The remarkable odyssey of a classical guitar prodigy who abandons his beloved instrument in defeat at the age of twenty-five, but comes back to it years later with a new kind of passion.
With insight and humor, Glenn Kurtz takes us from his first lessons at a small Long Island guitar school at the age of eight, to a national television appearance backing jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, to his acceptance at the elite New England Conservatory of Music. He makes bittersweet and vivid a young man’s struggle to forge an artist’s life—and to become the next Segovia. And we see him after graduation, pursuing a solo career in Vienna but realizing that he has neither the ego nor the talent required to succeed at the upper reaches of the world of classical guitar—and giving up the instrument, and his dream, entirely.
Or so he thought. For, returning to the guitar, Kurtz weaves into the larger narrative the rich experience of a single practice session, demonstrating how practicing—the rigor, attention, and commitment it requires—becomes its own reward, an almost spiritual experience that redefines the meaning of “success.” Along the way, he traces the evolution of the guitar and reminds us why it has retained its singular popularity through the ages.
Complete with a guide to selected musical recordings and methods, Practicing takes us on a revelatory, inspiring journey: a love affair with music.
About the Author
Glenn Kurtz holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford University and has taught at San Francisco State University, California College of the Arts, and Stanford. He divides his time between San Francisco and New York.
“If there is any idea less appealing to a musician than sitting alone in a room with an instrument and a metronome, watching one’s maladroit fingers stumble through the same passage of Bach, Mozart or Billy Joel for an hour, it may be the thought of reading another musician describe the experience. So it is to the immense credit of Kurtz . . . that he has written such a thoughtful and fluid meditation on the subject: his book is at heart a memoir of his formative experiences learning the classical guitar and of how he eventually gave up his musical ambitions, interwoven with bits of history about pioneering guitarists like Fernando Sor and Andrés Segovia and yes, contemplative passages about the value of practicing. . . . By the time Kurtz settles into the story of his artistic decline, at 22 in Vienna (where, he says, two Americans in “animated conversation” is the “definition of a riot”), he is in complete control of his narrative. When he remorsefully writes of how easily he fell out of practice, he might just compel you to call your old grade school piano teacher to see if she’s taking on any new students.”
–Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times Book Review (October 28, 2007)
“A classical guitar prodigy, Kurtz was utterly devoted to music, but he recognized, at age 23, that he did not have the talent or temperament to be the next Segovia. Years later he returns to the guitar and to meticulous practicing, aiming not at a career, but at a sustaining spiritual experience. This book’s lovely essays also contain lots of lyrical appreciation for guitar history and Eastern Europe.”
–Stanford Magazine (July/August 2007)
“Absorbing . . . To the layman, the act of public performance is a profound mystery, a carefully finished product that conceals more than it reveals. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? And what does it feel like to step out of the wings and make art in front of a crowd? The best books about the performer’s art [address] things like that. . . The most instructive book I’ve read in recent months about the act of performance is by an author who, like me, is a ‘recovering musician.’ Glenn Kurtz studied classical guitar at the New England Conservatory of Music, then changed course and became a writer. . . . He writes with uncanny sensitivity, [and] is especially good about the hard labor that goes into professional music-making. He quotes a remark by the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska: ‘If everyone knew how to work, everyone would be a genius!’ Probably not, but there’s no such thing as a genius who doesn’t know how. Mr. Kurtz nails it: ‘Every artist must sometimes believe that art is the doorway to the divine. Perhaps it is. But it’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. . . . When I hold the guitar, I may aspire to play perfect harmonies. But first I have to play well.’”
–Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2007)
“At 8, Glenn Kurtz was a prodigy. At 19, he was a promising classical guitarist. At 25, he was a professional musician. But something was wrong. Kurtz was beginning to suspect that the dream he had chased for most of his life was out of reach. One day he simply quit. He stopped playing and even stopped listening to the music he loved. He took a 9-to-5 job that felt, he says, like jail. Not many of us have achieved proficiency as musicians. But ‘anyone who has ever desperately yearned to achieve something and felt the sting of disappointment’ can appreciate the heartbreak Kurtz lived with during the 10 years that followed the expiration of his dream. This quiet, inspiring, unique book is about a love rediscovered. Kurtz eventually returned to his guitar–with different expectations. [Though] he has learned to accept that the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ simply isn’t accurate, he practices regularly anyway. In his memoir, a meditation on a single session of practicing is interwoven with the chronology of his bittersweet history as a musician. Kurtz’s book offers useful lessons for us all.”
–The Week Magazine (Week of July 25, 2007)
“A sensuous, evocative memoir about love lost and regained. In Practicing, Kurtz beautifully blends the concrete details of practicing classical guitar with the metaphysical lessons he’s learned from his musical career. . . . He describes his years of monklike devotion to musical perfection, his subsequent disillusionment and his ultimate epiphany: he realizes that the loss of what he loved most allowed him to discover his better self. Kurtz seamlessly transports readers from present to past, switching from a present-day practice session in San Francisco to his years studying classical guitar at the New England Conservatory of Music, and the beginnings of his solo career in Vienna. . . . Throughout his richly detailed narrative, Kurtz also describes the long history of the guitar and its role in a classical repertoire that favors the violin and piano. . . . Kurtz learns that whatever it is we love (music, art, science, a person), can disappoint us, but devotion also teaches us about ourselves, exposing our own desires and flaws. Kurtz's ‘second act’ as a classical guitarist may not end up at Carnegie Hall before an adoring crowd, but he seems to understand music and himself better this time around. There’s something holy about his longing for beauty, thwarted or not. Laborare est orare, said Catholic monks in the Middle Ages: To work is to worship. Glenn Kurtz has gone back to work on his guitar playing, and his devotion seems like a rebirth of self.”
– Chuck Leddy, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Graceful . . . a lovely, unique book. . . . Kurtz picked up the guitar as a kid in a music-loving family, became something of a local prodigy at his Long Island music school and went on to play on Merv Griffin’s TV show, even backing jazz great Dizzy Gillespie once before graduating from the New England Conservatory-Tufts University double degree program. Motivating the young Kurtz is the dream of reinventing classical guitar, as if by his fervency alone he can push it from the margins of popular interest to center stage–a feat not even accomplished by the late Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. Practicing reads like a love story of sorts: Boy meets guitar. Boy loves guitar. Guitar breaks boy’s heart or, more precisely, the ordinariness of a working musician’s life does. Boy leaves guitar. Were the story to end here, this book would be a tragedy, but after nearly a decade boy returns to guitar, he finds his love of the guitar again in a way he never could have appreciated before. Although Kurtz is writing about a unique musical path, his journey speaks eloquently to the heart of anyone who has ever desperately yearned to achieve something and felt the sting of disappointment. . . . [He] educates the reader about the history of the guitar and considers philosophic questions on the nature of art and what purpose the artist can serve in society. Kurtz’s desire to inform and inspire is evident on every page. . . . Practicing is a fantastic example of what memoir as a literary form can best deliver: a person delving honestly, profoundly and fearlessly into one aspect of life, not necessarily coming up with answers so much as struggling in the face of life’s big questions. The core of memoir is the writer moving into deeper levels of self-understanding and awareness. Magically, although it is a personal journey, it becomes universal, elevating all in the process.”
–Samantha Dunn, Los Angeles Times
“At an age when the rest of us were mastering shoelaces, Kurtz was setting out to become a classical concert guitarist. . . . While other kids grooved to the AM radio hits, he made a pilgrimage to see Andrés Segovia play. While other kids watched TV, he found himself on the ‘Merv Griffin Show,’ playing with Dizzy Gillespie. While other teens were at the football game, he was winning Long Island’s 1981 Teen Talent Competition. . . . [Kurtz] and his music and his pursuit of it were all one. When it came time to apply for college, there was no doubt. He enrolled at the New England Conservatory. Was Kurtz aware that truly making it, professionally, as a concert guitarist happened almost never–and that a failed concert guitarist does not have a readily apparent back-up career? In a sense, these questions are irrelevant. He was a classical guitarist, and there was nothing else but to charge ahead. Kurtz’s is a story many of us know, whether we’re musicians, ball players, painters, writers or tightrope walkers . . . [We’re] told to pursue our passions. Follow our hearts and we’ll eventually prevail. [At age 25,] Kurtz saw that his lifelong fantasy was just that, and the reality of his life could not intersect it. He quit the thing that he’d built nearly his entire life around. . . . For 10 years, he avoided anything having to do with what had been the center of his world. . . . One day, a decade after burying it in his closet, he reached again for his guitar. . . . [and discovered that the] struggle was not to try to repeat his earlier story or recover his earlier skill, but to let it become something new. . . . Hailed for its candor and insight, [Practicing is] a poignant, at times wrenching, account of loss and hope, [showing how] succeeding can happen through, not in spite of, failure. ”
–Chris Colin, San Francisco Chronicle
“[Practicing is] the book of a lifetime . . . Glenn Kurtz started taking guitar lessons at age 8 and soon became a musical prodigy. At age 16, he discovered Beethoven, which changed his course from jazz to classical music. At 17, he heard the great Segovia perform in Carnegie Hall and caught a glimmer of what he hoped his own career might be. At 19, he won Newsday’s Teen Talent competition. By then, he was already studying at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, after which he performed in Vienna for several years. [Now] Kurtz has just written his first book, a lyrical memoir-meditation. Constructed in part around a richly detailed description of a practice session, the book moves from his childhood infatuation through his realization that his dream of an artist’s life was not the life he was leading.”
–Aileen Jacobson, Newsday
“Bravo! I enjoyed Practicing very much. It’s sensitively written, and one does not have to be a musician, practicing or otherwise, to respond to it–in many ways and on many levels. Glenn Kurtz has done a wonderful job.”
–Jeffrey Siegel, piano soloist, conductor, and author of Keyboard Conversations
“Waylaid from an early career as a classical guitarist, a teacher of the arts recounts his reimmersion in his music by undertaking an intensive regime of practicing. . . . Kurtz tapped into the Guitar Workshop and mastered folk songs by the time he was 10; inspired by seeing Andrés Segovia perform, Kurtz envisioned a life devoted to music. He studied at Boston’s New England Conservatory, where the key to success was constant practicing, and where he had to overcome a sense of the guitar’s inferiority to other instruments. Trekking through Europe with other players, he was confronted with the economic exigencies of a musical career and eventually ceased practicing, to his great sorrow. In his mid-30s he took up the guitar again and gleans the painful lesson that although musical artistry may seem divine, mastery of the instrument is humbling and mundane. Kurtz’s work contains a rich history of the classical guitar, including the work of Bach, Fernando Sor and Scott Joplin.”
“Practicing is elegant, methodical and deeply engaging. It is science and poetry in one book. One sentence in the book, ‘Repertoire is destiny’, gave me a tremendous amount of inspiration–and unease. I have to thank Glenn Kurtz for revealing the inner life of a musician in a such a unique and compelling way.”
“The author has an uncanny ability to bring to life in a vivid and visceral manner abstract concepts of music and performance, and the passions that drive them. I very much enjoyed reading Practicing. It brought me back a few decades, and is a valuable reminder of the challenges and hurdles students face.”
–Sharon Isbin, Grammy Award Winner and Director, Guitar Department, The Juilliard School
“Practicing is a superb account of a young musician whose ambition finds its natural complement in the travail of practice. What makes the book extraordinary is the tale of his return to music decades later, his taking up again the slow, joyous misery of “practicing”–the way a musician, a Zen monk, or, who knows, a doctor or lawyer might understand that word. Kurtz’s art had nearly destroyed him; now, note by note, it rebuilds him, until each moment with or without his guitar become both practice and performance, the very place to embody and surrender all of his desire. This is that rare thing, an honest memoir–each note struck at its very center; a truthful, moving, and beautiful book.”
–Jay Cantor, author of Krazy Kat
“Glenn Kurtz’s masterful account of his journey from aspiring concert soloist to, simply, musician, will speak to anyone who has cherished an ideal to the detriment–rather than the enrichment–of what is real. Is there hope for those of us who dream of an unattainable perfection? Perhaps, like Glenn Kurtz, we might fall short of perfection, abandon hope, and find an even better reason to make music (or write, or think, or work): love.”
–Mark Salzman, author of Iron and Silk and The Soloist
“Glenn Kurtz has taken a routine and often dreaded part of musical life, and elevated it to the level of a spiritual journey. Along the way, he shows what it means to be a musician: the fears, doubts, discoveries, and failures, the struggles with your instrument and with yourself–and the moments that sprout wings. He skillfully illuminates the occasions when music’s magic emerges from its hiding place, whether in the poignant crossing of two hushed tones in a piece by Bach, the exhilarating feeling of riding the crest of a sweeping phrase, or the recognition of what it means to be in tune. This is a book written with understanding and love.”
–Stuart Isacoff, author of Temperament: How Music Became A Battleground For The Great Minds Of Western Civilization
“Glenn Kurtz has captured the unique, richly detailed and often lonely struggle to master an instrument. I was riveted to read our classical guitar world depicted in such vivid detail. Music lives in all of us, and this book will speak to those who have tried to make music an active part of their lives.”
–David Tanenbaum, Classical Guitarist and Chair, San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Department