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Episode 04: Wilbur Lewis - Man of many strings

Many people use their retirement to dive fully into their passion. Such is the case with our guest, Wilbur Lewis, consummate musician and vocalist, a retired music educator, who has taught all levels from pre-school to college and senior/adult schools. He was a member of the Master Teacher Cooperative, sponsored by the New Jersey Symphony. He is a trained vocalist with a hefty repertoire of Opera, Oratorio, Operetta and Art Songs. He is the co-author of RESEACHING THE SONG: A LEXICON (OUP, 2005). He has appeared widely as a bass-baritone in much of the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire, has stage directed many operas; been Music Director for several churches; and conducted large and small instrumental ensembles and choirs.

His education includes Luther College of the Bible and Liberal Arts , a BA from Montclair State College and Mason Gross School of Arts, an MM from Rutgers University of New Jersey and private voice and guitar lessons from highly prestigious instructors. In addition to the guitar, he plays mandolin, mandola, mandocello, and liuto cantabile, tenor banjo, 5-string banjo, ukulele-banjo, and mandolin-banjo, soprano, tenor, and baritone ukulele and ukulele bass, lute, vihuela, baroque guitar, and baroque mandolin, tenor guitar, baritone guitar, lap dulcimer, laud and others. He tries to add a new instrument every year.

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As a duo, Wilbur performs with wife and pianist Annette Mulholland-Lewis in a variety of programs featuring piano, voice, and assorted string instruments. He plays second mandolin and serves as second VP in the Munier Mandolin and Guitar Ensemble, and also first mandolin in the Philadelphia Mandolin and Guitar Ensemble. Continuing his passion for sharing music with kids, he’s active in the Mandolin for Kids Program based out of Baltimore, Maryland, and also plays with the East Coast Mandolin Orchestra. Currently, he is starting a small mandolin ensemble based In North Brunswick, NJ.
When you hear the joy in his voice and see the passion in his countenance, you’ll see a man fully living his Bloom since his re-firement!

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Transcript:

Sharman Nittoli: 

Welcome to live your bloom podcast. Today I have a wonderful guest that I've known for a few years. Very talented, Wilbur Lewis, and I'm not going to waste any time we're going to get right into it. Welcome, Wilbur.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Thank you. Happy to be here. Good.

Sharman Nittoli: 

I'm going to ask you, Wilbur, to just give us a little background on yourself and take us to the now.

Wilbur Lewis: 

I'm a Jersey boy. I was born and raised here, went to college here, graduate of Montclair State College. I originally was intending to go into the ministry, I was going to be a Baptist minister, I was licensed for ordination when I And at the end of my senior year, I heard my first Gilbert was 19. and Sullivan. And suddenly, I didn't want to be a minister anymore. I wanted to sing. And so I dropped out of graduate program at your university. And I started studying singing, and I did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan, I sang a lot of opera. I was an apprentice with the Sarasota opera, I sang in the chorus of the City Opera was in the New Jersey Opera Chorus. I did a lot of singing. And while I was doing that, I was working with computers, working in publishing. And suddenly, when I was in my early 30s, my mid 30s, publishing dried up, and there was nothing for me to do. My wife and I sat down. And we thought that it would be a really good idea for me to go back to school to get a degree in music, and to get a job teaching and we thought I would get a master's degree and I would teach in college. Five years later, and the kids would like that. And so I spent nine years in Elizabeth at the Marquis de Lafayette school. I taught pre K through eighth grade. And that was, that was great. I started a guitar group. I had a 65 recorder group, I had kids playing little plastic soprano recorders. And that takes a certain amount of.......

Sharman Nittoli: 

I have done that that is challenging. Yes,

Wilbur Lewis: 

....60 - 65 of them, but I got them to play together. And we, when we finally did our concert, we played 15 songs in a row. So we had a little symphony of soprano reporters. I had started a guitar group. I had a little children's opera group, and we did a children's opera every year with you know, 50 to 100 kids on on our stage.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Now. Was that an opera that you wrote, or was it an existing opera?

