Community Music School teacher David Surette ‘played the way he lived’ – with an open ear and a lot of heart 

  • David Surette always worked to connect through music. Geoff Forester / Monitor file

  • David Surette teaches a mandolin workshop at the 2019 Mandolin Festival at the Concord Community Music School. Elizabeth Frantz—Courtesy

  • David Surette performs with his wife Susie Burke and mandolinist Andrew Collins at the 2019 Mandolin Festival held at the Concord Community Music School. Elizabeth Frantz—Courtesy

  • David Surette teaches guitar to student John Blackford at the Concord Community Music School in 2013 Geoff Forester—MONITOR STAFF

  • Carolyn Parrott, Rodney Miller and David Surette lead a contra dance for the Grand Opening Celebration of the expansion of the school’s Wall Street building in December 2001. Surette passed away this month after a long battle with cancer. Concord Community Music School—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 1/1/2022 5:00:45 PM
Modified: 1/1/2022 5:00:07 PM

At a lunchtime concert in May 2019, folk guitar and mandolin teacher David Surette sat on a chair at one side of the stage at Concord Community Music School and started playing a solo Irish jig on his mandolin, one foot tapping a solid rhythm on the floor.

A few beats in, South Asian traditional music teacher Prem Sagar Khatiwada joined, playing the tabla drums. Then jazz teachers Matt Langley and Scott Kiefner added their sounds to the mix on soprano saxophone and upright bass. Finally, South Asian traditional music teacher Harimaya Adhikari began singing an improvised melody line that recalled elements of both jazz and Hindu classical. The concert, called “Common Ground: Searching for New Sounds,” focused on the similarities between musical styles, and it wasn’t long before the whole audience was clapping along to the blended music.

Surette, a well-known performer and music teacher, died Dec. 18 at age 58, following a six-year battle with cancer. In his introduction to the Common Ground concert, which aired on ConcordTV in April, Surette described it as an opportunity to connect with “tradition-bearers,” people who are helping to keep certain musical styles alive for the next generation. This month, members of the Concord Community Music School faculty are recalling that concert as an example of Surette’s passion for carrying on musical traditions and building inclusive music community in Concord and beyond.

“He was truly a performer-teacher-scholar,” said Peggy Senter, founder and recently-retired director of the Concord Community Music School. “His research capabilities and his writing were just top-notch on the scholarly front, and everybody knows what an incredible performer he was. And he was a master teacher; for any level of students, he took it so earnestly. That, to me, is a real model for any musician.”

Susie Burke, Surette’s wife and musical partner, said Surette loved sharing his devotion to music with students at the Concord Community Music School, which she said was a big part of his musical identity.

“At the nearly 20 March Mandolin Festival weekends and 20 annual Holiday concerts we did over the years, I got a window into his life at CCMS, and I could feel the love and respect that everyone had for him. It was palpable. I always felt so proud of my David,” Burke said. “… When I or dear Peggy Senter would introduce and honor David at these events, here is the image that repeats: He would clasp his hands together, slightly cock his head to the side and make a very gentle bow, one that somehow acknowledged and celebrated the audience more than him. It was always about the music and the community, and not about him.”

Surette’s colleagues at the school remember him as a kind and patient teacher with a crinkly-eyed smile, always quick to offer words of encouragement and support.

“Hardly a day goes by as a teacher, when I’m not asking myself, ‘What would David do?’ ” said fiddle teacher Liz Faiella, chair of the school’s folk, jazz and popular music departments. “So often students come in and they’re anxious or self-conscious, and David in his teaching and his performing was always so conscious of, ‘Let’s enjoy this music,’ like, ‘Let’s look at the music and not at ourselves.’ ”

Surette started teaching at the school in 1992 and would commute to Concord every Tuesday and Wednesday from his home in South Berwick, Maine. He was best known as a Celtic fingerstyle guitar player, as well as a skilled mandolin and bouzouki player, singer and songwriter. Surette had a broad repertoire that spanned folk music from a variety of traditions including New England contra dance tunes, traditional American roots music, blues and ragtime. He frequently performed and recorded with Susie Burke and with their daughters, Isa and Julianna Burke, in the Burke-Surette family band.

