BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

British guitarist John Mills is perhaps best known for teaching a generation or two of guitarists at the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music in London and at the Royal Welsh Academy of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales—posts from which he is now retired. However, he continues to tour, perform, record, and premiere new works. Much admired for what he terms his “old-fashioned” style, Mills recently took the time to reflect on the Andrés Segovia master class he attended in Spain 50 years ago. 

While studying with John Williams at the Royal College of Music in 1968, Mills was awarded a Spanish government scholarship that helped him travel to Santiago de Compostela in Spain during his summer holidays to attend the prestigious Música en Compostela summer school, which Segovia had established in 1958 (with the help of José Miguel Ruiz Morales). Many of Spain’s finest musicians gave master classes at this annual international summer school, including the composers Oscar Esplá, Joaquín Rodrigo, and Federico Mompou; the pianist Alicia de Larrocha; singers Victoria de los Angeles, Conchita Badía, and Montserrat Caballé; and the cellist Gaspar Cassadó. For guitarists, the opportunity to be taught by Segovia in Santiago de Compostela was an unforgettable experience. 

In our interview, Mills spoke about the enormous influence that event had and continues to have on his musical life, in terms of sound production on the classical guitar, technique, and his choice of repertoire and guitar. We also spoke of his lifelong friendship with Julian Bream, who lives not too far from John and his wife and duo partner, Dutch guitarist Cobie Smit. With Bream, Mills and his son—guitarist and professional cricketer Richard Mills—share not only a love of the guitar but also of the quintessential British and colonial sport of cricket.  

Thérèse Wassily Saba Photo

Classical Guitar: Were you still studying with John Williams at the Royal College of Music when you went to Santiago de Compostela? 

JOHN MILLS: Yes, I asked John if I should go and he said, “Of course you should go; it is absolutely right for you,” and he helped to get me a Spanish Government scholarship in order to attend. 

CG: Was it a life-changing experience? 

MILLS: Yes, it really was. It was a wonderful experience because it was my first time overseas, and going on a ship for several days. It is a special place for me, and I had a hope some of us could have met up there this year as a sort of celebration, but it was not to be.

CG: What did you play for Segovia in those master classes? 

MILLS: The Torroba Sonatina, some Bach, and some Sanz just to start off with; the first time I played, I just wanted to play something I was comfortable with. Segovia was very helpful with the Sor largo, from Opus 7; it’s a very deep piece. This was over a couple of weeks; the course was four or five weeks long. Segovia arrived a little bit later than the rest of us. 

CG: Were you also taught by José Tomás at Compostela? 

MILLS: He did the morning classes; it was initially an audition to select those who could go through to play for Segovia, but they became the usual formal classes after that. Segovia always taught in the mid-afternoon, so we would have two long sessions each day. 

Mills with José Tomás

CG: So if you weren’t good enough, you wouldn’t be playing for Segovia?

MILLS: No, in 1968 the class was absolutely massive. They had to reduce it down from about 50 to about 15. I was one of the lucky ones, and I didn’t expect to get in. After the second or third player, Segovia got his list out and read out my name. I was terribly embarrassed, shocked, and shaking and said, “Maestro, I don’t actually have my guitar with me.” He said, “Well, you play tomorrow.” He was very nice. 

CG: Who was around at that time? 

MILLS: Guillermo Fierens, Evangelos and Liza, Christopher Parkening—we were two of the youngest of the group—Oscar Ghiglia, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Michael Lorimer, Wolfgang Lendle; it was a big gathering. 

Segovia is trailed by students including (from far right) Mills, Christopher Parkening (in black) and Carlos Barbosa-Lima (glasses).

CG: Were there set pieces for the audition? 

MILLS: It was a tribute to the two composers: Tansman and Mompou. So there was Tansman’s Cavatina suite, which I didn’t even manage to get a copy of before I went, so I was all adrift with that, but I got the Mompou. I observed and listened carefully to what people were doing; I heard three or four performances of the same movement in the one class. What it taught me, particularly with the Mompou, was the importance of the pause, the silence, breathing—and in the Barcarole by Tansman, which is a beautiful piece. Tansman would just sit there and listen carefully. Mompou said a bit more. They didn’t necessarily say very much, but Segovia had invited them and we were in awe of them. Torroba was working with Segovia on the Castles suite of compositions [Castillos de España; vol. 1 came out in 1970], but he did appear once or twice.

