By Eric Henderson
In 1970 I was 12 years old and I remember hearing Segovia in concert for the third time. I remember him finishing the concert and Antonia hurrying me along with my parents to the door to the backstage area at the music center. Antonia and I were admitted and my parents waited outside. The reception area was crowded and there was a small but private hallway adjacent to a dressing room. I remember shaking Segovia’s huge hand that seemed to envelope mine with its thick, thick fingers. He seemed enormous to me yet very kind, he kept smiling to Antonia and speaking in Spanish to her. I was aware of numerous guitarists who were crowded around waiting to talk to the maestro and hanging on his every word. I recognized Fred Noad, Chet Atkins and Christopher Parkening, as well as others standing waiting to greet him. To my surprise, Segovia took Antonia and me aside and walked back into the small hallway and shut the door. “Go ahead and play something for me,” he said, and opened up a guitar case. The guitar was a Jose Ramirez, it was an amazing instrument but I didn’t really notice that because I was waiting for him to tell me what to play.
Segovia asked me what I would like to play and I said quickly that I had been studying ‘Variations and Fugue on Folias de España’ by Manuel Ponce, thinking that this would impress the maestro. He stopped me cold and said “You have to play about 50 years before you start playing something like that. Ponce is the apex of difficult music for guitar. Play a study by Fernando Sor.” So I played ‘Estudio 12’, which I had been practicing for about three years and I played it the best I had ever played it. Maestro Segovia nodded, pursed his lips and looked over to Antonia and said “Muy bien.” Then for some reason he looked at me and said “Play the B minor diatonic scale.” I guess he wanted to test me to see if I was practicing his scale studies. Thank God those scale studies were the first things that I practiced every day. After I played the scale fluidly and correctly, Segovia looked over at Antonia and said in Spanish “He plays beautifully, and he has my technique,” referring to the way I held the guitar and my right hand position. He than asked Antonia in Spanish “Who taught him?” Antonia looked at the ground quite sheepishly and almost whispered in Spanish that she had been teaching me since I was 8 years old. She had never told him that she had been teaching; they were close friends but she was self-conscious or scared to let him know that she was teaching his method of technique. She was so in awe of him and he knew her more as someone who was a flamenco dancer who could play a little guitar. She did not consider herself a great guitarist worthy of passing on his legacy. Segovia then said to me in English “if you come to Madrid, call me and I will spend some time with you.” He wrote down his phone number, handed it to Antonia and then Antonia started to talk to him excitedly in Spanish and he kept nodding, looking towards me and smiling.
I remember walking back with Segovia and Antonia into the receiving area where all the other people were waiting patiently. Everyone looked at us in curiosity. I walked out to my parents and said nonchalantly “What a nice guy, he was really cool. He said that if I ever come to Spain, I can study with him.” My dad said “Wait, what did you just say?” while Antonia said, in tears, “He just played like I have never seen him play before and Segovia actually agreed to spend some time with him if he comes to Spain.” My dad looked at my mother and me and then said “We’ve got to get you to Spain next year.” When we got to the car, all three adults collapsed in tears as Antonia related what had happened. As for me, I didn’t understand why everyone was upset. I was a child and had played with the unabashed honesty of a child with no fear and no artifice. Fortunately I had been able to put myself into the piece and the scale and to communicate with them. But I could not understand Spanish and had missed all of the conversation between Antonia and Segovia.
Everything came out right at that moment when I first played for Segovia, it was something that I could not have duplicated and have never done again. When I saw him that next year in Madrid, I was no longer a bold and confident little boy. I was a self-conscious teenager. I had begun to realize the enormity of the situation and at times I felt like a bumbling idiot. Looking back, Maestro Segovia was often very patient, especially when it came to things like misplayed notes that I thought he should have been irritated about. But on the other hand, when it came to things like dynamics, tone and interpretation where I thought that I was doing OK, he would sometimes be frightening. ‘”No, no, no!” he would say, with this huge finger pointing into my chest, “What are you thinking of?” Sometimes he would stop the lesson right then and there and go on for the next half hour talking about life in general, telling me I should learn everything I could about art and history, and that I should notice the beauty in the world, especially the beauty of women. Lessons with him were a strange juxtaposition; sometimes his young 3-year-old son, Carlos, would be running around the room and Segovia would say something almost childlike. Then in the same breath he would eloquently talk about falling in love and getting your heart broken and having those experiences invested in every note you play. He would constantly remind me that the guitar is only a small island in a enormous sea. He would say “The world is vastly rich and beautiful and its beauty and complexity are to be experienced and translated into the music.”