A brief conversation with Robert Sullivan

This article was made possible with contributions from Hermann Hudd, Hopkinson Smit, Lisa Spraragen, Mark Small, John Muratore, Hankus Netsky, and Gordon O’Connell.

Robert Paul Sullivan retired after forty-three years of extraordinary teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. This institution recognized his fruitful work with the 2010 Outstanding Alumni Awards. Robert has been a faculty member, not only at New England Conservatory, but also at Holy Cross, Clark University, and in the past at the University of Rhode Island and Syracuse University. Besides teaching Guitar, Chamber Music, and Guitar for Non-Majors at NEC, he also was a co-teacher with Angela Beeching a course entitled Career Skills for future musicians about the business of music and professional ethics. Among his many students, Robert has taught players who are recognized today as excellent performing artists such as John Muratore, Hopkinson Smith, Ron Forbes-Roberts, Mark Small, Lisa Spraragen, Gordon O’Connell and Mark Davis. Bob Sullivan has played a key role in the fostering of the classical guitar in the New England region and the United States. During his International career, Robert has served twice as a jury member for the “Emilio Pujol Guitar Competition” in Sardinia, Italy, as well as a band member on a European tour with Hankus Netsky’s Klezmer group. This article-interview contains two parts: first the interview with Bob Sullivan and second the comments from his colleagues.


HH: When did you start with music?

RS: When I was in the fifth or sixth grade (East Providence High School in Rhode Island during his early years, but later he went to Providence Country Day School). I started with a violin from an uncle that I still have, and I played with the Junior High Orchestra and then with the Senior High Orchestra, but when I started with the guitar I did not play the violin anymore, and I think that I am a better guitarist than I was a violinist.

HH: Who was your first teacher?

RS: I started playing in bands, combos and dance bands for weddings, birthdays, engagements, commercial music, and some jazz. Carlos Belmonte was my teacher and my father’s teacher. He taught plectrum guitar, and then I studied with Hibbard Perry; he taught everything: guitar, banjo, mandolin because he had to survive, but Belmonte was best teaching mandolin, maybe because he studied with one of the best: Giuseppe Pettine. Belmonte came from Italy to the United States as a child; I met him during the sixties in Providence and used some of the picks that he made to play the mandolin.

HH: I know that you went to Brown University, but when did you attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston?

RS: I was not so successful at Brown University for engineering, and I lasted one semester! At NEC, during my college years from 1957 to 1960, I was one of the two or three guitar players in the Popular Music Program. Later, when I taught at the Pre-College Division, the School of Continuing Education, the Cambridge School of Weston, and the Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Gunther Schuller, who was the President at NEC asked me: “Why we don’t have the guitar as a major here”? So formally, Gunther Schuller and I founded the Guitar Program. This program at NEC was one of the first at major conservatories in the United States to have the guitar as a major in the early 70s.

HH: With your position at NEC you have been teaching for decades and what have you learned from it?

RS: There is no magic formula to teaching and experience shows you how to communicate better. However, my teaching approach changed since I studied with Emilio Pujol in Spain with his summer courses; I went there four times with a scholarship given by Isabel Pope Conant, who also sponsored a Vihuela de Mano made by Fleta. He taught me to be aware of my left-hand movements and the interpretation, and he always encouraged me to have, always, a musical reason to play everything. So, he used to stop me every three notes. At the end, it was a very worthwhile learning experience, and it really changed my interpretation and technique. I spent a lot of time with the Vihuela and some with the baroque guitar because Pujol taught an early music class during the evenings. He made me play a Soneto by Enríquez de Valderrábano every time I played for him and each time he gave a different interpretation. I truly enjoyed playing the Vihuela, and back in Boston, I did a lot in this field, especially with Daniel Pinkham at the Early Music Program at NEC. Oscar Ghiglia and José Rey de la Torre were also some of my mentors. Rey de la Torre was a student of Llobet. Excellent musicians both of them!

HH: As a performer, you encourage your students to perform chamber music as much as possible. You also have been invited to be part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Musica Viva, Boston Ballet, the Providence Mandolin Orchestra and other ensembles for particular works that require a guitar such as Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and the opera-oratorio El Niño by John Adams. Where and who encouraged you to try to open more spaces for the guitar in the music world?

