by Jim Lange
“Oh! For a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention
A kingdom for a stage; princes to act,
and monarchs to behold the swelling scene.”
In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard is sent on a mission to find the rogue Colonel Kurtz. Willard reveals: “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.” Being a huge fan of the film, when I picked up Glenn Kurtz’s book about his life as a guitarist, the irony was not lost. What did come unexpectedly was how his account would cut so close to home. When you interview someone, you have to give almost as much to the interviewee as they give to you, but still maintain a professional distance. But in a very honest way, there is no telling his story without telling my own.
Glenn Kurtz’s book, Practicing: a Musician’s Return to Music, is a memoir, a meditation on practicing, an insightful and funny history of the guitar, but most importantly, an honest account of how he lost his dream of being a concertizing guitarist, but ultimately finding a way of returning to the music and the instrument he so loved.
Listen to Kurtz explain why he wrote this book
When we begin the study of music or an instrument, there is innocence, enthusiasm and a joy that fuels our learning. For Kurtz, it began with lessons at the Guitar Workshop in Long Island.
Listen to Kurtz describe his early guitar studies
He was seventeen when he saw the great Andres Segovia in concert. Although he was playing a plethora of musical styles at that time, he was inspired to concentrate on classical guitar.
Listen to Kurtz describe the effect of seing Segovia
About the same time, Kurtz was chosen to be among an elite group of high school musicians who would not only have the chance to play on the Merv Griffin Show, but to back up jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie. The experience made him feel like he was on his way to a successful career as a professional musician.
Listen to Kurtz talk about these gigs
He was accepted into the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music where he realized that he was no longer the biggest fish in the proverbial pond. He had to reevaluate his place in the musical world. Also, a towering statue of Beethoven is used in a most unusual way.
Listen to Kurtz talk about his experience at the conservatory
While graduation can be an exciting culmination of hard work and study, the future can be most uncertain, especially for classical guitarists. Aspiring musicians must spend hours upon hours alone practicing. Kurtz calls practice “unpaid work” and reflects on this specialized musical activity.
Listen to Kurtz reflect on practicing
After graduation, Kurtz moved to Vienna, a city with a rich and almost mythic musical history, and he believed this was going to be the launch of his concert career. But disillusionment followed. First, with Vienna - a city that seemed to be frozen in time and forever looking backward at a faraway golden era of music. Even performances of Mozart operas were “like a stone statue…bloodless.”
Listen to Kurtz on Vienna and disillusionment
There is the old cliché: you can accomplish anything if you set your mind to it. We are told this by parents, teachers and mentors along the way. But what happens, despite all your efforts, when your dreams never manifest and by attrition, die?
Listen to Kurtz describe his "break up" with music
The quality of the concerts that Kurtz played became more of the economic, rather than the artistic variety. In short, no golden ladder reached down to elevate him to the status of the concert artist. He had become a working musician, not heir to the throne of Segovia. Growing increasingly dissatisfied, the dream had gone cold even before Kurtz realized it. The guitar, once the beloved object of hours of practice and the entrusted vessel of his greatest aspirations, had become a constant, bitter reminder of his failure and was consequently abandoned for a decade. There are rare moments of brutal honesty in interviews. This is one of them.
Listen to Kurtz talk about his years without the guitar
T.S. Eliot wrote, “… to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” This is how Kurtz began a return to the guitar and the music he had once loved.
Kurtz describes how he returned to the guitar
One of the economic opportunities that are available to musicians is wedding gigs or wine and cheese type events. Here a musician is paid to be talked over, to be nothing more than pleasant background music.
Kurtz reflects on this “cruel paradox”
Most of books that I have read about the history of the guitar are dry and reek of academia. Kurtz’s account is a delight; full of useful information, but laced with an insightful sense of humor and social perspective. In short, guitarists and their predecessors have long been seen as outsiders, mavericks and subversive elements of society. What is it about the guitar that provokes this stereotype to this day?
Kurtz talks about the history and reception of the guitar
Although Kurtz gave up his dream, the story has a happy ending. The author now holds a PHD from Stanford and is busy teaching and is currently working on a new book. He is frequently asked by young players for career advice.
Listen to the happy ending!