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The center of a concert stage can be a lonely place. As I carried my guitar onto the stage at New York City's Lincoln Center in March 1974, I felt as if I were stepping onto a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. A solitary black piano bench and a footstool had been placed under brilliant stage lights. Other than that, the stage was empty.
I couldn't see the audience very well, but I knew it was a full house. I also knew that everyone out there expected something from me. Many had come hoping to enjoy the music and escape life's pressures for a while. A few were critics, who knew every measure of every piece. They would notice any mistake, and they would listen for what might go wrong.
The pressure on a classical soloist to play perfectly in front of a demanding audience is daunting. This tour had been relentless, and I was exhausted. The pace, the pressure, and the schedule seemed unending. I'd been on the road since mid-January, performing at venues in California, Washington, Wyoming, Tennessee, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I had played fourteen concerts and had five more to go on the first U.S. leg of this tour. I hadn't seen my home for four and ahalf weeks and was emotionally and physically drained.
But this was New York. I had to reach inside myself and find the strength to give it my all. To the public in 1974, I may have appeared to be at the top of my career: sold-out concerts, record albums on the classical charts, and widespread critical acclaim. But inside, something was missing. Something important. As I sat down to play, I felt empty but had no choice but to grit my teeth and plow ahead with the performance.
Just two years before, I had made my Lincoln Center debut, a pivotal moment in any musician's career. The New York Times concert critic had been gracious to me then, saying, "Christopher Parkening's New York debut recital on Thursday proved the 24-year-old Californian to be an impeccable classic guitarist, perhaps the finest technician this country has yet produced on his instrument. Mr. Parkening ... could well become one of his generation's concert heroes." Those kind words only increased the pressure I was feeling for this appearance. For this tour, I'd put together another difficult program, with compositions by Dowland, Handel, Bach, Ravel, and Poulenc. The last piece on the program was the challenging "Rumores de la Caleta," by Isaac Albeniz.
Although it felt as if I were simply going through the motions, the performance went exceptionally well. At the end of the concert, the usually reserved New York audience gave several standing ovations, with one critic describing the performance as "incredible." It would have been a wonderful concert to end a tour with.
But it was not the end. I couldn't go home yet. I still had twenty-six performances to go.
My goal in those days was to retire at an early age. My father had retired at forty-seven, so I thought thirty would be a good age for me to retire. I was willing to work extremely hard to reach that goal. I endured the loneliness of hundreds of hotel rooms, the tension of endless, often nerve-racking airplane flights, the monotony and pressure of concert after concert after concert, persevering because I thought that if I could quit at thirty, I would finally be happy.
Knowing there was an escape route kept me going. If I just hung in there and took as many concert dates as I could get, then I could quit while on top, relax, and enjoy the "good life." It wasn't money, fame, or success that drove me back then. It was the dream of retiring to a Montana trout stream.
* * *
I grew up in a family that put anyone with great talent or ability on a pedestal. My mother's brother, Bill Marshall, married the famous actress Ginger Rogers in 1961. Ginger was greatly respected in our family, as elsewhere, for her talents as an actress and a dancer. The Marshall family also included Mom's cousin Jack, staff guitarist for the MGM movie studios, and his sons, Frank and Phil. Frank Marshall is a successful movie producer, married to fellow producer Kathleen Kennedy, and Phil Marshall is a well-known film composer.
We all knew that achievement requires hard work and discipline. My father's early retirement was a tribute to his tenacity and perseverance. I also liked setting tough goals and working toward them, so I responded well to the challenges of mastering an instrument. As a young boy, I'd hear a piece of music and think, With hard work, I'll be able to figure that out and play it. It was exciting for me to learn a piece that had never before been performed on the classical guitar. Even more than that, I simply loved the music itself. It was thrilling to be the first classical guitarist to play Rick Foster's arrangement of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" on the concert stage. I did not enjoy being onstage, though.
