Worth Fretting Over

Worth Fretting Over

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: We have a diverse representation of aesthetics and interests here. I hadn’t thought about beginning this way, but we could briefly talk about how people came to the guitar. I think it’s a uniquely American situation we have where guitarists come to contemporary music and want to study music at a very high level, but generally come to it not thought the same sort of avenues as a violinist or pianist, etc. We can come to it through rock ‘n’ roll, in addition to developing an interest in jazz or classical. Also we should talk about the different generations we have represented here today and what that has meant in terms of our individual interests in the guitar.

DAVID STAROBIN: Well, I came to it through classical music. My parents were always playing ballet music and classics—Chopin and stuff. Then when it came time to start playing an instrument, they thought, well there’s this Segovia guy you know, let’s find a guitar teacher. At the time, the New York Classical Guitar Society had a list of the three or four approved teachers that you could study with, so we made calls and I landed with one of them when I was about seven. That’s how I started.

MARK STEWART: My family was very musical. In fact, we had a family ensemble called the Stewart Family Troubadours. We did mostly vocal repertoire, medieval and renaissance and American folk music—it’s how we paid for music lessons. My father was an Episcopal priest and didn’t have a lot of bread. We had a place to live, but taking music lessons was a little bit expensive and the way that they paid for it was by us doing these concerts together. Over the years I remember my mother bringing home an instrument from time to time. I did all of my conservatory studies on the cello, but my great passion was always the guitar. I started when I was nine. I originally played folk music because that was the simplest way to join in a potent fashion with the family ensemble, and played quite well because, of course, you have three chords and you’ve got a solid folk tune. Then later by a circuitous route, I came the various kinds of guitar playing that I do now.

JAMES EMERY: My parents were also musical, but they played all sorts of things in the house. I was hearing Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Tchaikovsky, all sorts of things. When I stared playing music, I just wanted to start playing music, period. It didn’t matter what kind it was. I started on organ when I was six and then wanted to switch to a wind instrument, but my parents would not get me a wind instrument. I wanted to play oboe or clarinet or alto saxophone, but they wouldn’t have any of it. So finally when I asked for a guitar, they said okay. They also bought me a book so that I could start teaching myself. After about a half an hour with that book in my bedroom I discovered that it would only teach me how to play chords so that I could accompany myself while singing. I was not happy with that because I wanted to pick out the actual notes and play a melody. I think that I’m still that way to a large extent [everyone laughs], even though I’ve learned a few chords. They insisted that I study with a classical guitar teacher and that was one of the best breaks I’ve ever got. There was a woman who played violin in the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell at that time named Ann Stanley. She was also a really fine classical guitarist and she took me on. Fortunately for me, she not only taught me how to play the guitar and play the repertoire, she also taught me why chords sound the way they do and the theory behind harmony and rhythm, and so forth. So she not only taught me how to play but how to think on the instrument.

DAVID LEISNER: I’m curious, James, why you were attracted to the guitar after the other instruments?

JAMES EMERY: I’m not sure about that.

DAVID LEISNER: I’m not either—that’s probably why I asked.

JAMES EMERY: It must have been something that I saw or heard at that time. I don’t recall what that was, but after striking out so many times on wanting other instruments, maybe I thought I’d just ask for something really common.

DAVID LEISNER: It’s funny how this is developing because my background is sort of a combination of the three of you. I came from a nonmusical family, although they all appreciated music, and I was listening at age four to the symphonies of Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven, but at the same time Duke Ellington and Count Basie, jazz stuff, and all those people. And like James I felt like I wanted to make music in some way or another. My mother being the dominant musical force in the family really wanted me to play violin, so when I was nine years old I started on the violin and was a mess at it. I don’t know why I gravitated to the guitar next, but I did when I was ten. It was not one of those things where I heard Segovia or some special person and thought, “Oh, I have to play that instrument.” I think maybe it was more a practical thing. I began in a folk guitar class in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and my teacher then took me on privately for lessons and gradually eased me into classical, which I didn’t really begin until I was thirteen. Then for many years I played folk and popular music and my own compositions and classical music side by side. It wasn’t until I was seventeen that I decided to go all-classical. Although along the way I had some teachers-like David Starobin, in fact-through much of this time and really for the rest of my life I was basically self-taught amidst the confusion of all these different musics and different instruments and different styles.

DOMINIC FRASCA: I did it for the chicks and the money [everyone laughs], which is why…

MARK STEWART: …you’re so miserable.

