Old-school guitar teacher in Billings finally calling it quits

Posted at 4:22 AM, Apr 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-12 06:22:36-04

(Marion Devitt has been playing the steel guitar, also known as the Hawaiian guitar, since she was 7 — 86 years ago. You can just see the steel bar under her left hand. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

BILLINGS – Having taught music in Billings for 69 years, Marion Devitt recently decided it was time to quit. Accordingly, after she gives a few final guitar lessons on Monday, April 30,  Devitt Music Studios will close for good.

“I really hate stopping teaching,” Devitt said. “I just got sick of everything that goes with it — the selling and everything.”

And though she plans to take her Fender steel guitar and one amp home with her, reports Last Best News, she doesn’t expect to get much use out of them after the store closes.

“I don’t sit and play for the fun of it,” she said. “My fun is teaching.”

And mind you, the 69 years she has been teaching in Billings do not include the years she spent teaching as part of her father’s music business in Michigan before she moved to Montana. She is 93 and began giving her first lessons at the age of 14.

Through all those years, she has insisted on teaching every student the fundamentals of music. Some guitar teachers would teach their students chords, or how to play particular songs. Devitt taught them how to read music and introduced them to music theory.

“I just think music is too important to just stick your fingers on these little dots,” she said. “It gets more interesting the more you know.”

Brian Epley will attest to that. A guitar player in many Billings bands over the years and currently playing with Not Your Boyfriend’s Band, Epley started lessons with Devitt in 1984, when he was 8, the youngest age at which she would take students. He had wanted to learn guitar, but it took a while to appreciate Devitt’s method.

(Devitt, seated at center, said this photo was taken in 1944 in Michigan, when she played with an all-female band to promote her father’s music business.)

“I hated it, man, I hated it,” Epley said. “I had to practice 30 minutes a day. But somehow I enjoyed the suffering, I guess. By the time I was damn near 11 I was ready to rock.”

Later on, he was grateful that Devitt taught him the basics and made him learn to read music.

“I got it early enough that I really appreciate it,” he said. “Playing music my whole life, it’s been totally helpful, totally useful.”

Devitt’s father, Dewey Roush, opened his studio — the Honolulu Conservatory of Music — in Gand Rapids, Michigan, in the 1920s. Why Honolulu? Because most of his lessons were on the steel guitar, also known as the Hawaiian guitar, which the players holds on his or her lap, or on a stand, producing chords and individual notes by running a steel bar over plucked or strummed strings.

Devitt started taking steel lessons at 7 and then teaching seven years later. Part of her job was playing steel guitar in bands organized by her father. They’d played at dances, for social clubs or on the radio, all as a way of promoting the business.

Devitt said the radio shows were especially daunting because “I was his daughter, and I couldn’t make any mistakes.” And though one photo shows her fronting an all-female band, she swears she never sought the spotlight.

“I was always shy, except in teaching, which is what I love,” she said.

Her father owned several shops in little towns around Michigan but eventually consolidated the businesses into one big store in Grand Rapids. He was only 35 miles from the legendary Gibson Guitar factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“We’d just go over to the factory and get whatever we wanted,” Devitt said.

She met her husband, Jesse Devitt, while he was stationed at the Army’s Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. They were married in 1943 and lived in Detroit until Jesse was sent overseas, so she went back to Grand Rapids until he returned from the war. They stayed in Detroit until the spring of 1946, when they moved to Billings, Jesse’s home town.

Before leaving Michigan, Devitt asked her father to sell her guitar and amp because she thought she was through as a teacher. But a couple of years after moving to Billings, “I started teaching the babysitter, and that was the beginning.”

She and her husband built a little studio alongside their house on Broadwater Avenue, where the Tap Inn now stands, later had a studio on Second Avenue North downtown, and then in the basement of their house on the 1800 block of Clark Avenue for a few years.

Eventually she moved into a strip mall at 16th Street West and Grand Avenue, where a Pizza Hut is now, and stayed there almost 25 years. In 1991 she moved into the storefront she’ll be closing on April 30, in the Alpine Village shopping center at 1138 16th St. W.

She’s had plenty of help over the years, including three other teachers at one point, and over the years she has taught steel guitar and plectrum guitar, which simply describes a regular guitar that is played with a pick, also known as a plectrum.

For some years she even taught accordion, though she said she really didn’t play the instrument herself. It’s all a matter of notes, she said, and an accordion has a keyboard that corresponds to a piano keyboard, so you taught students to read notes and hit the right keys.

She liked the accordion well enough, but two things drover her crazy. For one, her younger students wouldn’t use the silencer key. For another, “every other lesson was a polka, and I got tired of polkas.”

The music was an adjunct to the family income when her husband worked as a mechanic for International Harvester. After his death when she was 38, music became her livelihood. At her peak, she said, she had 75 students taking weekly lessons. Now, at 93, she’s down to “only” 20 students.

(All of Devitt’s music students used to perform at annual reviews, like this one for her steel guitar players at Lewis and Clark Junior High in the 1960s.)

Most of her students took steel guitar lessons in the early years, she said, but with the popularity of Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll in general, more and more people wanted to learn the guitar. She still has a few people taking steel lessons, and as in the past her students are about evenly divided between children and adults, including a fair number of retirees.

Among the teachers she employed over the years was Steve Devitt, one of her three sons, and Kathleen, her only daughter. Steve said he learned some important things at his mother’s studio — though she would never give lessons to her own children.

“One of them was that during that 30 minutes, a student has to know that he or she is the most important person in your world and they have all of your attention,” he said. (Steve’s son, Matt, would eventually take lessons at the store, but later he got interested in percussion and is now one of Billings’ busiest and most versatile drummers. Matt’s son, Mitchell, 13, also took lessons at the family store.)

Another lesson Steve learned, of course, was the importance of teaching music, not just songs. Especially in the 1960s, Steve said, there were a lot of guitar teachers in Billings who taught songs. Some of their students would come to Devitt Music Studios for further lessons and Steve would ask them to play something, so he could judge how far they’d gotten.

“They would play something like ‘Gloria,’ and I then I would ask them for something else, and then we would have to start at the beginning,” he said.

Epley does remember learning some songs from Devitt eventually, but only as part of her method, and generally speaking he learned to play the songs note for note.

“We didn’t really strum chords,” he said. “That was too rock ‘n’ roll for her. It was more like piano lessons.”

Todd Benner took lessons from Marion Devitt way back when the studio was on Clark Avenue, then returned years later, when he was about 20, to take lessons from Steve. After some time under Steve’s tutelage, when Steve was ready to move on, he recommended that his mother hire Benner to replace him, which she did in 1982. Bener’s been with her ever since, as a part-time teacher.

“If Marion knew I was going to be here all these years,” he said with a laugh, “she might have said, ‘Well, maybe not.’”

Benner said Devitt is “old school, that’s for sure. I mean, she expects people to practice their music, that’s for sure. And she has a good ear, She’ll know when somebody hits the wrong note. She doesn’t have to look at the fret.”

Like Epley, Benner said he was grateful for his relationship with Devitt.

“She’s given me an opportunity to do what I wanted to do, which is share my passion for music and the guitar,” he said.

Devitt insists she’s “as healthy as a horse” and would continue teaching if not for the bother of having to run the store and be a salesperson and bookkeeper on top of everything else.

“The higher up you go in the lessons, the more complicated it gets, and the more fun.” she said. “It’s just fun.”

And is it possible, she was asked, that music keeps you young?

“That’s what people say,” she said. “Why not?”