Wilbur Lewis: 

No, no. There were there's a thing called Stone Soup and....

Sharman Nittoli: 

Right, right..

Wilbur Lewis: 

...which was you know, "Stone Soup, Stone Soup, Stone Soup". They were great, great kiddy songs, I've forgotten the publisher, I left Elizabeth to go to Jersey City and I taught there for just a few years. Once again, jobs dried up.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Yeah. And I know, and I know that period of time as well. You did what I did, we moved around. But different things made us change career. We weren't lifers. We didn't stay in one system for 30 years, but we moved around.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Once you've made a certain amount. And you look for another job, they can pay two teachers with what they would have to pay me.

Sharman Nittoli: 

We could get into that whole topic about how it's one of the only professions where your skill and expertise and that is not going to get you the salary that you are deserved. It will, the logic is I could get two people for what I pay you.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Yes. Which is what I was told by by one gentleman, to be very honest, which was gratifying because he said, "Mr. Lewis, if I could have my way I would hire you, but that is that the superintendent has told me. I could get two people for you."

Sharman Nittoli: 

Where did you end up? Because I know now you......

Wilbur Lewis: 

Yeah, I ended up doing a lot of church work, I was choir director and music director at several churches. And then I was hired to be a cantor for a Catholic Church, which for a Baptist boy was a big change.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Yeah.

Wilbur Lewis: 

I loved being the cantor in a Catholic Church because as long as Father Al was happy, all the little politics that go on in a in a Protestant church are not a problem in the Catholic Church. "People think you're singing a little too loud, Wilbur," he said, "I like it".

Sharman Nittoli: 

Now, one of my favorite part-time jobs was working in a Catholic school. I loved it. My job was to get the kids singing with passion. That was what she wanted me to do. So she was totally open to doing new Christian music. And just get them singing. Same thing as you, I bought two guitars in and we had some talented kids. One day, she comes in with this whole big thing. She said, I want you to turn this into a rap. I said, Excuse me? And she started rapping. Now, I mean, you're talking about two silver haired ladies that are trying to turn this thing into rap. But we did. And I so respected her for for being so open-minded to draw the kids into the passion behind the music. And you know that sometimes those hymns can be rather dry. And the language is a bit, a bit stilted. It's hard for them to get into that. But you know, they started to sing with passion. When I met you, it was in the Bloomfield Mandolin Society.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Right, and I wa retired at that time

Sharman Nittoli: 

..and I'm retired too. But what does that mean? I, you know, I'm basically I can pick and choose what I do. And that's the nice thing. So it and I met you and the reason I brought you on on my show is because of the joy that you have in your life doing, living your passion. And that's what you brought to that group. And you're a very good musician and a very versatile musician. And when musicians make music together with somebody, it's, it's a bond that gets formed. And it's an, it's an unspoken bond. And I always knew I wanted to get to know you better. And then you'd left for bit greener pastures or a different challenge, perhaps.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Yeah, I needed a group that was a little more disciplined, and new music. What I really liked about Munier, first of all, we have a magnificent director, who is also a brilliant arranger, and he does new stuff every year for us. And it's just it's a challenge. You know, it's it's all kinds of music.

Sharman Nittoli: 

And where are they? Where are they from?

Wilbur Lewis: 

They're based in Philadelphia. So I have a little bit of a drive.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Because you live where now?

Wilbur Lewis: 

I'm in North Brunswick. So I spend three hours in the car. Yeah, go to a two-hour rehearsal. But I am fed, in a way in that two-hour rehearsal that makes the drive not a problem. When I'm playing with, with a, a lot of times in a in a volunteer group, people are very timid, about their playing, or their singing, and these others, they, they're hesitant in their playing. And these these people are, gosh, some of these are the best players I've I've ever known. And they just play with such authority that it brings something out of you. These are guys who play, can play the Bach unaccompanied suites on mandocello. So you know, they don't have a bow, they just have a peck and it's an entirely different way of playing.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Do you have a mando bass? Excuse me? I'm sorry.

