By Pam Linn


Master class makes beautiful music

For the past three days I’ve been immersed, cradled even, in the warmth and resonance of the classical guitar. Christopher Parkening, Pepperdine’s professor of music and chair of classical guitar, returned to Montana State University for his 34th summer master class.

The music of Villa-Lobos, Albeniz and Bach stirred echoes from my childhood. Composers whose names were not as familiar to me but their music already in my ear or my head or maybe deep in my subconscious-Weiss, Lauro, Pujol and Andrew York-sparked a renewed interest in all things to do with guitar.

I had signed up as an observer for only one morning but quickly canceled scheduled appointments to attend the remaining two sessions and the final concert performed by seven students. There were to be six chosen by registered auditors but a voting

tie allowed for the seventh.

Each student had prepared two pieces, one for each of two sessions on alternate days. One by one, they took the stage, settled on the black piano bench opposite Parkening and gave their names, the title and composer of the piece, which they then played through, uninterrupted. After the applause, Parkening would ask the auditors for their impressions before addressing the student.

He always began with a compliment and followed with something specifically constructive. Some were there for the first time and several were returning students, and those he seemed to remember well, mentioning aspects of their playing that had improved.

After this brief chat, which seemed to relax even the most

tense first-timer, he would ask the student to begin the piece again, stopping to suggest different approaches to fingering difficulties, dynamics or tempo. He marked in pencil on the students’ music, so they could refer to later in practice. He never pointed out a problem without offering a solution, often demonstrating strumming techniques, right hand positions and the different sound or tonal quality they produced.

Parkening used the time students spent setting up and packing up their instruments to tell stories, and he’s a fine storyteller. Instead of correcting one who mispronounced Heitor Villa-Lobos’ name -using the Spanish double L as Y rather than the Portuguese L-he said he had always used the Spanish pronunciation until corrected by a Brazilian.

Parkening asked the youngest student, a 13-year-old boy who played beautifully, how long he had studied guitar and how often he practiced. His father, sitting in the front row, said he would get up on his own very early, put on his mother’s bathrobe and begin practicing before breakfast. Without parental prodding, he would do another hour or two after school.

Parkening said he too practiced in a bathrobe early in the mornings but that his father, also his teacher, drove him hard, scheduling his time to the minute. “Wake up at 5, begin practice at 5:30, Mother will have your breakfast ready at 7, then to school, then more practice.”

Having received most of my music instruction on piano, I was unfamiliar with some of the words used to convey guitar techniques. After the first session, I wanted to look up ponticello and rasgueado but discovered I had left my music dictionary in California.

Gradually, over the next two sessions, I realized I understood the meanings through Parkening’s demonstrations.

Throughout the sessions, he referred often to his mentor, the great AndrĂ©s Segovia. Many times during the class he would tell a student, “Sing the phrase.” As Segovia, arguably the most expressive of players, often said: “The voice is the most important instrument. Sing the melody line.” And: “Always keep the melody on the same string even if it makes the fingering more difficult.”

All the time, I was wondering what made Parkening such a good teacher. Segovia was given to fits of temper and impatience that

could really discourage a student. Parkening has none of that. Obviously not ego driven, he always says the kind thing or the necessary thing in the kindest possible way.

After the last teaching session, while votes were being tallied for the student concert, he came down from the stage and spoke softly to those who wanted to stay, of his Christian faith. His testimony, he said. In his brief remarks, I began to see how his beliefs inform his teaching.

It’s been my experience that the best performers, be they musicians or athletes, are often not the best teachers. Sometimes their talent is so innate they can’t effectively explain how they do it. Some teachers harbor resentment that they never achieved great success performing and that makes them needlessly harsh.

Then there’s Parkening, the most gifted and successful of musicians, generously sharing everything he’s learned from practice, touring and recording. Acknowledging his mistakes so his students might avoid them.

After the concert I was able to buy a copy of his autobiography, “Grace Like a River,” from the MSU Music Department office. I read it in one sitting. It answered many of my questions but raised some new ones. We grew up in Southern California, and also lived in Montana, knew a lot of the same people. We both lived with music and horses and wild places. We both searched for a meaning deeper than our own lives.

Someday perhaps we’ll find a time to talk of these things.