David Surette, teacher at the community music school, “performed as he lived” – with an open ear and a lot of heart

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At a lunchtime concert in May 2019, folk guitar and mandolin teacher David Surette sat in a chair on one side of the stage at the Concord Community Music School and started playing a solo Irish jig on his mandolin, one foot tapping a solid rhythm on the ground.

Some time later, South Asian traditional music teacher Prem Sagar Khatiwada joined us, playing tabla drums. Then jazz teachers Matt Langley and Scott Kiefner added their sounds to the mix on the soprano saxophone and double bass. Finally, South Asian traditional music teacher Harimaya Adhikari began singing an improvised melodic line that recalled elements of both jazz and Hindu classical. The concert, titled “Common Ground: Searching for New Sounds,” focused on the similarities between musical styles, and it didn’t take long for the entire audience to clap to the beat of the mixed music.

Surette, a well-known performer and music teacher, died on December 18 at the age of 58, following a six-year battle with cancer. In his introduction to the Common Ground concert, broadcast on ConcordTV in April, Surette described it as an opportunity to connect with “tradition bearers,” people who help keep certain styles of music alive for the next generation. This month, faculty members at Concord Community Music School remember this concert as an example of Surette’s passion for perpetuating musical traditions and creating an inclusive music community in Concord and beyond. .

“He was truly an artist-teacher-scholar,” said Peggy Senter, recently retired founder and principal of Concord Community Music School. “His research skills and his writing were simply top notch scientifically, and everyone knows how amazing he was. And he was a master teacher; for any level of students he took it so seriously. It is, for me, a real model for any musician.

Susie Burke, wife and music partner of Surette, said Surette enjoys sharing her dedication to music with students at Concord Community Music School, which she believes was a big part of her musical identity.

“During the Mandolin Festival weekends that almost took place on March 20 and the 20 annual holiday concerts that we have had over the years, I had a window into his life at CCMS and I could feel the love and respect that everyone had for him. It was palpable. I have always felt so proud of my David, ”said Burke. “… When I or dear Peggy Senter would introduce and honor David at these events, this is the picture that repeats itself: Celebrated the audience more than him.” It was always about the music and the community, not him. ”

Surette’s colleagues at school remember him as a kind and patient teacher with a narrowed-eyed smile, always quick to offer words of encouragement and support.

“Hardly a day goes by as a teacher that I don’t ask myself, ‘What would David do?’ Said Liz Faiella, violin teacher, chair of the school’s folk, jazz and popular music departments. “A lot of times the students come in and they’re anxious or embarrassed, and David in his teaching and performing was always so aware of ‘Let’s enjoy this music’, like ‘Let’s watch the music and not ourselves. ‘”

Surette began teaching at the school in 1992 and traveled to Concord every Tuesday and Wednesday from her home in South Berwick, Maine. He was best known as a Celtic fingerstyle guitarist, as well as a skilled mandolin and bouzouki player, singer and songwriter. Surette had an extensive repertoire that covered folk music from a variety of traditions, including New England counter-dance tunes, traditional American music, blues, and ragtime. He has performed and recorded frequently with Susie Burke and with their daughters, Isa and Julianna Burke, in the family group Burke-Surette.

“David was my companion on all walks of this life,” said Burke. “He taught me and my daughters many lessons in music and life, and he will be missed forever.”

Despite his fame as a performer, his colleagues say he enjoyed collaborating with musicians of all levels and strived to create an inclusive environment on and off stage.

“No amount of talent was too small for him to want to play with the person,” said Audrey Budington, violin teacher at Concord Community Music School. “No one was too young, no one was too old. He was so encouraging and still very happy.

Music student John Blackford began taking guitar lessons at Concord Community Music School at the age of 75 in the early 2000s. Although he was nervous about playing and singing in public, Blackford, now 92, said Surette had helped him overcome this obstacle and that her accompaniment on the guitar during student recitals made him feel “like he’s in Nashville somewhere” .

Many young teachers at the music school, including Faiella, Budington, and violin teacher Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki, grew up listening to Surette’s music and viewed him as a mentor even as they became her colleagues.

“The world of music can be a really strange and difficult world to navigate, with many pitfalls and little guidance available for young people trying to figure out how to do it,” Tirrell-Wysocki said. “David was a really positive role model for (me as a) young man trying to figure out how he’s supposed to behave in this world. He set the bar very high, not just in terms of technical ability and musicality, but in terms of humility and respect, and just general kindness.

One of Tirrell-Wysocki’s favorite memories is filming a WMUR Musical clip with Surette having them play music on a frozen lake and walk to the top of a mountain with their instruments at dawn – he says Surette maintained her enthusiasm throughout each unusual adventure.

“He played the same way he lived, in a way,” said Faiella. “He played with this altruism, he always focused on the music but also on the other musicians, creating something beautiful together. What are the other musicians doing? How can I stand this? How can I add to this? How can I amplify this? And that’s also the way he interacted.

One of Surette’s most popular music school activities was hosting the annual March Mandolin Festival, a weekend of workshops and concerts featuring mandolin teachers and students from the whole world. Even after attending sessions all day, attendees stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning during jamming at the Grappone conference center.

Surette’s colleagues say he often reflected on his vision for the future of the school’s folk music department. Burke said that at home, Surette would often research or grade a piece of music a student expressed interest in, learning new things himself in the process. Senter has a stack of files from the early days of school, titled “Ideas from the Davids”, full of ideas from David Surette and former jazz department chair David Tonkin on how to improve and develop their respective programs.

“He was still thinking about the organization,” Senter said. “David has always thought, ‘How do we create a folk music draw for music school and a folk music identity that is also compatible with our classical music identity and our jazz music identity? “”

Even after being diagnosed with cancer in 2015, Burke said Surette worked as hard as she could to continue her classes. He continued to teach at Concord Community Music School until October 2021.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Surette developed a model of online distance music education that Senter described as a combination of lecture, concert and masterclass via video call, where students put themselves together. mute and play with the instructor. It became so popular that the Concord Community Music School welcomed students from as far away as Canada and Ireland.

“The way he handled his cancer diagnosis was just a model for me of how I would handle any trial in my life,” said Faiella. “He was incredibly positive, incredibly cheerful and continued to live his life to the fullest after this diagnosis.”

Concord musicians say their memories of Surette will remain at the forefront of their thoughts – and their jam sessions – in the future, as they continue to play the tunes they learned from him and pass them on to others. new students.

“I think it’s important that we keep talking about him,” Budington said. “I think it’s important that we continue to play his music and carry on his tradition, because he’s going to live that. ”

Local musicians have created a David Surette tribute Facebook page on Facebook.com/groups/tunesfordavidsurette.


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