Segovia would listen to ideas, but then again, you went there to learn from him. Occasionally a player would suggest different fingerings here or a different quality there, so it wasn’t totally a one-way process. Of course, you played facing him with the audience behind you. If you look at the black-and-white films from 1965, it looks a little bit sparse, but in 1968, it was packed like a cup final. The press were all there and the atmosphere was hot and very tense. And we were usually in suits as well. It was a great festival—very much in the old style. When Segovia came in, with his wife—they were usually a few minutes late to keep us waiting a bit and increase the tension—everybody would stand up and there was complete silence, really a special atmosphere.

When Mompou was in the class, he would sometimes make comments or Segovia would ask him: “Maestro Mompou, how did you feel about that interpretation?” So there would be a little bit of to-and-froing. Mompou was always clear about his music, and you can’t argue with that, however, one or two people tried to argue! Segovia would say, “I think it should go like this; what do you think Maestro Mompou?” And he would reply to Segovia: “I think you are right, Maestro.” It did get a little heated occasionally. José Tomás would be sitting on Segovia’s right, and with him would be Mompou alongside. So who better to ask? He put the notes on the page. 

CG: So, when Segovia performed and edited music, he had the composer alongside him and not only was there mutual respect but also regular consultation? 

MILLS: Well, yes, and he did alter things before they were published, but I can’t imagine the composer agreeing to a publication of his work if he was not happy with it. Segovia might say, “If I do this here, it’s more playable or it sounds better,” such as the re-voicing of a chord; I thought he was pretty successful. To some, it’s not going to be 100 percent, particularly in the era in which we are now, but I felt the work he did, for example in the preparation of editions for publication, was fantastic. 


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CG: In any case, a composer never completely finishes a work; you write and rewrite and rewrite and then you just have to let go at some stage. 

MILLS: Yes, take for example the Ponce Sonatina—as far as I know, that has at least three different endings. Ponce must have heard Segovia play it, and they discussed it and thought maybe the last movement was too short. Then there was another bit added and then another bit—perhaps, over several years. That’s how it evolves. In those days, time was slow—international mail was slower to arrive. And with this drive that he had, Segovia was very keen to get the music in print and to perform it on the concert platform.

What I say to students is that for some of these works we have the original manuscripts for the Turina and Ponce, Torroba and Castelnuovo-Tedesco emerging. Students ask me which version should they play? Which is the “correct” version? The original or the later one with amendments made? I say that both are correct and that they should choose. If you like the original Sonatina of Ponce, as it was, play it. If it makes musical sense to you, then play it. I’d be happy to hear it either way. I think it is the same with the Villa-Lobos Studies. I love them both ways. The 1928 version is beautiful, and then they were revised in the late 1940s; that is virtually the same as the edition published by Max Eschig. In a way, both are correct. For composers, music is constantly evolving; they are allowed to make changes and rewrite. Look at the Walton Bagatelles. I have the original of that: “No. 4” is in a different key. 

CG: Did you get a chance to attend the master classes for other instruments as well?

MILLS: Yes, I was working with an Australian singer on Granados’ Tonadillas and we went to the class of Conchita Badía, who was Granados’ favorite soprano. On the boat going over, Mr. Antonio Brosa, a professor at the Royal College of Music, was with us. He was Turina’s violinist in his piano trio, and was teaching the violin classes at Santiago. I studied most of Turina’s repertoire with him. His suggestions on interpretation based on the composer’s ideas are something for which I will eternally be grateful. He was quite elderly then and he had heart trouble, so some days he would be sitting in bed with his Stradivarius, demonstrating sections of pieces, such as the Catalan folk songs, sometimes in tears, because of the deep emotions contained in these beautiful melodies. He was showing me how you have to breathe with those songs and how to shape them, and in the Turina as well. I may be an old softie, but I was very moved by that. It was sort of reaching back in time to before the War, and of course a direct link.

