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Practicing by Glenn Kurtz
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Aug 05, 2008 | ISBN 9780307278753

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“Graceful. . . . A lovely, unique book. . . . A personal journey [that] becomes universal, elevating all in the process.” —Los Angeles Times“A thoughtful and fluid meditation on the subject. . . . [Kurtz] might just compel you to call your old grade-school piano teacher to see if she’s taking on any new students.”—The New York Times Book Review “A sensuous, evocative memoir about love lost and regained. . . . Kurtz has gone back to work on his guitar playing, and his devotion seems like a rebirth of self.” —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review“Absorbing . . . [Written] with uncanny sensitivity about his brief career as a professional performer.”—The Wall Street Journal

Author Q&A

Q: Where did the idea to write PRACTICING come from?
I’ve always been intrigued by practicing. At one of my very first guitar lessons, when I was eight years old, I was singing a simple folk song, and the teacher sang along in harmony. It sounded so good that I recall laughing and saying, “I want to be able to do that.” He responded, “keep playing and you will.”

As a professional musician, of course, I spent most of my time practicing—far more than I spent performing; sometimes more than I spent sleeping. Practicing was my job, and I took it very seriously. But I think I assumed that practicing was a means to an end. I wanted to succeed as a concert guitarist, and constant practice was the only way. I didn’t really think about practicing apart from this ambition. It was very goal-oriented.

When I began practicing again, after abandoning my career as a concert guitarist, I looked at practicing differently. I was struck by the enormous amount of time and emotion that I was devoting to music, even though it was no longer my profession. It occurred to me that many people devote their best energy and attention to things that are not their jobs. So I thought I’d write something about “practicing” in a general sense, this commitment to doing something you love, just because you love it.

But when you practice, you’re often the only person in the room. As I worked, I found myself returning to my history as a musician, to the things that I had learned or dreamed of—and more often to things I had forgotten or lost when I quit. I recognized that the heart of practice is this idea of returning, coming back to what you love, perhaps every day or even over the span of a lifetime. When I realized this, the story of my own experience broke open to me in a way it never had before. There was nothing “general” about it! On the contrary, I suddenly saw practicing as a kind of intimate relationship, and my abandonment of music in my twenties now seemed like a disastrous love affair. I wanted to understand what had gone wrong. I wrote the book to find out.

Q: At the core of PRACTICING is the question of how to return to a love—playing and studying the classical guitar—that has broken your heart. By the completion of the book, you seem to have returned to this love and made peace with your musical career. Do you think PRACTICING could be seen as a kind of apology to the love that you abandoned?
Perhaps it sounds strange, but when I quit music, I didn’t realize my heart was broken. It was so painful that I didn’t feel anything; I was numb, and I had to find something else to do. It was only years later, when I began to play again, that I realized how badly hurt I was when I quit. Then, all of a sudden, years’ worth of disappointment and anger at myself emerged. The main task I faced in beginning again wasn’t re-learning to play the guitar, but overcoming this disappointment.

Writing Practicing, I think I learned how to forgive myself for this failure. So, yes, perhaps the book is a kind of apology to myself—to my love for music, for abandoning it. But apologizing was the easy part. What really changed my relationship to music was learning to forgive.

Q: What was the experience like to study at the New England Conservatory of Music?
I often say that, of all the schooling I’ve had in my life, the Conservatory was the place where I really learned something. There was no aimless sniffing around in search of a profession, no “maybe I should study law; maybe I’d like geology.” The violinists were going to be violinists; the composers were going to be composers. And every day, for hours and hours, everyone worked toward this goal. It wasn’t like “studying” the way other college students do, for specific assignments, in between social activities. We wanted to be artists, and this was an all-consuming goal, a life.

Of course, if you build up this kind of intensity, it will seek release. One release was competition, which could sometimes be extremely vicious. But what I remember most vividly is the playfulness and irreverence. People were constantly playing practical jokes or fooling around with things we heard or were playing. Maybe we’d swap instruments and try to play a Mozart quartet. One week, we held all our conversations in the style of a Baroque opera we were performing. We took music incredibly seriously. But at the same time, we played with it. That creates a great environment for learning, because in order to imitate a style, you have to really know it inside and out.

