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Jan. 19, 2020

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Blind musician shares vision at School for the Blind

Shane Dittmar finds unique purpose in teaching students to play music

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published:
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Music teacher Shane Dittmar of the Washington State School for the Blind, left, listens carefully as beginning band students Jaymes Gummere (in back), Xavier Lopez and Olivia McGraw work on scales and rhythms. Nathan Howard/The Columbian
Music teacher Shane Dittmar of the Washington State School for the Blind, left, listens carefully as beginning band students Jaymes Gummere (in back), Xavier Lopez and Olivia McGraw work on scales and rhythms. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Shane Dittmar, who is legally blind, clearly sees the meaning of life. The music educator, composer and singer paused during a recent rehearsal of Reprise Choir’s upcoming concert series to sum it all up, and connect it with his many pursuits, from classroom to concert stage.

“The point of ‘doing life’ is helping others ‘do life,’ ” said Dittmar, who began last fall as the Washington State School for the Blind’s music teacher, and who will conduct Reprise Choir next week as it sings an on-point poem by Emily Dickinson, set to Dittmar’s own music.

The poem is “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking,” and the conclusion of that line is, “I shall not live in vain.”

“If I can do something for someone else, the life I lived meant something,” Dittmar said. “It’s what we do as educators. Every one of these kids is so engaging and special and talented. They are a really diverse group of kids but they have one thing in common — they all love music.”

Emily Dickinson was a very “special” soul, too, Dittmar said: a recluse who wrote beautiful poetry but never saw it published. “What an interesting person she was,” he said. “What an expansive and generous view of people and the world she had,” despite laying low all her life.

Dittmar shares that view of easily overlooked people, which was on display during a couple of recent morning classes at the School for the Blind. When The Columbian arrived, a small circle of fledgling ukulele players was working through John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with Dittmar strumming along, calling out chords and helping with fingering.

“He likes to torture me,” said eighth-grader Gabe Pizzo.

“It’s true,” Dittmar agreed. Lovingly gentle, middle-school-appropriate sarcasm is part of the Dittmar package. But then he added real encouragement: Now that you’ve mastered a few basic chords, he told his students, “You already know enough chords to play 400 songs. At least.”

The next class was beginning band, with Dittmar coaching an ensemble of seven on trumpets, clarinets, flutes, trombones and drums. Lots of variation in experience and maturity was evident, and Dittmar stayed busy switching between group conductor and individual tutor.

“If you don’t sit up, you’ll squawk and play flat,” he told the group. After a while, he handed the baton to seventh-grade trombonist Olivia McGraw and said: “Count confidently at them and make them play.” After they did, Dittmar prompted McGraw to “make a sandwich” of their critique — an honest suggestion for improvement in between two positive compliments.

“It’s quite remarkable how he manages a class,” said school Superintendent Scott McCallum. “He is a great role model for them.” The school wasn’t specifically looking to hire a blind music teacher, he said — but it’s great that it got one.

“It is such a cool opportunity,” Dittmar said. “I never thought about teaching in a public school for the blind, but this is perfect. I know in my heart I am uniquely able to help.”

Teachers and students

Dittmar, 25, moved here last year with his fiance, Kaitlin Stone. He’s a native of Raleigh, N.C., and was born with a rare genetic eye condition, leber congenital amaurosis. He grew up singing and playing the piano, and delved into choir and musical theater while studying music education at the University of North Carolina. He also started composing choral works, and was thrilled to find that music editors and publishers liked them and asked for more.

His first version of “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” was simple and aimed at school choirs, Dittmar said, but at his publisher’s request he also scored a fuller, multi-part version for groups like Reprise.

Reprise is Vancouver’s professional-level choir; many of its 32 singers are music educators and choir leaders hand-picked by directors April Duvic and Janet Reiter, the former choral directors at Clark College. After retiring, Duvic and Reiter set themselves the challenge of building a small group of top-notch singers and staging one superb concert annually. The inaugural Reprise concert was spring 2017.

Reprise returns next week with an expanded annual offering: a series of concerts blending their pro-level polish with some fresh young voices. The Fort Vancouver High School Chamber Choir will join in when Reprise sings at that school (and presents music scholarship money) on March 26; two days later, on March 28, selected middle school singers will join Reprise at the Vancouver United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. There’s a third Reprise concert, too, set for March 30, but without student assistance. Also featured in all the concerts will be jazz combo Jim Fisher and Friends.

If You Go

What: Reprise Choir’s annual concert series, “The Singing Heart.”

When and where: 7:30 p.m. March 26 at Fort Vancouver High School, 5700 E. 18th St.

 7:30 p.m. March 28 at Vancouver United Church of Christ, 1220 N.E. 68th St.

 2 p.m. March 30 at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1309 Franklin St., Vancouver.

Admission: Free. Donations gratefully accepted.

On the web: RepriseChoirSings.org

“The awesome thing is that all the students involved in the concert will be singing alongside their teachers,” said Duvic. The concert will feature works from Johannes Brahms to Burt Bacharach and Giovanni Gastoldi (a 16th century Italian composer of madrigals) to Harry Belafonte.

“We’ve never done anything like this before, but it fits with our mission” to inspire and nurture young singers, said Bob Barrett, who teaches music at Jason Lee Middle School (and is getting ready to stage that school’s first musical play, he said).

“I get so inspired by seeing the kids come alive with a love of music,” Barrett said. “It’s such a rush of energy when they sing something for the very first time and it clicks.”

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