Manuel Barrueco’s School Days: The Long Road from ‘Difficult Student’ to Master Teacher

Manuel Barreuco Classical Guitar Magazine Teaching Guitar
From the Fall 2016 issue of Classical Guitar |BY THÉRÉSE WASSILY SABA

The American-Cuban guitarist Manuel Barrueco established an international career at a young age, and not only were his abilities admired and coveted by his guitar colleagues, but the general classical music world was taken by his outstanding musical and technical abilities—the beauty of the sound he produces is something that remains with you after every performance. Barrueco was signed to EMI and made a number of landmark recordings, both solo and with such musical luminaries as Plácido Domingo, Barbara Hendricks, Emmanuel Pahud, and Al Di Meola. Over the course of his more than three-decade international performing career, he has played in top concert halls around the globe, alone and with many of the best orchestras. He is, quite simply, one of the most accomplished and respected guitarists of our time.

Alongside his amazing career as a seemingly tireless traveling musician, he has always taken time to share his knowledge through teaching. He began teaching in 1974 at Manhattan School of Music in New York, and this year he celebrates his 25th anniversary of teaching at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Although students travel from all over the world to study with him, he says that he was not the easiest student in his youth. It was this aspect of his life that I focused on in my recent interview with him—his life at Peabody as a student and later as a teacher.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: The Peabody Conservatory has been a part of your life for decades, but what about your musical studies before you arrived at Peabody?

MANUEL BARRUECO: Immediately before Peabody, I went to an arts and music high school in Newark, New Jersey. At that time, they didn’t teach the guitar, so the teacher suggested that I play the tuba. When I got hold of the tuba and saw how heavy it was, I changed to the French horn. I played that for a couple of years while I was there—the teacher told me that I had a very good sound. So there I wasn’t doing much with the guitar at all.

Before I went to Arts High—in late 1968 or early 1969—I had been studying guitar with Rey de la Torre in New York. It wasn’t for long because he soon moved to California. For a Cuban, he was a legend. I had never seen him play and he was making a comeback from a hand injury. When I went to his concert in Town Hall in New York, the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez was there also; I remember meeting him and being very impressed with that.

CG: Was it exciting being at a specialist high school for talented young musicians?

BARRUECO: No, it was actually a very difficult time. When we first came from Cuba, we stayed in Miami, where many Cubans were settling at that time. I was seeing a lot of my family members there again, so that was a really happy time for me, but after less than a year, my family moved up north and settled in Newark, New Jersey. Newark is a city with problems, and of course we didn’t have a cent—we were refugees.

CG: And in Miami you had lessons with Cuban guitarist Juan Mercadal.

BARRUECO: Yes, Juan Mercadal was very gifted. He made a recording back in the 1960s and it is really at a high level. If you listen to that recording, you can tell that he was singing. I mean truly singing, because sometimes people talk about singing but it is not really singing, just mannerisms, but he was singing as he played. I remember that he told me—this was back in Miami 1967–68—that I should play a melodic instrument, and I remember he mentioned the trumpet, to develop a more melodic, singing style of playing. But it was not because of that that I learned the French horn.

CG: After the arts and music high school was it a natural step forward to go and study the guitar at Peabody Conservatory?

BARRUECO: That was also a little strange in the sense that I didn’t know anything about the schools to study the guitar. I had only heard of one in New York—the Mannes School of Music, which had a well-known guitar department at a time when there were not many at all. The guitar teacher at Mannes was actually a violinist. The career guidance office came up with three schools with guitar departments in the US: Mannes, Boston Conservatory, and Peabody. So I auditioned to them all. But you know, because we were refugees, we didn’t know how things worked here, so we made a lot of mistakes.

I had applied to Mannes and to Boston, and Mannes gave me a small scholarship and Boston offered me free tuition. Because of that, I was thinking of not auditioning at Peabody. But I got a phone call from Aaron Shearer at Peabody and he said he wanted to meet me before the audition. Years later I found out it was because my letters of recommendation were good—one of them was from Juan Mercadal and I think the French horn teacher from high school also had written one. I explained to him what had happened in terms of money and scholarship with the other music schools and that I was thinking of not going to do the audition, and he said to me: “Come and audition.”