Q: You write of you and your classmates at the New England Conservatory of Music: “Our careers—our faith in ourselves—depended on hearing more music in the notes than others. But the intensity of our ambition found expression most often in pettiness. We listened for mistakes rather than for inspiration.” Do you think that your studies at the New England Conservatory made music into something competitive, rather than a pure joy? Would this have happened even if you hadn’t studied music formally?
Competition is a double-edged sword. In some instances, it can be very positive. For example, it’s fun to compete against your equals, and to feel yourself pushing beyond what you can do on your own. Many of my best musical experiences were like this, playing with others and working to out-do each other.

But competition turns destructive when it becomes a power struggle, when the goal isn’t to push each other to be our best, but to push the others down, so I can be the best. Once this happens, the range of expression and feeling narrows. It’s almost impossible to get better under these circumstances. Instead, you become reactive and defensive. The Conservatory definitely had both kinds of competition in excess. But this is probably inevitable whenever you have a group of people in the same place doing the same thing.

The positive kind of competition helped make the experience wonderful, and the negative kind was more the result of personality and group dynamics; it didn’t have much to do with formal study. You get the same joy and the same problems in a four-person garage band. In fact, I think you’d find something similar if you stayed home, playing alone in your room. When I practice, I’m often competing against myself, or against some ideal in my head. Competition is just an inescapable part of taking a subject or an activity seriously. Part of practicing is learning to protect your joy from your own ambition.

Q: During your time at the New England Conservatory, your parents took you to see the play Amadeus. While your parents enjoyed the play, you felt devastated by it. Why was this?
The play seemed to confirm my worst fears. Salieri, the main character, begins the play feeling blessed by God with musical talent. Then Mozart arrives, and Salieri suddenly feels trapped and cursed by this same talent, cheated by God of what he thought was his special gift. The play focuses on Salieri’s jealousy—a jealousy that leads him to murder his musical rival, Mozart. And it explores Salieri’s sense of betrayal, the discovery of his own inadequacy. When I saw the play, I was probably at the lowest point of my time at the Conservatory. I had internalized the competition very deeply and was struggling with the fear that I would never improve enough to reach my goals. So when Salieri—played superbly by Ian McKellan— confronts his own talent as a curse, it spoke to my situation. I say “spoke to,” but “devastated” is really more accurate. It just destroyed me, because I was hoping with all my might that I was wrong, that my talent was not limited. And here was Salieri to tell me that, on the contrary, I was
doomed. The worst part—and the most powerful element of the play—is that Salieri forgives the audience for its mediocrity. He says, in essence, “it’s okay that you’re not Mozart; I’m not either.” That was awful to hear, because what young musician wants to be like Salieri? What young musician wants to be told, “all your work, all your love of music, won’t make you any better than you’re going to be anyway?”

Q: Upon rediscovering your notebooks from your days at the New England Conservatory, you felt that the years you spent practicing classical guitar had not been a waste, but the years since you had stopped had been. Do you think that writing this book has validated those years since you had abandoned the classical guitar and made them worthwhile?
The moment I opened my notebooks from the Conservatory, I experienced a very powerful and painful kind of nostalgia. There was so much idealism in the writing, and a sense of illumination that came from having devoted myself to art. It was exciting for me to read. I’d been teaching college-age students for almost 10 years at that point, and it was as if a professorial part of me said, “this kid has potential.”

But of course “this kid” was me as a college student, in other words, a person who no longer existed. It was a terrible moment when I understood that I could not go back and reclaim that identity. My life since the Conservatory—and especially since quitting music—seemed to lack that spark of discovery and devotion. I was nostalgic for a time when I still had so much ahead of me.

In order to write Practicing—and more, in order to begin practicing the guitar again—I had to get past this feeling. It sounds simple, but I had to accept that the past was past. This goes for the years when I wasn’t practicing, too. Maybe they were wasted; maybe not. In any case, they were as unrecoverable as my years at the Conservatory. This is one of the paradoxical things about practicing: you only keep what you let go of. Writing Practicing allowed me for the first time to integrate the two periods of my life, the time I spent practicing as well as the time after I quit. Now both periods feel worthwhile.

Q: Woven throughout the book is a single practicing session, which is written in almost meditative prose. Has coming back to practicing helped you compromise your ideas of what it means to be a “success” versus what it means to be a “failure?”
Definitely. When I think back on my musical career now, I see a very different kind of “failure” than I saw when I quit. At the time, I had the sense of having failed as a musician. But now, I think I suffered a failure of imagination.

