’t address some of the newer developments that have occurred.  First of all, this year I find that my schedule of teaching at Southeastern University (my other teaching job after I finish a full day of teaching classical guitar at Harrison School for the Arts) has picked up tremendously.  This year I have a dozen private students at SEU and I direct the guitar ensemble.  In addition I have several private students that I see in my home studio.

This is great for my economic security, but what about my artist’s soul?  Well, that side of my life isn’t too shabby lately and is showing signs of increased growth.  Which, of course, makes me busier!  In my July 9 post, Back in the Saddle Again, and more extensively in my  July 15 post, Back in the Saddle Again Follow Up, I talked about playing in churches.  Well, I’ve begun to play in a church in my home city of Lakeland, FL twice every month.  While it’s far from a full concert, I still have to practice a few pieces for these performances, which, although it doesn’t increase my practice time, keeps me on my toes.  And I don’t want to play the same pieces in a short span of time, so I’m a little more serious than usual about learning new repertoire, which is something that I usually do during the summer.  (This doesn’t mean that I don’t normally learn new repertoire the rest of the year, only that I’m not as aggressive about it as during the summer.)  I’ve also given a few performances and have more booked in the near future.  With my new recording, Lo Mestre, The Music of MIguel Llobet about to be released (February) I am keeping that extraordinarily difficult repertoire in shape in anticipation of several performances in order to promote it.   And I’m still playing choros (see my May 22 post, Choros) and I’ve begun to write some of the arrangements of these pieces, something that Dave Miller used to do.

This week has been particularly busy.  I played in church Sunday. Then, on Monday recorded an interview with Jack Price (of Price Rubin and Partners, an artist management company that will be representing me in the near future).  The company has a web radio site, PRP Radio One which does a daily artist interview.  Some of the interviews are with A list artists that they represent (Pepe Romero, Angel Romero, Lalo Schifrin, Scholomo Mintz, etc.) and others are more in my league professionally.  Tuesday I spent the evening producing a pre-production recording session for a student of mine who is getting ready to record his first classical guitar CD.  Wednesday I actually had nothing after 8:00 PM, so I managed to have a nice quiet romantic dinner (complete with roaring fire pit) with my wife.  It is very important for busy people to make time for their loved ones! Then, Thursday I played for a Chamber of Commerce event, raced from Winter Haven FL back to Lakeland FL, and played a couple of pieces in a concert program.  Next week I have concerts on Monday and Friday, and will probably be playing a wedding on Friday as well.  And since this week I had no time to rehearse with the North American Choro Ensemble we will be doubling up our rehearsals next week.

OK, so you are probably out of breath just reading my schedule.  And you may be asking yourself, “How on earth does he do it?”  A few things.  First, I love, I mean really love everything that I am doing.  I’m working in my bliss! This makes it feel more like play.  Imagine being able to just play games for 16 hours a day!  So although the work is tiring, it isn’t draining.  It is actually invigorating.  Also, I take pretty good care of myself physically, so I have a great deal of stamina, and I’ve been blessed with the ability to function well on less sleep than most other people.  (Yes, I know that we all, even I, function best on 8 hours of sleep every night.)

I’d like to close with another story that has influenced how I live and work.  Or maybe it’s more of a parable, except that it is actually true.  In 1982, preparing for the 90th birthday of Andrés Segovia, NPR sent a small crew of young men to Spain to record interviews with him.  These interviews would be aired the following year in a radio mini-series on the maestro.  Segovia rose early every morning, practiced guitar, ate, practiced some more, rested, walked, practiced, and generally dined late or held court with colleagues or went to concerts.  This was his daily routine.  The young men from NPR found that they were unable to keep up with this 89 year old human whirlwind.  Finally, one of the crew asked, “Maestro, don’t you ever rest?”  He responded, “I’ll have eternity to rest.” And to that I say, “Amen!”