DOMINIC FRASCA: …and then I realized I wasn’t going to get the chicks and the money. So I thought, well, I’m going classical so I can mock the guitar players who do get the chicks and the money [everybody laughs]. I started through rock basically, actually through Van Halen and hearing “Spanish Fly.” I said that’s classical guitar, that’s what I want to learn. Then it slowly morphed into this.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: I wonder at what point you realized that it was something that you wanted to continue with and to focus on professionally, particularly the serious contemporary classical music and collaborations with composers…

DAVID STAROBIN: For me, I was a junior varsity catcher and I had to make a decision because foul tips were absolutely murder on right hand nails, you know [everybody laughs]. My father said, “Listen, it’s time for you to think about what you’re going to do. Are you going to have a professional baseball career?” I thought, well… [laughs] I wish! If you’re fifteen years old and you’re giving up baseball, it’s a commitment, and that was it. I also went through rock ‘n’ roll, had a band for many years, and played trumpet for a lot of years, but guitar was the only one that I was really any good at. So that was it.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: And you were fairly certain that you were going to be conservatory/university bound…

DAVID STAROBIN: I started actually going to the conservatory that year. At fifteen I would take the train down to Baltimore every week to study with Aaron Shearer. From Long Island it was more than ten hours on the train every week. He was a pretty good teacher for me at that point, so it was worth it at the time, but it was a little nuts. My parents were crazy, but they sent me on this journey.

DAVID LEISNER: That’s interesting because I think really at this time that we’re talking about—what was that, thirty years ago, or more—in that era there were very few guitar teachers around. For me in LA there was nobody really. When I came to the East Coast, I didn’t go to a conservatory. I went to Wesleyan University for liberal arts. I knew I was going to be a musician, but I also knew that it was going to be hard to find a teacher. I was at Wesleyan in Middletown and I didn’t have any money, no car, so I hitchhiked every other week to Robert Carroll, a violist from the Boston Symphony. He was a violist but he was an amateur guitarist. So just thinking about the dedication—your ten-hour trip to Baltimore…

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: And you literally hitchhiked?

DAVID LEISNER: Yeah, with my guitar.

MARK STEWART: I used to juggle to get picked up, but a guitar is almost as good.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: And your path to the decision to be a professional musician.

JAMES EMERY: Well, I don’t know how I knew this but I remember clearly after playing the organ for a few days when I was six years old, I said, “Yeah, I’m going to be a musician.” I just brought me so much joy and happiness. So I continued on and began playing in rock bands when I was a teenager in high school. We played a lot and were successful with that. So things just started rolling and I worked quite a bit in Cleveland. Fortunately the teacher that I referred to earlier that was the violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra had enabled me to teach myself a lot of things that I encountered later on, such as the music of Charlie Parker which was a big milestone for me. I heard that and said, “Whew.”

DAVID STAROBIN: That’s really a coincidence, I also had a teacher in the Cleveland Orchestra—the principal second violinist Bernard Goldschmidt used to give me lessons one summer when I was thirteen at the Allegany Music Festival. I remember him because I played the Villa Lobos Third Prelude. In the middle section there is a very sort of typical rubato that guitarists have always adopted. It’s very dumb rubato that basically feels good on the instrument. He couldn’t understand this. He said, “What are you doing that for?” And I said, “Well, you know, my hands just do it.” [everyone laughs] So he really nailed me. It was great for a thirteen-year-old kid to learn a really great lesson in phrasing because, you know, I have to think about why this note goes to the other note. It was one of the first times that I really found a musician who said think about what you’re doing, don’t just play it because you heard it that way. That was my Cleveland Orchestra story.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: It’s interesting to hear these profound little epiphanies coming from non-guitarists.

MARK STEWART: And I did a whole other route. I did all of my education on the cello. I use everything I’ve learned on the cello on guitar. The kind of gigs I do now, the kind of life I have would be an entirely different life if I hadn’t learned the repertoire that happens to be on the cello. And I fell in love with the repertoire. I went to college to be both a guitarist and a cellist, but the repertoire just killed me. Then I ran off to Eastman, but I was a fox in a hen house. I thought I was going to be a cellist in a string quartet at a nice liberal arts school in the Midwest, but there was no guitar program, so I got every single call to play every guitar gig, facility and student alike. Whether it was the mandolin in Don Giovanni or a tenor banjo in Gershwin or accompanying Annita Boyd on her faculty recital. It was unbelievable, it was like a cosmic mitzvah [everybody laughs]. And now I live a fretted life, and I fret less because of it. I enjoy my life as a guitarist. Life as a cellist was frankly a little stressful.

DOMINIC FRASCA: See, it was a lot easier for me. I was the generation when you guys were all starting to form the programs.

DAVID LEISNER: So you had more of a guitar-oriented education?

DOMINIC FRASCA: Yeah, but I never listened to guitar, I listened to ensemble music. So I always wanted to take ensemble music and stick it on guitar. I was never happy with the sound of classical guitar. I liked the concept, but it just wasn’t the palette for me.

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