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Kansas State University

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Always ready to learn

David Littrell has spent a career on the alert for teaching opportunities


David Littrell, the Carnegie Foundation's 2007 Kansas professor of the year, is always ready to learn, especially when he's teaching.

Littrell conducting"Just this morning, with a new student who's just beginning on the bass, I got all excited once again," Littrell said while taking a rare break in his office at McCain Auditorium. The student was struggling to keep his bow at a right angle to the string. "It looks like it ought to be easy, but everyone has trouble with it.

"So somehow I got the idea during the lesson of getting my laser pointer out, and I took masking tape and taped it to the bow and depressed the ‘on' button so it would shine a red point on a certain part of the wall." The student then could concentrate on keeping the laser dot stationary while moving the bow back and forth.

"This just really made him come alive; made me come alive, too," Littrell said. "In fact, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great idea that started out as an ordinary lesson with a beginner.'"

Being on the lookout for such opportunities is part of what makes a good teacher, Littrell believes. His youngest student is 5, but most are undergraduates. Regardless of age, "They all have the same problems," he said. "They just have them at different times." Bowing, intonation, left-hand technique; these common concerns complicate students' pursuit of musicality.

Littrell's success with a wide range of students helped him earn this annual distinction from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. He and other honorees from across the United States gathered Thursday, Nov. 15, in Washington, D.C., for an awards luncheon and an evening reception.

This is not the first recognition of Littrell's teaching skill. He is a university distinguished professor of music at K-State, where he has twice received the Stamey Undergraduate Teaching Award. In 1994 the Kansas chapter of the American String Teachers Association awarded him the certificate of merit.

Littrell conductingHe conducts the University Orchestra and teaches or plays the cello, baroque cello, five-string violoncello, piccolo, double bass, viola da gamba and electric cello.

His interest in the education of young people is evident in String Fling, an annual event he directs for about 750 students from across Kansas. He also conducts the Gold Orchestra, which includes more than 70 Manhattan-area string students in grades 5-12.

After the group's first national recognition in 1992 at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, the Gold Orchestra toured England (1997), Seattle and British Columbia (1999) and performed at Carnegie Hall in 2001 and 2006. In 2008 Littrell plans a concert-and-rafting trip to Estes Park in Colorado.

The Gold Orchestra's wide range of ages presents challenges, Littrell said, among them the selection of music to accommodate players' varying skills. But the group's annual October trip to the Rock Springs 4-H Camp demonstrates one advantage of diversity.

"I'm the only adult out there, or one of two, with 40 to 60 to 75 kids," Littrell said, "and I never have any discipline problems. Never. No one ever beats up anybody else. The younger kids feel safe, the older students take the younger students under their wing and nurture them.

"It's just an incredible experience, and of course the growth they make musically is very rewarding, too."

Though innovative use of technology was among the criteria used to select the Carnegie winners, the laser pointer is about as tech-minded as Littrell gets.

"When I was teaching theory I used just a chalkboard and chalk," he said. "And I just didn't want to bother with the smart classrooms and so forth. I'm not against them. I just have so many other things I'm learning about I couldn't deal with taking on things like that.

Littrell conducting"You can be dull as all get-out with every technical advantage in the world. But it still boils down to being able to communicate with the students, to get to know them as best you can, and to take a personal interest in them. That trumps technology any day."

That's not to say Littrell doesn't have a drawer full of gadgets, but they're notably analog: a trigger-operated jaw on a stick to grab errant fingers; a front-desk bell, pinged when a bow heads in the wrong direction; a carpenter's wide-jaw clamp to confine bowing to the appropriate area. He's even been known to fling a pair of pink, lace-trimmed socks when playing gets "wimpy."

"That's mostly for the boys," Littrell said. Occasionally, that sense of humor backfires.

"I don't try to be cruel by any means, but sometimes students take what I have to say perhaps the wrong way, or too literally, and I have to backtrack and make amends with the student, or the parent.

"So it's kind of a humbling experience, too, teaching is. It makes me grow as a person."

As a Manhattan boy toting a cello onto the school bus 50 years ago, Littrell shrugged off the inevitable teasing. He liked being "different from everybody else."

"They nicknamed me ‘Beethoven.' It was probably the only composer they had ever heard of."

He stayed with the instrument because he'd fallen in love with its warm, human voice and because of his teacher (and predecessor at K-State), the late Warren Walker, "who was almost a second father to me."

David Littrell conductingHis own father, the late K-State professor of education J. Harvey Littrell, was another mentor and role model. So it's no surprise that by eighth grade the younger Littrell had decided he was bound for academia.

Nonetheless, he tells his students that whatever their desires and goals are, they'll likely end up doing something they never dreamed of. Littrell never planned to conduct, but he spends most of his time on the podium these days.

"That's what young teachers need to know: Once you get out of school, it's just the very beginning."


Photos: David Littrell, the Carnegie Foundation’s 2007 Kansas professor of the year, says he comes alive when teaching. He leads the University Orchestra and the Gold Orchestra, made up of younger students, in addition to directing the annual String Fling, which attracts about 750 students from across the state.