A Woman and Her Guitar
In a windowless cave beneath the old city of Prague, a concert of two guitars is set to begin. Candlelight plays on ancient stone walls adorned with the work of local painters, a welcome to all art.
Acoustic guitar in lap, Milada sits at a long table in the centre of the room. Her duet partner is stuck in traffic, leaving her to play solo tonight. She adjusts her long, flowing knit jumper and takes a deep breath. Softly, deliberately, she introduces her first song: a melodic Czech folk tune patterned with precise pickings and strong undertones.
Tonight’s concert is no ordinary performance. It’s a communication between an artist and a lean audience of two sitting not three feet across the table from her. Akin to dining with a new acquaintance, but the language is music and the medium vulnerability. Low attendance and a missing guitarist are minor obstacles, or perhaps a blessing.
Notes vault from each string, striking crisp against the curved ceiling and resonating on six ears. The result is a different sound, born from an intent not to be heard by many, but to be listened to by few.
Her playing is exquisite. Skilful. Heartfelt. Thoughtful. And intimate.
Mid-way, Milada exchanges her guitar for a hank drum. She cradles it in her lap, little pieces of paper taped to the tongues on its surface indicating different pitches. As she strikes it on all sides, with all parts of her hands, the rhythm builds with excitement, then falls to a meditative pulse.
She turns to me with outstretched arms, drum held midair. I nervously accept, and tap lightly at the surface. Feeling things out, experimenting, with music and myself. As I laugh at myself, I ask her why she started playing the hank drum, what a random choice. “Because I liked it,” she says. “When I learn something new, a new world opens up.”
An hour and only a handful of words later, the concert is over. I’ve played her drum, my husband has played her guitar. And our relationship with Milada has changed. There is now understanding, respect, and a commonality between us.
Milada pauses a moment, and then asks, “Would you like to see more guitar tonight?” We hesitate, thinking of our tight budget and early flight the next morning. “I have extra tickets to see Tommy Emmanuel play tonight at the Rudolfinum. He’s a wonderful player, we can go together.” She offers us her extra tickets at a steep discount, too good to say no. We tell her we’ll stop by an ATM to get the cash on the way, but she suddenly looks at her watch. “Hurry, we’ll miss the beginning.” But, the cash? “We can’t worry about money, let’s go!”
We run to the Rudolfinum theatre, a palatial structure framing an open plaza along the Vltava river, Prague’s iconic bridges running for miles in either direction. The Dvořák Hall is already filled to the brim with Czech guitarists and guitar lovers. We sit, surrounded by Milada’s students. She excitedly introduces us to budding guitarists of all ages: from a young boy she teaches in a school to an older university student and his girlfriend. Her students are thrilled to see her, their dear teacher decades their senior, truly beloved.
Suddenly the lights dim, and Tommy Emmanuel jaunts across the stage, exuding Australian laid-back cool to hollering Czech fans. Alone and in duet with his close Czech guitarist friends, Tommy gifts song after song, spinning impossible to play passages with ease. The audience can’t get enough.
At the interval, Milada asks her student, Tomáš, and his girlfriend Kristina to keep us company as her younger students monopolise her. Both are from Prague — Kristina is getting ready to apply to university and Tomáš will be graduating from university shortly after a journey that involved switching majors midway to find a field he enjoys. Guitar is his hobby, one he takes seriously enough to pursue alongside a demanding course load. They are kind and a bit shy, with open hearts they put us at ease.
We sit as the lights dim for the second half of the show, which ends in a roaring standing ovation. On Milada’s face, a small smile spreads across her lips. It’s not the profile of the concert that has made her content, it’s the performance alone.
Milada herself is not about sold out venues and stage lights. She lives for the experimentation and vulnerability that make music, that make life.