Dana Cunningham is a pianist, composer, and public speaker who lives and writes in the mountains of New Hampshire and western Maine. Her primary interest is in performing – interspersing her original piano compositions and the spoken word, including the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, Rilke, David Whyte, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, John O’Donohue and others – in concert, church, corporate, and retreat settings. Dana has a degree in Communication from Vanderbilt University where she also studied piano at Blair School of Music. She has a Masters in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. Comments about her presentations range from "deeply moving" and "soul-freeing" to "transcendent" and "centering."
In the words of the artist, "My intention is toward cultivating a greater sense of the present moment, and inviting the listener to open more fully to his or her own experience."
The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
The glory of God is the human being fully alive.
Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
As I reflect on my life journey in light of these words, I realize that it has been graced with a deep inspiration to explore what it means to become a soulful human being — to become who one truly is — and to meet the ensuing freedom with responsibility. When I look back upon the tapestry that has often seemed an indiscernible pattern, I have now lived long enough to see how the apparent chaos, the seemingly unrelated steps, the circuitous path, are all part of the movement of life toward wholeness and integration. In all its complexity, in all that remains hidden, in all the struggle and mystery — there is no question for me that life is indeed precious, and that the truth of us deserves our best, our most open heart. The following paragraphs offer a window into this particular life, and the events and forms that helped shape me, bring me to what I currently find to be meaningful.
I was born in Colorado Springs, and moved to the great Lone Star State during my first year. When my brother Scott was born six years later, I was given a gift who would later become one of my most trusted soul mates (it took awhile). I remember appreciating Texas as a young child who loved the out-of-doors — it was a vast expanse of land, with yucca plants and tumbleweeds, crickets and cicadas, and rattlesnakes. I loved exploring the Palo Duro Canyon just outside Amarillo where we lived in my early childhood, but more than anything, I treasured our summer trips back to Colorado to my grandparents' cabin in Green Mountain Falls. It was a magical place nestled in the mountains right beside a rushing creek called Fountain Creek that I could hear while I went to sleep, and couldn't wait to play in it the next day. The cabin had a huge stone fireplace in the big room where we all slept. I mention this cabin and the place it still holds in my heart because it was here, that I had my first experience of real presence. I awoke one early morning before dawn while everyone else was still sleeping. As I listened to the rushing water outside, I watched the window slowly become light. I remember thinking that it was amazing how gradually the light made its way out of the darkness, dispelling it. It was so new and fresh. I was overcome in my small, child-like way, and somehow given the gift of awareness of something larger than myself, a sense of a larger place.
The experience at my grandparents' cabin marked the beginning — in my memory anyway — of a journey full of curiosity and a passion for coming closer to the sense of the mystery of life that revealed itself so gently to me that morning. It no doubt opened the soft place within me from which the music seems to rise — a place of felt grace and communion, of not being separate. The themes and concepts in psychology and spirituality - and the way in which music helps us open to the deeper truth sometimes held within them — often found their way into my conversations with people. I guess I could say it became my heartbeat. It also feels important to say that simultaneous to this developing contemplative side was and is a fairly rebellious, sometimes impetuous, 'need for speed' side of myself that is a lot of fun and is a challenge to tame. For the most part, I like it this way, and am grateful that I have found a way into the stillness. It has probably saved my life more than a few times.
My love of music and nature was nurtured especially by my mother, during my early years. She tells the story of taking me to Handel's Messiah when I was not yet six, and of how she watched in astonishment as I sat on my grandfather's knee, transfixed for the entire three-hour performance. She also fostered my creativity by playing classical records while I drew and colored. I began piano lessons in the second grade and continued taking privately through my college years and afterward. During my high school years in Paris, Texas, it was under the instruction of my beloved teacher, Jim Thompson, that I began to grasp the difference between just reading notes and actually making music, and I also started composing my own pieces. The piano became a friend — a place of reciprocity, warm and receptive to all that was within me. As I played my compositions for others, I began to glimpse the transformational power of music. A force larger than myself was at work, and whether alone at the piano or playing for friends, I knew I had a gift that was an incredible joy to share.