So I did the audition and he said he wanted me to come to study there. And he said, “If the school doesn’t give you a scholarship, I will pay for it myself.” I told him that I hadn’t been practicing the guitar for over a year and that I didn’t know how I was going to feel with the guitar. He said, “Well, it doesn’t matter, I want you to come and study here.” So I went there.

When I was at Peabody, I had no interest in playing the guitar and I didn’t practice and he kept insulting me and sometimes would tell me that I would never amount to anything. I must have been difficult, but some of the things he taught I believed in and I think helped me become whatever it is that I am today.

CG: Despite all your difficulties, you did graduate from Peabody, didn’t you?

BARRUECO: Yes, I did graduate. There were problems. Shearer told me there was a time when he was called in because they wanted to expel me from the school because I wasn’t doing my work. He told me that he told them, “You can do that if you want but one day you’re going to be sorry.”

The school was nice to me. In the last year of my course, Shearer threw me out of the class, so I didn’t have any more lessons with him for one and a half semesters or so. He was fed up with me. He said: “Don’t come to the lessons; I will pass you.” When I went to see the dean, I kept explaining to him, “I can’t take a path that I don’t believe in.” I told him that if I ever became a great player, I wouldn’t mind giving him credit, but I didn’t want to not get there, doing something that I didn’t believe in, and having to blame him for it.



CG: After you graduated, you actually went to teach at Manhattan School of Music, which seemed like an unlikely job for you.

BARRUECO: Well, there was a ping-pong table at [Peabody] and I used to play there a lot. One day, [guitarist/teacher] David Tanenbaum came down and asked me if I wanted to teach in New York—the Manhattan School of Music was opening a guitar department and his father, Elias Tanenbaum, who was a composition teacher there, had been asked who they should hire. David wanted to recommend me as one of the teachers as well as his old teacher, Rolando Blades. They hired me, so that’s how it happened.

There were a few years where I started to get really busy and I stopped teaching because I thought it might not be good for my image, but at that time, a violinist, Stanley Bednar, who was head of the strings department there, said to me, “All players should teach.” At that time I didn’t know what he meant, but I came to realize that you learn from doing it—you learn from teaching and from the students and most importantly, from those who view playing music as an art, and not a business or as show business. Then, if you are going to do as you preach, it keeps you more pure.

CG: So Peabody really has been an important part of your musical life.

BARRUECO: I was also very grateful to Shearer. I would not have been able to go to Peabody and I would not have become the player that I have become if it had not been for him. Musically, the first thing that I learned from Shearer was to try to look at music in an intelligent way. Up to that time, I had been only working intuitively or by imitating things that I had heard before. So musically and technically, he taught me to begin to think—to use my brains and not just to do things blindly or intuitively.

CG: Did you argue with him more about the mechanical aspects of playing or was it about the musical interpretation?

BARRUECO: Both. The first technical thing was the sound. For example, technically the biggest issue was that I belonged to the school that plays rest stroke wherever possible. I had not developed a really good free stroke, and he believed in free stroke as the stroke of the instrument. I understood the importance of developing my free stroke, but when he showed me the sound he wanted me to get, I said, “I’m not going to play with that sound. That’s not going to happen.” So I went home and I came back basically with the sound and the position that I have now. He was thrilled with that, so that did not become an issue.

CG: Are you telling me that you went home one day and worked out how to produce that wonderful sound that you have just overnight—just like that?

BARRUECO: Well, I don’t know if it was overnight—it could have been. I just remember going home and working on it, trying different positions, and finally thinking, “This is it! This is the sound I want.”

CG: Were you looking for a free stroke sound that sounded like you were doing an apoyando?

BARRUECO: Yes, basically, that was my goal.

CG: When you are teaching now, what do you do when someone comes in and he or she doesn’t have very good tone?

BARRUECO: Your sound is important—if you have a beautiful sound, it is priceless and you need to have it. What I do is make them hear it, to see if I can wake up their ears and make them hear the sound. Some people hear, some people don’t and leave with as bad a sound as when they came. But some learn—they hear it and they go home, like I did, and they work on it. That’s very satisfying for me.

CG: Having established a successful career when you were young, has it been it difficult to maintain that high level and stay on top of the game?

