Helen Presents a short film and creative nonfiction piece from David Licata
David Licata playing “Leo Brouwer’s Etude No. 1”
From a very young age the sounds guitars made, acoustic or electric, entranced me, their frequencies and tones striking some otherwise still place in me, making it reverberate. At 16 I wanted to produce those sounds, to be the person that made life quiver.
I began taking lessons at a music studio above an instrument store, but the guitar and I, we did not become fast friends. I quickly discovered it was unnatural to rest this bizarrely shaped wood sculpture in my lap, to press strands of steel against rosewood with my fingertips. I soldiered through months of lessons with my first teacher, Ray, a chain-smoking, middle-aged, embittered jazz guitarist who didn’t veer from the dry Mel Bay instruction books and seemed to delight in showing me how easy the exercises were for him. I endured painful blisters, winced at countless misplayed notes, and derived just enough satisfaction from how much I improved daily to keep going.
Then one afternoon I heard the sound of a classical guitar coming from another room in the studio. I owned a few classical guitar LPs and was awestruck by the virtuosity of John Williams and Julian Bream, but that music seemed to require unimaginable chops. Hearing it bound down the grey-green hall and through the closed door made it accessible, learnable, even. I left Ray and began studying with Doug, the classical guitarist I had overheard. Soon afterwards I left the music studio for private lessons in Doug’s apartment.
The instruction room — his living room — was a warm and welcoming space full of records, sheet music, books, and paintings and drawings done by his live-in fiancée. . Doug was about 24, tall and thin with long, bony, enviable fingers, Robert Johnson fingers. He was finishing up his guitar studies at the Manhattan School of Music, where one of his teachers was Manuel Barrueco. Barrueco was making a name for himself and would soon become recognized as one of the premiere classical guitarists in the world. I still boast that Barrueco was my guitar teacher’s guitar teacher.
Doug instilled in me a work ethic. He taught me a strength exercise—in the first position you run through two chromatic scales at the same time, an octave apart. The fingers work the fretboard like a spider. After a minute your left forearm starts to burn, then the back of your hand begins to tighten and then your palm cramps. “Do these as fast as you can, cleanly,” he said, “and when you feel like you can’t do it if for another second, do one more.”
After three years of study with Doug and practicing four to six hours a day in my room, Doug posed a question: Since the muscles in our hands were at that point equally developed, why was his rendition of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Prelude No. 2 different (i.e., better) than mine? I didn’t really have an answer other than “experience.” That wasn’t the wrong answer, but it wasn’t a complete answer either. The question nagged me.
I envisioned a career in music and started calling myself a musician. When I was ten, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I might have said, because I needed to say something, I want to be a lawyer. But until I embraced the guitar, I had no vocation.
With a referral from Doug, I landed a substitute-teaching job at the same music studio where I first took lessons. In a drab, fluorescently lit, far from sound-proof room furnished with a couple of chairs and a music stand, I led my students — beginners and intermediates — through the Mel Bay books the studio insisted on. But I augmented those lessons by teaching them songs they wanted to learn. I took the work seriously and cared about my students’ progress. I especially enjoyed the enthusiasm the teenage boys showed, each eager to worship at the altar of guitar and prepared to practice their fingers to the bone to become the next Eddie Van Halen. I’m not sure what kind of history, biology, geography, or algebra students they were, but they were excellent guitar students.
One of my students, Bill, perhaps a year younger than I and a look that was Link Wray rockabilly, was already a talented musician. He could, in fact, rock a lot harder than I could, but he wanted to learn classical guitar. His left hand was strong and fast and nimble; his right hand, though, had only held a pick. I showed him how to manicure his fingernails. Scales, arpeggios, and Mauro Guiliani’s 120 Studies for the Right Hand developed his hand. We started working our way through the repertoire. Technically, he progressed quickly, but his interpretation of the music needed refining.
It was during one of Bill’s lessons that the answer to Doug’s question came to me. Doug had started his musical life at a younger age than I and therefore he had done a lot more work. He spent many more hours practicing and he listened to many more guitarists performing many more works, and he listened to them critically. He had been living with the music a lot longer. That was the difference between us. And I realized that’s what being an artist was about: putting in the hours over the long haul. Doug taught me this rarified music, but he really showed me what it means to devote your life to something.
And then, as it must, doubt emerged. Did I plateau? Did I start too late? Was I destined to be a mediocre guitarist in a sea of mediocre guitarists, to plunk out tunes for tips at bad restaurants, to become a resentful teacher at a shitty studio? I became increasingly impatient with my imperfection. Practice became a chore, and I did it less and less. When I sat in the classical guitar position the instrument seemed to press into my chest.