When I was about twenty, I heard my mom talking to Ginger Rogers, who was explaining that for her, to be onstage was almost a high. She just ate it up. She adored the applause, the atmosphere, and the electric tension of a live performance.
I had been playing concerts for five years and didn't feel that way at all. It was a high for me when I was off the stage. I never looked forward to performing for its own sake.
In 1974, after that sold-out concert at Lincoln Center, I traveled on to Lexington, Kentucky; Johnson City and Nashville, Tennessee; and then back to New York to catch an international flight. My manager at that time, Sam Niefeld of Columbia Artists Management, had booked me on an immediate European tour: Amsterdam; Cambridge, Folkestone, and London; Barcelona; and Paris. My London concert would be a debut at Queen Elizabeth Hall. After the tour, I would fly back to the United States for seventeen more concerts in seven weeks.
In the world of classical music, that was success.
I just wanted to go home. I was so exhausted that I had nothing left to give. I stood alone that night in Kennedy Airport's cold international terminal, feeling completely burned out, discouraged, and empty. I did not want to go on, and those feelings were compounded by the fact that in Europe, I would be playing for a fraction of the fee that I normally received in the United States. Sam told me this was acceptable because playing in Europe was essential to building an international career. He didn't realize that this didn't fit in with my goal at all. I was knocking myself out, saving up enough money to say good-bye to my career. I didn't care about London reviews or international celebrity.
I was so distraught about heading overseas that I found a pay phone, set down my guitar, and called Sam's home to cancel the European tour.
I got his answering machine.
There seemed to be no point in leaving a message, so I reluctantly walked down the long terminal, found the right gate, and boarded the all-night flight to Amsterdam. After a sleepless trip, I landed on the other side of the ocean and plodded through immigration. The concert presenter didn't send anyone to pick me up, so I had to get a taxi and then point to the hotel's name on my printed itinerary. My bags were so heavy that my hands and arms ached. Checking into the hotel meant one more round of unpacking my suitcase, hanging up my coat and tails, and ordering room service.
The clock said I should be awake, but all I wanted to do was sleep, so I lay down to take a "short nap."
I woke up in the middle of the night, facing a concert that day. There was nothing else for me to do, so I got my guitar out and started to practice.
At that point, I noticed that the fingernails on my right hand were a little too long. A classical guitarist's fingernails are essential tools that must be protected at all times. The left-hand nails are kept extremely short so they won't get in the way of pressing down the strings on the fingerboard. The right-hand nails pluck, strum, and "slice" across the strings, so they must be longer and perfectly shaped, with their edges polished to remove any unevenness that might cause a scratchy, tinny sound or catch on a string instead of producing a smooth, beautiful tone.
When I wearily held up my right hand, I saw too much nail over my fingertips. I bent over and pulled my nail file out of the center compartment of my guitar case.
Then I clenched my jaw and looked at my nails again. I'll file them all off, I thought.
In what seemed like just a moment, it was over. I stared at my right hand in disbelief as the reality of what I had done swept over me. My right-hand nails were now as short as my left. That hadn't been the case since before I started to play the guitar fifteen years earlier.
I had chosen a devastating way to rebel against the pressures of the schedule, the expectations, the loneliness, and the disillusionment. What was done in a moment of frustration would greatly affect the next three weeks in Europe. With no nails to pluck the strings, I had set myself up for failure.
The tour was indeed disastrous, beset with technical struggles and memory lapses. Night after night, without adequate nails to pluck the strings, I felt as if I were trying to compete at Wimbledon with a Ping-Pong paddle. I was living a nightmare.
Each frustrating performance only added to my desire to be done with it all. I longed for peace and contentment, and I truly believed that if I could just make it to that cabin in Montana, I would be free. I couldn't have known at the time that God's hand was nudging me in another direction.
Excerpted from Grace Like a River by Christopher Parkening KATHY TYERS Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Parkening. Excerpted by permission.
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