Dr. Anne Witt, 77, inherited her parents’ love and appreciation for music and music education. For 53 years, she has been teaching music in various capacities – 18 of them here at UA as instructor of music education and strings – but she wasn’t always sure that she wanted to pursue a career in music.
“(My parents) knew that I had musical talent and ability, and so they knew I’d be a great teacher and that I would love it,” Witt said. “But I didn’t know it.”
Her mother, Dr. Elizabeth Cleino, was a nurse and amateur singer, and her father, Dr. Edward Cleino, was professor emeritus in The University of Alabama School of Music, UA chair of Music Education from 1949-1979, and behind much of the growth in the UA music education program. He was also a pioneer in bringing music education to Alabama public television from 1956-1972 through a show called “Music Time.” On the program, he would give music lessons to local schoolchildren from Verner to be broadcast across the state, so anyone who didn’t have a music teacher, or access to one, could learn while watching him teach.
Her parents guided her down the path to taking music lessons, Witt said. She began learning to play the piano at Woods Quad when she was 4 years old and remembers attending ear-training sessions given by a UA music theory instructor on Saturdays. He helped some UA faculty members’ children “develop their ears” by hearing and recognizing pitches in these lessons.
Then, one day, her father introduced her to the cello.
“My dad brought it home one day and said, ‘Here, you’re going to play this,’ ” she said with a laugh and a reminder that she already took piano lessons, but she agreed. “You don’t talk back to your parents, you just say OK.”
Though she didn’t choose the cello, her father seemed to know she would enjoy playing it and be gifted at it.
“With a lot of ups and downs in my life, I always had the cello,” she said. “That’s the one constant. It’s been like a part of me.”
It’s also the instrument she plays the best, she said.
When Witt was attending UA, she considered a degree in something other than music. Her father, who was a school professor at the time, said OK but asked that she let him be her advisor. Cleino then recommended his daughter take a music education class taught by another professor.
“That kind of made all the difference,” Witt said, “because I wasn’t just following in his footsteps. I learned from a different person. When we got into the book and the readings, I thought, ‘Well doesn’t everyone know this?’ I mean it seems like I had been there before.”
Taking this course at her father’s suggestion assisted in her choosing the career path to teaching music.
“He’s the reason I continued on,” she said.
Witt graduated from UA with a BSE degree and went on to get her M.M. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. She taught high school choir in Huntsville, but Texas is where she began teaching sixth-graders, building the foundation for what she does now.
“(Teaching beginners) was a wonderful blessing for me at first, because I didn’t really know how to teach strings,” she said. So, as they learned, she learned as well.
While living in Texas, she taught middle and high school orchestra in Austin for 14 years and strings and music education at the University of Texas at Arlington for eight. Witt also directed the University of Texas String Project for two years, was president of both the Texas Orchestra Directors Association and the American String Teachers Association, and played with the Austin Symphony for 22 years.
In 2003, she and her husband at the time, Dr. Robert Witt, moved back to Tuscaloosa after he was named University of Alabama president. Though they divorced two and a half years later, it gave Witt the opportunity to begin teaching again. The UA School of Music contacted her in 2005 about a full-time teaching position. Witt accepted it and began teaching strings and music education classes at UA.
“I just love the students. They are going to be the best teachers,” she said. “It’s amazing. You can just tell. They’ve got personality; they’ve got integrity, the hard work ethic, and they reinforce that in each other. … Just to be a small part in their life is wonderful.”
After encouragement from her parents and others, Witt founded the program Strings in Schools the year before she began teaching at UA. With the assistance of some local businesses and individuals, they were able to raise enough money to fund the instruction program – “Tuscaloosa is a place where people step up,” she said.
When Strings in Schools began classes in 2005, it had one teacher and 12 students. However, as word about the program spread, the number of students increased, and eventually the Tuscaloosa City School Board took over funding. Since then, Strings in Schools has continued to thrive: It now has five full-time teachers and has had more than 1,000 students, who at least six of have gone on to music education programs, graduated, and become teachers themselves, Witt said. She added that one of those graduates earned his masters and now teaches at the Tuscaloosa city school he attended when he was young.
“It’s just really amazing,” she said.
She attributes part of her desire to give back through Strings in Schools to her upbringing and the example her parents set for her and her sisters. They established several scholarships – three in each of their daughters’ names, Anne, Barbie, and Jeanne; and one bearing Dr. Edward Cleino’s name. Witt followed suit by starting a Strings in Schools scholarship. Out of the scholarships started by her family, three are in music education, making them the only music education scholarships at UA.
“I’m really happy about my family valuing education like that,” Witt said, adding that she hopes others will create more in the future.
Over the years, she has stayed busy, continuing to lead Strings in Schools while also teaching and mentoring countless students, guest-conducting, organizing chamber groups, and playing professionally in orchestras as well as a string quartet called 4 Strings Attached. She has received honors, including Music Educator of the Year and the Special Arts Award from the Druid City Arts Council, and was included in the 51st edition of Marquis Who’s Who in America.
Though Witt is retiring, she will continue to work with middle school students and provide private lessons. However, she said she is still looking forward to her retirement.
Being able to work “by the task instead of by the hour” will be a refreshing change, and she said she’d like to be more involved at her church. She’s also delighted that her 12-year-old grandson will be coming from Japan to live with her and attend school here for a year.
“This is now the best part and my favorite part of my career right now,” she laughed.
Witt encourages anyone interested in learning to play an instrument, or who may have a child who is, to “be patient with yourself, and go for it. It enriches your life so much. Just having music in your life is so enriching in so many ways. Parents, get kids in music lessons when they’re young – it’s the most wonderful enrichment for life.”