Greek-American Stories: Play it Again, Sam

July 17, 2018
Phyllis “Kiki” Sembos

This is another true story. I wish to inform you beforehand that, due to circumstances beyond my control, the general public have missed the opportunity ofhearing mebecome a virtuoso by learning to play an instrument. It’s not my fault, however. Let me explain. My lifelong love for stringed instruments like guitar, bouzouki, baglama, fiddle, banjo, and piano culminated when I saw the movie, Casablanca and then Gilda staring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Wow! Rita Hayworth was sitting on a bar strumming the guitar, looking so sultry and glamorous,singing “Put the Blame on Mame, Boys.”That did it! I decided I had to learn to play the guitar. So, I searched the telephone directory for teachers and found one in a studio in Manhattan.

Professor Alfredo Juarez was a short, studious looking man who didn’t smile much, his eyes that studied me over the rimless glasses at the end of his nose, looked at me like I came in to ask for donations. “What do you want?” he asked me. Now, why else would I come to his studio except for guitar lessons, right? I was eighteen years old, fairly intelligent and a great music lover. “I’d like to learn to play the guitar,” I told him. He looked at my fingers and after a long pause handed me a guitar and pick. I looked at the pick, wondering what it was for. He told me to sit down and then proceeded to show me how to hold the guitar. I knew how to hold the guitar. My father played the guitar, and I saw Rita Hayworth in Gilda holding a guitar. But, he was the professor so I decided I’d better do what he says.

I held the pick, and he told me which strings to strum. I positioned the guitar and the pick and got really nervous when he sat before me,waiting, staring at my fingers. Ifumbled, trying to get myself into a comfortable position and placed the pick between my fingers, looking down at the cords he told me to strum.  He said, in a loud voice, “the first and third cords, if you please.” His voice startled me and the pick fell into the hole in the middle of the guitar. I looked up and saw that he was displeased. I started to shake the instrument trying to get the darn thing out. The longer I shook it, the more displeased he became. He looked up at me and said “the guitar is not a tambourine.” I knew that! I shrugged, “I know! But, it won’t come out. Can I have another one?” I looked up at the clock. I was paying five dollars for a half hour and I hadn’t learned to play anything yet. I figured once I got started I could play, “On Top of ol’ Smokey,” or something. I figured by the fifth lesson I’d play with Segovia or sit on a bar next to Rita, at least.

He handed me another pick and I tried to find the cords he indicated. Dum-ta-ta-dum, I heard me play. Gee! That sounded good to me. But, his expression continued displeased. In fact, he said “I’ve been teaching guitar for thirty-five years. I can tell you, with my experience, you’ll never learn to play the guitar.”I asked him how he knew that.He repeated the years he taught and the students he taught. Huh! Bet he didn’t teach Rita. I saw my future of playing the guitar ending before it began. I laid down the guitar and got up to leave. I saw the clock. I had another fifteen minutes. I figured he owed me $2.50, at least. Couldn’t I have learned to play “Three Blind Mice,” at least?On the subway going home, I reminisced listening to the Greek radio program, being mesmerizedhearing the great Vasili Titsani playing the bouzouki.Maybe, thought I, the guitar wasn’t my forte! I wondered. When I suggested it to my father, he looked at me the same way the professor looked. So, that’s why the world missed out on hearing a promising guitar player because one professor said so. Sorry, folks! But, if you heard me playing, “Chopsticks” on the piano, you’d ask for an encore.


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