Beginnings: A Reflection on my Early Days as a Guitarist

Way back in the dim recesses of my mind I still remember when I started taking guitar lessons with Mr. Manypenny at Band-Orch in 1971. At the time, Band-Orch was the local music store in Alliance, Ohio and to this day I still remember the smell of the place. It smelled like old paper, guitar polish and joy. Once a week I would report for my half hour lesson, which cost three dollars that my dad would fork over to Mr. Manypenny religiously. I’d go down to the basement into one of the teacher’s rooms, really a six by six closet with a light, a couple chairs, an amp and a music stand, pull my huge dreadnought style Epiphone out its chipboard case and sit down with Mel Bay’s Method.

I took lessons with Mr. Manypenny for about a year, and in that year we went through Mel Bay’s Method books one through five. I also started learning some songs like Witchita Lineman, some Sonny and Cher tunes, and various other pop songs of the day. Mr. Manypenny was a very nice man, who always appeared wearing a tie, usually with a short-sleeved shirt. He was very orderly, cleancut, and demanding without being pushy. There were rules established right from the start, the biggest of which was that I had to practice at least a half hour a day. This meant that I had to sit down and put in the full half hour as one contiguous unit, not spaced out over the day. He also expected that I would play the assigned material correctly, as notated in standard notation as well as using the correct rhythm. If I had to repeat something assigned the prior week, I felt like I had failed in my prime directive.

My parents reinforced Mr. Manypenny’s teachings through enforcing the practice regimen and my father started learning the lessons as well on his own guitar. We didn’t necessarily practice together, but he knew what I was supposed to do which helped me stay on the straight and narrow. Of course while I really liked guitar, I didn’t always want to practice and one of the rules in the house was that I had to practice after school before I could go out and hang with my friends. I remember there were times when I would be upstairs in my room practicing while tears splattered on my guitar because I really wanted to be out playing with my friends. Sometimes that half hour seemed to last an eternity, but I did it and kept moving forward.

At the close of my first year of playing, Mr. Manypenny had taken me as far as he could. There was another teacher at the store who taught classical guitar and Mr. Manypenny talked to my father about my starting with him. The shift occurred and I started taking lessons with Michael Gatien. This was an entirely new experience for me. Not only did I have to start using my left hand differently, but I also needed to learn how to use my right hand without a pick. It also meant that I needed a different type of guitar, a classical nylon string with a wide neck and an entirely different feel. I was really excited to get the new guitar, an inexpensive Yamaha that we traded my Epiphone toward.

I took to the new situation like an otter to a mudslide. It didn’t take long for me to burn through the Carcassi Method and by the time I was in fifth grade I was starting to rip through classical warhorses like Asturias, and making Villa Lobos as well as Bach pieces sing. At this point Michael became the second teacher to tell my parents that he couldn’t take me any farther, stating that he wanted to take me to meet his teacher who was the guitar professor at Kent State University. They agreed, and off I went to meet and play for this man. I vaguely remember being at his house in Kent and having dinner with him. The things that stand out in my memory are dinner, which was my first encounter with vegetarianism as well as eggplant, and it being really dark outside so it was probably late fall or early winter. I don’t recall playing for him, although I know I did, but his evaluation was that I was a child prodigy. This kind of scared me because it sounded bad, kind of like a disease.

Michael talked to my parents about the meeting and what his teacher had surmised. Michael said that his teacher was willing to take me on, but that he thought I should start taking lessons with someone better than him who lived in Cleveland. They also discussed how my practice regimen should start to increase until I was practicing about five hours a day. Michael also stressed how important this was to my development as a musician. My father was an art professor at Mount Union College in my hometown, and after my parents talked with Michael they were at somewhat of a loss of what to do. Money was tight and Cleveland was a good hour to hour and a half drive away from our home. The lessons would be significantly more expensive in addition to at least a three hour round trip once a week. They were also concerned about what it meant from a social developmental perspective. So my dad talked to his friend Lou Phelps who was the chair of the music department at Mount Union. Dr. Phelps said to let me make the decision and not to worry about it if I said no. His perspective was that if I wanted to do it later I would.

Dr. Phelps was right. I didn’t want to start practicing five hours a day and become a practice room kid and while I might have become an incredible classical guitarist it would have been at the cost of a childhood that I value to this day. I did end up going to a conservatory of music and double majored between classical guitar performance and music composition, but it was a decision I made toward the end of my junior year in high school, and once again it was my decision. I don’t feel that I lost anything between the end of fifth grade and the end of eleventh, in fact I knew myself better my junior year than I did earlier. In between I had the opportunity to study jazz with another great player, Tony Favazzo, so that was a win in and of itself. I am truly thankful to Mr. Manypenny, Mr. Gatien, and Tony for what they taught me, as I am to Dr. Loris Chobanian for his four years of classical instruction at Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, Nick Bucci for several years of jazz instruction, and many others who have helped me grow along the way, helping me become the player I am today. If the past is any indication toward the future, I am certain that there will be many more folks that help me continue to grow in the future. I’ll be sure to thank them as well.

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