A “pure” autodidact would be a person who learns how to play the guitar without any teachers, without any books, and without having seen or even heard anyone play it. In that strict sense autodidacts don’t exist. But in the sense of lacking formal musical and guitar instruction, you can safely say Segovia was pretty much “self-taught”, especially by today’s standards.
Of course he had some instruction. But not much. A few things from his autobiography.
At the age of 5 his parents left him in the care of his uncle and aunt, who lived in a different town. He remembers the event of being suddenly separated from his mother as pretty traumatic.
His uncle liked listening to flamenco when he had a chance. But he didn’t play. They noticed or imagined a certain musical vocation in the child and placed him under the tutorship of a violin teacher who had a “hard ear and stiffer fingers”. He was also a big believer in physical torment as a learning aid, so he turned the lessons into torture sessions, pinching the boy until he made him cry, every time he made a mistake. He developed an intense fear and hatred for his teacher, who after some time told his uncle and aunt that the boy was completely inept for music, having “neither memory, measure nor ear”.
His uncle was unconvinced by this judgement and took him away from those classes. Segovia was 6 years old at the time.
Some time later, perhaps a year or two, a “strolling flamenco guitar player” with a beat up guitar full of cracks, stopped in the town and someone told him that Segovia’s uncle liked listening to flamenco and might give him some money to play for him. The vagabond flamenco player played something he called soleares, and Segovia says he felt them inside of him “as if they had penetrated every pore of my body”. He was watching the player’s hands with such attention that the guy, hoping to get a little job, asked him if he would like to receive lessons. So the player stayed and gave the child lessons for a few weeks. Segovia says: “In a month and a half I had learned everything the poor man knew, that is to say, very little”
Before getting on the road again, the teacher told Segovia’s uncle: “The boy has so much ability he doesn’t seem to learn but to remember what they teach him”. His uncle repeated this often to his friends, and Segovia says he did not understand what he meant by that.
At the age of 10 they moved to Granada and he started going to secondary school there. One of his friends took him to a guitar shop and offered to help him buy a guitar in exchange for lessons. From that point on he was spending so much time with the guitar, that he was on the verge of failing his school term, so his uncle threatened to destroy the instrument if he continued to neglect his schoolwork. Alarmed, he left the guitar with his friend for safekeeping and would go over there to play whenever he had a chance. One day he met a player of “good guitar” (i.e. classical, not flamenco) and heard him play a Tárrega prelude. So he became hooked to this “new” kind of music and wanted to start learning it immediately. He began to search for sheet music written for guitar, found some Arcas, Sor and Giuliani. He could hardly read it but some of the things the terrorist violin teacher had taught him stayed in the back of his head. With the help of friends he got a hold of a book of scales, and of music theory, as well as a guitar manual. Says that learning that way was very hard, but was the only way available to him so he kept forging ahead little by little. His uncle had no money to offer him a formal music education.
Of course in the following years he must have heard other players now and then, and pick up whatever he could from them. But mostly he learned by himself.
Probably the closest thing to an advanced instruction was the sessions he had with Llobet in Barcelona when he was 25. He had met Llobet for the first time in Valencia a few weeks earlier. This must have been 1918 or late 1917. Llobet was 40 years old. He was impressed by Segovia’s playing and suggested that Segovia should come back with him to Barcelona, where he would introduce him to people who might be able to help him. So they took the train to Barcelona together. Segovia knew that Llobet had arranged some Granados stuff, and asked him if he could have a copy of those transcriptions. Llobet told him he had not written those pieces down yet, but offered to show them to him over the course of the next few days. Llobet told him to come to his house in the mornings, bring the guitar, and he would give him the pieces phrase by phrase. There were other people present during those sessions. Two of them were guitar amateurs and tried to benefit from the sessions by attempting to learn what Llobet was showing Segovia. They soon gave up once it became obvious they could not really follow what Llobet was doing, and Llobet was forced to repeat every passage over and over and over. During these endless repetitions, Segovia would move over to a corner to practice quietly what he had learned. His impatience must have shown, and one of those players developed an intense dislike of him. In less than 10 days, Segovia learned two of Granados dances, a tonadilla and El Mestre, and was extremely happy and grateful to Llobet.
I suppose that counts as some kind of instruction, even though it seems clear that Llobet viewed Segovia as his equal, and he viewed the sessions simply as a way to pass the pieces to Segovia, not as classes to a pupil.
But the fact remains that Segovia was by and large self-taught, especially for today’s standards. He was self-taught because of two very simple reasons: First, his uncle had no money to hire a classical guitar teacher (assuming there would have been any good ones available) or pay for a formal musical education. Second, even if somehow he had managed to have enough money to offer him a formal musical education, he would never have allowed his nephew to study an instrument outside the ones commonly heard in music halls at the time. The guitar in Granada in those days was mostly a tavern instrument. Segovia was very aware of all this and knew that if he wanted to learn how to play the guitar, he would have to do it by himself.
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