As a young musician, I conceived an idea of “success” that was powerfully compelling—but a disaster in the end. “Success” meant achieving my ideal, becoming a concert guitarist like Segovia. The price I paid for maintaining this ideal was the loss of what I enjoyed most. That’s a terrible price. But I just couldn’t imagine how to “succeed” without reaching this goal.

In the parts of Practicing that deal with the present, I’m trying to understand what music might mean, free of the ideal of “success” that I created as a child.

This is one reason why the title, “Practicing,” is so meaningful to me. “Success” and “failure” are conclusions. They are judgments at the end of an event. You say: “the operation was a success” or “the attempt was a failure.” But practicing is the process itself, without end. You can only say: “today I practiced well” or “today I practiced badly.” But you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I think branding yourself a “failure” is a way of closing off a process that has become too painful. You declare the whole thing a loss and you quit. But practicing is about learning to continue.

Q: Are you still playing with the same guitar that you played with when you studied at the Conservatory? (I’m hoping you will expand on the history behind your guitar and also share that it is photographed for the cover of the book).
Yes. The guitar was made by Miguel Rodriguez, a famous maker from Cordova, Spain, and is one of the so-called “church door” guitars. Guitar makers are always searching for good wood, and the story is that Rodriguez was walking past a church that was being deconsecrated or rebuilt. In any case, the workers were discarding the centuries-old wooden doors, and Rodriguez took them home and built a series of guitars from them. The story is probably false. But the wood is very beautiful, and each of the guitars has a golden stripe around the side or on the back. The most famous of the “church door” guitars were owned and played by the Romero family—Celedonio and his three sons, Celin, Pepe, and Angel. On a number of their albums, you can see the church door guitars in the pictures. I bought my instrument from one of the Romeros during my third year at the Conservatory. It is a fairly late guitar, built in 1983, and the stripe is quite narrow. But it is an exceptionally beautiful instrument to look at, and astonishingly responsive to play. I think I learned as much about music from the instrument as from my teachers.

When I quit practicing, I took my anger out on everything associated with my guitar, and then I put it away. I didn’t want to see it or be reminded of it. When I began practicing again, the guitar had suffered from its years in exile, and I had to have a number of repairs made. While it was at the shop, I experienced a kind of separation anxiety. And as soon as I had it back in my hands, I became much more aware of the specific feel, shape, and sound of this particular instrument.

I was really grateful when Knopf suggested using a photograph of my guitar for the cover of Practicing. Although readers might not know the guitar they see on the jacket is mine, perhaps the image—the color of the varnish, the detail of the sound-hole decoration—will contribute to the tone and the mood of the story.

Q: In the first chapter you write, “Try to describe your experience of music, and you’ll quickly reach the limits of words.” Was it difficult for you to write about music, both the concepts and your feelings, using just words?
Music presents a particular challenge for writing, since we associate such specific images and complex emotions with music, without these images and emotions being in any way verbal. To speak or to write about them immediately feels like a compromise, sometimes even a betrayal. Music is best expressed as music.

At the same time, writing is often most compelling when describing something it cannot do, when pushed to its limits. A word doesn’t have a smell or a taste. And yet a word well used can make you believe that you taste or smell something. The same is true of writing about music. I realized when I began to write Practicing that I could never make a reader hear what I was playing. But I tried to use language to create sensations analogous to what I experienced when I played or listened to music. Instead of trying to say what the music was about, I described what it felt like to play, or what I felt as I played. My goal wasn’t to reproduce the musical experience, but to find language that seemed like music.

Q: While the electric guitar might call to mind associations with transgression, rebellion, and sexuality, we don’t often think of the classical guitar in these terms. Yet you’ve written that as early as the 17th century, if not before, the guitar was considered by many to be “Subversive, vulgar, and immoral.” What have you learned about the guitar’s history and cultural legacy
that has most surprised you?
The biggest surprise about the guitar’s cultural history was how consistent it has been over thousands of years. As soon as there was an instrument with a curvaceous body—so, probably since 1200 B.C.—it was associated with sex and rebellion. This is pretty obvious when you watch a film of young Elvis or Jimi Hendrix. But the same was true in more modest times, when the classical guitar first evolved. There was always a proper, respectable instrument, and a scandalous, illicit instrument. For a long time, the lute was considered elevated and pure, while the guitar was base and vulgar. Now the contrast is between the classical guitar and the electric guitar. The classical guitar is considered “romantic”—which means sensuous in an accepted way—while the electric guitar is raunchy and wild.

