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A Musician's Return to Music

Written by Glenn KurtzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Glenn Kurtz


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: November 19, 2008
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48976-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In a remarkable memoir written with insight and humor, Glenn Kurtz takes us from his first lessons at the age of eight to his acceptance at the elite New England Conservatory of Music. After graduation, he attempts a solo career in Vienna but soon realizes that he has neither the ego nor the talent required to succeed and gives up the instrument, and his dream, entirely.

But not forever: Returning to the guitar, Kurtz weaves into the narrative the rich experience of a single practice session. Practicing takes us on a revelatory, inspiring journey: a love affair with music.


Sitting Down

I am sitting down to practice. I open the case and take out my instrument, a classical guitar made from the door of a Spanish church. I strike a tuning fork against my knee and hold it to my ear, then gently pluck an open string. During the night the guitar has drifted out of tune. It tries to pull the tuning fork with it, and I feel the friction of discordant vibrations against my eardrum. I turn the tuning peg slightly, bracing it between my thumb and index finger, until the two sounds converge. Another barely perceptible adjustment, and the vibrations melt together, becoming one. From string to string, I repeat the process, resolving discord with minute twists of my wrist. Then I check high notes against low, middle against outer. Finally I play a chord, sounding all six strings together. Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.

With a metal emery board, then with very fine sandpaper, I file the nails on my right hand. Even the tiniest ridges can catch on a string and make its tone raspy. In 1799 Portuguese guitarist Antonio Abreu suggested trimming the nails with scissors, then smoothing them on a sharpening stone to remove “rough edges that might impede the execution of flourishes and lively scales.” Some guitarists disagree heatedly with this advice, preferring to play with the fingertips alone. For support, they quote Miguel Fuenllana, who in 1554 stated that “to strike with the nails is imperfection. Only the finger, the living thing, can communicate the intention of the spirit.” But to my ear, the spirit of music speaks with many voices, and a combination of fingernail and flesh sounds best. I run my thumb over my fingertips. They are as smooth as crystal.

I shift the guitar into its proper position, settle its weight, and adjust my body to the familiar contours. And then I look around me. My chair is by a window in the living room; my footstool and music stand are in front of me. The window shade is partly drawn so that the San Francisco sunlight falls at my feet but not on my instrument, which would warp in the heat. Outside, people with briefcases and regular jobs are walking down the hill to work. Students are arriving at the school across the street. I listen to their voices and footsteps. Then I take a deep breath, letting them go. I draw myself in. I’m alone in the apartment, and my work is here. I begin.

At first I just play chords. The sounds feel bulky, as do my hands. I concentrate on the simplest task, to play all the notes at precisely the same moment, with one thought, one motion. It takes a few minutes; sometimes, on bad days, it takes all morning. I take my time. But I cannot proceed without this unity of thought, motion, and sound.

Slowly the effort wakes my fingers. Slowly they warm. As the muscles loosen, I break the chords into arpeggios: the same notes, but now spread out, each with its own place, its own demands. Arpeggios make the fingers of both hands work together in different combinations. I play deliberately, building a triangle of sound—fingertip, ear, fingertip—until my hands become aware of each other.

My attention warms and sharpens, and I shape the notes more carefully. I remember now that music is vibration, a disturbance in the air. I remember that music is a kind of breathing, an exchange of energy and excitement. I remember that music is physical, not just in the production of sounds, in the instrumentalist’s technique, but as an experience. Making music changes my body, eliciting shivers, sobs, or the desire to dance. I become aware of myself, of these sensations that lie dormant until music brings them out. And in an instant the pleasure, the effort, the ambition and intensity of playing grip me and shake me awake. I feel as if I’ve been wandering aimlessly until now, as if all the time I’m not practicing, I’m a sleepwalker.

I calm myself and concentrate. Give the sounds time, let the instrument vibrate. I have to hear the sounds I want before I make them, and I have to let the sounds be what they are. Then I have to hear the difference between what I have in mind and what comes from the strings.

It’s easy to get carried away. The grandeur, the depth and beauty of music are always present in the practice room. Holding the guitar, I feel music’s power at my fingertips, as if I might pluck a string and change the world. For centuries people believed that music was the force that moved the planets. Looking into the night sky, astronomers saw the harmony of heaven, and philosophers heard the music of the spheres. Musicians were prophets then, and according to Cicero the most talented might gain entry to heaven while still alive simply “by imitating this harmony on stringed instruments.” Every artist must sometimes believe that art is the doorway to the divine. Perhaps it is. But it’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. The grandeur of music, to be heard, must be played. When I hold the guitar, I may aspire to play perfect harmonies. But first I have to play well.

I bring myself back to the work at hand. I listen to the strings, while testing fine gradations in the angle, speed, and strength of my touch. I vary the dynamics and articulation, vary the intensity and color of the notes. If I am to play well, I must gather the guitar’s many voices, let each one sing out. After a few more minutes of arpeggios, my fingers grow warm and capable. The notes are clear and distinct, and I play the simple chords again, very softly at first, then louder and more urgently. Again, softly, then filling, expanding, releasing. Once more, until gradually the sounds from the instrument near what I hear in my head.

Listening, drawing sound, motion, and thought together, I find my concentration. My imagination opens and reaches out. And in that reaching I begin to recognize myself. My hands feel like my hands and not the mitts I usually walk around with. I recognize my instrument’s tone; this is how I sound, for now. I recognize my body; I feel alert and able. I feel like a musician again, a classical guitarist. I feel ready to work, ready to play.

“For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner,” wrote the cellist Pablo Casals in his memoir, Joys and Sorrows. “I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.”

Try to describe your experience of music, and you’ll quickly reach the limits of words. Music carries us away, and we grope for the grandest terms in our vocabulary just to hint at the marvel of the flight, the incredible marvel, the wonder. “Each day,” Casals continues, “it is something new, fantastic, and unbelievable.” I imagine him leaning forward in excitement, a round-faced bald man in his eighties, gesturing with his hands, then meeting my eyes to see if I’ve understood. Fantastic and unbelievable. The words say little. But yes, I think I understand.

I’m sitting down to practice, and like Casals, I’m grasping for words to equal my experience. Alone in the practice room, I hold my instrument silently. Every day it is the same task, yet something new. I delve down, seeking what hides waiting in the notes, what lies dormant in myself that music brings to life. I close my eyes and listen for the unheard melody in what I’ve played a hundred times before, the unsuspected openings.

What are the tones, the terms, that unlock music’s power, the pleasure and profundity we experience in listening? I begin to play, leaning forward excitedly and grasping for the right notes, my whole body alive with aspiration. Sounds ring out, ripening for a moment in the air, then dying away. I play the same notes again, reaching for more of the sweetness, the bittersweetness they contain and express. And again the sounds ring out, float across the room, and fall still. Each day, with every note, practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture—reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.

Practicing music—practicing anything we really love—we are always at the limit of words, striving for something just beyond our ability to express. Sometimes, when we speak of this work, therefore, we make this the goal, emphasizing the pleasure of reaching out. Practicing, writes Yehudi Menuhin, is “the search for ever greater joy in movement and expression. This is what practice is really about.” But frequently we experience a darker, harsher mood, aware in each moment of what slips away unattained. Then pleasure seems like nourishment for the journey, but it is not what carries us forward. When musicians speak of this experience, they often stress the labor, warning how difficult a path it is, how lonesome and demanding. The great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia cautioned that “it is impossible to feign mastery of an instrument, however skillful the impostor may be.” But to attain mastery, if it is possible at all, requires “the stern discipline of lifelong practice.” For the listener, Segovia says, music might seem effortless or divine. But for the musician it is the product of supreme effort and devotion, the feast at the end of the season.

Like every practicing musician, I know both the joy and the hard labor of practice. To hear these sounds emerging from my instrument! And to hear them more clearly, more beautifully in my head than my fingers can ever seem to grasp. Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain. “I was obliged to work hard,” Johann Sebastian Bach is supposed to have said. And I want so much to believe him when he promises that “whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well.”