Wilbur Lewis: 

No, we don't we have a, we have one string bass player. Yeah. And another of a young woman who plays the ukulele bass.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Oh.

Wilbur Lewis: 

And we have five or six truly amazing guitar players, people who really are there because of the love of the music. And...

Sharman Nittoli: 

Yes,

Wilbur Lewis: 

...it's a great group. And then I also play with a smaller group where it's maybe two people on a part that's the Philadelphia Mandolin Ensemble, which also meets in Philadelphia. I was making two trips to Philly. So I drove for six hours to play with those groups.

Sharman Nittoli: 

So you do concerts. Do you do recording?

Wilbur Lewis: 

No. You know every once in a while, I sit down and I record something that I did, and it's never anything I want to, well, it's rarely something I want to share. My, my wife is a pianist, and she was also singer and that's how we met. We were, we were cast in a two-person opera. And I tell people it was "love at first aria". But she, she's a wonderful pianist and in her retirement, she began taking piano lessons again. And so we've been doing the mandolin repertoire for mandolin and piano. So we've been working on the, the Beethoven pieces. And I, in fact, I had a mandolino, baroque mandolin, when I was a member of Bloomfield, and we, we play pieces by Bach and Scarlatti with a mandolino and we have a little keyboard that we put on a harpsichord.

Sharman Nittoli: 

But what I'm hearing you're saying is that, now that you're retired, you're really able to put time into your passion. and dig deeper, you know, the last time I had that kind of flexibility, I was much younger. And I remember practicing 8-10 hours a day, shutting off, I didn't even have a TV. I didn't have one and shutting off the phones, and doing what I needed to do to be able to understand this thing called theory. And, you know, first time I heard a jazz player, my husband, we were in the when I had first joined his band, he took me someplace to hear music, I think was Betty Carter, somebody came up and they said, "Oh, I want to do Misty, but I don't do it in the Earl Garner key, I do it in a different key". And I thought, and I'm classically trained, "How does he do that?" Because Misty is a sophisticated song. And that was just it for me. I just wanted to know how to do it. And at the exclusion of a

Wilbur Lewis: 

I saw all the little things that made Bach lot of other things, I just set my mind to understanding and removing the mystery, but still admiring the theory. So and it was a lot of time. And so when people think, "Oh, but you make it look so easy". But that's because I practice a lot. - and you as well, Bach, by copying his music.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Yeah.

Wilbur Lewis: 

And I like that very much.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Yeahm you learn that way. Yeah,

Wilbur Lewis: 

Yeah, that's what the Bach did. And that's what Handel did. All those famous stories about them copying it by night.

Sharman Nittoli: 

And that's how I learned to arrange for harmony, because I used to just take the dictation of the harmony and "Oh, I see what they're doing". I could hear pretty good and you know, transcribed it. And then when we would do some scat pieces, I transcribed a lot of Ella's scat. You know..... And my god, you know, I was in awe of her because she did not play an instrument. And she scatted scales and chordal outlines and it's quite remarkable that she was working with, yeah, just quite.... so that's how you learn. You're right. And it's a certain kind of person, Wilbur. Not everybody's gonna do that, you know?

Wilbur Lewis: 

Yeah. Yeah. But you know that's part of being a musician, I think, you know, and it's it just, it makes the music so, so much more real to you, you know, that's why Bach said, you know, if I accomplished more. It's because I worked very hard at it.

Sharman Nittoli: 

And I think that, you know, the thing is, if you've planned to have some kind of income in retirement. And so if anybody is listening, and you haven't planed that, I would suggest planning that because you will have a joy that you can't even anticipate because you'll be having an income and you'll be able to say, "And what do I want to do now? And what are my 'somedays' that I kept putting on the backburner?" I call them Dream, Dream seeds. "What are those things that I want to do? Because I can do them now."