I think this is partly because the guitar is portable, easy to strum, and has always been associated with dance music. When Spanish sailors returned from visiting the New World in the 1500s, they brought back native American dances that shocked the European aristocracy. One of my favorite quotes in the book is about one of these dances, the Sarabande. The Jesuit priest Juan de Mariana wrote that it was “a dance so lascivious in its words, so ugly in its movements, that it is enough to inflame even very honest people.”

Primitive, repulsive—and incredibly exciting: Sounds like Rock ‘n’ Roll! But this was in 1590.

Q: You’ve written about many of your amazing experiences as a result of playing the guitar: being on The Merv Griffin Show (and consequently McDonald’s placemats), winning the Newsday Teen Talent competition in 1981, studying under Pepe Romero, living in Vienna. What is your most memorable experience from your musical career?
It’s hard to pick just one. Meeting Dizzy Gillespie and playing in a band behind him on national television is hard to beat; performing solo in front of 10,000 people is also extraordinarily memorable. I can recall quite vividly some great moments with other musicians, just fooling around or rehearsing, when we hit a phrase just right or managed to catch the core of an idea together. There are few kinds of communication as pleasurable as playing music with other people and really being together in it. I hate to admit it, but one of the few times I used my ability maliciously was exceptionally satisfying: I was at the beach with friends during high school, and some guy with a guitar was being loud and obnoxious. I asked if I could borrow his instrument, played something very fast and impressive for my friends, then handed the guitar back to him and walked away. He was much quieter after that. A 98-pound-weakling-kicks-sand-in-thebully’s-face moment.

But if I think about playing the guitar just as something I loved to do, then there is one moment that stands out. It wasn’t special to anyone but me, most likely. And it certainly wasn’t my best or most “important” performance. But I recall a concert at the Guitar Workshop, where I was a student from age 8 to 17. Maybe I was 14 or 15 years old at the time, pretty comfortable on stage with a band, but still very inexperienced as a classical guitarist. I was performing a piece by Bach, the Allemande from the 1st lute suite. There is a moment in the piece where the phrase calls for a slight pause. When I came to this one passage, I slowed down much more than I had expected. It felt like I had stopped time altogether, like a scene from a movie, where everyone freezes except one character, who walks around the others as if they were statues. Yet the audience wasn’t frozen. They were paying attention; they were hanging on the phrase. This is what made the moment so special to me. It was the first time I consciously held an audience’s attention with music. It wasn’t anything I had meant to do. No one had taught me how to do it. But it happened: I had learned what it means to be musical, to absorb regular time into musical time and create an experience with sound.

Q: As a musician, what music are you excited about now?
One of the joys of writing Practicing has been the chance to listen to some of the vast repertoire of the guitar, and in the book there’s a listening section that includes some of these recordings. But a quick glance at my iPod playlist would reveal a pretty eclectic selection: Paul Galbraith playing Bach’s lute music; David Tanenbaum playing Steve Reich; Richard Goode playing Mozart’s piano concertos with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; Japanese shakuhachi or flute music; Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Wes Montgomery; African drumming, like the Dagbama music of Northern Ghana, for example, or the Gnawa music of Marakesh—I’ve been listening to a group of Gnawa musicians called “Night Spirit Masters”; along with Suzanne Vega, Holly Cole, Death Cab for Cutie, and Annie Lennox. For some reason, I’ve had theAndrews Sisters in my head for the last week. Don’t ask me why.

Q: Where are you now with your practicing?
When you do something else for a living, practicing has a cycle, with periods of great intensity and development alternating with periods of relative stasis. When I was writing Practicing, I was very conscientious. I played for two or three hours every day. It was also the time when I was rediscovering the guitar, and playing was more fun—maybe even more rewarding—than it had ever been before. These days, even when I’m very busy, I still try to play at least an hour a day, if only to keep my fingers moving. I almost always practice Bach, because the music is too great not to, and I’m slowly working my way through the complete guitar works of Tárrega and Rodrigo. Very slowly. Like every other non-professional musician, I wish I had more time to practice.

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