Music and Joy: An Interview with Nick Dauphinais
I recently had a chance to chat with my friend Nick Dauphinais. Nick is a professional singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist touring and teaching music in western North Carolina. For information about his work and to hear his music, visit www.nickdauphinais.com.
Ben: I'd like to start with your background. You played in a bluegrass band at the age of seven. Can you talk about that?
Nick: In the 70's and 80's, bluegrass was still making its way up to New England. My dad came across some bluegrass albums in the mid to late 70's, and fell in love with that music. He learned how to play a few of the instruments and formed a band right out of high school. I remember being three or four years old and going to my dad's concerts. They never traveled far from the local community. There was a music teacher in the band who I later had in middle school. They're still together now, decades later.
That was the environment I grew up in. Music was important to my family. Although my mom didn't come from bluegrass, she's a great singer. I remember riding in the car to a holiday gathering. All four of us were singing together. Then my parents started harmonizing. That got my attention immediately. I was like, whoa! What is that?! So I tried it, but I couldn't do it. And this is the heart of my love for music: I was instantly obsessed with figuring out harmony--how to sing it, and how to maintain it once you've started. My parents told me to cover my ears partially and sing so you can hear yourself more than the people around you. Then once you get used to that you take your hands away and gradually become comfortable with the intervals.
Ben: That's a great trick.
Nick: It worked! Later that day I was with my cousins. They were big into singing, too. We told them, you gotta check this out! Okay, now you sing this note, but you sing this note, and now you sing this note...there was one song in particular. "Even Though We Ain't Got Money", I think? We spent the whole day working out the three and four part harmony for that. And my brain wanted to do that for the rest of my life. I've been chasing that feeling forever.
Ben: That story reminds me of Prairie Home Companion, how sometimes Garrison Keillor would cheerfully jump in and harmonize with the singers.
I see how that love of harmony continued in your adulthood. It's in the music you're making now. Before we started talking today, I was listening to "Storm of the Year". It's beautiful. You're singing in very clear, pure harmony. Then it suddenly switches to a different tempo, and a more virtuosic texture.
Nick: That's certainly the most special album I've ever done, the most important to me. Some of the songs on that album were from my dad's band and they hadn't been recorded before.
"The Storm Of The Year" is a true story. It happened in 1999. We had just left my neighbor's barn. Then a random wind shear picked the barn right up and twisted it and dropped it and crushed everything. It was crazy. The song's ending was a separate instrumental piece I wrote on mandolin. I put it in because it reminded me of a hurricane.
Ben: You are a performer and a songwriter, but you're also a teacher.
Nick: Yes, I teach at the Academy for the Arts in downtown Asheville, attached to the First Baptist Church. It's a great big old historical building. There are more than three hundred students at the school.
Ben: What's the relationship between your performing life and your teaching life?
Nick: It took me several years to figure that out.
I taught for one year right after I graduated college, but I didn't feel I had enough life experience to offer. So I left and played as many gigs as I could. I jumped into a touring band and went on the road with them. That was my first professional gig.
They were called the Mountain Faith Band. Before I was with them, they'd gotten on America's Got Talent and made it almost to the finals. After that their guitar player quit to spend more time with his family. I jumped into his spot. In a way, I got the benefits of their having been on the TV show without actually being on TV.
That was about two and a half years of sustained gigging. When I wasn't on the road, I played locally here in Asheville. It seemed like I was working every night, networking and making music.
Last year, a friend suggested that I apply for a job at the Academy. One of their teachers was leaving. At first I thought, no thanks, I don't want to teach. I was remembering my first teaching experience. But I also felt I could use a little more income. When I first moved here, there was a professional musician who gave me advice: when you play music for a living, you need a lot of eggs in a lot of different baskets.
So I dropped off my resume, and they called and invited me to tour the school. I went over there and had a wonderful time in the interview. I realized this was a team of people who were very good at their jobs. They had things set up so I could just walk in and teach--I wouldn't take care of any administration work, which isn't my strength anyway. And they had students ready to go, plus a waiting list.
I jumped in. I started with seven students in August, and by the end of that fall I was up to twenty students. I have a very dedicated student base. These people really want to be there. The lessons don't really feel like music classes. They feel more like I'm just sharing what I've learned from the road.
My college teacher Nic Orovich used to say, "The only difference between my playing trombone and your playing trombone is you've played this many notes (holding up his hands close together) and I've played *this* many notes (holding his hands far apart)."
Ben: I actually had a similar experience teaching right out of college. I felt like I didn't have enough experience yet. Because of your deep background, you're the sort of teacher I would want for my child. I think one wants the teacher with a wide breadth and depth of knowledge, who's not just teaching from a book.
So what ages do you teach? At what age should people start music lessons?
Nick: Good question. It really depends on the interest level and seriousness of the student. And there are some questions of physical size. If a three year old came in super excited about music but their hands just weren't big enough, obviously that's going to be a limitation. But I'm really looking for interest level across all ages. I have an eighty-four year old student, and I have an eight year old student. I actually don't think of it so much in terms of age. It's more about being able to respond productively to what I'm sharing.
Music also requires discipline. The joy has to be bigger--that way the discipline part doesn't seem so bad--but you've got to be ready, mentally.
Ben: Let's say I was an adult who took forty years off from playing an instrument. Would lessons be worth it for me?
Nick: Yes. But you'd have to feel you were getting something out of it. It should make your life better.
I try to help students see music like I do--as fun and joyful. I like playing different instruments, getting as much out of each one as possible. I'll play one note over and over and just enjoy the sound of it, trying to make it as beautiful as I can. But that approach doesn't work for me with everything. For example, when I'm painting I get frustrated easily, because I struggle with visual art. But I'm glad I know that about myself. I think some people feel that way when they're working on music.
So I try to change their mental framework. There's a meditative aspect to practicing. I have students who are engineers and lawyers. They get home from an intense workday and let out the tension with music. I've even had students ask me specifically to just give them exercises and drills, no songs, because they want to use music this way.
Ben: Let's talk about the future. What projects are you excited about?
Nick: I just launched a new website. It was a several-year project. I worked on it myself for a long time. It was expensive and frustrating. I ended up hiring a friend here in town. I was trying to do everything myself, but sometimes that's just a bad approach. You've got your skills, and other people have spent a lot of time learning their skills. Just pay them a little money. They'll do a better job, and you'll support local folks. It helps everybody out.
There are musicians here who are my childhood heroes, like Larry Stevenson, the guy I play with full time. He came up to New England to play a lot. I went to see him whenever he was there. Now I'm fortunate to play in his band with him. We have an album we're just finishing up. It's coming out shortly.
I'm mixing and mastering a second volume of music from an Appalachian mandolin trio. It's not released yet. The first album is out, though ("Live in Blowing Rock"). That's a non-touring group. It's no pressure, just a few friends getting together.
Finally, I have a very eclectic album coming out soon. I just have to record one more instrument on that. It's influenced by folk, country, bluegrass, and jazz. That's mostly original music. It's probably the biggest, most out-there thing I've been a part of. I'm very excited for that.
Nick Dauphinais is a professional singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist touring and teaching music in western North Carolina. For information about his work and to hear his music, visit www.nickdauphinais.com.