BARRUECO: Yes, I think so. It is really important to be self-critical. You can record yourself and listen to it, to see what you don’t like in your playing. You have to see how you can fix that, and to find a way so you can keep on improving your playing. You also have to keep on “feeding” your knowledge of music—to be exposed to different music and great playing. I tell my students: “If you want to become a great chef, it’s not going to happen if all you eat is McDonalds. You have to try good things and the better the food you try, the greater the chances are that your cooking is going to be better.”

And it’s the same with being a musician: Listening to great musicians should push you along.

It is also important to be an honest player. If you manage to project what you really feel, then I think as you grow and as you age, your playing should develop, as well. Being honest, as a player, means not posturing, but really playing how you feel and what you think.

Many years ago, I ran into the great pianist and fellow teacher at Peabody, Leon Fleisher, in the office of our management in New York. He said, “Well, I have finally learned that my way is not the only way.” So I have developed an incredible admiration for what Segovia, Bream, Williams, and Pepe Romero have done.

CG: Do you still practice scales and have a daily technical warm-up routine?

BARRUECO: Actually, I do. It is important to do them because the reason that you got to that level was that you practiced them before, and if you stop practicing them, it will catch up to you.

Also, as I get older, I am going back to basics more, to try to keep an eye on things. It’s very easy for the hands to fall into bad habits—not only the hands, but also in the way we prepare. You can forget how to practice well. I think scales and arpeggios are fundamental.

CG: Have you created your own scale systems or do you use someone else’s ideas?

BARRUECO: Shearer had these “comprehensive” scales which I think came from a jazz approach. Basically, you go through all the notes of the scale in each position—for example, you could play a C scale beginning with the fifth string with the third finger on the third fret, and play all the notes that fall into that position. Then you can go to the second finger, playing in the second position, then the eighth fret with the fourth finger on the sixth string. That’s what I practice. I also do chromatic scales. Those are the two basic patterns I use. For arpeggios, I do an exercise that I learned as a kid from the Pujol method.

CG: Other daily exercises: slurs, hammers?

BARRUECO: I practice slurs every day or every other day—I’m trying to find the right balance for me. I’m always changing and I am trying to find out what is the right amount because if you practice too much, then your hands are in a constant state of fatigue. That is not how you play your best. So, how much will keep your hands in good shape and also playing well all the time?

CG: This year marks your 25th year of teaching at Peabody. Does it feel like 25 years?

BARRUECO: No, it’s pretty amazing—it seems like the other day that I started. At the moment, I have a truly fantastic studio at Peabody. Meng Su, from the Beijing Guitar Duo, has decided to follow an additional solo career and she won the Parkening Competition [in 2015] and is developing fantastically. The most prestigious degree at Peabody is the Artist Diploma program, where the school chooses two to three students across all instruments for the program, and she just got in. The last student I had in the Artist Diploma before Meng was Lukasz Kuropaczewski. Before Meng won the Parkening Competition, my former student Petrit Çeku also won it. That was great. And Junhong Kuang is here. I love working with them all. And yes, it’s been 25 years!



Rare indeed is the classical guitarist who has a gorgeous coffee-table book devoted to him and his main instrument. But that is the case with a just-published volume called  No. 58: Manuel Barrueco, Robert Ruck & a Guitar, with text and photos by Nicholas Simmons, who passed away during the making of the book.

It’s a wonderful volume, with both Barrueco and luthier Ruck telling stories about their lives and careers and, of course, the marvelous guitar. Barrueco recalls in the book: “Sometime in 1972, Tony Arce called me and said, ‘There’s a guy here in Miami, Bob Ruck, and he’s building these incredible instruments. Everybody’s getting rid of their guitars and buying his.’ It just so happened my sister was driving from Newark [New Jersey] down to Miami with a friend, so they stopped in Baltimore to pick me up…

“I remember distinctly trying #58 and thinking it was the most beautiful-sounding guitar I had ever heard in my life! Such a rich and beautiful sound, and so much power; a huge sound!”

The book includes copious artful color and black & white photographs, and the intersecting stories of Barrueco and Ruck are told masterfully. Highly recommended! It is available from
—Blair Jackson