Yet as I wrap my arms around the guitar to play, I also hear another voice whispering in my ears. “Whatever efforts we may make,” warned Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1767 Dictionary of Music, “we must still be born to the art, otherwise our works can never mount above the insipid.” In every musician’s mind lurks the fear that practicing is merely busywork, that you are either born to your instrument or you are an impostor. Trusting Bach and Segovia, I cling to the belief that my effort will, over time, yield mastery. But this faith sometimes seems naïve, merely a wish. “The capacity for melody is a gift,” asserted Igor Stravinsky. “This means that it is not within our power to develop it by study.” Practice all you want, Rousseau and Stravinsky say, but you will never become a musician if you don’t start out one. Perhaps practice will carry me only so far. Perhaps, as Oscar Wilde put it, “only mediocrities develop.”

I shake out my hands. Outside on the street, the morning commute is over. The workday has begun; school is in session. Only tourists pass by my window now, lumbering up the hill in search of Lombard Street, “the crookedest street in the world.” I walk down this tourist attraction all the time, a pretty, twisting street festooned with flowers. Now, from my chair, I watch a family cluster around a map, Mom, Dad, and two red-haired teenage boys, each pointing in a different direction. They’re just a block from their destination, but they don’t know it, lost within sight of their goal. I feel that way every day.

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better. Yet every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.

Everything I need to make music is here, my hands, my instrument, my imagination, and these notes. For most of their lives Segovia, Casals, Bach, and Stravinsky were also just men sitting alone in a room with these same raw materials, looking out the window at people on the street. Like me, they must at times have wondered how to grasp the immensity of music’s promise in a few simple notes, how to hold fast to their devotion against a cutting doubt that would kill it.

From the Hardcover edition.
Glenn Kurtz|Author Q&A

About Glenn Kurtz

Glenn Kurtz - Practicing

Photo © Joanne Chan

Glenn Kurtz holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford University and has taught at San Francisco State University, California College of the Arts, and Stanford. He divides his time between San Francisco and New York.


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.

From the Hardcover edition.



“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
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Graceful. . . . A lovely, unique book. . . . A personal journey [that] becomes universal, elevating all in the process.”
Los Angeles Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Practicing by Glenn Kurtz.

About the Guide

In Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music, Glenn Kurtz takes us on a journey of hope, loss, and surprising return to music. Telling the story of his career as a classical guitarist—from his first lessons at the age of eight to his acceptance at the elite New England Conservatory of Music—Kurtz lets the reader into the passionate, hidden world of making and performing music, revealing the elation, the self-doubt, and the intense determination that define the work of practicing.

A prodigy at age ten, by twenty-five, Kurtz realizes that his dream of being the next Segovia will not come true. Devastated by this realization, he quits music forever. Or so he thought. Ten years later, Kurtz returns to the guitar to discover what went wrong. No longer an aspiring artist, he is now a “former musician,” overcoming his earlier disappointment and learning a new and richer kind of love for music.

By examining his own return to music, Kurtz shows how learning to pick yourself up and continue may be the practice room's most important lesson. In this way, Practicing speaks not just to musicians, but to everyone who has striven for an ideal—and learned from disappointment. Containing vivid portraits of his teachers, friends, and competitors, along with a fascinating history of the classical guitar, its players, and composers, Practicing is an inspiring, entertaining, and meditative memoir. A love affair with music.

About the Author

Glenn Kurtz holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford University and has taught at San Francisco State University, California College of the Arts, and Stanford. He lives in New York City.

Discussion Guides

1. At the heart of this book is the idea of practice—a particularly intense form of relationship, both with an instrument and with oneself. What does it mean to “practice” something? How is practicing different from just doing it? In addition to the practical aspects of the work, Kurtz writes, “practicing is a story you tell yourself … a tale of education and self-realization” [p. 14]. How does the idea of practice shape the story he tells? Do you practice something now—if not a musical instrument, then yoga, gardening, a sport, an art form, a religion? What are the challenges you face, and how do you meet them? What kind of story do you tell yourself about your work? What kind of relationship is it?

2. In the book, Kurtz divides the narrative between the story of his career as a musician and an account of a single day's practice session. What does this two-part approach reveal about his experiences? Do you hear a difference in how he speaks about practicing (and himself) in the past and in the present?

3. In the early part of his story, Kurtz dedicates himself to becoming an artist. What leads to this decision? Does his understanding of art and the artist's life change over the course of the book? What does being an “artist” mean to you? What distinguishes a musical artist from someone who “just plays”? Does this difference apply to other arts, other activities? Must one be professional to be an “artist”?

4. In addition to his own story, Kurtz tells the history of the guitar. Why is it important to him to understand the guitar's history and how the instrument has been seen by generations of musicians and writers? How might the experience described in the memoir have shaped the author's understanding of—and therefore his presentation and interpretation of—the guitar's history? In general, what is the memoirist's responsibility to the larger history he or she is part of? What kind of “history” is a memoir?

5. In the chapter entitled, “Study in G,” Kurtz writes, “Whether you're working to change, or working not to, you always return to technique” [p. 80]. What is “technique” in music, and what does Kurtz understand by the term? How do you distinguish technique from “music” itself? (Think of W. B. Yeats's poem, “Among School Children,” in which he asks, “How can we know the dancer from the dance.”) Does what Kurtz says about technique in music apply, as well, to these other kinds of communication—for example, writing, teaching, commercial exchanges, or in expressing your feelings and ideas to a spouse, a child, or a friend?

6. Arriving at the New England Conservatory as a young musician, Kurtz discovers an intimidating hothouse of talent. What effect does this environment have on his attitudes toward the guitar, music, and himself? With whom (or what) is he competing? Do his feelings about competition change over the course of the book? In your own practice, how do others influence you, and what kinds of competition have you encountered? If you are intimidated, does this make you work harder, or want to give up? What constitutes “constructive criticism”?

7. Aaron, Kurtz's teacher, is central to his experience at the Conservatory. How is the teacher-student relationship described? What methods does Aaron use to teach—and what are the lessons he wants to convey? What does Kurtz learn? Are these lessons evident elsewhere in the book? If you were a young artist, just entering a conservatory, what do you think you would need to learn? How would you want to be taught? Or if you were the teacher, how would you instruct an ambitious, passionate, but unformed young artist? Can artistry be taught?

8. In the chapter “Kitchen Music,” Kurtz contrasts his ideal of “art” with the world of commercial music making—a concert hall versus a “gig.” What is his attitude toward these different worlds of music and the people who inhabit them? How does he distinguish “good” listeners from “bad”—or even “good” music from “bad”? Are these distinctions real or important? What do you think is the proper place for music (or art) in a commercial culture?

9. The chapter “The Music of What Happens” describes the process of learning to be a performer, and it ends with Kurtz walking onto the stage. What does it mean to “perform” music, and how is this different from “practicing” or “playing” it? What does Kurtz think in this chapter? Does his opinion change at the end of the book? Why does he end the chapter just as the performance is beginning? What kinds of performance have you experienced? How does performing affect your relationship with your “practice” and with yourself?

10. Kurtz's experience as a young musician in Vienna marks the turning point in his career. What contributes to his decision to quit music? Do you think this decision was avoidable or inevitable? Can you compare how he feels about it in the past and in the present? How did this loss affect him? Have you experienced a similar loss? How did you deal with it when it happened? How do you feel about it now?

11. In many ways, the book is about Kurtz's abandonment of music, and yet the return to music at the end changes that experience. How? Why do you think he returns to music? What emotions are released by returning, and what emotions have stood in the way? What does he feel he has learned from the experience? What do you think he has learned? Have you had a similar experience, returning to something that has been a source of so much hope and disappointment? How did you feel when you came back? Had the “practice” changed for you in the intervening time? Have you changed?

12. Writing about music is notoriously difficult—both because music is so abstract, and because each listener has such distinctly personal responses to it. How does Kurtz approach writing about music (and is there more than one approach in the book)? Are there passages or stylistic elements that capture the sensation of music, or that seem “musical” to you? What does it mean for writing to be “musical”? (Or for that matter, for music to “tell a story” or “take you on a journey”?) Is writing about music more or less difficult than writing about other abstract things, for example memories or emotional states? How does Kurtz handle these? How do you describe the music you love to others?

Suggested Readings

For Practicing Musicians
Madeline Bruser, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart; William Westney, The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self.

Guitar History
Tom Evans and Mary Evans, Guitars: Music, History, Construction and Players from the Renaissance to Rock; Frederic V. Grunfeld, The Art and Times of the Guitar: An Illustrated History of Guitars and Guitarists; Harvey Turnbull, The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day.

Perri Knize, Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey; Thad Carhart, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier; Mark Salzman, The Soloist; Vikram Seth, An Equal Music.

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