Wilbur Lewis: 

Exactly.

Sharman Nittoli: 

You know, and that's a joyful thing. I know some people talk about "I always wanted to play piano, but it's too late. I always wanted to play guitar, but it's really too late, now". What can you say to those people?

Wilbur Lewis: 

You know, I wanted to teach and if you were going to teach privately, publicly, you needed keyboard skills. So I could do a melody with one hand, I could play a scale with one hand. And one day, my voice teacher, whose name was Shirley Emmans, wonderful singer, wonderful teacher, co-authored with me on a book that I wrote, (that I wrote), we wrote together. that was published in 2005 - 2006. She said to me, "Well, Wilbur, you know, the piano is very easy." She said, "You just have to think a bit differently. You have the melody already. What you need to teach this other hand is this." That was the one, three and five.

Sharman Nittoli: 

That's right. Yeah.

Wilbur Lewis: 

She said, "Now you go through some song books, and you play all the keys, and you find where the chords are, and you do one, three and five, and you follow the bass note, follow the chord symbols, and you'll be able to play any melody and accompany any song".

Sharman Nittoli: 

But would you say though now, when people want to play, they don't have to really dig that deep?

Wilbur Lewis: 

No, no,

Sharman Nittoli: 

Unless, unless they want to, unless they fall in love with it.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Because I was in school and I had the time. And I played through, I played through books of American song literature. The old big band songs, Nat King Cole, and I played through them. The next week, I went to teach a lesson, and I was able to play the piano. I can't play Bach. I can't play Chopin. But I learned enough to be able to play hymns, which was vital for my my church job, I could accompany my students and voice lessons. And, you know, I, there were people who came out of conservatory who had piano who couldn't do what I did, transpose,

Sharman Nittoli: 

Right. And I had a very dear friend who was a wonderful classical player, she couldn't transpose Happy Birthday, God forbid people sang Jingle Bells in outside of the key of C, she couldn't play that. And that really baffled me. So I make that when I was teaching, that was one of the first things I would teach is, you know, what's behind this mystery? What do we hear and solfegge, a bit of solfegge, so you can identify the tones. You know, there are options now for learning that there weren't before. You can learn as simply as you want to. And there are also online places like "Music Notes" that will allow you to, you can buy a piece of music in in a hard to easy form, and transpose it to your key. Because a female key often is not a male key, and it only and it only costs a couple of dollars. So there's, once you get your system down, and you'll learn how to manage time, which is something that I work with people about how do you manage time when people say "I just don't have time?" But do you have 20 minutes a day? Or do you have 10 minutes and 10 minutes a day? If you do, you can play.

Wilbur Lewis: 

I try to add an instrument a year, but mostly stringed instruments because that's my first instrument

Sharman Nittoli: 

I want to remind everybody that the picture that Wilbur sent me on the promo for this particular podcast will show how many stringed instruments were you holding there? I think what five, six?

Wilbur Lewis: 

mandolin, mandalino, mandola, mandocello, four?

Sharman Nittoli: 

Well, I hope that, I know that you have passed on your joy and your passion and commitment to your music. And for our listeners who are contemplating, maybe they did it when they were young, you'd be surprised how fast it comes back. And maybe they never did it. But they want to, there are lots and lots of groups. I see even, I want to get back into guitar because I used to play a lot more guitar. There's are a lot of groups that I could just join up with just for the sake of being a part of it, like you said earlier and by osmosis, just seeing what they do. where their hands go for certain position. When are they playing bar chords? When are they playing first position? And you're actually inspiring me to do that. It's about the journey. If people are saying, "When do you think I'll be ready to join my first band?" I don't have an answer for you. But if you want to take the musical journey and have have it flow through your body and accompany yourself, or say Christmas time comes and accompany some people on Christmas carols, there is no.. for me, that's the ultimate joy. You know,

