When entering The Academy of Fretted Instruments on the Peoria riverfront, no one would imagine it as the byproduct of a formerly pony-tailed, heavy metal headbanger. Earth-toned walls, polished oak trim, vintage vinyl records and well-loved sound equipment fill the organized lesson and stage area. Step into owner Dave McDonald’s office and a professional yet funky atmosphere blossoms with fretinspired, slatted oak bookshelves, a swanky oversized ottoman, black-and-white wall portraits and numerous guitars.
The only things that might give the former rocker away are the vague smell of incense and the deep eggplant walls, which he affectionately refers to as reminiscent of a “purple haze.”
Since his high school days McDonald has mellowed a bit, sharing his active interest in folk music with the students at Charter Oak Primary School in Peoria. Through his love of music and in what he calls the “Woody Guthrie spirit,” McDonald has worked with Charter Oak’s children to record a fundraising CD and perform Guthrie’s songs throughout the community.
Born and raised in Morton, McDonald began his musical career playing piano before upgrading to guitar in elementary school. He makes a point to describe the strong support of his family. “My dad was a varsity baseball coach at Morton High School and I was raised an athlete, without a doubt,” he said. “But I wanted to be a musician, one that could grow his hair out and not abide by the ‘code of conduct.’ When I told my father at the dinner table…he totally supported it, no hesitation.”
McDonald joined his first band at age 15; the heavy metal group often played in bars, and his parents accompanied him to every performance. In 1993 McDonald enrolled at Bradley University and joined Freudian Press, a seven-piece folk band that enjoyed regional success throughout Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
At Bradley, McDonald studied music and classical guitar with Michael Hull, a time which he described as shutting the doors on rock ‘n’ roll and gladly moving on to something new. After graduating in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree in music and a minor in theatre, McDonald played mandolin in the three-piece Bug Dance Rhythm Band. “It was rooted in old-time music, including bluegrass, blues, country and jazz,” he said.
For the past five years McDonald has primarily been a solo performer, entertaining at local pubs such as Kelleher’s and wine tastings at the Kickapoo Creek Winery. He has also helped to organize open-mic sessions and gigs for Peoria-based singer/songwriters around town. He describes his musical inspiration as “literally just rock ‘n’ roll,” along with an appreciation for the complexity of the guitar. McDonald then segued into teaching at Elmore’s Musical Warehouse and Don’s Music Land for several years.
With firm roots in the Peoria area, McDonald jumped at the chance to open his own educational studio when space became available at the Contemporary Arts Center a year and a half ago. He explained that the space used to be a Blue Note guitar store, where he once purchased a guitar. He also has plenty of memories of the former Checkered Raven gallery, where his old band used to gig.
“I’ve always loved this place,” he said. “This is where everything, in my opinion, breathes life into Peoria down here on the riverfront. Everything about this place has been dear to me. It’s a wonderful location; it felt like a no-brainer. I needed to do something to establish myself and tell central Illinois that I’m here to teach.”
With the help of family and friends, McDonald established The Academy of Fretted Instruments, hiring two college-educated guitar instructors and even taking lessons himself to re-experience the feeling of being a guitar student. The Academy currently offers lessons on guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass, as well as limited piano instruction. Students enjoy hour-long lessons weekly or biweekly, depending on the rate of progress desired. The Academy also offers group lessons and several courses, including music theory for guitar, bluegrass 101 jam session, composition and jazz improvisation.
In 2001, he was hired at Charter Oak as a general music teacher for roughly 350 K–4 students. He also teaches after-school guitar lessons at Charter Oak and the Peoria Academy. His continued passion for teaching music to children is quite evident in his animated approach: singing along and making silly faces, all the while exposing students to new ideas and experiences.
Front row: Bobby Jones, 6; Imari Rutherford, 9; Christopher Whitley, 6; Amy Lee, 6; Sharbel Khoury, 7; Back row: Dora Khoury, 10; Julia Krigbaum, 8; Emily Race, 10.
McDonald produced his first children’s album, Singing Out of Tune, with Charter Oak’s chorus in 2003. Recorded at the school, it featured traditional children’s tunes reminiscent of Mother Goose, including “London Bridge,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and “This Old Man.”
When McDonald contemplated a second children’s album, he had a folk music icon in mind: Woody Guthrie. It was his love for Bob Dylan which led him to explore Dylan’s own inspirations, most notably Guthrie. After discovering five Guthrie children’s songs in Charter Oak’s music curriculum book, McDonald researched further and found that the famous musician embodied the heart of a child.
“What a controversial, beautiful person he was,” McDonald said. “He wasn’t a saint, but he did a lot of good. He left us with a treasure of music and art that rekindles the youth in us. He wrote for ‘little people’ and the ‘little people’ spirit in all of us. I thought it would be great to do a musical album highlighting one of America’s greatest songwriters.”
McDonald took the idea to his students, showing historical documentaries to explain the background of songs and teaching them about Guthrie’s travels across America. He turned the recording project into a fundraiser, determined to purchase a new sound system for the school gymnasium as well as teaching supplies for classrooms. The project has great educational value, as the kids are able to see how a record is produced from start to finish. “It’s not just singing along to a CD,” he said. “The experience of recording an album with a band shows children what it’s like to be a real musician. It’s the real deal.”
The new CD, The Charter Oak Clickety-Clack Chorus presents the Music of Woody Guthrie, has sold 500 copies since its May 2nd release. Each of its 12 tracks captures a childhood innocence that easily elicits smiles among adults and children alike.
McDonald has a few more ideas up his sleeve. On July 14, Woody Guthrie’s birthday, McDonald is planning a “day of Woody.” In addition to a morning performance by him and his students on the riverfront, McDonald hopes to gain local business’ support for an art exhibit and documentary showing. As fate would have it, five days after the event, Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, will perform in Peoria.
If his other goals are reached, McDonald said he would love to add one more project to his list, “I would really like—in the spirit of Woody Guthrie—to start an after-school guitar program and have guitars there for the students, so they don’t have to buy them.” He would also like to bring similar projects into other Peoria-area schools.
“Who knows?” McDonald said, laughing, when asked about the future. “Maybe I’ll be on the road with Arlo Guthrie doing Woody Guthrie children’s albums all around the country.” a&s