“David was my companion on every path in this life,” Burke said. “He taught me and my daughters many musical and life lessons, and we will miss him forever.”

Despite his renown as a performer, colleagues say he enjoyed collaborating with musicians of all skill levels and strove to create an inclusive environment onstage and off.

“No amount of talent was too small for him to want to play with the person,” said Audrey Budington, fiddle teacher at the Concord Community Music School. “Nobody was too young, nobody was too old. He was so encouraging and always really happy.”

Music student John Blackford began taking guitar lessons at the Concord Community Music School at age 75, back in the early 2000s. Although he was nervous to play and sing in public, Blackford, now 92, said Surette helped him get over that hurdle, and his guitar accompaniment during student recitals made him feel “like I was in Nashville someplace.”

Many of the music school’s young teachers, including Faiella, Budington and fiddle teacher Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki, grew up listening to Surette’s music and thought of him as a mentor even as they became his colleagues.

“The music business can be a really strange and difficult world to navigate, with a lot of pitfalls and not a lot of guidance available for young people who are trying to figure out how to do it,” Tirrell-Wysocki said. “David was a really positive role model for (me as) a young man trying to figure out how he’s supposed to behave in this world. He set the bar really high, not just in terms of technical ability and musicianship, but in terms of humility and respect, and just general kindness.”

One of Tirrell-Wysocki’s favorite memories is filming a WMUR music video with Surette that had them playing music on a frozen lake and hiking to the top of a mountain with their instruments at dawn – he says Surette maintained his enthusiasm throughout each unusual adventure.

“He played the same way he lived, in a way,” Faiella said. “He played with this selflessness, he was always focusing on the music but also the other musicians, creating something beautiful together. What are the other musicians doing? How can I support that? How can I add on to that? How can I amplify that? And that’s also the way he interacted.”

One of Surette’s most popular undertakings at the music school was hosting the annual March Mandolin Festival, a weekend of workshops and concerts featuring mandolin teachers and students from around the world. Even after attending sessions all day, attendees would stay up until the wee hours of the morning jamming at the Grappone Conference Center.

Surette’s colleagues say he thought about his vision for the future of the school’s folk music department often. Burke said that at home, Surette was often doing research on or notating a piece of music that a student expressed interest in, learning new things himself in the process. Senter has a stack of file folders from the early days of the school, titled “Ideas From the Davids,” full of ideas from David Surette and former jazz department chair David Tonkin, about ways to improve and grow their respective programs.

“He was always thinking about the organization,” Senter said. “David was always thinking, ‘How can we create a folk music draw for the music school and a folk music identity that also is compatible with our classical music identity and our jazz music identity?’ ”

Even after a cancer diagnosis in 2015, Burke said Surette worked as hard as he could to keep his lessons going. He continued to teach at the Concord Community Music School until October 2021.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Surette developed a model for teaching music remotely online that Senter described as a combination lecture, concert and masterclass via video call, where students mute themselves and play along with the instructor. It became so popular that the Concord Community Music School had students from as far away as Canada and Ireland enroll in his classes.

“The way he handled his cancer diagnosis was just a model for me of how I would want to handle any trial in my life,” Faiella said. “He was incredibly positive, incredibly cheerful, and just continued to really fully live his life after that diagnosis.”

Concord musicians say their memories of Surette will remain at the forefront of their thoughts – and their jam sessions – moving forward, as they continue playing the tunes they learned from him and passing them on to new students.

“I think it’s important that we keep talking about him,” Budington said. “I think it’s important that we keep playing his music and carrying on his tradition, because he’s going to live through that. ”

Local musicians have set up a Facebook tribute page for David Surette at

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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