Portrait of Bill Leavitt
I met William Leavitt in 1969. I had just completed 4 years of active duty in the US Navy as a guitarist in the Navy Show Band. My ambition then was to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston thanks to the GI Bill. Due to timing and circumstances I spent a year in Boston getting settled, finding a job and a place to live, etc.
The former guitarist with the Navy Show Band was Charlie Encinosa, an incredible musician with naturally fast hands that literally “ate up” the fingerboard. We had been friends in the Navy and it had been through his encouragement that I auditioned and replaced him in the Show Band. Actually, it took two of us to replace Charlie: myself and another great musician/guitarist, Jerry Boyd.
But that’s another story!
When I arrived in Boston, Charlie and I re-united. He was about 6 semesters into Berklee and knowing how anxious I was to begin my studies, he graciously offered to introduce me to Bill Leavitt.
Here is a brief description of Bill’s career.
Bill Leavitt was a student of musicologist, Joseph Schillinger, who founded the Schillinger House in Boston. Another of Schillinger’s students, Lawrence Berk, eventually purchased the school, which then became the Berklee School of Music, now the Berklee College of Music.
After a successful career as a guitarist/arranger in radio and performance mediums, Bill went on to become Chairman of the Guitar Department at Berklee. He authored the 3-volume work, “A Modern Method for Guitar”, a thorough college-level course in mastering the guitar fingerboard. It was during his tenure as Chairman that I met and studied with Bill.
The photo included here is one I took of Bill. I think it expresses his everyday attitude, always enthusiastic, not only about his life’s work but about YOU! He listened and counseled. He always knew exactly what to say and how to say it.
At our first meeting in Bill’s office at Berklee, he listened as I explained my situation, then he offered to give me a weekly private lesson. I wasn’t even a student! And here was Bill Leavitt, Chairman of the Guitar Department, being so kind as to offer me guitar lessons. We started working on Volume I that day. Thus began a four year adventure of studying the guitar (and in a broader sense, music) with Bill Leavitt.
Bill was on a mission at Berklee: to turn out competent professional guitarists into the musical world. That meant being able to sight read and to know that fingerboard. That is an entirely different thing than being a great jazz player/improvisor. Bill Leavitt was successful in a world where “they” put the music in front of you and you played it. Period. If you couldn’t read the part it was, “NEXT!” Frankly, some students got it, and some didn’t, but Bill never wavered from his position. And he was an inspired instructor!
A Lesson with Bill Leavitt
After I became an official Berklee student I would show up for my weekly lesson, knock on Bill’s office door, and he would buzz me in. He’d give me an enthusiastic, “Hello, John! How’s everything going?” Then I would brief him on events at school or maybe on a gig the night before. I’d get my guitar out and sit in a chair directly opposite him, just as you see in the photo! I’d open “the book” and we’d start in. Berklee had specific requirements for each semester and we’d work on 3 or 4 of them in a focused ½ hour lesson. I might struggle through a reading example, trying to read something up around the 10th fret or so. I’d stare at a note and almost commit to playing it. Suddenly Bill would laugh out loud and point to my shaking finger!
“Look!” he’d exhort, “Your finger knows exactly where the note is, but it’s afraid it might be the wrong note! Go ahead! It’s the right note!!” Then we would both laugh, and within that laughter would be the solution of another tiny piece of the guitar fingerboard puzzle.
See that blackboard behind him? If I had a question about, say, a particular chord voicing, Bill would put his guitar on the stand, get on his feet, and hold forth at that blackboard. With the competence and clarity that comes only from a master, he would illustrate the chord voicing, analyzing each note as to its function in the chord, and pointing to a broad range of usages and inversions.
Bill Leavitt “wrote the book” on going above and beyond.
If I had a question or an issue at a time when I had no appointment, he’d buzz me in even if he was busy with another student. “Hi John. Get back to me in 20 if you can.” Twenty minutes later he’d be giving me his undivided attention as I poured out a musical or even personal problem. Without fail, five minutes later I would walk out of that office with a smile on my face and a new and positive perspective.
Bill had literally hundreds of students, but somehow he was never too busy to help any of them.
I never left Bill’s office without feeling that I had just been given a wonderful gift, one that keeps on giving.
Copyright © 2016 John Carlini