CG: Some of the Segovia master classes are available on YouTube and they seem a little harsh. 

MILLS: It wasn’t really like that back in the 1960s. He was still playing really well and on the ball, so he could demonstrate superbly back then. He was mainly talking about phrasing. There was hardly anything to do with technique. You learned that by watching him carefully—luckily, at close range, because generally he wouldn’t always explain how he attacked the string or executed vibrato, things like that. Segovia had a big sound; it just overwhelmed everything really. It was beautiful.

CG: Yes, and that was the reason that he filled concert halls. Did he work really hard to produce that sound? 

MILLS: He had a lot working against him. For example, nylon strings weren’t available until the late 1940s. Having had to contend with gut strings before this, he used a technique very much along the lines of Tárrega, whereby the string is plucked more directly across, thus reducing the effect of the rougher string. For flesh playing, you can easily stroke the gut string at a big angle, and the sound is wonderful, but with the nail it is a very different story. I think he learned magnificently how to project the tone, with all the colors of the orchestra, and how to attack the string with great force; of course, he had these big, ideal hands and perfect nails. Then, the whole business of playing in huge venues meant that he developed this big sound and projection. It was really striking the first time I heard it in the class in Santiago where he demonstrated the first part of the Mompou Suite Compostelana. The sound really filled the room, more than any other player—it was almost effortless. I was sitting there and watching very carefully, trying to work out at which angle he was attacking the string, and what was the speed of the attack.

CG: I suppose you went back to your room and tried to produce something similar? 

MILLS: I did; we were working very hard there. One thing that I learned was that I needed a much better guitar. Immediately when I came back, I heard that Julian [Bream] was playing on a Rubio guitar, so I contacted David Rubio and within a month, I had a fantastic guitar. It was a long-scale length too, 66cm. That was a major change. 

CG: At that time, Segovia was playing a 66cm scale-length Ramírez guitar, wasn’t he? 

MILLS: I’m not sure, but he probably was. 

CG: Was that your first encounter with a 66cm scale length guitar?

MILLS: Yes, there was one Ramírez there that I tried that was beautiful, but it wasn’t for sale; I hadn’t really encountered the 66cm scale length before. I think it has to do with the string tension and you have much better control over the balance across the strings, and this extra projection. That’s how it feels and certainly with the Ramírez as well, it has that bell-like tone from the Western Red cedar. Then, David Rubio said he had a 66cm scale-length guitar, which is very good: “You are welcome to come and try it.” So I did, and a week later it was mine.

Rubio had come from New York and was obsessed with balance: The longer the scale length, the chances are the better the balance. He was very keen to pursue the long scale-length guitar, but I’m not sure actually how many he made. I think you will find that even the Ramírez long scale-length are pretty scarce as well. In a way, it’s a concert instrument, and luckily I generally found them easier to play. There’s a larger margin of error! When I played the David Rubio guitar, the first few notes, high up on the E string, just sang like anything, Wow!

CG: What are your ideas on the type of sound that you want to produce?

MILLS: I have always admired the tone qualities of Segovia, Julian Bream, and John Williams. They are all very different, and back in the 1960s this was in fact a very nice dilemma! If I wanted to produce sounds like Julian, to have that as part of my technique. But this was difficult, as I don’t have Julian’s thumb, which is almost straight. If you don’t have a straight thumb, you end up with it being flexed at the end joint, putting strain on the tendon, and then you’ve got trouble. For Julian, it was easy and natural. I think that for my size of hand, it was more comfortable to approach tone from more the Segovia style, bearing in mind I have one of those curly thumbs. The varying angles of attack fascinated me, with the resulting range of color. Williams has an awesome technique: a very, very legato style of playing, and a magnificent command of the instrument. His approach to the fingering of pieces was inspiring to me.

CG: Of course Julian had problems with his terrible nails. 

MILLS: Yes, he did, but he did use silk [small pieces of special silk and super glue, in layers over the nail, which could be shaped like a real nail on the right hand] at times to carry out repairs to the nail tip. I went to his house more than once to prepare his nails. The problem was that they began to split down the nail, which was really nasty, so he had to use the silk over the top. 