RS: Gunther and I played a lot together and performed his Jazz version of Peter and the Wolf. I also played with the composer John Adams when he was at Harvard and some years later his piece Gnarly Buttons for clarinet and chamber ensemble, which has parts for banjo, mandolin, and guitar. I started playing the mandolin in the early seventies, and I had never played it before. Gunther Schuller told me about an early Beethoven program and that he wanted me to play for the program, and I said, “Beethoven never wrote for guitar,” but Schuller said, “He wrote for the mandolin, and you can play it.” Then I did a crash course in mandolin with Hibbard Perry in Providence and practiced like crazy for a piece for harpsichord and mandolin. At the end, the performance was exceptional! Later, I learned the banjo in 1959 for a job at Radio City Music Hall.  My favorite concerto for guitar and orchestra is the Heitor Villa-Lobos Concerto pour Guitare e Petit Orchestre, which I played with the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra. Also, I played the Concierto de Aranjuez, but I would love to have played the Fantasía para un Gentilhombre. Additionally, I did a lot of trios, quartets, and quintets. The first big chamber music that I played was the Serenade Op. 24 by Arnold Schönberg at the Harvard Summer School in 1969, it is a super piece!

HH: How do you work with your students and what do you expect from them in the studio?

RS: I taught the Repertoire Class at NEC where the students gather to perform and comment on the music as well as to talk about how to survive as musicians (guitarists). I recommend students have solid technique, are good sight-readers, work on different repertoire, have their musical personality and themselves, think about the piece, know the phrasing and follow their convictions! I never care what other guitarists think about me because they don’t hire me, except for teaching. Today there are many good recordings, and it is fine to listen to them, but you must create your interpretation. Nowadays, to survive as a guitarist you have to play different styles and chamber music. Look at what John Williams, who is the most prominent guitarist today, is doing. Is he playing just solo concerts? No, he is playing with everybody. Or look at Yo-Yo Ma. It is not only about surviving, but it is more exciting! Chamber music is more fun! I always very much enjoy teaching and it is very nice to hear from my students to know what they are doing. One thing I try to encourage them to do is chamber music as well as teaching. Today the guitar’s level is fantastic! 

HH: Robert, thank you for the conversation!

RS: My pleasure!

Robert Sullivan Through His Colleagues

Hopkinson Smith:

He could sense the urgency in my voice on the phone.  I remember that first call to Mr. Sullivan (it was years later that I could bring myself to call him “Bob”).  I had gotten to a point with the classical guitar where I needed some clear guidance, and he came to my rescue.  It must have been the fall of 1967.  He didn’t have space for me in his schedule, but he somehow managed to find a spot for me.  In our first lesson, he stopped me half way through the piece I was attempting to play (the Prelude from the Bach c-minor Suite) and said we had to have a look at the way I was plucking the strings.  We spent the rest of the lesson making sounds: touching the string, preparing the stroke, moving the finger in the direction that gave the best result.  Again, and again.  The change in the approach to the strings was needed, and although I have adapted my right-hand position in various ways to different instruments and styles since that day, the lesson in sound and touch has always remained.  There was a search for clarity and purity that starts with putting the finger on the string but which takes the artist far beyond.

Lisa Spraragen:

When I started taking lessons with Robert Paul Sullivan, I knew I was going to be a guitarist. I was a senior in high school and had studied guitar since age 9. My mother decided that it was time for me to get to the next level, and she did some research to find Bob Sullivan.  It was fascinating to travel to Boston from Rhode Island to take lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music. Bob Sullivan was no-nonsense. He set me straight on technique and had me working on nasty slurs, Emilio Pujol, Dionisio Aguado, and scales. He always called me a “good player,” and this gave me confidence while realizing that I had my work cut out for me. The atmosphere in the room where Bob taught was thoughtful and challenging. He would have you come in to hear the end of the previous lesson, and likewise, the next student would come to the tail end of your lesson.

It was a great experience because guitarists so often work in a vacuum.  He eliminated that tendency. By having the chance to hear an advanced conservatory student right before me, I was exposed to the big juicy pieces of the classical guitar repertoire, such as the Grande Ouverture of Mauro Giuliani and the Chôros of Heitor Villa-Lobos way before I was ready to play them, but that didn’t stop me. I remember wanting to play Recuerdos and Bob told me no way, I wasn’t ready, that it was a Sueño (a dream). He made me learn Sueño first, and I became very attached to that piece. It is more challenging that Recuerdos, in a way, but maybe not as exposed, and I played the heck out of it. Bob paired me with my first duet partner, Brigitte Hartzell who was a junior at the conservatory. It was a fantastic experience, as she was extremely musical and had trained in Paris before coming to the United States. We played the repertoire of Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya, and Bob would coach us telling us that we lacked in passion–which wasn’t accurate at all, but made us even better.  He was a great teacher, always challenging you, but treated you like an adult and a professional from the get-go. He brought in guest teachers for Master Classes, and it was an exciting time to be studying classical guitar. I’m talking about 1976-79.

Bob also played Vihuela, and I had the privilege of hearing him perform. He was humble and a family man, very proud of his beautiful Portuguese wife and children. One night there was a special master class, and I had to stay late, and could not go back to Rhode Island, and brought me to his house to spend the night. It was no big deal, he said his daughter would be asleep, but just crawl in her bed – she wouldn’t care, and see you in the morning. Sure enough. Music came first, and that was the biggest lesson that I learned from him.

Mark Small

I remember seeing an old catalog for New England Conservatory many years ago at a friend’s house. I thumbed through it and found a black and white picture of a young Bob Sullivan, guitar in hand with a bio sketch and a few paragraphs about the conservatory’s classical guitar program. At the time, I had no idea that years later (in 1977) I would be a conservatory student studying with Bob. He had built a robust program that attracted lots of baby boomers seriously interested in playing classical guitar. He impressed me with his sight-reading abilities whenever I brought a new piece of music to my lesson. He would read through it seemingly effortlessly. A multi-instrumentalist, he also played lute, vihuela, mandolin, tenor banjo, and more. A consummate ensemble player, I recall seeing him onstage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing mandolin and banjo in David Del Tredici’s Final Alice, playing and then silently counting many bars of rests. He was ready for all of his entrances throughout the lengthy work. 

Like many of Bob’s other students, I had started out playing popular styles of music. Bob himself played in an Irish folk band among other musical pursuits. He saw that I had reverence for classical guitar, placing it on a pedestal above other musical styles. Consequently, I was treating the repertoire like a museum piece, an attitude that was holding me back from performing the music like it was my own. He pulled me aside and told me just to let go, “Play this music like you play all the other styles you like,” he said to me. “It’s all just music.” I feel grateful for the many things I learned while Bob was my teacher. 

When I pull out sheet music we worked on many years ago, I’m amazed at the fingerings and brief comments he wrote on my scores. There is a lot of musical wisdom and guitar logic condensed in those terse pencil markings.

John Muratore

I have had the good fortune to know Robert Paul Sullivan as a teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend for forty years. In all of these capacities, he has demonstrated great generosity, astounding versatility, creativity, humility, wit, and practicality. A good example of the latter occurred during my first year of study when having arrived at New England Conservatory with a similar right-hand technique to ‘Mr. Sullivan’, I was experiencing some problems with inconsistencies of tone, and he encouraged me to revamp my approach to one entirely different from his–problem solved. Bob’s approach has always been pragmatic, serving both the needs of the performer and the demands of the music, and he held his students to the highest standards of preparedness and performance. He was never vague or indirect about his technical or musical recommendations, expecting students to try his ideas but willing to listen to alternate views regarding the execution of a particular phrase or a different articulation; but of course, you had to convince him.

Always generous with his time, whether it be extra instruction, assistance in the search for a better instrument or advising on any number of matters, from career paths to personal entanglements to car repair, Bob’s involvement with his students was far-reaching. Over the course of many summers, he arranged trips with his students to study with Maestro Emilio Pujol in Spain, and always invited students ‘to the house,’ especially for holiday dinners for those unable to travel to their homes. As a musician, Bob is as meticulous as he is versatile. Often putting aside the classical guitar in favor of the lute, vihuela, baroque guitar, mandolin, banjo or ‘plectrum guitar’ as he likes to call it, for performances comprising music from Renaissance to Contemporary, classical to Celtic, Klezmer to Be-bop. In his commitment to taking on the challenges of performing new solo and chamber music for guitar, Bob has been fearless and always up to the task. With his retirement from performing, some large shoes have been left to fill, requiring the efforts of numerous players.

Robert Sullivan’s career spanned more than fifty years, and his legacy continues. He helped his students to find their voice, their path, and through it all to be good human beings. We continue to strive to follow his example.

Hankus Netsky

I first met Robert Paul Sullivan in 1973, my first year as a student at New England Conservatory.  Back then, American conservatories were only beginning to add guitar to their curriculum – I remember noticing that Oberlin didn’t have it in their catalog – but NEC was already offering both classical and jazz guitar, both taught by Bob at the time.  Around that time, NEC initiated a new department the school was called “Third Stream,” a program where students might play any other music that didn’t fall within either of those two relatively narrow categories.  

Bob couldn’t have been more delighted.  When a Broadway show or traveling country act came to town, he was the one the musicians’ union would recommend to fill in on mandolin, guitar, banjo, or ukulele.  When you walked into an Italian restaurant in the North End, you might hear Bob backing a singer or crafting a spontaneous arrangement of Come Back to Sorrento with an accordionist.  When you went to listen to a big band, he might be the one laying down the chords in the rhythm section on his Gibson L5.  To him, a guitar was a guitar, and a mandolin was a mandolin.  When Rock and country players started showing up at this quietly revolutionary music school, Bob’s answer was to add yet another major to the curriculum – “Plectrum Guitar.”

 Bob’s practicality and openness were, even at that time, a breath of fresh air at a school where most of the faculty still limited themselves to European concepts of musical interpretation that had changed little since the nineteenth century.  His background was as diverse as could be.  A product of the “Popular Music” certificate program and “General Business,” musician Sam Marcus had introduced to the school in the 1950s. His playing caught the attention of NEC’s administration, and when he pointed out to them that guitar was conspicuously missing from their studio curriculum, he offered to remedy that.  Soon he was initiating chamber ensembles that included his instrument and, as a department head, he became an important voice in the school’s “Faculty Council.”

Bob’s talents were not in any way limited to music.  Coming as he did from a working-class Irish and Italian family, he became a spokesperson for disenfranchised faculty members. Those not prominently featured in the school’s press releases or those overlooked, when it came to raises in salary.  Unlike those who sought to limit their hours to the few required for actual contact with their students, Bob volunteered for lots of committees that did the real tedious work of managing the everyday life of the school.  He became the President of the “Faculty Senate,” the group that negotiated with the administration on behalf of instructors who had grievances.  In that role, Bob brought the faculty together with his unique flair, making sure that, at meetings he organized, the table was filled with the best port wines, sherries, and cheeses, to encourage both attendance and unusually frank conversation.  He was refreshingly candid, direct, and opinionated, and always extraordinarily knowledgeable. For a period of well over thirty years, if you wanted to know what was going on at New England Conservatory, the person to talk to was Bob Sullivan. 

One of my favorite experiences involving Bob was in the early 1990s, when my klezmer (Eastern European Jewish dance music) band’s tenor banjoist, guitarist, and mandolinist found himself unable to make one of our European tours.  Neither of us could think of any of our contemporaries who would be able to directly jump in playing an unfamiliar repertoire at the last minute – and then we remembered Bob, the teacher who had taught him to play all three instruments!  He immediately agreed to join us and picked up style instantly, doing everything the music called for flawlessly, including the section in one song where his solo role included barking like a dog!

It was a sad day for all of us when Bob stumbled and fell at NEC.  His unsteadiness might have marked the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease, an affliction that continues to affect him to the present day.  But, just a few months ago, I was delighted to encounter him at a talent show his son was competing in in Newton.  As soon as I approached him, I knew that the old Bob Sullivan was still alive and well.  “What the Hell is going on with that presidential search?” he asked, referring to the school’s efforts to find a new leader, now into its third year.  “I guess they can’t find the right person; how about you?” I responded a bit jokingly.  He held up his shaky hands to show me that he wasn’t exactly at the top of his game anymore.  But I knew perfectly well that, if he had still had the strength, he might have given it a go.

Gordon O’Connell

I began studying with Robert Paul Sullivan in 1975 when I was a freshman major in composition at the Berkeley College of Music and continued with him until 1979. Bob infuses a reverence for the classical guitar and its music. At the same time, he inspires a certain irreverence as well. It is invaluable across all musical genres as it helps one respect the music one is pursuing as well as allowing you your point of view and your voice within that music.

Studying with Bob had a profound influence on my musical development. I am just about to turn 60, and I practice every morning of my life and continue to perform regularly.  There is not a single time that I pick up a guitar that I don’t consciously or unconsciously apply something that I learned from him. This morning, as I was practicing the two most difficult bars of an arrangement that I recently wrote, Bob’s voice came to me: “Pujol said that if everyone would just practice the most difficult passages, there would be no need for the exercises from my books.”

Bob also encouraged my writing, and when I released my album of original instrumental guitar music a few years ago, it featured in some compositions developed during the time that I worked with him.  Bob always emphasized the importance of playing with great tone. He once said, “If you’re not getting a good sound, do something about it. Don’t wait.” As I was recording the guitar tracks for my album, I thought of this advice often, as I am sure all of his students do in crucial performance moments. Bob always played with an amazingly beautiful tone, warm and full of authority.  To coin a phrase from Ernest Hemingway, studying with Bob provided me with “A Movable Feast” that continues to nourish, inform and enrich my musical life to this day.”


Robert Sullivan eclectic musical career embodied the combination of music and people skills together and his contribution to music continues throughout his students and colleagues.

Mark Small

Mark Small