Late in the Spring of 1970, approaching my 17th birthday, I met another teenager (one grade behind me, and in a different high school) named Mark. Mark also came from a Puerto Rican background, although in his case it was both parents. That seemed enough common ground at first to begin to “hang out” together. I don’t recall how we met, I only remember that we seemed to hit it off in a big way.
I had just emerged from my first heart break. It had been an ill-advised relationship at best. She was a fellow Seton Hall High School student, 15 years old and engaged to marry a 19 year old college student. She felt trapped in that relationship, and when she had her friends slip me a note that said, “I’m not B__’s property until I have his ring on my finger,” I couldn’t resist the temptation. She was a stunningly beautiful young woman who didn’t seem aware of just how attractive she was, and her interests were compatible with mine.
I told her friends that I wanted to talk to her. At first she thought I was angry about the note, but I smiled, and honestly don’t remember how we suddenly found ourselves in each other’s arms, our lips tightly pressed. Bad idea, and my only excuse is that my teenage hormones were running wild, and my brain apparently shut down.
She told her fiancée that night and the poor girl soon found herself torn between two young men who were both telling her that she’d have to make a choice. But she seemed unwilling or maybe unable to decide. We would meet clandestinely in dark quiet places around the school – the back of the auditorium, the stair well at the farthest end of the main building, empty classrooms. In truth it was pretty light weight stuff, passionate kissing for the most part. B__ knew about us and every evening he would try to persuade, and eventually to force her to stop seeing me, and she would meet me in secret the next day to tell me that it was over, but would quickly melt into my arms. This went on for about 2 or 3 months. Then, one fine day in the early spring I sprouted a spine and broke it off with her. I was not happy as part of a ménage à trois and believed that she was confused and did not possess the inner resources to make a clean break with either of us. It would be in everyone’s best interest if I simply bowed out, so I did.
So now, after having my heart ripped in two I decided to avoid romantic involvements at least for a while. In later years I often wondered whether it had been my heart that was broken or just my ego bruised. Over the years I’ve experienced both and a bruised ego always involves shame and anger, but not the pain of love lost. No, my heart ached, and I didn’t want it to ache again any time soon, so I bonded with Mark and we both talked about how we would be adolescents only once and not waste that youthful opportunity on amorous entanglements.
Together Mark and I explored what would for that summer become our 2 principal interests – girls and music. We sought out rather easy girls who were probably, and sadly, discovering their sexuality not as a means of empowerment but rather as a way to feel wanted by somebody – or more accurately, by anybody. I can’t speak for Mark, but I was a bit too insecure to push my exploits into the more dangerous ground of intercourse, but I did enjoy myself. Years later I would look back with a sense of relief that I wasn’t confident enough to pressure these young women into “going all the way.” There is a small gap between pressure and force, and I can say with honesty that I never crossed that line with a woman, even if my motivation at that time wasn’t quite as idealistic as one would wish. And, to be honest, I am also relieved when I realize that many of the girls with whom I had encounters wound up pregnant within the next several months, and their lives as well as the lives of the young men who bore equal responsibility were altered. There but for the Grace of God go I.
Much of our summer was spent enjoying music. We would take turns buying the latest albums of our favorite bands: Steppenwolf, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, Cream, Blind Faith, Ten Years After, Mountain, the Allman Brothers Band, Santana, Jethro Tull, the Who, and, of course, the mighty Led Zeppelin. The list went on. We discovered that the State University of New York in Stoney Brook was hosting a summer music festival of weekly concerts featuring some of bands that had played at the Woodstock Festival the previous summer. Mark and I went to the first one together – Ten Years After, with MC5 as the opening act. A week later we were there seeing Santana (the original Woodstock line-up) with Miles Davis opening. The jazz legend’s music, which was essentially all from his Bitches Brew album, went over my head a bit, but I recognized that something special was going on, and I took mental notes because I believed that eventually I’d understand the music and be glad that I was there. Several years later I did and I was.
That summer I also saw Mountain, the Allman Brothers Band, Jethro Tull, the James Gang, and a few other shows. These bands formed the soundtrack of my coming of age. It wasn’t just the music or the tentative forays into physical intimacy, it was more that this was the summer of a newly acquired freedom. I had a driver’s license and pretty free use of my father’s car, as long as I agreed to drive him to work in the morning and pick him up again in the evening. And for the first time I didn’t feel like I didn’t fit in. I was “cool”. I met many others on the cusp of adulthood who shared my interests and tastes and I was allowed to grow into the person that I had always been in the process of becoming.
