I started playing the violin when I was about six years old. I was asking to learn from when I was 2 or 3 and my father would always say, “you can learn to play the violin when you are older and can read (because this was before the Suzuki Method of teaching the violin was available so the student had to be able to read) but if you start I am not going to let you quit!” And I never did.
About six months into my musical training, my father said we have to have a little talk. He said that he was tired of having to hound me to practice my instrument. You see, I wanted to play but could think of a million things to do instead of practice. He reminded me that we had talked about not quitting for the past few years before I started so that was not an option but he was not going to have to constantly remind me to practice.
So, the rule was this; I was to practice 1/2 hour every day. No excuses. Unless I was sick in bed and hadn’t gone to school or was under doctor’s care, I would practice 1/2 hour each day. If I hadn’t done it by 1/2 hour before my bedtime, which was 7:30, he would tell me to do it then. Well, the Flintstones came on at 7:00 and I didn’t want to miss that so I usually had it done by then.
My brother studied the piano, my sister studied the cello and I studied the violin. All of us took lessons at Julius Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. My father herded the three of us there one afternoon a week after school. Our lessons were not at exactly the same time so I would spend time browsing in the bookstore.
As a kid, I was rather industrious. I would mow lawns, had a paper route, shovel driveways, baby sit, just about anything to make a buck so I always had cash.
In the cellar of our house was, when I was about ten, was a guitar that my parents had gotten for my brother when he was younger that he never played. It had been leaning up against the wall of the cellar for a long time so the neck was bowed so badly that I had to put a pencil across the fifth fret and secure it with an elastic band. I bought a book of Beatles music at the bookstore at Hartt that had chord diagrams and I started playing the guitar.
Every day I would practice my violin for at least 15 or 20 minutes then sneak down to the cellar to practice on that funky instrument. Right away I started writing songs and I spent a lot of time playing that thing and learning songs.
Well, for all my secret endeavors I hid nothing from my father. As long as I practiced my fiddle he had no problem with the guitar. And he proved it.
This was 1966 and we moved into a new house. That Christmas I got a real surprise.
It was the first year that Ovation started making guitars. They had their manufacturing facility a Kaman Aircraft in New Hartford, Connecticut. They had salesmen out promoting their revolutionary new design; the rounded back guitar made out of Kevlar or some such stuff. They went into the schools and offered real deals to the music teachers to get people to try the guitars. Factory seconds, of which they had many that first year, were being offered at a fraction of the cost and they played great.
My father bought one for me, one for himself and one for a friend of the family, Father Angelo. That was one Merry Christmas. I was totally surprised. After all the presents were opened my parents told me to look in the cellar. What was this in the new case? Could it be for me? What joy! I had an Ovation Classical Guitar. Then I really started to play.
Strumming the guitar was all I did as I kept learning and writing songs until one day, I think it was the next spring, our friend, Father Angelo, came by to scarf a dinner with the family and have a martini or two with my father before and some after dinner aperitifs and probably one or two for the road.
He brought the guitar my father got for him and showed us what he was working on. He was learning the song The Boxer and it was the first time I saw finger picking. You know how you can hear something and like it but not know what it is that you’re liking. Well, I loved the song anyway from hearing it on the radio and I know now that the finger picking wasn’t exactly right but it sounded great to me and I could see how he was doing it.
I asked him to stop, slow down and let me get my guitar so I could learn to do it too. I wrote down what I couldn’t do right off and was started in my career in finger picking the guitar. Today, I play the song with the same basic finger picking pattern. What I was shown on that day was the simplest form of how I play it now but the basic style was revealed to me that day. You can listen to part of it on my Custom CD Page
That basic finger picking style is the pattern that I first introduce my students to that have come to me to learn to play finger style guitar. And I always retell this story to them about my discovery of the beauty of finger picking. We start with the basic pattern and then we move on from there to alternate bass notes, walking base lines, variations and other patterns.
Ultimately, though, it all comes down to not quitting.