How Julian Bream Recovered From an Accident that Changed How He Played Guitar
In July 1984, the incomparable master guitarist Julian Bream was seriously injured in an automobile accident near his Dorset, England, home. Swerving his MG sports car to avoid another vehicle, he left the roadway and crashed into the side of bridge, suffering multiple fractures to his right elbow. Fortunately, his hand was not injured. Still, the recovery was long and arduous, as he told Classical Guitar writer/editor Chris Kilvington (1944–1999) in the September 1993 issue, edited below.
I had to do a fantastic lot of practice initially. About a month after the accident, I did 15 minutes just moving the fingers, then half an hour, then 40, 50 minutes, then an hour. [I’d do simple] diatonic and chromatic scales, and arpeggios. I worked in front of a mirror and I would watch what was going on, and I gradually built up my technique again. And then I carried that [regimen] on because I really enjoyed it. I had to change my right-hand position slightly because of the accident, and then the left hand, too; I did a double-change.
[On my right hand] I changed the position of my thumb, and I’m quite happy to have also changed my wrist position. Whereas previously I kept it more or less the same throughout a performance—although I moved it up and down the strings—now I’m quite ready to change the angle, to move it as I feel. It’s not a very pure outlook to technique, but it’s one that suits me now. I also notice that guitar players in general don’t fuss with their right hands anything like they used to, in terms of the old Tárrega bent wrist. And I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing either—the thing with the Tárrega bend, you didn’t have to support the wrist, it just fell that way. But this flatter method, you have to consciously support the wrist.
[On my left hand] I tended to play with rather flat fingers, and I didn’t notice it until I saw the scenes from the films on the guitar in Spain [a British TV series he made called Guitarra!]. I looked at my left hand and asked myself, do I really play like that? It looked wrong. I hadn’t actually seen myself playing for such a long time, which you don’t do in the normal course of events. The palm of my hand was too far away from the fingerboard. And what a hell of a job it was to rectify it, too.
It sort of sounded all right, but I thought I’d never develop my left hand if I continued to play that way; and that was very hard to achieve at my age. Being virtually self-taught, I have always had to approach these things a bit like trial and error—and a lot of trial, specifically. But I’m glad I did it. I really had to slave, but I’m so pleased I did it.
[The accident] was certainly a pretty traumatic experience. It does have an effect on your life and outlook upon things. It was terribly bad luck to be involved in such a catastrophic accident; really, I’m lucky to be alive. It gave me another dimension of feeling to have gone through an experience of that kind. It did change my life. I stopped for a month, and maybe that was good, too. The initial thought was, ‘Maybe I’ll never play again.’ But as soon as I could move my fingers I knew I’d play again.
Note: Though Bream did continue to play for many years after that story was published, in his last CG interview, in the December 2014 issue, he told Thérèse Wassily Saba, “I can’t play anymore. Due to an injury to my left hand, I haven’t played a piece of music on the guitar for three years.” That must be another story…