I was also exploring my own artistic voice, listening to classical music for the first time and discovering that I really liked it. I bought my first 2 classical recordings – a box set of the Beethoven 9 symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joseph Kripps, and a recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos played by the Collegium Aureum. For some time before that summer I had played guitar in a folk trio and was now also playing organ in a rock band. Neither of my ensembles were very good. Since the Seton Hall High School’s dominating social circle revolved around sports I didn’t know any other good musicians. But my new found freedom put me into contact with students from other schools, particularly from Deer Park High School, and I began to meet much better players. It wouldn’t be long before I found myself playing organ in an 8 piece band that also included guitar, bass, drums, 2 trumpets, trombone, and a singer.
It was also during that summer that I met the girl who would eventually become my first wife. But it would be some time before I would become involved with her, preferring to adhere to my decision to not become romantically entangled with anyone. It was an evening when Mark and I had been making the rounds to different friends’ houses. We arrived at one house and were told that a group of them were downstairs in the basement. That basement, as were many others in Deer Park, was “finished” with carpeting, wall paneling, and furniture, converting into the perfect family den. We went down the steps, the sound of Ginger Baker’s drums pounding to Cream’s distinctive approach to the blues, blaring loudly through a pretty good sound system. There was incense burning, and the lights were turned low, a black light in the corner illuminating the bright day-glow colors of several posters in psychedelic ostentation. Everyone was sitting around on the floor, a few of them in the corner passing around a joint. Elena and her friend Danae were sitting on the opposite side of the room with some other people who were more interested in the music than in the drugs. Mark and I were introduced around, and we stayed for a very short time, deciding that this wasn’t where we wanted to be for the entire evening. We left, and I can’t recall where else we wound up, but the truth is neither Elena nor her friend made a huge impression – good or bad – on me at the time.
Summers eventually come to an end, although in some ways the summer of 1970 has remained my own personal endless summer. It was my coming of age, my renaissance, the first days of the rest of my life. The friends I made and the times that I shared with them would set the trajectory of my life in ways that I could never have imagined at the time. My involvement with music became more intense and more serious, and it was shortly after that summer that I decided that I wanted to major in music in college.
The recording below is a song that I wrote several years ago. It is a very rough demo quality recording on which I play all the instruments and sing all the parts. But I include it since the song was as much a product of that time long ago as it was of the life I was living when I wrote it.
I wonder how many times growing up, especially in high school, I was told by an adult that I ought to enjoy these years because they would be the best of my life. Does anybody really look back on childhood and adolescence and see it as the best years? I don’t believe I am unique in saying that I wouldn’t relive childhood for any amount of money, and adolescence even more so. Unless, of course, I could do it again knowing what I know now.
Childhood was not a terribly unhappy time, but it was a stressful one, during which I felt unable to meet the expectations that were imposed on me by the various adult figures in my life. There were no unqualified triumphs. I remember coming across an old 1st or 2nd grade report card of mine, and among the good grades was a bad one for penmanship. I don’t recall getting accolades for a job well done, but I clearly remember being chastised for my handwriting, which to this day is atrocious. On the other hand, I believe my parents and teachers would have done me a grave disservice had they heaped unearned praise, or if they had praised my successes but ignored my failures.
I don’t think I am overly disappointed in this particular aspect of my life. Perhaps childhood isn’t supposed to be the happy magical time that we like to imagine it to be. After all, what are the alternatives? All too often we see unearned praise given to children in order to boost their self-esteem, but doesn’t that create an unrealistic expectation of life?
No, it isn’t that I regarded my childhood as terribly unhappy. It’s only that to call them the best years would be untrue. Because, although our level of responsibility increases as we become adults, so too does our capacity for coping with the concomitant stresses, and we typically enjoy a much greater autonomy. My childhood was, however, complicated by a number of issues that in childhood can be serious liabilities.
I was fat. Overweight children suffer terribly at the hands of their peers. Children can be quite cruel, and look for easy victims. Add to this a lack of physical coordination that made me more than a little awkward in sports, an exceptionally high IQ and a vocabulary that would have been impressive on an adult and I didn’t have a chance.
My physique was the result of a well-intentioned over indulgent mother who came from a culture in which a little fat was considered a sign of healthy contentment. I’d come home from school every afternoon, and she would encourage me to have some chocolate milk and cookies. After dinner, she would offer me a large helping of chocolate layer cake, my favorite. Later on, just before bed there would be a nice glass of warm chocolate milk and cookies. I had no inclination to refuse, although I wish now that she had never offered. And on the rare occasion when I did refuse she would become concerned that I might be either ill or in love. And so, I gained weight.
I hated the way I looked. I hated that the other kids were cruel to me. I hated that I couldn’t wear “cool looking” clothing. The euphemism for the size and style of clothing that she had to buy me was “husky size.” I hated that I felt weak for not being able to control my eating. Ironically, people who know me as an adult find it hard to believe that I could have ever been fat, but that’s because at some point I made a conscious decision to change how I ate. That decision was more of a change in identity than a change in diet. I decided that I had to become someone who eats differently.
Had my weight been the only problem I would have probably been able to navigate the straits of my youth a bit more easily. But I had other “problems”. My vocabulary probably made people (even many adults) more than a bit uncomfortable. People probably thought I was talking down to them or trying to show off and show them up. But the truth is I didn’t know any better. It never occurred to me at the time that I was speaking in any way other than clearly. My parents were both very highly educated, and had spoken to me on a high level from the beginning, so I never knew that some people didn’t really “get” me.
On top of it, I understood the local Long Island accent better than my peers. I can recall a discussion over the word, “bastard.” I was in high school, and one of the kids had just called another a “bastid.” It became important to the group that the legitimacy of the word be established. For some reason some of the kids felt that if this were “in the dictionary” it would be an acceptable part of their vocabulary. One of them claimed to have already looked for it and was unable to find it. Some believed him others didn’t. I remained silent through all of this until I couldn’t any longer. I knew it was in the dictionary, and didn’t immediately figure out why this individual hadn’t been able to find it.
I finally put my two cents in, “I’m pretty sure bastard is in the dictionary.” There was a long silence. Then the entire group burst out laughing, as one of them shrieked, “Phillips put an ‘r’ in bastid!” I suddenly realized that they had been looking it up by spelling it the way they mispronounced it. I informed them that there actually is an “r” in the word, but they just laughed and all went their separate ways, having their opinion of my stupidity firmly reinforce in their little minds.
I was also, as I said, highly intelligent, with an IQ that apparently got the attention of my teachers and then my parents. They were right to expect a high level of academic achievement from me, but overachievers are never popular among their fellow students, so I was teased and bullied mercilessly. I suppose I felt like I was, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place. It was nearly impossible to completely satisfy my parents, and the very effort to do so made me fair game for the less charitable interactions of my peers. The plethora of good grades on my report cards was worthless as social currency among boys whose pubescence was just emerging.
And what about my teachers? I was rarely – almost never – in any kind of trouble in school. But the good Sisters of St. Joseph seemed to believe that children, especially those of the male sex, were invariably up to no good, and they used every terror tactic in their strategy book to ensure that we were kept in a constant state of fear. There were probably only 2 times in my years of elementary and middle school that I got into any kind of trouble. The first was in 4th grade. It was literally the day that the school opened for business. Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church had just turned the key on its new school that very morning. Prior to that there was no Catholic school in our town. The school was part of a newly built complex that included a new larger church, a rectory, and a convent.
My father, being the product of a Catholic education, was a firm believer in the superiority of parochial schools. In his mind the clergy knew how to educate the young better than lay instructors. I would be among the first group of students to enter the new school. I’d spent the first 4 years of my career as a student at the local public schools – kindergarten at May Moore School, and 1st through 3rd grade at Abraham Lincoln School.
So here I was, my first day in a new school, standing in the lunch line in the cafeteria. There was only one problem. I apparently never received the memo regarding putting ones hands in ones pockets. The nuns knew exactly why young boys put their hands in their pockets, even if those young boys didn’t yet know about THAT. So I stood in line, hands in pockets, completely unprepared for the explosion of pain when the sister who rang the large brass lunch bell (Sister Mary Quasimodo?) used that instrument for a purpose other than that for which it had actually been designed. The bell caught me at the base of the skull at exactly the same instant that the palm of her other hand impacted my forehead. And as her only words were, “That will teach you how to stand in line,” it took me quite a long time, years actually, to figure out why I’d been attacked.
