BY GRAHAM WADE
There is no doubt that the younger one learns to play a musical instrument, the more chance they will have of a career as a classical musician in adulthood. In this respect, music is perhaps unique. Children do not usually start to learn about law, engineering, medicine, or economics at five or six years or even 11 years old. Those interested in such subjects can make up for lost time later on in their educational processes.
Music is different. If you are taught well from a young age and continue practicing on a regular basis, the opportunity to become an orchestral player or a soloist is a possibility. We all know fine guitarists, of course, who took up the instrument at a later stage, worked like fiends, and achieved a good reputation. But at the top level, a survey of leading artists such as Andrés Segovia, Ida Presti, Narciso Yepes, Julian Bream, John Williams, Paco de Lucía, the Romeros, David Russell, and others, would show that they all came to the guitar at an early age.
As we know, the art of music flourishes in families. The Bach family was one of the most renowned dynamic forces in the whole of Western culture. In the 20th century, the Dolmetsches and the Menuhins are two examples of family genius. In the guitar world nowadays, we have the fabulous Romero and Assad families as beacons of light on the musical scene (and just imagine what it must have been like in their households as the children were growing up).
Often, the love of music is inculcated by a dominant father figure, a musician himself, whether professional or amateur. A notable example was Len Williams, father of John, who not only influenced his prodigious son but also transformed the face of guitar education in Britain and other countries.
An extreme variation on this theme was Ida Presti’s father, Claude Montagnon, who heard Segovia play in Paris in 1924 and became obsessed with the guitar (which he did not play himself; he was an accordionist). In the biography Ida Presti: Her Life, Her Art by Anne Marillia and Élisabeth Presti (Bèrben, 2005), it is related how when Ida was six months old, Claude took his wife, Grazia, to the child’s cradle, and remarked, “Our daughter will become the greatest guitarist of the century.”
Montagnon dedicated his life to his daughter’s future destiny, teaching her ear training at the age of four, and putting a guitar in her hands when she was six. He took total control of her education, never allowing Ida to go to school, but teaching her both the general subjects and instrumental aspects. As the biographers put it, “He knew everything about the guitar . . . except how to play it.” No wonder that Ida Presti in later years often said, “Je n’ai pas eu d’enfance” (I didn’t have a childhood).
Quite amazingly, Claude’s method of teaching worked successfully. Just before her eleventh birthday, Ida gave her debut professional recital in the Salle Chopin in Paris. Claude selected the stage name for his daughter of Presti, an abridged version of her mother’s Sicilian maiden name.
Years later, her husband and duo partner Alexandre Lagoya commented: “Claude directed the studies of his daughter in a non-guitaristic direction, which caused her, while still very young, to surpass the usual technique of the instrument. She also required her hands to perform feats of stretching and strength that . . . in fact might never be required of anyone studying in the traditional way.”
Paco de Lucía was surrounded by a musical family and, being the youngest of four sons, came in for special attention. Due to a lack of money, Paco’s formal education ceased when he was 11 years old. His father, Antonio, according to D.E. Pohren’s book Paco de Lucía and Family (Society of Spanish Studies, Madrid, 1992), then “felt free to encourage all his efforts in the guitar, to practice some 12 hours a day, stressing that with his enormous natural talent, the guitar was Paco’s great opportunity.” Later there were accounts of how the boy was locked in his room for hours at a time and forced to practice. Once again, draconian methods worked exceedingly well. Paco emerged as numero uno among the legions of flamenco guitarists.
At this point, those of us who existed without a martinet musical father to guide our destinies might begin processes of reflection. On the one hand, we have become adults without the peerless virtuosity needed for a guitar career at the highest level. At the same time, we can look back at our music education with a sense of pleasure.
The moral of the history of Presti and Paco is the following: There is a prize to be claimed, but a price to pay. If you do not pay the price (a childhood in bondage to your beloved instrument), the ultimate prize is surely out of reach. But while the harsh regimen these youngsters were subjected to worked for geniuses, the merely talented might have wilted and fallen by the wayside.
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Even through the noise and haze of this old video, you can experience Ida Presti’s brilliance as she plays Villa-Lobos’ Prelude No. 1:
Below, Paco de Lucía plays a piece called Almoraima on British TV in 1976: