Through innovative technology, George Litterst ’71 has helped music teachers and students connect from a distance – especially during the pandemic
Two years ago, George Litterst ’71 wrote a magazine article entitled “Give Me Just .23% of Your Time and I’ll Teach You How to Play the Piano.”
As an educator, Litterst will do what it takes to turn you from a “Chopsticks” plunker to a virtuoso musician or composer. And when he sits with you on that piano bench, you can be thousands of miles apart – a useful technique during, say, a global pandemic. For Litterst, the idea of distance learning dates to the late 1990s, when he became a mentor for the performing arts faculty at a private school on Long Island.
“I would do some of that work from a distance,” he says, “doing early video conferencing, where you had to have specialized hardware.”
The school’s founder, he says, “was really pushing the idea of the global community and students collaborating with students in other countries. I was kind of skeptical about the long-distance education thing at that time, but I was intrigued by the technical challenges involved. As I got immersed into it, I started to realize, ‘Oh, yeah. This really does make sense.’”
Soon Litterst began experiments to connect pianos over the Internet, “such that if you press a key down on your piano, it actually causes that same key to go down on somebody else’s piano.”
From this technological seed, Litterst and a friend, Frank Weinstock, cultivated their first product together for distance teaching and performing: Internet MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), which enables the Internet connection of two digital keyboards.
He and Weinstock then launched their new company, TimeWarp Technologies, which brands itself as “a pioneer in the musical and algorithmic art of score-following, the development of intelligent software for music learning, and the creation of tools for long-distance teaching and performing over the Internet.”
Among the company’s products is Classroom Maestro, a long-distance instructional technology, which, especially when paired with Internet MIDI, becomes an interactive musical blackboard that both teacher and student can activate.
As COVID-19 began spreading in 2020, teachers on all levels suddenly began discovering Classroom Maestro.
“Instead of going to a chalkboard and writing stuff down,” Litterst says, “the teacher could just play on a musical keyboard and, boom, the concepts appear on a staff.”
Litterst saw a similar spike in Internet MIDI sales. Under the best of circumstances, he explains, the sound of piano received through video conferencing is poor, and the teacher who has to listen critically under those circumstances becomes easily fatigued.
“Not only did Internet MIDI provide many of the educational benefits of Classroom Maestro, it provided a virtual studio in which the student actually plays the teacher’s instrument from a distance – and vice versa,” Litterst explains. “Ultimately, we’ve now got this environment in which you can literally beam your musical self from your location to the other person’s. So, it’s a very powerful learning environment.”
A classically trained pianist, Litterst graduated from Vassar College, earned a master’s at New England Conservatory, and taught in the Conservatory’s prep school for 22 years. He continues teaching individual students.
Litterst credits James Wood, the late SPS director of music, for making him “a serious music student” and for providing a model for him as a teacher.
“I just had so many wonderful opportunities at [SPS] and was nurtured by so many faculty there,” he says. “I trace a lot of this involvement with music for me professionally back to St. Paul’s and James Wood.”