The other time that I nearly ran into disciplinary problems occurred in 6th or 7th grade. I had had a bad head cold, and in its aftermath was suffering from a bout of bronchitis. After lunch every day we would be released to the playground, where as often as not we were required to stand in line silently. On this particular day the cool crisp air irritated my already raw bronchi, and as hard as I tried I couldn’t seem to suppress a cough. The nun in charge of us glared at me, squinting her eyes, and in a low growl said, “Stifle that. One more outburst from you and…” She knew she didn’t need to complete the sentence. I’d witnessed boys being slapped until their mouths and noses bled for lesser offenses. I recall seeing a friend of mine have a comb driven into his scalp because the sister didn’t like the way he had combed it that morning, a smallish pompadour with a wave in the front.
Theoretically I should have had nothing to fear. After all, I was almost never subjected to abuse, and the one time that I was it was over quickly and was not as bad as it could have been. I was a well behaved student. But witnessing these unpredictable outbursts of violence often caused me to wonder if behaving would really insulate me from it. And, being well behaved also made me a bit of a “goody-two-shoes” so, once again, I was faced with unrelenting peer disapprobation.
In high school things got better, but not enough. I had lost just enough weight to no longer be the butt of everyone’s cruel humor. My face blossomed into a mine field of acne, but so did everyone else’s, so I got something like a pass on that issue. The good grades were no longer the liability that they had been in middle school, everyone being focused on their eventual college applications. And the nuns in Seton Hall High School – the Sisters of Charity of Halifax – were more true to that name than I had hoped for. But to say that this lead to a bucolic secondary school experience would be untrue. The problem was that I was socially awkward, which shouldn’t have been surprising given the bullying that I’d dealt with in the previous few years. And, to make matters far far worse, I was terrible at sports. In a school in which the only social currency that mattered was athletic prowess, to be musically inclined and unable to throw accurately, catch, dribble or hit a ball was to be a pariah and a fool. So my social status improved not one bit when I entered the Shrine of Truth. (Our school song, sung to the tune of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance began with the words, “Shrine of Truth we glory, to belong to thee…”)
It wasn’t that I had no friends. There was a small group of socially and physically awkward young people who bonded well and formed a loosely knit society based on the one thing we had in common – we were unpopular. It wasn’t until the summer of 1970, the summer when I turned 17 that things changed for me.
To be continued…
(And for your listening pleasure, but with no real connection to my childhood, Julia Florida by Agustín Barrios.
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.
In the last months of her life, even as she had lost most of her cognitive abilities, my mother was described by the professional caregivers at Grace Manor as “feisty”. Until she began to lose her ability to speak cogently she could inspire or infuriate even the most experienced among them. She could wax philosophical and hold court with words of wisdom, or launch into a withering verbal assault targeted directly at her victim’s Achilles heel, even at a stage of her Alzheimer’s that precluded her comprehension of where she was or who she had just attacked. It wasn’t that my mother was a particularly cruel woman. It was just that the cantankerous nature that this particular illness bestows on its victims was enhanced by her overly outspoken nature as well as a superior intellect that seemed little affected by her inability to remember anything. It wasn’t for nothing that my siblings and I often referred to her at “The Irmanator.”
Irma Pedrogo Cordero was born on February 18, 1926 in Playa Ponce, Puerto Rico. Her mother, Rosa, had been the eldest of 14 children born to Angela Bernard Lavadie Angela Cordero Bernard a French woman (Angela’s father was Julio Esteban Bernard, and her mother was Hermina Ursula Lavadie), and a Puerto Rican man named Ramon Cordero y Matos. Irma’s father was José Ramon Pedrogo Rubert.
Among her 13 maternal uncles and aunts were a number of teachers, and both the Angela Cordero Bernard school and the Bernadino Cordero Bernard school in Ponce are named for two of the Cordero siblings. The Corderos remained a strong community oriented family for many years, and my mother’s first cousin, Rafael Cordero Santiago, ultimately became Ponce’s most beloved and iconic mayor. The seaport in Ponce, the deepest in the Caribbean, is named for him.
At some point after Irma’s birth her family left Ponce for Cataño, a small town across the bay from San Juan. She was the youngest of three (or 4, depending on how you count, but more on that later), was exceedingly bright, was a gifted singer, and endearingly cute, the result being that she was always the center of attention. It took no particular gift of persuasion to be able to convince my grandmother to allow her daughter to sing at public gatherings, and Irma performed on a children’s radio show, Mi Abuela Borinqueña. Later in life she would admit to identifying with Shirley Temple, and although I cannot attest to whether her talent or popularity warranted such an affinity or whether these were delusions of grandeur, I do know that she was quite special and was doted on as a result.
Sadly, my mother’s youthful singing career came to an abrupt halt when a case of diphtheria made a tracheotomy necessary, resulting in damage to her vocal chords. Her illness was in some ways transformative, but in other ways was consistent with the kind of childhood she had, and it could be argued that ultimately the trajectory that her life took was altered not a bit. Her exceedingly large and doting family circled the wagons and saw to it that the hospital in which she was treated provided her with a private cabin – not a room, a cabin – which they oversaw in ways that would put any 21st century helicopter parent to shame. Her cabin had to be disinfected from floor to ceiling on a daily basis, and the family refused to entrust such an important task to a stranger, instead taking turns on alternating days to clean the room meticulously. In all likelihood their obsessive care saved her life. Lesson: obsession is not always bad.
As I mentioned, my mother was exceedingly bright, and she graduated from her high school in Bayamon, (Cataño had no high school) as the valedictorian at the age of 16. During that time she had fallen under the wing (and spell) of the charismatic Puerto Rican poet, journalist, essayist, novelist, and scholar, Pedro Juan Labarthe. Labarthe dedicated a poem to my mother, which he published in his collection, Relinatorio Acetre y Corazon; Poemario En Azul y Castano. The title of the poem, Busca las Cumbres, is engraved on my mother’s gravestone. Labarthe also encouraged her to pursue a post-secondary education and helped her secure a scholarship at Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburg. That school, in keeping with the trend away from gender specific institutions, is now known as Chatham University and is, of course, coeducational.
Mother was, as I’ve indicated, accustomed to being the center of attention – something of a little princess, and unfortunately the scholarship came with a string attached. She was expected to wait on tables in the dining hall. She soon wrote home to her mother that she couldn’t fulfill this expectation and would be coming home post haste. Her mother and her brother José (known to all as Pepi from the diminutive “Pepito”) agreed to pay for her education in full. In her older age she would talk resentfully of her half-brother, Modesto, who had said she was the apple of his eye but never contributed to the cost of her education. (And, in truth, why should he have?)
Modesto was the product of a rather obscure affair between my grandfather and Clara Cila Lago, who seems to have married my grandfather on April 15, 1911. According to my mother, her father got Clara pregnant and married her in order to give their issue his last name, and immediately filed for either an annulment or a divorce. I don’t know how true the story is, but I do know that Modesto was considered part of the family, although his name does not appear in the 1920 or 1940 censuses, and I know that my grandfather did subsequently marry my grandmother and to my knowledge it was sanctioned by the Catholic Church. This would imply either an annulment of the prior marriage, or that the prior marriage was a civil ceremony and was therefore not recognized by the Church. According to my mother, Modesto as an adult was a gambler. She relates a story that at one time he owned a casino in San Juan. My uncle Pepi was working in the casino office doing the book keeping. One day Modesto walked into the office and told Pepi to clean out the contents of the safe because he had just lost the casino in a bet.
In Pittsburg Irma was a young and immature college student, and home sickness eventually prevailed. She returned to Cataño and then went to Antigua where she was in the secretarial pool for the commanding officer of the naval air base. She was among the younger group of the secretaries, and the more mature women kept a protective watch on the younger women, seeing to their well being as well as their virtue. Based on my mother’s account of that time in her life, as best as I can determine it, one of those women may have been Maria Isabel Polo, the sister of Maria Carmen del Polo, who was the wife of the Spanish dictator Generalisimo Francisco Franco. Mother also spoke of those occasions when pilots having just completed their training would take off from the air strip, flying to aircraft carriers in the Caribbean. The commander of the base would at these times become morose, admitting that it broke his heart to know that he was sending many of these young men to their deaths. I know little else of that period other than the photos of her on dates with various officers that my siblings and I found when we cleared her personal effects out of the storage facility that contained the remnants of her long life.
Not surprisingly, that storage included a decent number of musical films and compact discs. Music played an important role in the life of the Pedrogo family. My grandfather played flute, and often traveled to various towns in Puerto Rico to play private engagements with his friend, Pablo Gomez, who played violin. They would travel on horseback, and were known as decent musicians perhaps, but also as irredeemable pranksters. There is a story of them playing at a wedding reception in a private home, where they put baking soda in the chamber pot in the women’s dressing room. They waited outside the room until a woman would relieve her bladder, they delighting with the knowledge of a prank well played as she shrieked loudly at seeing her urine effervesce.
They also accompanied the choir in the local Catholic Church in Ponce. One early Sunday morning my grandfather and Pablo went crabbing together before mass. They couldn’t resist releasing a bag of live crabs onto the floor of the choir loft, creating, from what my mother has told us, quite an uproar. It was in this church that José met my grandmother, who sang in the choir.
My mother claimed to have sung well and played the violin badly. But her brother Pepi played violin exquisitely, and her sister Rosita could play nearly anything on piano after hearing it once. Neither of them pursued careers in music, however. There was also an aunt of theirs who played piano for the silent films at the local cinema.
My grandparents were both active in the community in Cataño. My grandfather owned a typewriter shop, where he sold and serviced all manner of office equipment. He taught my grandmother Morse code, which she used to make extra money by installing a telegraph office in their home. The dots and dashes that were so familiar to them became a secret language that they often used in order to communicate silently when out in public places, tapping out their messages on the backs of each other’s hands. My grandmother was also the head of the Red Cross in Cataño, and my mother often spoke of the canned food and the blankets that became hastily warehoused in their home whenever a tropical storm or hurricane would tear through the island.
In the mid-1940s my grandfather added a new line of products to his typewriter shop – reading glasses. He quickly recognized that there was much more to visual acuity than selling over-the-counter readers, and could see a potential career for his youngest daughter. With his encouragement and that of her dear mentor, Labarthe (who was a Columbia University alumnus), Irma applied to and was accepted at Columbia University School of Optometry. I’m always amazed and humbled by the fact that as a young Hispanic woman my mother was able to gain acceptance to the school and to the circle of colleagues that she encountered there. Many of her fellow students were older than she, having previously put their educations on hold to serve their country in its greatest conflagration. And, she was the only woman in the school!
It was at Columbia University that she met my father, Robert Warren Phillips. He was a bit of a Beau Brummell in his distinctive attire, and right up until their respective deaths each of my parents insisted that the first thing that attracted her to him was the argyle socks that he habitually wore. They were married on June 3, 1950, shortly after graduating from Columbia. My father practiced optometry in his late father’s optical office, and my mother applied for and secured a job as an optometrist but quit after her first day on discovering that her duties would include making coffee and performing a number of other “secretarial” tasks. It was her opinion, and my father agreed (as do I) that they would never have asked a man to perform these tasks, but regarded them as “women’s work” regardless of her professional qualifications.
On July 3, 1952 Irma gave birth to a premature boy that they named Robert Warren Phillips. That child died the following day and was buried in Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, NY. Just barely over a year later, on July 26, I was born. A few months after that we moved to San Juan, PR.
Eventually we would move back to the States, taking up residence first in the basement apartment of my father’s sister, Julia, then buying a house in Deer Park, a hamlet in the town of Babylon in Suffolk County on Long Island. Through much of my childhood my mother worked as an optometrist, she and my father having two offices. My father typically worked at the office in Bay Shore, NY, and my mother maintained one near our home in Deer Park.
Mother could be mercurial. She was a loving mother, but would anger quickly with what seemed like little provocation. I can recall receiving disproportionately severe scoldings (she never believed in corporal punishment) for things like leaving my bedroom closet door open, forgetting to bring home a text book that I needed for a homework assignment (which I realized almost as soon as I got home from school – we only needed to get back in the car and drive half a mile to the school to retrieve it.)
She was supportive of my ventures, and encouraged my musical pursuits with great pride. The experience of losing a child made her over-protective, and there were many things that most normal children do that I was prevented from doing, including things like class trips (unless she came along on the trip as a class-mom, which was most of the time.) She was always a bit too concerned with what other people thought about her, probably because she had strong opinions of other people – what they did and how they did it. Many was the time that she would embarrass me when in a public place she would tell another mother – a stranger – that she wasn’t parenting correctly. The idea that she might be wrong about how to do things, or that there might be other correct ways than the ones that she employed was completely foreign to her thinking, indeed, never even entered her realm of thought. And if one were to point out that there might be another perfectly legitimate way than hers to do something she would disagree vehemently. I do not believe I ever witnessed my mother showing the least sign of self doubts.
My mother was, as indicated, very intelligent and very well educated. And yet, she had no interest in learning more than she already knew, showed no curiosity about the world in ways that might expand or challenge her world view, and held tightly to her customs and ways, secure in the belief that this was the way all correct people behaved and believed and had always been so, and would always be so. Even her fashion sense seemed to cling to whatever was the norm in the 1940s, and she adhered to the belief that all decent people knew that these fashions were the correct ones.
In what would seem like a contradiction to all of this, Irma could be crude at times, using profanity freely among her adult friends and among us once we had become adults. She drew the line with vocabulary that related to sex or sexual anatomy, being of the belief that sex was a dirty necessity that we had to employ for the purpose of reproduction, but was under all other circumstances disgusting. She was uncomfortable with the correct words for parts of the anatomy, being rather shocked that my toddler son knew the word “penis” and didn’t have some cute nickname for it. She was disgusted by the idea of breastfeeding, and couldn’t comprehend why any mother would resort to such primitive means in the day and age when science had developed more sanitary methods of nourishment. Besides, to her way of thinking there was no way that a mother’s body could produce a milk that would provide all the nutritional requirements that a “scientifically” produced baby formula contained.
In 2002 my parents retired to Pembroke Pines in South Florida. They arrived just in time to be able to attend my graduation from the doctoral program at the University of Miami. They retired to Florida and to the couch, becoming sedentary and slowly, very slowly deteriorating. After a lifetime of not only meaningful employment but volunteerism and engagement in the community my parents stopped everything. In Deer Park Mother had been on the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, a president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club (BPW), and an active member of Lioness International. This past BPW Woman of the Year, a woman listed at the turn of the century as one of the Town of Babylon’s 100 most influential people of the 20th Century now was content to finish out her days watching television shows, reading books, and doing crossword puzzles. Lord knows, she and my father had earned that right, but I found it alarming to think that they appeared to be biding time waiting to die.
Eventually Irma would be diagnosed as having Parkinson ’s disease and Alzheimer’s. My father did a great job of helping her as she became less able to cook, then to dress herself, then to find her way around their house. And he did so in a way that no one in the family seemed aware of how far the illnesses had progressed. We only discovered it when he entered the hospital in June 2015 with congestive heart failure, never to return to their home, but rather to live out his final 5 months being moved back and forth between hospitals and rehab centers.
We moved my parents to Lakeland, FL to be near me. My father passed away that November, and my mother, who lived in my house briefly but hated it was moved to the assisted living facility that had originally been intended for her and for my father. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, we eventually had to move her to a memory care center where she would be, if not happy, then at least, safe. The sale of their house had provided enough of a nest egg that we were able to provide additional caregivers to make up for the inability of the staff to provide the level of personal care she required.
During her last few months my mother deteriorated to an almost unrecognizable point. She seemed unaware of where she was, often insisting that the staff phone me because she had no idea how she got there, and feared that I didn’t know where she was. She would have no recollection of the last time we had visited or called, and so felt that she had been abandoned by her children in a strange place that she failed to recognize on an almost hourly basis. Her fear made her increasingly angry as it gave way to real terror. When, on the recommendation of her doctor, we put her on hospice care, all medication except for those providing comfort were withdrawn. It was felt that she was in the last months of her life. We were warned by the director of the facility that withdrawing one particular medication might accelerate her deterioration. After consulting with a dear friend whose many years of Methodist ministry made him wise and well versed in the ethics of elder care, we decided to withdraw that medication as well. Within a few weeks we saw her lose her ability to speak, walk, eventually to swallow, and under the care of hospice she spent most of her last days in a morphine induced slumber.
On January 19, approximately a month short of her 92nd birthday, Irma Phillips passed away. My mother was an extraordinary woman. From her I learned to strive for excellence, to not accept anything less than the best that I could do. I did not often agree with her, and I did not often feel that she truly understood me as an artist. Many times she would ask why I played music that “most people don’t understand” rather than to go with the tide of poplar/populist music, the music that she actually preferred. I always thought it ironic that she demand that I push myself to fulfill my potential, and yet didn’t understand that to be more entertainer and less artist would be to betray that very standard. But her achievements as a woman in a time when most women are fighting against that all too real glass ceiling are truly inspiring.
She may not have fully grasped my artistic choices, but she was always supportive. Of all the repertoire that I’ve played over decades as a classical guitarist there was only one that she truly loved, a piece that I performed at her funeral, and fittingly enough is a piece by Miguel Llobet who stands near the head of my extensive musical family tree. That piece, El Testament de n’Amelia I present as taken from my album, Lo Mestre, the Music of Miguel Llobet.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.