The teacher I subbed for returned from his sick leave and I was let go. Doug moved to another state and I stopped taking lessons. I enrolled at the University of Rochester with an undeclared major. I stopped calling myself a musician. I would never see Doug again.
As I drifted away from music I drifted toward words. Guitar had been my gateway to expression, my first artistic voice. But voices break and change. The urge to create was steadfast, what to create was, at that point in my life, mutable. But I never became completely estranged from the guitar. Every few weeks I would take the instrument out of the closet and stumble through a simple classical piece, music that was so deeply imprinted in my muscle memory that only a massive stroke could erase it. With calluses on my fingertips softened but not gone, this state lasted for 25-plus years.
Then when I was 46, my 84-year-old father, with whom I had a contentious relationship most of my life, took a fall that landed him in the hospital. He teetered hourly between consciousness and unconsciousness, lucidity and delusion, life and death. Caregiving consumed my life. I lost weight I couldn’t afford to lose and I became more sleep deprived. I knew I needed to take care of myself. And my heart, mind, spirit, something, reached for the instrument.
I looked through my yellowing sheet music and began relearning the repertoire. For the first time in my life I bought a guitar stand so the instrument remained out and inviting. I learned new short pieces, a Leo Brouwer etude, a Henry Purcell minuet, and a Chopin prelude. I practiced scales. Instead of clipping the fingernails of my right hand I began filing them again. I retrieved the footstool from the hinterlands of my closet and started assuming the classical guitarist position—the guitar cradled between my legs, its back resting against my chest, my right forearm anchored where its side and soundboard meet, my left hand caressing the neck—and the instrument fit. The guitar felt again like a part of my body and the sound it made emanating from me. That sense gave birth to an identity and inspired grandiose dreams as a teenager; as a middle-aged man with a dying parent, it provided an hour of respite in the evening.
After two months in the hospital my father died of sepsis, the result of complications brought on by the fall. I continued playing during my grief and the music rarely failed to deliver. I relearned more challenging pieces. And then I decided it was time to approach Bach’s BWV 999, the last piece I learned to play well in my previous guitar life. I placed the sheet music on the stand and played two measures at a time, over and over, just as I had the first time.
I watched a video of Andres Segovia in his mid-70s performing the bejesus out of the piece and I realized I’d never be able to play it as well as I did when I was a 19-year-old guitar obsessive. There had been too many fallow years. My fingers and wrists tired and ached after an hour or so of playing. Still, the sound beckoned. I learned a long sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, an Italian whose harpsichord work transcribes nicely for guitar. It took a year of practice before I could play it from memory.
I don’t play the Bach and the Scarlatti, well; there are always mistakes and they’re never at the tempo they should be. Thirty years ago neither Doug nor I would have accepted today’s performance. Doug Thirty-Years-Ago would have said something like, the notes on the page represent an ideal, it is our duty as musicians to perform those notes flawlessly, and to do so in a way that’s faithful to the era in which the piece was composed. You need to practice more. And I would have gone along with that. I would have practiced more in the hope of performing it perfectly. I believed in perfection then.
I suspect Doug Today would respond differently. He was a kind and compassionate man when I knew him and I like to think those attributes flourished alongside the wisdom he undoubtedly gained as he aged. Perhaps he would say my playing is thoughtful and mature. Perhaps he defines the word “practice” differently now, not a pressure-filled and arrogant activity aimed at perfection but a more forgiving and humble process. To play without expectations, that’s contentment. Let that suffuse your daily practice. Your life. Trying, Doug Today, trying.
So why didn’t I take up pottery again, which I enjoyed in my 40s? Or running, which gripped me in my early teens? Or Catholicism from before that? Each were picked up, held close, and then dropped. They compete with a sound that ran deep and wide and never stopped calling to me, and called with a quiet insistence when I felt distressed. The return was the result of a kind of sonic natal homing, similar maybe to what drives salmon to leave the ocean and slog up a river to breed and die in the shallow gravel beds where they were born.
David Licata is a writer and a filmmaker. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Literary Review, Pilgrimage, Word Riot, R.KV.R.Y., Quarterly Literary Journal, Hitotoki, The New Purlieu Review, Sole Literary Journal, and others. His films have screened around the world at dozens of festivals, including New Directors/New Films (curated by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and the Tribeca Film Festival, and on PBS stations across the U.S.