‘Motherly Instincts’ and a Passion for Guitar
The journey that turned CSUN into a mecca for guitar students and the home of one of the world’s most important guitar archives began in a split-level house in the Hollywood Hills.
It was there, in 1955, that Ron Purcell began studying with one of America’s great classical guitarists. Not that he knew it at the time.
Purcell, who heads the Northridge guitar program, recalled his first encounter with Vahdah Olcott-Bickford in a recent issue of the journal Guitar Review.
“I was unaware of Vahdah’s international prominence in halcyon days gone by. She was simply the guitar teacher assigned to me by the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts. Vahdah was not a braggart by any means, but little by little, I began to realize that I was studying the guitar with someone important and not just with a little old lady (she was 70 at the time) who taught the pad school (without nails) of right-hand technique, with the little finger resting on the sound board.
“Olcott-Bickford gave lessons at her home, but her students, myself included, were prohibited from wandering through the house. We would climb the 2 1/2 flights to the front door, continue through to the foyer and enter the living room, where we would take a seat and wait to be called into the music room.”
Today, a handsome oil painting of Olcott-Bickford hangs in Purcell’s office on CSUN’s campus.
“She’s a very important lady,” he says of his former teacher, who helped found the country’s first guitar society, the forerunner of today’s American Guitar Society, in Los Angeles in 1923.
Born Ethel Lucretia Olcott in 1885, she was given the exotic name Vahdah by a prominent astrologer whom she assisted for many years. She died in 1980.
Today, Purcell is the esteemed teacher of acoustic guitar, but Olcott-Bickford is still a force on campus. She was a visionary collector of guitar music, guitar journals, letters from important musicians and other materials relating to the guitar and other plucked instruments.
During her lifetime, her precious collection filled her house. Stacks of journals and other items stood 5 feet high in some rooms.
Passionate about preserving and disseminating guitar music, she had hoped the material would become an important research library focusing on the guitar. And in 1987, it finally did. Today her materials form the core of the CSUN-based International Guitar Research Archive, which includes more than 15,000 pieces of guitar music, thousands of letters and other items.
The archive is one reason guitar students from all over the world find their way to Northridge.
The university’s classical guitar program, which has 40 students and three teachers, doesn’t have to recruit, Purcell says: “The reputation brings the students here.”
Once students arrive, they learn the modern school of right-hand technique. But they can play many types of music.
“The repertoire can be classical, it can be jazz, it can be folk, it can be all these other styles,” Purcell explains.
Purcell’s background is jazz. He studied with such jazz guitar greats as Barney Kessel and Paul Miller.
“The thing I love to play and teach the most is baroque music--Bach,” says Purcell’s colleague Ron Borczon, who also heads the university’s music-therapy program. Fellow teacher Gregory Newton’s passion is American guitar music from the 19th century forward.
Northridge almost lost its guitar archive because of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Olcott-Bickford’s home was badly damaged, and whenever it rained, she had to find dry places for her collection. Her widower, Robert Revere, said, “She never had children, and her determination to protect the collection was based on motherly instincts.”
The city finally condemned the house, and she moved out. According to Purcell, it took a crew of 15 men 2 1/2 weeks to move the collection from the damaged house.
Probate issues kept the university from taking possession of the collection until 1987, and several choice items were apparently stolen while in storage, including a Martin guitar made in 1875.
Today, Purcell and others are preserving the materials in CSUN’s growing guitar archive. (Only copies of sheet music are used for performing, for instance.) And they are entering the information into a database. Production has begun on an interactive multimedia CD-ROM based on the collection.
Purcell, who has been at Northridge for 31 years, and his two colleagues work closely and easily together.
“That’s what’s great about this program,” Borczon says. “We support each other creatively in whatever we do.”
That includes finding time for what they all love doing most--playing guitar.
Purcell quotes Andres Segovia, with whom he studied from 1969-1974, who once observed that performing is like an addiction.
Sometimes, Purcell says, “I’ve got to play. I need a hit. I need to perform.”
The American Guitar Society will mark its 75th anniversary Sunday with a luncheon and classical guitar concert on the CSUN campus at 1:30 p.m. $30, by reservation only. Call (818) 677-2488 or (818) 677-3180.