By D.R. Dunlap
Determined to do something I had always wanted to do, I started taking guitar from Will Mason in October 2011, at age 42. I have always been a music enthusiast, but wasn’t entirely sure if my enthusiasm would translate into actual playing skills, especially as an adult.
Fortunately, Will is a gifted musician and teacher, and things moved along fairly quickly. After I had a handle on the basics on acoustic guitar, the next thing I had to do, of course, was learn to play face-melting solos on electric guitar. I worked on this for a while, and definitely had some fun, but this felt a little empty to me. I realized then that what I really wanted to do was to be able to play and sing whole songs, and I gravitated back to acoustic music. So Will and I worked mostly on folk-style rhythm guitar, with some complementary lead technique.
About a year or so into my guitar lessons with Will, I added voice lessons Sarah Mason. Sarah is also a gifted musician and teacher, and helped me think of my voice as an instrument. Learning two instruments at once, trying to play guitar and sing simultaneously, was rather challenging, but also gratifying.
If you have seen the movie Whiplash, you will not find any music instructors like that at Mason Music. Unlike the volatile drill sergeant in the film, Mason Music’s teachers are personable, talented, patient, and encouraging. Will and Sarah were both very encouraging to me, and kept things interesting and fun, while motivating me to realize my potential. I felt like I was making progress from week to week, and over time, with plenty of practice, things started to come together.
Developing this new art form was something I found very refreshing and satisfying to work on every day. I had gained access to a creative outlet within which I could continue to learn and grow, and enjoy for a lifetime. If I had not done another thing with music from this point on, I feel like I still would have accomplished something meaningful. As it turns out, there was more to come.
Around this time I had the opportunity to start playing music with other people. Playing with others was initially another challenge, trying to blend different styles and techniques, but with time and practice this became very rewarding.
Soon other doors were opened. I had the opportunity to start playing regularly with a group from my church, St Stephens Episcopal, for our Cursillo ministry. Our church group has also played at Community Kitchens several times, as well as other church functions. Earlier this year, I played at an Episcopal Ordination for my future sister in law. Shortly after that, I was asked to be on the music team for our Kairos ministry. Just recently, I started playing with a group at our 5:00pm worship service, every Sunday. These have all been very meaningful and enjoyable experiences.
It is a blessing to be able to contribute to these ministries, and share the gift of music. Through these opportunities I have truly experienced the power of music, and its ability to connect with and move people. My Kairos experience was a remarkable example of this. Kairos is a prison ministry, and we played for the inmates at Elmore Penitentiary. Over the course of three days, we witnessed an incredible transformation in the participants. They were initially very reserved, and did not sing much, but by the third day they were singing worship music with us at the top of their lungs.
My grandmother was an extremely gifted piano and organ player. I loved listening to her play when I was growing up. I knew she played for her church, but it wasn’t until Kairos that I discovered she had played her music for a similar ministry in an Elmore prison, decades earlier. Even though she passed on years ago, I feel more connected to her now, knowing that we shared that experience.
Within the last year or so, I developed an interest in song writing, and have really enjoyed the creative process. Creative writing is something I have done as a side venture for many years, so expressing ideas and telling life stories through music certainly appealed to me. Writing lyrics and intertwining them with music has been a very stimulating combination, and an exciting challenge, with intangible and tangible benefits.
Working in the recording studio, and putting everything under the microscope, was another challenge in itself. Some call it being in the woodshed, but, like chopping wood, it can be a very cathartic experience. It is hard work, and humbling, but Will was great to work with, and I learned a tremendous amount through this process. Sometimes it is not as much about creating something out of thin air, as it is about peeling away layers of uncertainty, and unlocking what is already there. The experience was certainly worthwhile, and, as a bonus, I finished recording four original songs.
At the encouragement of my teachers, I have played my originals at a few open mic nights around town. Playing and singing solo in front of a live and unfamiliar audience is something I had never imagined doing. It is a little nerve-wracking, and somewhat surreal, but has been another good experience to break out of my comfort zone, and continue to grow and learn.
My daughters, Allison and Sarah, took voice at Mason Music, and are growing and learning as well. They also play piano, sing in the choir, and ring bells at our church. Watching my daughters grow in their skills, confidence and enjoyment of music is wonderful to see, and music is something our family can share. They are both progressing rapidly, and I look forward to the opportunity for musical collaboration with them in the future.
I still have a long way to go to become the musician I would like to be, but I am having a lot of fun on the journey. There is no doubt that getting involved in music has added an immeasurable richness to my life, and I think it is important to reflect on the fact that all the musical challenges and experiences and rewards would have never happened if I had not taken that first guitar lesson with Will. For that I am extremely grateful.
Pictured: D.R. Dunlap and his St. Stephen’s church band, Hey Delores, playing for his brother’s book signing at the Abbey Episcopal Coffee Shop in Avondale. D.R.’s brother Murray just published his second book, Fires, a milestone in his triumphant recovery from a terrible car accident several years ago.
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