Copyright ® 2008
by Michael Ferris
I was 17 when I started playing the guitar. Born in a small town in Michigan and not coming from a wealthy family, this is the story about how I went to Europe to get my M.A. in Guitar, having had a world-renowned artist as a teacher. In telling this story, I feel that it could encourage others to try to realise their dreams and never give up.
I started playing so that I could demonstrate the guitars in order to sell them at my father’s small music shop in Michigan. After learning my very first song and being able to change between chords, I felt I was ready to go to a local café to sing and play at an open-mic night. This turned into a complete disaster, for I was the youngest person there in the midst of people that had been playing for several decades. Embarrassingly enough , the day of my first grand performance a string broke…
Four weeks passed and I went back again. After desperately begging, the director allowed me to play once more, only to see everyone applauding my performance afterwards. It was incredible.
With the will to become better, I started lessons with a rock guitarist. Having been a fan of guitar technique, he told me to buy a copy of Eliot Fisk's 24 Capricci by Nicolo Paganini. According to him, it was an example of the best technique ever. Putting in the disk and hitting play was the very first time that I had ever listened to classical guitar, it being the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. From that point on, it had been my desire to play that type of music.
Therefore, I called a local college, only to find out that I was too young to attend courses. In desperation, I called the guitar teacher at another university. Due to my determination, he taught me personally. That is when I met Samuel Kaligithi, my first classical guitar teacher, whom I consider to have been one of the best I’ve ever had. Teaching me not only to play, he taught me to love the instrument, which in my opinion constitutes one of the hardest challenges for any teacher. Practicing several hours a day, I improved at a great rate. Shortly after, I was even asked to play for a master class with David Tanenbaum.
Just about to graduate from high school, it was my intention to study locally. Samuel, on the other hand, suggested going to the Academy for Music and Applied Art in Vienna, having been a student there himself. He told me that living and studying in another country would broaden my horizons, learning not only music but also another language and culture. Yet, due to my family’s financial situation, this seemed completely out of reach.
Samuel made it all happen, assuring me that studying in Europe was possible. To prepare, I started taking a beginning music theory class, a German class, and played a solo concert. In my concert programme, I had written that it was my wish to study with Sam’s former teacher, Konrad Ragossnig, in Vienna. I was 18 years old and everything was falling into place.
Vienna, Austria, home to great composers and musical masterminds, and there I was amidst this great city in June 1995, not even knowing how to get from the airport to the city. Going by what Sam had written on a piece of notebook paper to guide my way, I was overwhelmed with the fact that the German language was everywhere. Although being incredibly prepared, I realized how unknowing and young I had truly been.
On the day of the exam, it occurred to me how completely ignorant I was to guitar exams in general, much less in a foreign country. Entering the stage through a back door, I wanted to greet all the professors staring at me. Therefore, I got off the stage and shook their hands, introducing myself and trying to make a good impression. This had been quite a surprise to the judges. Realizing my mistake, I will never forget how the person whom I was trying to impress, Ragossnig, just sat looking at me with disapproval. For an Austrian, what I had unintentionally done was just plain rude.
I got up onto the stage again and waited in anticipation until I was told to play. After only two bars of playing, I was told to stop. Ragossnig had just looked at the concert programme I had played in America and misunderstood my English, assuming I had written on it that I could undoubtedly study under him, whereby I had only expressed that it was my mere wish. I came to my own rescue and corrected him. Instead of this helping the matter, he asked me to leave. This was the most disappointing day of my whole life. In fact, it had almost been the end of my dreams.
In despair, I went back to where I was staying and met a woman who worked there. Having only spoken German, it was in that very moment that I can attest the proof of God’s existence. For some strange reason, although my German was very poor, I understood everything she said as if it had been English. She told me that there were other schools. In my broken German, I expressed that I would be willing to do anything, just not go home a failure. She called the Mozarteum Academy for Music in Salzburg and signed me up for the following entrance exam in October, giving me hope.
I will never forget arriving back to the US and looking into my father’s eyes, which were full of discontent. He almost fell back in his chair when I told him of my plans to go back to Austria again, whereby I found out later how proud he was that I had the courage to make such a decision.
Although Sam had moved away, he was kind enough to put me in the hands of another teacher, Jerry Zubco. One of his strengths was to prepare people for entrance exams. He gave me a lot of pointers, teaching me where I had made my errors in Vienna.
At the exam in Salzburg I played my heart out. The judges asked if I wanted to study with ‘Eliot’. Due to his absence, I would have had to play for him again to be considered. From the indisputable voice coming from the committee, I knew they had not only accepted me, but were faced with the question who would be my teacher. My intuition told me to seize the chance and I left the choice up to them. I only found out afterwards that they were talking about Eliot Fisk, the reason I had started playing guitar.
I started my studies with Maria Siewers, a famous Argentinean classical guitarist. Although very knowledgeable, her teaching methods were not right for me. I learned a lot from her, yet somehow we never connected. I ended up breaking off my studies after only one year. It was just too much pressure; learning a new language, being away from home, studying the hardest I could.
After a short time, I made the decision to continue with the intention of changing teachers. I called Eliot Fisk and he briskly said that he had no room for me in his classes. Afterwards, I must have coincidentally run into Eliot in the city at least four times, impressing upon him not to say no to me without at least hearing me… I will never forget what he said after playing for him for the first time. He told me, “Michael, you have absolutely no technique, but you play with so much feeling that 10 per cent of your playing is absolutely beautiful.” For several years after that, he proved not only to be a great teacher, but very good friend. I could write another five pages about how kind and generous he has been to me. Yet, the most important thing he taught me had to do with getting an insight into his concert career. Being successful at the guitar does not only mean playing at the most prestigious concert halls, but also playing for outreach programmes for disabled children, the elderly, and the needy. This for me will always be Eliot Fisk, the embodiment of a true musician and a true inspiration.
Eliot’s promise to make me a guitarist became a reality. Samuel Kaligithi, my very first guitar teacher, made the trip to Austria to be there at my final concert and see me get my master’s degree. He was right there with me when he said that studying abroad would broaden my horizons. In fact, it even made my dreams come true .
-If you like this story, you'll love my book, Crossing Borders by Michael Ferris
Click here, to download Crossing Borders Info.pdf