Q&A: Gary Wittner – "A new way to teach old tunes"

RAYMOND – After decades focused on helping college students to master jazz guitar, Raymond’s Gary Wittner is changing his tune slightly to help children become talented classical guitarists.

Wittner has begun providing Suzuki guitar lessons at his home studio on Valley Road in Raymond. The lessons are based on the musical methodology of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who revolutionized the music world in the mid-20th century when he began teaching violin to students as young as 4 years old.

Wittner has a diverse and extensive guitar background, both in teaching and playing. Since 1986, Wittner has taught jazz guitar and music appreciation and music history at the university level. He teaches at the University of Southern Maine and Bowdoin College. For the last year, he has also taught guitar lessons for children at the French School of Maine in Freeport.

As a performer, Wittner has a long resume spanning 25 years and five continents. He’s performed jazz guitar solo and in ensembles and represented the United States twice as a Kennedy Center/U.S. State Department Jazz Ambassador and once as Fulbright grant recipient.

The Berklee College of Music graduate has also published five CDs and penned “Thelonious Monk for Guitar,” which was published by Hal Leonard Corp. in 1999.

The mild-mannered Wittner sat down with the Lakes Region Weekly to discuss the Suzuki method and his passion for guitar.

Q: What sparked your interest in playing and teaching guitar for a living?

A: In 1977, I was studying pre-veterinary medicine at Cornell University hanging out in a dorm room with this guy who put on a Thelonious Monk record, and the rhythms and surprises in notes attracted me immediately. And that was my last semester as a pre-vet major and I switched to music. So my connection to Monk is really strong for me. It was really a landmark moment that changed the course of my life.

Q: How did you come to live in Raymond?

A: When I finished my master’s degree in 1986, I wound up getting hired at University of Maine in Augusta. I taught there until 1996/1997 when I got a job at the University of Southern Maine. My wife and I wanted to move south but remain in a rural environment, and so we moved to Valley Road in Raymond.

Q: How did you choose Suzuki method?

A: About a year ago, a colleague of mine offered me his position at a French immersion school in Freeport, the French School of Maine, which has a Suzuki program. I had been doing the same type of teaching for quite a while and had been looking for something new. And this was something new. And as I started learning more and more about Suzuki, I became more interested.

Q: How does Suzuki compare to your college teaching?

A: It’s a whole different kind of approach. Just everything is different. Suzuki is classical music so I had to purchase a new guitar, which I really enjoy. And it’s a much younger clientele. And Suzuki has a different methodology of teaching, so it’s very, very different.

Q: What is Suzuki all about?

A: As an instructor, you have to buy this book by Mr. Suzuki, and I found that interesting. The more I learned about it, the more I found it not only to have certain overlapping concepts with my experience as a jazz musician and jazz educator, but it was interesting because there are basically two overlying concepts: Music can be learned at a very young age the way we learn our native language, which is just listening and repeating. And, by the way, the jazz world kind of learns that way, too. You listen and repeat. Suzuki also said that ability is not a born thing, it can be developed for everybody if nurtured the right way.

Q: That sounds holistic.

A: They’re trying to develop well-rounded human beings. They’re not just trying to develop musicians. It was a very idealistic approach, kind of improving the world through music, which is a beautiful approach. And I’ve traveled all over the world and I have experienced the connection with people who don’t speak the same language, who come from a completely different culture. Music does connect people in a really wonderful and peaceful way.

Q: Who is Suzuki?

A: Dr. Shinichi Suzuki was a child of World War II, and I think he started teaching in the 1940s and ’50s. And it became big in America in the 1960s for violin. The Suzuki guitar method has been around for 25 years.

Q: Is this only for kids?

A: I think this method is definitely directed at young people. Prior to Dr. Suzuki, I think the general consensus was that people should start [playing an instrument] around 9, 10, 11 years old. And he had them starting at 4 and 5 years of age. I think the music education establishment didn’t think it could be done. And he showed that not only could it be done but there are advantages to starting that early. And, consequently, studies have shown when you start at those young ages, it develops connections in the brain that help the child in learning development for other fields, multitasking, two-hand coordination. So there are a lot of benefits beyond learning the guitar.

But while I think it’s geared toward young people – for example there’s quite a bit of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” – I think the basic premises can be used by adults. But I think you’d have to change the methodology, perhaps utilizing a different set of songs.

Q: What’s a class like?

A: There’s a private lesson and a group class, and they work together. And the group class has games, and flashcards – things that are children’s things. The private lesson is one-on-one, typically for half an hour. And the group lesson is for an hour. The group gives the students a chance to do the private stuff in a group setting and see how other people are doing, learn from peers, and develop this community consciousness and community feeling. And the recitals grow out of the group lessons. So it’s a really integrated, well-thought-out methodical approach.

Q: How does Suzuki differ from other teaching methods?

A: Guitar students typically learn scales, and they learn some chords, and then they plug them into a tune and start improvising. So there’s a general methodology for that. But I don’t believe there’s anything as structured as this. The Suzuki method has a very specific set of tunes. There are nine books and they get more difficult as they go. The other thing that’s unique about Suzuki is the parent involvement. They have the “Suzuki triangle,” which is parent-teacher-child. And they want the parent to be very integrated, at least in the beginning. The parent should come to the lesson and the parent should be engaging in the first couple months of lessons, so the parents get a sense of what it’s like learning this and can go home and help the child. That’s in its purest sense, which I don’t know if I’ll be doing. But that’s something I had never seen before.

Q: Do you think kids will be interested in this? With the digital world out there, is that affecting kids’ interests in playing instruments?

A: Who knows? It seems to me that this Suzuki method is known all over. People have heard of Suzuki music instruction. So my guess is that there will be an amount, not a huge amount – I don’t want a huge amount since I teach three days a week at Bowdoin College, the French School and USM. But my guess is there are enough parents out there who have heard of Suzuki or know someone who has done it and have seen the results. The results are quite impressive.

Q: What has the guitar meant to you?

A: I’ve been playing since I was 8 or 9 years old. But the guitar, in my life, has been a way that I’ve been able to connect not only with musicians from all different cultures, some quite removed from mine, in a fairly deep and profound way. So it really has opened up a whole level of interpersonal communication that I don’t think would have existed for me. Besides my family, the thing that feeds me most in my life is traveling to other cultures and feeling a connection through the music.

Q: And you want to pass that on to some of these kids, if possible.

A: That would be beautiful. That would be spectacular, just to open them up to everything that music can be for a person.

Gary Wittner of Raymond purchased a new classical guitar to provide lessons for children in his home studio using the famed Suzuki method.