Spring 2016

Musical Precision

Professors and students appear in the curving corridors of the ENR2 building to listen to a classical guitar session. The harmony wafts toward the sky. 

Jose Luis Puerta practices the same composition for an hour, wiggling his fingers after missing a tough string of notes. He takes a deep breath and smiles at strangers as they get a closer look. 

“You definitely feed off the crowd when you perform,” Puerta says. “You can tell if they are paying attention. You connect with them.”

Puerta is a doctoral student of guitar performance and ethnomusicology in the University of Arizona’s Bolton Guitar program. His main focus: grueling preparation for end-of-semester performances critiqued by three to five professors. Puerta practices up to seven hours a day amid a hectic schedule of classes, teaching, and conducting. 

Puerta grew up in Puerto Rico where playing the guitar at age 13 was simply in the cards. He also played clarinet and sang in the chorus at his performing arts high school, but nothing stuck except the guitar.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is great. I want to try this,’” Puerta says. “I thought guitar was something just for adults, but when I tried it, it just clicked.” 

He graduated from the UA in 2009 with a master’s degree in music and will complete his doctoral degree this spring. 

On most days, Puerta wakes early to practice for a couple of hours before leaving to teach guitar in the Tucson public schools. 

“I am practicing a contrapuntal,” he says.

“Imagine you have one melody, and everything else is a variation of it,” he explains. “You need to make it sound like three or four guitars playing at the same time, but it is just you.”

He will memorize several complex pieces for his semester final, an hour-long concert. “Hard passages can last 10 seconds during a performance, but take two months to learn,” he says. At some point it becomes muscle memory. 

Puerta’s top hand strums the guitar, playing one part of the composition, while his bottom hand engages another part of the brain, holding the tempo. The components of music performance — pitch, rhythm, contour, and timbre — stimulate distinct parts of the mind.

Even with muscle memory intact, Puerta’s nerves kick in before doctoral concerts and competitions. It’s fight or flight.

“Your senses are so alert and you can hear everything,” he says. “I get so nervous that my hands get tight and it makes it hard to perform.”

Taking deep breaths helps. After a few minutes of playing, he eases into a performance. But performance anxiety can wipe away months of practice in a moment. 

“There are high demands on our doctoral students,” says Janet Sturman, associate dean of the UA Graduate College and Puerta’s music professor. “Preparation can overshadow the love that also comes with playing music.”

Puerta’s worst time was during a competition. “My mind went completely blank,” he says. “I had to start over. It was horrible.”

So he keeps practicing. He wants to be as prepared as possible. He strums, adjusts into a steady square posture, and fixes his eyes on the sheet music in front of him. Never blinking, he connects his fingers to the guitar strings. Crisp sound sensations fill the air while listeners at ENR2 enjoy the informal concert.