Wilbur Lewis: 

It's one or the other. The other thing is is you know, it's like the woman Edith Hamilton, who wrote a book called The Greek way. And she was headmistress of a very well known girl School, which I can't remember. But she she wrote one time, she said, what she is disturbed about in education is that we don't sell the idea that there's a tremendous joy in becoming educated. You get tremendous joy in knowing things. And musically, I don't need to play for anybody, because the communion, my theological training coming up, butt the communion with the instrument, and with some music, and myself is so overwhelming that everything else stops. And all you have is you making music and say, "Can I do this? I'd like to try this." And that is a tremendous reward even if you never play in public for anyone.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Well, you know, I do these Monday night online concerts, and you're basically playing for to yourself, because you're not, there is no, yes, I love when people come and I say, "Oh, look who's here. Thank you so much." And I get clapping hands and I get hearts. But really, you're really playing for yourself for the sake of enjoyment without sitting back and talking about my mistakes, am I flat or am I sharp or whatever. But for me, I'm doing some of my original songs. And it took me a long time to let go of them. Because they're very personal.

Wilbur Lewis: 

It's very hard to do that.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Yeah. So yeah, this has been great. Well, maybe I'll have you on the show one day, and you can actually play for ...

Wilbur Lewis: 

I'd love to play with you.

Sharman Nittoli: 

People, do you hear the joy in this man's voice right now?

Wilbur Lewis: 

We were married, we've been married now for 37. Yeah, 37. And I was the only person she played the piano for until two to three years ago, when we started playing together. And since then, she's played in public with many people. And we've done recitals together, which she we did one which was all different instruments. She played the hell out of that piano. It's so wonderful to have her doing that. And it's, there's nothing like and you know, because your husband is a musician. It's difficult to play with someone that you're close to. But when it works,

Sharman Nittoli: 

It's magical.

Wilbur Lewis: 

There's nothing better than that.

Sharman Nittoli: 

So that if you have if you have a few things, perhaps that you were quarreling over, or differences or whatever, when you share that, your perspective changes, and you're like, "Oh, I don't care about that stuff." Anyway. Well, I'm glad you mentioned all about, for a couple doing this together, it can definitely heighten the relationship. Because it's like you were speaking about before, it's a spiritual experience to form it. And when you share it with somebody, it's even better.

Wilbur Lewis: 

You're actually breathing together. And how often does that happen? The only thing comparable to that is, we weren't good at it, but we took ballroom dancing several times. And you know, you can't be mad at somebody that you have your arms around, and you're dancing. So I recommend those two things, learn to dance,

Sharman Nittoli: 

There you go.

Wilbur Lewis: 

And play music together.

Sharman Nittoli: 

Alright, everybody, I hope you hear that these are some pearls of wisdom and joy from someone I really admire and enjoy. Not just his musical ability, but his joy and passion and dedication to the art. Question, Where can people reach you if they want to? Because if you're doing concerts, I hope you're going to let me know where they are. So I can post them.

Wilbur Lewis: 

I'm on Facebook. (@Wilbur Lewis)

Sharman Nittoli: 

Okay. Well, there you go. So you've been listening to someone who is spending his retirement more active than he ever was before, but always was active in music and his passion, made time for it all. But now he's going a little bit deeper, more instruments, harder music, higher quality of players he's working with, but it doesn't have to be that. If you want to play, you can play.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Absolutely,

Sharman Nittoli: 

You can just ask me how to figure out how to monitor your time and I can give you some advice to do it. You don't want to wait. These things about "Someday I'm going to do it".. someday is here. Thank you, Wilbur for joining us. I appreciate it.

Wilbur Lewis: 

Good advice.

Sharman Nittoli: 

It's all about finding your joy and making that journey. It's as long as you're breathing. You can keep doing the things that are meaningful to you. So thank you so much. I've really enjoyed this. Well, be well.

Wilbur Lewis: 

You too. We need to have coffee sometime soon.