Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 27, 2018

Sowing seeds

Two years ago, Denver Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning was at the helm when his team won Super Bowl 50. They were a sentimental favorite because, although Manning was not the dominant player he once was, a win seemed an appropriate capstone to his storied career.

This past Tuesday, we had a somewhat similar experience times two. One of those was in Kansas State University’s McCain Auditorium where David Littrell also scored a “win” in his farewell performance, both as a cellist and as the longest-serving leader - 28 years - of the university’s orchestra.

But unlike Manning, there were no signs that he was closing out a remarkable career propped up on memories. While fortunate to have a better-than-usual group of musicians under his baton this year, he certainly did not squander their talents and the music was wonderful.

Yet writing about music is much like writing about a painting - words never do justice. But the process can be instructive. While the fairy-tale notion of being a “natural” - a person who appears at an early age with impressive skills - is appealing, the fact is that almost anyone who is excellent at anything only arrives at that point after hours of hard work. The somewhat accepted “rule of thumb” is that it takes 10,000 hours of concerted effort to become an expert.

That mastery for David began when he took up his instrument as a youngster in the sixth grade. Warren Walker was cello instructor at Kansas State University then, and David’s father Harvey asked Walker to be his son’s tutor. With years of mentoring, David would earn a bachelor’s degree in music. In Texas, he would earn a master’s and a doctorate degree. Over the years, he became first chair in many orchestras, both in the academic world and the professional one. He has headed national music organizations and performed at Carnegie Hall and toured the United Kingdom and Ireland. He returned to K-State when Walker retired, even buying Walker’s cello.

Along the way, David became a master teacher as well. He has twice been recognized with the university’s excellence in teaching award. In 2007, the Carnegie Foundation named him Kansas Professor of the Year. He has long held the title of University Distinguished Professor. Together with his mentor, they represent 70 years of preparing students.

But that preparation was not just for their instruments, but for life as well. He did not form and lead children’s string orchestras in his time away from the university with the goal that perhaps one of its members might be the next Itzhak Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma. Instead, his focus was on developing the habits of work and concentration that led him, and can lead anyone, to excellence in any chosen field.

He didn’t earn the admiration and respect of those orchestra members by being some lovable teddy bear. He was demanding, yet accessible. He could be deadly serious about his music, but his rehearsals were peppered with corny jokes that his students embraced. He demanded that the members blend, while always conscious of the fact that they are individuals and an approach that may work with one does little for another.

One of his favorite maxims is “Early is on time, on time is late and late is unacceptable.” It is not the whim of some tyrant, but the understanding that when you are part of something that requires a group effort, just one person being late will affect the whole. Studies have shown that fitting into and consideration for a larger community produce citizens who are more conscious and considerate of their neighbors. It is expressed in his mantra: “There are two kinds of people: those who help put the chairs away ... and those who don’t.”

But Tuesday night was significant in another way. Husband Art and I had rushed to Manhattan from Junction City, where daughter Katie’s kindergarten and first grade classes presented a music program. Art commented that he remembers those grades and the closest thing he had to music were the odd visits by a woman who played the zither and occasional class times when he and his classmates would sing. Katie’s kids were playing xylophones, tambourines and egg shakers and displaying quarter notes and rests to show what they had learned about performing and reading music. Annika, a high school music teacher and Katie’s colleague, mentioned to Art what a remarkable job Katie had done with the kids.

But Tuesday night was also Katie’s farewell. She will begin graduate school in the fall, and while she intends to teach in the future, it is unlikely it will be music. Both her teaching and her time in music have formed that connection David has often emphasized and that she experienced while a first violinist in his Gold Orchestra. Her focus has moved on to wanting to do research and teach in areas related to how people connect and how better to include diverse groups.

There is no denying that Tuesday had a touch of sadness, for that is unavoidable when you see something good come to an end. But David will continue to teach 15 or so cello students and travel. And Katie? Well, it’s hard to say. She’s still at the starting point of her life.

I often have mentioned how I like the Ecclesiastes reference about how there is a season for everything. On Tuesday evening, it was clear two seasons were ending. But I have long been aware that as teachers, we rarely see the full flowering of the seeds we have sown. It is unlikeley Walker would have imagined all David would accomplish. And David has planted many over the years that are still blooming. Perhaps Katie has sown a few as well and will hopefully plant more in the future. So while it was a touch sad, I embrace the notion of not crying because something is over, but to be happy that it happened.

Top-left: David Littrell next to a display of some the highlights from his career; bottom-left: Katie directing her first graders, some of whom are holding "rest" music symbols; right: Katie while a member of Littrell's Gold Orchestra in 2007.

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