Larry McDonald is a guitarist and composer based in Wisconsin where he runs a successful lesson studio and music store. In addition to his business and musical activities Dr. McDonald is the author of The Conservatory Tutor, a unique, innovative method book. Most importantly, he’s just a really interesting guy with a lot of great things to say
When did you start playing guitar?
When I was kicked out of every studyhall in High-school, the only room left was the band room. The instructor made me bring an instrument, and play it! I paid $15 for a harmony guitar with a yarn strap. Since I was a 15 year old slacker, I had 2 study halls a day. I didn’t have a guitar teacher, so developed all kinds of bad habits. But I stayed out of trouble, I was having fun, and, most importantly, I started to get dates.
Did you begin with classical? Give us your “guitar story”…
I started with american finger-style.
My first classical guitar teacher (a student of Segovia’s) took my $1000 (a lot of cash for a 16 year old in 1976). He listened to my audition, put the cash in his wallet, and promptly told me that his next words were worth a thousand bucks. He said, “Listen carefully son, you need to quit. You have every, and I mean every, bad habit there is. Take up piano or accounting. Have a nice day”. He ushered me out the door -he kept the cash.
After the tears, I decided to go back for another “lesson” the following week. We made a list of all the problems I had. It was a long one. He said I was “looking at 2 years of remedial work -you might get to page 35 in the Carcassi Method, and then, maybe, I could try a a real piece of music.” Well, I stuck it out, and you know, he was right. It took 2 and a half years to fix my crappy mechanics. I got to page 30.
We had a timultuous relationship. He used to smoke cigars in the lesson and sit behind me -I could see the cherry of the cigar out the corner of my eye. One day, in a fit of rage he turned to me and the cherry fell between my jacket an shirt! My hair caught on fire. Guitars, music stands and music went flying as I tried to put myself out.
At the end, he said, “You know, you might make a good guitar teacher. You had every problem imaginable, and you found a way to get past them.” I felt pretty good then.
My final instructor was the very gracious gentleman Javier Calderon. This was the most rewarding time of my musical life. I’m 50 now, and still playing.
What prompted you pursue degrees in music theory and composition?
I started guitar because it was cheap and because it was a way for me to hear my compositions outside of my head. My father was a violinist with a major symphony orchesta, so we always had music around the house. As a boy, I had to sit very quietly in the last row of the concert hall during my fathers many rehearsals. I began to hear how the music worked, I understood form, I could hear harmony, and began to anticipate how melodies evolved and resolved. I was composing at a young age. By age 16, I was writing non-tonal music. Serialism at 18.
You couldn’t get an advanced degree in guitar here in Wisconsin in the 1980’s, so composition was the only way to go. I took independent study in guitar for years. I eventually recieved a Doctorate in Composition. I qualified for a PhD in theory as well. They didn’t know what to do with me so they gave me a minor (Theory) in my Doctorate. Weird.
Where can we hear some of your works?
You can’t hear any of my works. I’m holding them until I am sure that I have acheived my mature style. How many times have you heard this said, “I’m glad you liked my piece tonight, but I really don’t write music like that any more”. I’ve met some fine composers whos reputations were shattered by “coming out” too soon. Most of my music will go to the grave with me, but I have a few that I’ll circulate. Everyonce in a while I’ll put a little work on my site just to see what people think.
My guitar music has been played in private recitals with Pepe Romero, Leo Brouwer, and others. They all liked what I was doing. My choral music is done once in a while, if I can get a trip out of it! I have had pieces premiered at the Vatican and La Catedral de Notre Dame in Paris. Good gigs.
In addition to your musical activities, you run a successful private music studio. Did you start the business? Do you have any advice for new or inexperienced musicians on the business side of things?
I got a job as a cashier in a tiny 400 square foot music store in 1975 -I was dating the boss’s daughter. I bought the business with my new wife (not the boss’s daughter!) in 1981. We now have 15,000 square feet with 70+ instructors and 2400 students. We have full sales departments and even a coffee shop with a stage in the store.
The only advice I can give to a young professional is to be ready to embrace change. Do what you need to do to keep that original passion from the first time you played guitar. And be sure to spend your life with someone you love.
More from Larry and more about his method book tomorrow!