The Maestro and the Boy

by Eric Henderson
Eric, Antonia, and SegoviaThe name ‘Segovia’ is synonymous with classical guitar. In no other field does one person so dominate an instrument and its repertoire. In the years when Segovia was at his peak, when he was teaching individual and master classes and doing concert tours, I was invited to Madrid to become his private student. This unique opportunity to study privately with the great Maestro was one of my greatest privileges. It emerged from a constellation of talent, instruction, opportunity and sheer love of the instrument that began when I was a young child and culminated in two audiences in which I was asked to play for Segovia.
In each of these audiences I was able to perform unabashedly and honestly, to play what was asked without a presumption as to how he would want to hear it. Being a child I was not yet self-conscious enough to be awed by the Maestro. Humble, but confident of my ability to play my repertoire, I was not yet paralyzed by all that hung on my ability to play my very best. It is the ability to communicate directly, to play openly and without artifice that makes a great performance, regardless of the audience. Looking back, I began my journey towards that realization when I was just a boy who was asked to play for Segovia.
My first Segovia concert was in Los Angeles. My parents had driven to Los Angeles, as they were eager to have me, their ‘child prodigy’ guitarist, hear the man whose records I had so come to love. I was nine years old and it was 1967. It was the summer of love and our home town of Laguna Beach was also home to Timothy Leary. In Laguna’s paradise of idle time and perfect weather lived many guitarists whose talents ultimately failed to keep them from self destruction with drugs and alcohol. Living in this milieu I started with rock guitar but was making the transition to classical pieces and had recently begun to study under a teacher, Antonia Morales, who knew Segovia personally.
Part of my fascination with Maestro Segovia as a presence and not just a name on a record owed to Antonia. I first took lessons with her when I was eight years and when I moved to Madrid to study with Segovia. She became a sort of guardian and cultural attache for all things European. Antonia was a beautiful, graceful woman, primarily a Spanish dancer who had coached such luminaries as Rita Hayworth, but also trained in classical guitar. She was born and bred in Spain and her connection to its artistic aristocracy led me to meet artists like Salvatore Dali as well as Segovia’s cadre of musicians and composers. Antonia’s own guitar teacher was Aureo Herrrera, one of classical guitar’s greatest unsung heroes. His name may be familiar as it is on many of the Segovia editions of famous compositions that he fingered for Segovia. Yet he is so much more and deserves much more attention and due recognition. He, like Segovia, became my teacher and was one of the greatest influences on my art. In a future article I hope to begin to justify his power as a teacher and a composer.
As for me, the boy who Antonia trained and brought to Segovia, I can’t remember a time when I was not aware of guitar. From the time I could crawl I was fascinated with touching he instrument, with the slickness of its wood and the hard tension of the strings. I started playing other people’s guitars when I was four years old, but I was given my first real guitar in 1964, when I was six. As I began to become preoccupied with the instrument my talent began to emerge and my parents, particularly my Dad, encouraged me to play as much as I wanted. They would make up games of ‘Can you play that?’ and were amazed that I could play almost anything by ear as soon as I heard it.
Having my own instrument, I soon finagled ways to surround myself with other guitarists who were surprisingly patient with my youth. All that mattered was that I could play, which is as it should be. Most of my earliest contacts were rock guitarists, which is not surprising given that my sixth birthday fell two days after the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show, and I turned eight the year that the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed. In Laguna’s atmosphere of surf, art and drugs, rock and roll was the American dream and it was the guitarists who drove the best cars and had the most beautiful girlfriends. Everyone wanted to be like them. At the ripe age of eight, my ability to play ‘Valerie’ got me my first gig as the lead guitarist in a high school band that won local talent content. Thus I came to learn the rewards of performance as well as the joys of the instrument, and I came to believe that the ‘good life’ comes with rock and roll. It was not until the death of Jimi Hendrix in 1971 that I began to get a glimpse of music’s darker side, but by then I was already hooked. That and my redemption is part of another story for another time.
In my single digit years, as more and more of my time came to be spent with music and guitar, my mother would play classical albums and this helped to provide a respite. She was the one who called me in to watch Segovia perform on TV, she bought me my first Andres Segovia album. When I began to imitate his playing as well as what I was hearing on the radio, my parents searched for a classical guitar teacher and were led to Antonia Morales by a kind neighbor who knew her as a teacher of dance and guitar. Antonia took me on as a pupil and began to instruct me in classical scales and exercises as well as with some pieces. I, in turn, played flamenco guitar for dance classes where Antonia bragged to her pupils that I was ‘good enough to take to Spain’.
My parent’s support and Antonia’s tutelage were to culminate, in 1970, in the two private audiences that forged my connection to Segovia. One was in Los Angeles, the other in Madrid. In retrospect, all of Antonia’s instruction was geared towards honing my talent to impress Segovia in the hope that he would offer to take me on as a student. Her acquaintance with Segovia and her connection to Aureo Herrera gave me the connection, my talent and single-minded focus on the guitar gave me the capital. Twelve is the age when many teachers believe a child turns from a gifted technician to a true musician. When I turned 12, we again had occasion to travel to Los Angeles to hear Segovia in concert, but this time Antonia arranged for us to have backstage passes to meet the maestro in person.