Segovia Story

What’s better than an endorsement letter from Segovia?

In the 70’s, when I began my quest to become the world’s greatest classical guitarist, one of the credentials possessed by many of the existing “world’s greatest classical guitarists” was, “studied with Andrés Segovia”. And the real kicker was for those who had a quote from the maestro saying that he thought that the player was well on the way to becoming……the world’s

greatest….well,…. you get the picture.


Being a barefoot surfing cracker from Tallahassee, Florida, who had listened to Duane Alman a thousand times more than Bach, the odds were

pretty long on my getting to hang with Segovia (who was about 14 million years old by then), so I assumed that I would just do without that ticket punch in my promising career. I finished my MM from FSU, in 1980 and forgot all about the Segovia dividend.


Then in 1986 I was invited to study with Segovia at USC in LA in what was to be the last great prestigious master class of an era.

Woa………finally I would get my Segovia credential. If that sounded glib, don’t be confused, I really had no interest in what the old maestro had to offer as a teacher, and planned on knocking him out with my incredible, brilliant, mature, oh!-my!-gott! playing, and then he would write something like, “I (Segovia) have been playing the guitar and studying and living classical music for 17 decades, speak 6 languages, have known most of the great artists of the last 2 centuries, and have some very solid ideas about how one should play the guitar, particularly the music of composers who wrote the major works of our repertoire for me and who were all drinking buddies of mine. That being said, and furthermore, it being obvious that Chapdelaine never listens to my records and does nothing like me and, in fact seems to do most things in the opposite……..I believe that he is the greatest classical guitarist in the world.” Love Andrés…………




In my defense,  I came up in the generation that didn’t really listen to him very much. And during my college years, his highly romantic, personal style of interpreting music was way out of fashion to the point of being frowned upon, by all us future “world’s greatest classical guitarists” (aka fools). Our teacher Bruce Holzman told us to listen to him, but we knew better. Williams played perfect, fast and loud and kept the music clean and simple to understand, without all that schmaltzy stuff….he was our man. By the time I played for Segovia, I believed that a performer’s job was to render the music cleanly and intelligently without a lot of soppy selfish emotion spread over it. (Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz) It is an endless source of amazement, what a young man will come up with while trying to deal with the relentless ache to be unique in a world where everything has already been done and felt. Uh…sorry, onto the story.


So off I went to LA to show the maestro how to kick ass and take names on six strings.


The ground rules of the class were that the cast of 12 international players had to play repertoire that Segovia had played, recorded and, in most cases, edited. In past classes, he had been annoyed when someone played a modern (dissonant) work that had not been accepted into his repertoire and so the class director, James Smith, wisely, arranged to not have that discord in the class. (don’t you worry, there were other ways to let the atmosphere of love and harmony out of a Segovia class.)


OK………It is pretty well known that there were two ways to make it likely that the maestro would like you:


  1. Play just like him. Or in a way that showed that you had listened to him a great deal and walked down a common artistic path.
  2. Be a girl.


If you wanted to assure that he would get pissed off and throw you out of class, there was a method for that too:

  1. Change his fingerings.


So the good news was that I wouldn’t be playing any works that he didn’t like. The bad news………..fingering. I considered, still do,  any editor’s fingerings to be a good place to start. Then I finger it lots of different ways and just see what sticks.

BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD way to pursue the Segovia endorsement.


Soooooooo……The first night I played Ponce’s “Sonata III”, first movement. We had a great time. He gave a really long lesson and seemed to enjoy it. The first movement is somewhat more abstract than romantic. One can make it work without being overly expressive. And the textural and harmonic properties make it less subjective for fingering choices than most guitar pieces. Safe stuff for the mission at hand. We ended the lesson smiling and well on our way to a juicy Chapdelaine-is-a-genius letter.


Second lesson was a little less chummy. I played the second movement from the same sonata. It is an extremely expressive piece with lots of dark lovely melodies that Segovia appropriately fingered on the 2nd and 3rd strings, up the neck where the tone is really rich and luscious. I played them in less scrumptious regions.


Ah! Oh!


I played the piece a bit on the academic side, I mean, not terribly expressively. (Subliminal man coughs, “Boring”) He got pretty crabby, and progressively more so, during this lesson. By the end, I’m sure that he would have smiled upon learning that I got an IRS audit that year.


Well, batting .500. But we must have 2 more grand slams. Soooooo, I decided to play “Mallorca” by Albeniz. He’ll love me when I play that……

Mallorca is a very, very romantic Spanish piece which begs for lots of expression from the player and its melodies played up the neck for that sexy Spanishy, this is sooooo beautiful sound. You’re thinking, “c’mon Mike, you didn’t”.  “Fingerings?” “please, no”.


I did.


Changed ‘em all. Just went through it like the Terminator with PMS.

Segovia got restless……..then…ornery……then pretty hostile. He stopped me a lot. “Tune the guitar”….”don’t leave out that portemento (slide)”……”that is very ugly, that?”..etc…..more and more anger. Finally the SHOWDOWN!!!


Segovia: “You bring me my edition but you change all the fingerings. Why do you do that?”


(The traditional and correct response to this is to pee your pants, sob and say something like, ”I’m sorry Maestro. I am slime. I won’t ever question your genius again”)


Chapdeaine: “It’s just decisions that I make.”

Segovia: “HMMMMMMMMMM” echoes through the hall like the voice Noah might have heard when he suggested that a real nasty drought might be sufficient. Then, ”Very well, this is for you……continue.”


I play one more phrase. Segovia whacks the music, looks up disgusted,

Stops me.

Sends WMD though his coke-bottle glasses and says, “Do you think what you have done is better than what I have done?”

I reply, “no”. (I’m thinking, ‘Maybe no endorsement this time out’)

Segovia again: “Then why do you do it?”

Chapdelaine: (nooooooooooooooooo, don’t do it Mike, don’t, don’t give him that Chapdelaine candor and the “stare”)……..    ”Because it’s good !”.




The room was silent for a moment like the vacuum of space.

Then he got real pissed, started sputtering this and that and ended with “afuera”. That’s Spanish for ”get out you disrespectful-not-going-to-get-an-endorsement-from-me-scumbag.”


Well at this point I am seeing red, too. I don’t need this. I am a University Professor with a pregnant wife and enough guitar prizes to…bla, bla,…..I grew up taking that kind of crap from grown-ups and I had no stomach for it at 29. He hands me my music and I am an eight note rest from becoming famous for firing off the most profanities ever screamed at a world renown maestro in front of thousands of people and PBS TV cameras, and then, suddenly, in a moment, like the shadow from a fast moving cloud, something made me stop, just take the music and walk calmly back to my seat where the other players were eyeing the exits like tom-cats at the vet.  In that rush of rage, probably all that would have come out anyway, would have been something like, “hop buntåchly moochag nall pupnyborf wapunzårple!”

Stoicism really works sometimes.


I got lots of support from my colleagues after the class. And several of the “world’s greatest classical guitarists” stars, former Segovia students who were there as part of the event, said, “feel good, he does that with all his favorite students”.  “Oh goody! Can I have another?”


Didn’t help. I went directly to Jim Smith, the organizer of the class, and told him that I was resigning from the class. “Let one of the alternate players take a little love from the old curmudgeon.” But, Jim said, “look, right now, everyone thinks that he mistreated you. (no, duh, really, no kidding, yer pullin’ m’ leg, like honest Wally?) He continued, “ If you don’t show up for your next lesson, they are going to think that you are the jerk”.  (oh, yea, I’m a regular Richard Nixon…..thanks)


So I decided to face my beast again. But here is where it turns kinda good.


Bruce Holzman, my college prof, was in town for the class. I asked him if he would give me a lesson on how to not get thrown out of my next lesson. He came by right away. He said that all I had to do was play very expressively (like he taught me before I got smarter than him). Practice slowly and find all the beauty in the music and magnify it. Exaggerate the expressiveness like a stage actor does with gestures. Basically, what Segovia was telling us all to do. And above all, DON’T CHANGE HIS FINGERINGS!


I spent the next day playing slowly and expressively. I mean really slow and expressive! I did what Segovia had been trying to get us to do for 10 days, which is to make every note be a personal statement and a conduit between artist and the rest of humanity. Oh, and I chose a multi-movement piece, to play for him, that had no fingering written in it. By the end of this seclusion (my wife had bailed and taken her frail pregnant self to hang with friends in the Valley) and refocusing I really was transformed into a new player.


Then, when I played for him, he seemed to really enjoy it. Instead of stopping me every two measures for tuning or instruction, he just let me play! Like he didn’t want to change anything. I played great. And he dug it, and then asked for another, and another, etc. . It was amazing. He never did that in his classes! It was like a private concert for Segovia. Like, “Show me what you got”….”yea, go boy!”


I knew that I would not get the Segovia endorsement, but I had gotten something better. I learned, and I made Segovia happy when he heard me show him what I had learned.


I worked like an animal after the class to become a more expressive player and that lead to many great things. But I never changed my mind again. If one doesn’t take the music and mold it to their own soul, and play with total emotion………why bother.


I have thought about my special relationship with Segovia many times (he never did). I believe that he knew what I was as soon as I touched his hand the first time. (an over-confidant know-it-all) I think that he knew that the only way that I would learn from him was if he treated me exactly the way he did. To break me down over and over and kick me out of class,..then, finally just let me play for him in front of thousands of people, like we were homies just trading licks……while he sat back and smiled as the audience went crazy when I finished playing.


He was a clever teacher as well as “The World’s Greatest Classical Guitarist”.