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Her mother had introduced the formal teaching of guitar at the Municipal Music Conservatory (now the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory) and she headed the guitar department at that institution. She is considered to be the founder of the Modern School of Guitar in Cuba. She taught all of her children and three of them went on to have musical careers. Isaac Nicola, particularly, became the highly respected director of the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. He also created the method for teaching guitar that is still being used today in all the country’s music schools.
Clara grew up supported by the love and example of her mother. The Dictionary of Notable Women in Cuban Music has defined her with one single word: Educator. Teaching has always been her fundamental work, having started out teaching guitar in 1951. She participated in the activities of the Children’s Society of Fine Arts, the children’s branch of the significant Pro Arte Musical cultural organization. For years she worked as a private teacher of popular guitar. At the triumph of the Revolution, she finally achieved her dream of working as her mother and brother had before her, teaching classical guitar. She taught at the Alejandro García Caturla Conservatory, was founder of the arts instructors’ schools and led her own music department. She created a method for teaching folkloric music. After she retired at 59, her love for the guitar and her profession kept her active as a private teacher, right up to the present. Her work has been recognized with the National Culture Award, the Medal for Cuban Education, the First Prize at the Cubadisco Festival and many other awards and distinctions.
Every corner of her apartment on 43rd St. in the Havana municipality of Playa shows the vestiges of her profession: a footrest for her students, a music stand with a book opened to its first lessons, an oil portrait of her mother, awards… Clarita is a small woman, thin and quite round-shouldered. She often bumps into the furniture of her small living room that we have invaded with electrical cables, camera tripod and spotlight. Over there is her balcony where she loves to watch the sunrise with her husband Salvador. She speaks in an unwavering voice that bears the traces of the passing of the years and the feelings that inundate her as she remembers those who are no longer around: her parents, her brothers and her nephew Noel Nicola, who was a founding member of the Nueva Trova movement and composed many beautiful and well-known songs. Clarita’s diction has the precision of an expert teacher. She enthusiastically recalls her students, the good ones, and becomes furious when mentioning some students who, despite their talent, abandoned their studies. She mentions Edesio Alejandro (an important Cuban composer who has worked for the movies and TV) and her face lights up with pride when she talks about having seen the film Clandestinos and finding out that the boy who struggled with his guitar turned out to be a genuine artist.
Her passion is teaching: she confesses to us that she adores the students who are not that talented, the ones who seem not to be able to move forward, because it gives her the possibility of helping them, of finding how hidden abilities lie dormant under the surface. Our video producer who as a boy was Clarita’s student and gave us this gift of bringing us to her home, decides to take up his lessons again much to the joy of his teacher who, in spite of the time elapsed, sees that her student has continued to practice and has become quite proficient on the guitar. I am transported back to my days as a music student and this enchanting woman makes me doubt what I have been convinced of for over fifteen years: that I am absolutely unable to decently play the guitar. I look at her closely. She is very old but still full of life and I look forward to the hope that someday, when my two daughters are a bit older, I can bring them to her.
And when it looks like the magic cannot get any stronger, Clarita takes the guitar and we discover an inspired composer. Her voice is a bit unsteady and she makes us sing along. Her guitar accompanies us with indulgence, friendliness and wisdom, covering up our errors and pausing as if it were rehearsed so that we can catch our breath. “When Clara plays, she makes it look like anyone can sing well,” says my husband who is infected by the joy of the moment. And even though it’s getting late, no one wants to leave.
As we say our goodbyes, the promise of coming back is in the air. I am happy to have met this woman who got married at fifty, never had any children, but left her motherly touch on many. Clara Nicola was indeed welcome when she came into this world. Welcome to my heart, beloved teacher and as of today, also my friend.
March 2015 This article formed part of the March 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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