CG: Have you and Julian been friends for many years now? 

MILLS: Yes, he’d heard a couple of recitals that I had given. I met him after a recital and we seemed to like the same things, such as cricket, antiques, and paintings, so quite a good friendship developed. When he does come to dinner here, we watch old videos of cricket matches—that is, Test matches, played over five days; old school!

The thing is that Segovia, Bream, and Williams were three greats, and they were each so different. And of course, Alirio Díaz as well; he was a wonderful player. I really miss him. What I remember about his sound was that it was very bright. It really projected and he had a very easy attack. He played with one of these lower right-hand positions—but not quite as they do it now. I always wanted to emulate his position because he had a wonderful thumb technique, but I realized after some months that it wasn’t working for me, so I went back to the higher wrist. Some people play with a low wrist and some with a high wrist. You have to experiment with the various hand positions; you can’t all do the same thing. 

CG: You studied at the Royal College of Music but you taught at the Royal Academy of Music. Did you also teach at the Royal College? 

MILLS: When I came out of college, I went straight into teaching in the Junior Academy at the Royal College of Music on Saturdays, which I did for some time. Then I went to live in New Zealand for a few years. I came back because Julian telephoned and said there was a position at the Royal Academy of Music. That was in 1988. I then taught there for about 20 years. Of course, I can’t claim complete credit because we were a team teaching there, but it was a great period of about ten years—we had, to name but a few, Antigoni Goni, Xuefei Yang, the British players Chris Stell, Mark Ashford, and Mark Eden, the Brazilian player Fabio Zanon, and the Montenegrin Miloš Karadaglic.

However, that was eventually overlapping with my teaching at Cardiff; things were getting really frenetic. Trying to keep concerts going as well as teaching is exhausting, and I guess I might have been heading towards burnout! So I took over the Guitar Department at what is now the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

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Early in 2012, John Mills recorded a DVD called Evolución, with subtitle The Development of Classical Guitar Style and Interpretation. There, he discusses and demonstrates the finer details of the Segovia technique that he learned in the 1950s and 1960s, and his own discoveries regarding tone production—all performed on his Paul Fischer guitar. He confesses that he used to practice his vibrato on the desktop at school! He now employs several different types of vibrato on the guitar.

Early in 2012, Mills recorded a DVD called Evolución: The Development of Classical Guitar Style and Interpretation. In it, he discusses and demonstrates the finer details of the Segovia technique that he learned in the 1950s and ’60s and his own discoveries regarding tone production. And a double-CD project, Segovia: The Ramirez Years, was completed in 2013 and awarded a double five-star rating from the BBC. In July 2018, following in the footsteps of Julian Bream some years before, Mills was the recipient of an honorary fellowship from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As he says, a nice way to celebrate 56 years of recitals!

CG: In your DVD Evolución, you do talk a lot about the Segovia sound and there are fantastic close-up shots on your right hand in particular.

MILLS: I wanted to bring forth my ideas on technique, phrasing and tone color—just covering basic things. After completing it, I had the idea of doing a recording on a Segovia guitar, or an exact replica. I went to Madrid in December 2012 to see Amalia Ramírez and tell her about the project, linking Segovia with Ramírez, and she was very excited. We said that we would like to get a guitar based on the Segovia model, with plans to record it in a certain way, perhaps analog—trying to get the sound of the 1960s. Amalia Ramírez was really with us on the project and she brought out this fabulous guitar; she is of course a very skilled maker. It’s a beautiful guitar; everything is right about it. I would say that it is really one of the great Ramírez guitars. It is almost an exact replica of one of the last guitars that Segovia used—a model 1A guitar, but of course long scale. The two Segovia Ramírez guitars they have in the museum are from the 1960s; both spruce top, and are very fine. But then they tried this western red cedar and Segovia liked that sound very much, so everything after that was built out of cedar and also incorporating the long scale-length, much to his liking. [It gave him] lots of room to maneuver because of the large fingerboards.

 

Watch John Mills in teaching mode:

And playing some Bach: