For classical guitarist Myrna Sislen, it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time.
Last winter, the Washington-born and -educated musician (Wakefield High, American University) had just finished recording her first album and "afterwards I carried around a cassette copy of it so that any time I passed by an empty cassette player I could whip it in. It was my first album and I wanted to hear what it sounded like," Sislen says proudly.
"I happened to be at a hair cuttery one day and I asked the woman who was doing my hair if she had a cassette player there. She said sure, and we turned it on. The place was empty, there was nobody there . . . except one other woman. The tape played and played and after listening to a couple of numbers the other woman said, 'That was Bach, wasn't it?'
"We started talking, and she told me her husband was in the State Department in Africa, that she did a little bit of teaching and was just in town for a few days. Well, I also happened to have my latest guitar book because the woman who does my hair had cut it for the picture in the book and I wanted to show it to her. I let the other lady have the book," Sislen adds, saying that she never expected to see her again.
"About six weeks ago, I got a call at 8:15 in the morning. She was back and she wanted me to teach her son, and, by the way, they had some extra money and wanted to further my work at George Washington University," where Sislen has taught for the last six years. The result is the Myrna Sislen Guitar Scholarship Fund, endowed in the amount of $4,000. "That covers fees for one student per semester, so each semester a different student will be chosen on the basis of ability and need," said Sislen, who also performs on the vihuela, a Spanish variation on the lute.
Her album, "Classical Guitar," was recorded for the Brazilliance label of California and is the first recording by a Washington classical guitarist since a Charlie Byrd recording in the 1960s. WGMS will play Sislen's album Oct. 5 and interview her from 8:05 to 9 p.m.
Since 1972 Sislen, who studied locally (with Byrd, Laurindo Almeida and Sophocles Pappas) and abroad (with Aulirio Diaz, Leo Brouwer, Avela Calevaro and Guido Santorsella) has written seven books of guitar arrangements, a series that also came about from being in the right place at the right time.
"I was in New York with Laurindo Almeida at the offices of Big 3 Music Corporation." They had just collaborated on "Contemporary Moods for Classical Guitar," with Sislen doing the explanatory notes and fingerings for it. "There was some big editorial meeting going on and I suggested the need for books featuring classical arrangements of pop tunes for intermediate players. There were plenty of one-note things for beginners and Laurindo's books for good players, but nothing for the intermediate players." And so Sislen offered herself and "then I ran home and learned how to do it."
For one book, "Renaissance Lute Music for Guitar--An Anthology of Constant Delights," Sislen transcribed the original lute tablature to current notation. Her latest effort is "First Classical Pieces for Guitar," featuring tunes from the classical repertoire and from the ragtime era. "I found some ragtime music at the Library of Congress that had not been available since it was originally published. The great thing is these tunes were written for guitar, they're not transcriptions. Somewhere around the turn of the century there were a lot of people writing a lot of music for guitar, there's just stacks and stacks of it there."
Sislen, who has done concert tours of the United States and Canada, South America and Europe (the last three times) is currently playing at the Henley Park Hotel, weekdays from 5 to 9 p.m. It's quite a contrast from full-fledged concerts, she admits, "but each one has benefits. I like the informality of playing in the hotel. I don't have to impose my instrument into a place where it doesn't fit, the room is perfect for guitar, so I feel quite comfortable when I'm playing."
As if she weren't busy enough with teaching, performing and being a part of the Washington Performing Arts Society's Concerts in the Schools programs (she also had a television show, "Musical Moments With Myrna," on South Carolina's public network), Sislen recently discovered a whole new field of endeavor: tap dancing. She accompanied a cousin to a demonstration and suddenly found herself "tap dancing across the floor. I didn't know where it came from, but it turned out I did take tap as a kid." Now she has a group called Hot Cross Buns, which combines tap and modern dance with guitar accompaniment.
"I have a dream concert," Sislen adds, saying it evolved from her appearance as a guest soloist with conductor Newton Wayland at a Midwest Pops Orchestra concert in Indiana. "The first half would be Rodrigo's 'Concerto de Aranjuez' and then we'd do one movement of Morton Gould's 'Concerto for Tap Dancer and Orchestra.' We haven't been able to sell this one yet," she adds with a laugh. Which, based on past experiences, doesn't mean it won't happen.