Guitar program founder and director Stephen Robinson retired last spring following global acclaim across decades — but he’s not done playing yet.
BY RICK DE YAMPERT
Classical guitarist Stephen Robinson, DM — whom the legendary
Andrés Segovia called “one of the most brilliant guitarists of our times” and who in spring 2021 retired from
Stetson 38 years after founding the university’s guitar program — is thinking of taking up … accordion?
“A dear friend just gave me an accordion,” Robinson says. “I want to be an amateur at something. I’m hoping to piddle around with it because I love the sound.
But I’m already finding — people told me this — when you retire, you actually seem to be busier.”
Learning accordion in his late 60s wouldn’t be the most improbable happening in Robinson’s life. It’s a life — or call it a tune — in which he seemed primed for a career as an international touring and recording artist, but instead he and his wife,
Patrece, chose the road that led to DeLand.
Those “improbables” for Robinson included playing guitar in rock and rhythm and blues cover bands, beginning at age 14, and not even taking up classical guitar until he was 23 in 1976.
“Yeah, a late start,” Robinson says nonchalantly, his tousled, longish black hair still hinting, four decades later, at the rock ’n’ roller he used to be.
Those improbables also included a last-minute application to study under Segovia, an errant “Stetson University” pencil at Yale and his pitch in 1983 to create a guitar program at Stetson, when “I didn’t even have to open my mouth” at the interview, he notes.
‘THE PEPPERMINT TWIST’
Robinson’s affair with the guitar began when he was growing up in Port Chester, New York, 30 miles north of Manhattan. A cousin played folk guitar, and an uncle played guitar, mandolin and … accordion. They showed the youngster a few things on their instruments.
“On my ninth birthday, my parents took me to a music store and got me a guitar,” Robinson recalls. “I started when The Beatles were around, the early ’60s. I took lessons in the back of the music store with an old jazzer.”
At 14, he began playing gigs in rock and R&B cover bands. He later enrolled at West Chester University of Pennsylvania as a voice major. “After two years, I realized I wasn’t a singer; I was a guitarist,” he says.
After a summer playing the Jersey Shore with a rock band six nights a week, he enrolled at The State University of New York, where he took a classical guitar class “and found that I excelled at it.”
An opportunity, however, came up to tour Florida playing with Joey Dee and the Starliters, who had scored a huge No. 1 hit in 1962 with “Peppermint Twist.” The band played Disney hotels and Miami Beach.
“It was a lot of fun,” Robinson says. “But I hit a point where it was like ‘Time to take life seriously. I don’t want to be in a bar six nights a week for the rest of my life.’ So, I went home and started working at classical guitar, did some auditions and ended up at Florida State [University].”
WHEN STEPHEN MET PATRECE
Robinson met Patrece, a dark-eyed Miami native, when both were attending FSU in the late 1970s. Robinson was studying guitar under Bruce Holzman, director of FSU’s Guitar Program. Patrece was earning her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in piano performance.
They married while still at FSU. After a year of graduate study at Yale, Robinson returned to FSU, where he earned his master’s and then became the first recipient of FSU’s Doctor of Music in Guitar.
It was Patrece who “decided it would be better if both of us worked on one career rather than try to do two separate careers,” Robinson remembers. “She has incredibly great business skills. She’s a doer. So, we became this team. I’m kind of the creative one, and she was my agent, my manager. She took care of everything. Still does.”
AT THE FOOT OF THE MASTER
What Picasso is to painting, Andrés Segovia is to 20th-century classical guitar — he’s the universally acclaimed godfather of the instrument. While at FSU, Robinson heard that Segovia would be teaching a master class at the University of Southern California.
“Patrece said, ‘You need to do this,’” Robinson explains, adding, “We had just gotten married. We didn’t have a lot of money.” He applied at the last minute and was accepted.
“It was really competitive to get in. They picked 12 players worldwide,” Robinson says. “At this time, I had never been to a Segovia concert, so he’s hearing me before I heard him live, which is really kind of weird.”
That became the first of numerous encounters and lessons Robinson would have with Segovia before his death in 1987. Those encounters led Segovia, the master, to proclaim that Robinson is “a magnificent guitarist, one of the most brilliant guitarists of our times.”
While Robinson treasures the techniques he learned from Segovia, “It was such a great experience because it was more about the spirit and the devotion to the instrument, the poetry,” he says.
STETSON CALLING AND CALLING ON STETSON
As a graduate student at FSU, Robinson taught beginning classical guitar to education majors. And, as a grad student at Yale, he not only taught but worked as a receptionist for the music school. Enter Stetson.
“One night at work, I found this pencil — it said ‘Stetson University’ on it,” he says, chuckling. “I’m up at Yale, and somebody left it there. It was like things were steering me.”
He completed his master’s and doctoral degrees at FSU, and “when it came time to get a job, I remembered Stetson.”
Robinson arranged to meet with Paul Langston, then dean of Stetson’s School of Music. FSU’s music school Dean Bob Glidden told Robinson he was “great friends” with Langston and that he would put in a good word for him.
“I planned my whole spiel — why Stetson needs a guitar program and why I’m the guy to do it,” Robinson recounts of his meeting with Langston. “He comes out and says, ‘Bob Glidden told me all about you. I’ve always wanted to start a guitar program, and I’ve just never gotten around to it. Bob says you’re the guy to do it. Let’s do it.’
“I didn’t even have to open my mouth.”
STETSON AND BEYOND
Robinson founded Stetson’s guitar program in 1983 as “a part-time gig.” It became a full-time program in 1987.
“When I was teaching at Stetson in the early days, we had four kids running around the house,” Robinson says, alluding to sons Anthony, Nicolas, Alexander and Benjamin. “I was coaching soccer for 13 years. Playing a gazillion concerts. Teaching a full load. I look back and think ‘How in the world did I do that?’”
Robinson garnered international and national awards, fellowships and grants, including several from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a Fulbright Fellow. Early in his career, he was a top-prize winner in five major international competitions, including the XXIII Concours International de Guitare in Paris and the VI Concurso Internacional de Guitarra in Venezuela. Those competitions were very big deals.
In the late 1980s, he performed Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” perhaps the world’s most beloved guitar concerto, on successive weekends with the Boston Pops. He played concerts in Europe, South America and across the United States.
Robinson recorded eight critically acclaimed CDs, including “Imagine,” which featured his classical guitar rendition of the John Lennon song. He was honored with Stetson’s Hand Award for Excellence in Research and Creativity for his performances and recordings.
He and Patrece, who served as an adjunct music professor at Stetson from 2002 to 2015, established and directed the Stetson International Guitar Workshop from 1991 to 2005, bringing such world-class players as Roland Dyens, the Amadeus Guitar Duo and Holzman, the FSU guitar professor, to campus to perform public concerts and lead master classes for students.
Meanwhile, Robinson’s students were excelling at guitar competitions, including the Florida Guitar Festival and the Southern Guitar Festival and Competition.
‘DOORS WERE OPENING’
Given Segovia’s accolades and Robinson’s stellar performances at prestigious guitar competitions, he seemed primed for a career as a concert and recording artist on par with such star classical guitarists as Julian Bream, Angel Romero and John Williams.
“The doors were opening; I could have done it,” Robinson says. “I kind of credit Patrice for that not happening, because I’ve
Bruce Holzman about Robinson, his former student: “No guitarists who ever attended one of his festivals could ever forget it.”
Jonathan Smith, a former student of Robinson’s: “Every note was important to Steve — every note.”
ended up with this really nicely balanced life. I always knew I wanted a family, but I also wanted to be there for my kids.
“I’d had enough of life on the road. It seems really glamorous, but it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. You’re on stage and that’s beautiful, but in the end everybody goes home and you’re alone in a hotel room. Fortunately, I had somebody to call.”
When the world-renowned Eastman School of Music came calling, hoping to lure Robinson and his guitar to its campus at Rochester, New York, he passed.
“Stetson gave me incredibly great flexibility to do everything,” says Robinson, who was named Professor Emeritus upon retiring. “I had so much support from that university. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of support at a bigger institution. I knew what I had.”
‘ATTENTION TO DETAIL’
Holzman believes his protégé has left indelible marks on his students, colleagues and friends.
“I have always been amazed by Dr. Robinson’s attention to detail as a teacher,” Holzman comments. “The musicality, the phrasing, the attention to dynamics and color details. He was able to communicate that to his students.” His playing, Holzman describes, is “just beautiful.”
Yet, Robinson’s impact went beyond plucking those six strings, Holzman adds, calling Robinson a “great person” and “charismatic.”
“No guitarists who ever attended one of his festivals could ever forget it. What a joyous and loving and musical and artistic time,” Holzman concludes.
Jonathan Smith, a DeLand native, studied guitar privately under Robinson as a high-school student, then continued his studies at Stetson, graduating in 2011 with a Bachelor of Music degree with an emphasis on guitar performance.
“He taught me that it’s not just what you practice but how you practice,” says Smith, who works as a performer, music producer and teacher of all styles of music in Sarasota. “Every note was important to Steve — every note.
“He taught me how to be professional, him and also the overall spirit that’s at Stetson and in the music school. He was very fatherly to me, always smiling, full of joy, just radiating positivity. He and his wife, Patrece, have been very helpful. I go to them for career advice even now.”
Part of Robinson’s “retirement plan” is to post performance videos on YouTube, stream his music and keep his new website, srclassicguitar.com, up to date with news of his upcoming concerts. Also, he’s rereleasing all of his recordings and recording new material in his home studio, as he always has (now in New Smyrna Beach).
He gets a bit sentimental and philosophical, too, particularly about his legacy at Stetson.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen. But if I was really worried about it, I would’ve hung onto it for life,” Robinson says with a laugh. “I had always thought I would do that — until they carry you out with the sheet over you.”
Robinson pauses and then continues: “My students are my legacy. Children of students have studied with me. That’s pretty cool. The festival, my recordings. And I see my legacy as my family. I have four sons, six grandkids.”
And perhaps Robinson’s guitar journey will come full circle.
“The electric guitar is on the wall,” he says. “I just noodle. I have a passing interest in jazz. What happens next is still brewing.”