Holyoke Community College music instructor Phillip de Fremery has been playing classical guitar professionally for nearly 50 years. He studied under Andres Segovia, arguably the world's most famous classical guitarist, and has performed concerts all over the world.
Yet, when he played a live soundtrack last fall for the HCC theater production of "The House of Bernarda Alba," de Fremery admits he was more than a little nervous.
"It was total stream of consciousness," said de Fremery. "Nothing like I've ever done before. I was scared stiff."
De Fremery usually performs from memory classical pieces he has practiced for decades. The live score was mostly improvised, given that the music had to mirror the dialogue, and the pacing of the actors was different every night.
"We rehearsed a lot, but it was pretty much close my eyes and jump," he said.
For that score, de Fremery won an award for best original music from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
Patricia Sandoval, chair of the HCC theater department and director of "The House of Bernarda Alba," said the award is an "incredible honor" for both HCC and de Fremery. "We are up against larger four-year colleges and universities with incredible budgets," she said.
De Fremery also received the McKenna Award from HCC last fall, which recognizes contributions toward an HCC theatrical production. Sandoval nominated him.
"He is a great teacher," said Sandoval. "We're lucky to have him, someone with his history, credentials and experience."
Elisha Brill Pashkin, chair of the HCC Music Department, calls de Fremery a "gem of the Valley."
"He cares a lot about HCC, and we're glad to have him," she said.
De Fremery has been teaching classical guitar at HCC since 1986. He used to teach the school's guitar ensemble classes but now gives only private lessons on Tuesday afternoons.
He lives in South Hadley and also teaches at other area colleges, making his rounds throughout the week among UMass, Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Westfield State and HCC.
"It's a bunch of part-time jobs," de Fremery said recently between lesson appointments. "It adds up. I like it."
What has always appealed to him about HCC is the quality of the instructors in the music department. The teachers are also performers, he says, "and they bring the attitude of a performer into their work here."
In a corduroy jacket, turtleneck, scarf, and sporting a bushy mustache, de Fremery looks every bit the classical college professor. He is quiet, unassuming, humble, about himself and the awards.
He hails from San Francisco and a musical family. He grew up banging out popular songs on the piano -- until he heard his first Segovia record. "There are a bunch of guitarists and banjo players and mandolin players in my family, fiddle players," de Fremery recalls, "but I never heard anything like that."
He was instantly hooked. "Oh, yea. It was" -- he says and snaps his fingers -- just like that."
He went out and bought all of Segovia's other records and decided he wanted to learn classical guitar. As a teenager in the early 1960s -- he graduated from high school in 1964, just as Beatlemania swept the United States -- he never had any interest in playing rock and roll.
"I never got that; I just did this," he says, sliding his fingers along an imaginary fretboard. "I had a ten-year bartending career, and then I learned what was on the jukebox."
He had some initial struggles finding a teacher. A woodshop accident at 15 severed his right index finger at the knuckle. "They said I'd never be a guitarist," de Fremery said.
Initially, he tried to pluck the strings with just two fingers, but that didn't work. Then he found someone to make him a prosthetic. "It makes up for length," he says, "so, in effect, I still have an index finger."
De Fremery studied classical guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory and was eventually accepted as a student of Segovia in 1966. He first met the great Spanish master as a student at the conservatory, then studied with him in North Carolina and in Spain. He spent most of the next decade touring the world and performing, finally landing here in the Pioneer Valley.
When Segovia died in 1987, his widow commissioned de Fremery to transcribe 56 of Segovia's commercial recordings. No manuscripts then existed, so it was all done by ear. It took him five years.
More than talent, de Fremery said, such an endeavor takes training. "You have to train your ear," he said. "You can have a good ear and musical ability but you have to be sure when you do a job like that."
When he is not teaching guitar, he still practices for hours every day. At 66, he said he has no thoughts about retiring.
"No," he answers quickly . "I'm sticking this out."
De Fremery will next perform at HCC's Classical Faculty Showcase concert , on Wednesday, April 3, room 137 in the Fine and Performing Arts building. The event is free and open to the public.
For those who can't make the show, if you stand outside Practice Room 145 on the first floor of the Fine and Performing Arts building on Tuesday afternoons, you might be lucky enough to hear de Fremery practicing between lessons.
Photos: (Left) Phil de Fremery. (Right) De Fremery practices before a performance of "The House of Bernarda Alba" last fall.