A lesson with John Duarte

April 15th, 2011

I posted this last year under the title “Dancing with Mr. D” and decided to repost it again under a less obscure title. Another fond look back to my early guitarfaring days.

In 1980, I had just finished my studies at Victoria U in New Zealand and was anxious to go to Europe to further my studies. After talking to friends, I decided to study with John Duarte. Everyone I talked to seemed to think highly of him, including Karl.

So in January of that year, I took the plane from Wellington to London. After a stopover in NYC where I stayed a week with Karl, I took a People Express flight and crossed the Atlantic.

At Gatwick, I called him from the airport and he told me to take the cab to his home. I met him at his home. He was not a big man and was strangely nervous. He did not look you in the eye and was constantly fidgeting with his pipe. I remember he had a slight twitch in the nose.

Needless to say, I was full of excitement at being in London and at the prospect of studying with the great man himself.

A few days after I arrived, I had my first lesson. Mr. Duarte had arranged for me to stay a few doors down from him so it was just a short walk to his house.

The lesson was in his studio upstairs, I seemed to recall it was on the third floor (second in some countries) I took out my guitar ready to play. But Mr. Duarte started talking.

I sat there and let him talk. I don’t remember all the things he said but it was mostly about other guitar players. One thing I do remember is the ‘humorous’ birthday incident with Segovia. He told me that Segovia had called on his birthday to wish him happy birthday. He had just gotten out from a bath and had to stand there in his bathrobe holding the phone. I supposed the image was meant to be rip-roaringly funny so I laughed politely.

After about an hour, I gently interrupted and asked him, “Can I play something for you?”

He said yes, and I played him Ponce’s La Folia. When I finished playing, he started talking again. He said a few things about the piece. At one point, he took a guitar and started playing. I was astounded by what I saw and heard. He could hardly hold the guitar properly and what came out of his fingers were a few scratchy sounds.

After having studied with Karl, a superb musician and a true virtuoso, it was a bit of a rude awakening to find myself taking a lesson with a man who could barely hold the instrument, let alone play it. But I was still eager to hear his comments. Unfortunately, he went on again about other guitar players and about Segovia.

After about two and half hours, the lesson was over. It had cost me eleven pounds. To say I was disappointed was a mild understatement. I went back the next week, and the same scenario played itself over again

I decided I would look for another teacher. I had always been a fan of John Williams and decided that if I couldn’t study with him, I would study with one of his students. At that time, his most prominent student was Julian Byzantine so I contacted him and was able to set up a lesson with him immediately.

When Mr. Duarte found out, he was furious. One morning, I woke up to find a letter in an envelope under the door. It was from the great man himself. Three typed pages of pure vitriol and biting sarcasm. I should’ve kept the letter. Maybe I could’ve sold it on ebay these days. I’m sure he still has fans out there who wouldn’t mind giving a few bucks to have his autograph.

In the letter, he was extremely critical of my playing. I remember thinking, now why didn’t he tell me these things in the lessons? That’s what I wanted to hear, not all that happy guitar talk.

Needless to say, I didn’t last very long in England. I salvaged my stay there by attending a great number of concerts, and met many musicians and guitarists. While I didn’t meet JW himself (although I did get to see him after a Sky concert at Hammersmith) I got to meet Kevin Peek, Paco Pena (an incredibly gracious man) David Bedford (who picked me up from the train station on his motorbike and gave me a bunch of scores which I still have today) and I saw Alfred Brendel, Misha Dichter, among others, in concert.

So yes, I guess I didn’t handle my encounters with Mr. Duarte very well, but I had a great time in London.


5 Responses to “A lesson with John Duarte”

  1. Chris Says:

    I’ve heard similar stories about Mr. Duarte: that he talked a bunch and generally avoided teaching, etc.


  2. Philip Hii Says:

    I remember there was a famous guitarist (I’ll withhold his name but his initials are JW) called him an “old windbag” and the now defunct Guitar Magazine used to run a comic strip featuring a guitar pedagogue named Wyndham Waffle. Should’ve taken a cue from these people in the know. But I imagine your old teacher probably had a few stories about him too.

  3. Peter Says:

    Duarte also got a very bad review, for a lecture he gave in Germany:

  4. Philip Hii Says:

    Interesting… the pipe, the name dropping — classic Duarte. Thanks for the link.

  5. Jean Feys Says:

    It is not enough to be a good guitarist, one must also play well.

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