Vanderbilt University, where I majored in Communication and studied piano at Blair School of Music, provided a number of opportunities to offer my musical gifts. I served as chaplain of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, where I befriended Amy Grant, whose musical heart and personhood I greatly respect. During the summer months at Camp Greystone in the mountains of North Carolina, I began to realize my passion for working with others, whether it was teaching an Ultimate Frisbee or tennis class, playing softly for the campers after taps, or talking one-on-one with a college-aged counselor. Some of my life long friendships were made at this remarkable place. After college, while serving as the Director of Cultural Enrichment and as the tennis coach at the Chatham Hall School in Virginia, I worked closely with high school students in a capacity similar to my role at camp, and returned to Greystone in the summers. The close proximity to young people during their formative years further stimulated my inquiry into the nature of spiritual understanding and growth.
I found myself fascinated to talk with people about their perspectives on faith and meaning. As I listened to the youth and colleagues with whom I worked, and listened to my own life, I began to reach beyond the more conservative parameters in which I was raised. With a desire to understand my questions and to be better grounded in my work with people, I enrolled in Dallas Theological Seminary. While I gained considerable knowledge of the doctrines and history of Christian Scripture, the experience at seminary also marked a real broadening of my understanding of the spiritual dimension of life. The remarkable piece of this story is that I did not leave the essence of my Christian faith, but found within it an opening that continues to expand my capacity for presence, and extends the space to simply be. I was graced to find the Christian mystics, and authors such as Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Frederic Buechner, who were rooted in Christianity and yet wonderfully open to the wisdom and revelation found within other faith traditions. My communion with these companions was the beginning of a new spiritual ground in which I could experience the Christ light in a new and more intimate way.
During my three years in seminary, I continued to be productive musically. However, the next phase of my life brought major challenges: I began to experience a debilitating tiredness, and in 1994 was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This illness was one of my life’s great teachers, in that it provided a space in which I learned to be still and to listen, in a deeper way, to my own life. It was a time of great emptiness and stripping away, and also a time of great "unknowing" about my life and its purpose. As I attempted to understand my fatigue and to heal, I was led to several experiences which — in hindsight — were life changing.
In the fall of 1995, I was well enough to participate in a work scholar program at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. For two months, I worked in the garden and participated in group classes. As I embraced this time, I began to move, slowly, into a much more integrated place . . . from my head, into my heart and body. I left Esalen with a mental, spiritual, and physical fluidity that I had not known before. And I found a new and focused awareness of my interest in music and healing, specifically the relationships between music, physiology, and spiritual awakening.
In 1996, I simultaneously enrolled in the Institute of Natural Healing Sciences near Dallas and in Polarity Therapy training, becoming a registered massage therapist and completing the course work for the Associate Polarity Practitioner certification. The underlying principles of the energy work were especially compelling; it was as if light bulbs were going on all the time in my response to the interconnectedness between mind and body. Ironically, the fatigue returned — although it was less than before — and I could see that I had some healing still to do.
During this time, I felt drawn to quiet and stillness in a way that I had not experienced before. I was reading Anthony de Mello, Jack Kornfield, Thomas Keating, and Thich Nhat Hanh; yet it was dawning on me that I wanted to put the books down and really enter into my own experience of becoming still.
With this desire and the intention toward a more complete healing, I chose to live at a Benedictine Monastery outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for what turned out to be a period of nine months. I lived and worked there as a volunteer, and had the opportunity to participate in the retreats held at the monastery. I worked with retreat leaders, providing music for times of healing prayer, reconciliation, and improvisational dance. It was here, too, that I was introduced to the powerful music from Taize, France. In short, it was another experience of coming home to myself. Not only did I begin to glimpse a clearer picture of what I wanted to do, I entered a new internal rhythm with meditation serving as a vital part of the whole. Consistent time for meditation and stillness had been a missing piece in my life, and it was here — on eleven hundred acres of sacred land, surrounded by a group of humble monks and nuns — that I was graced to listen, to find the breath, and to follow
it on a path toward wholeness.
In the spring of 1998, with my time at the monastery drawing to a close, I met some musicians from New Hampshire who inspired me deeply and whom I felt drawn to work with. Among these was Wiley Beveridge, who has been a long-standing friend and collaborator. After a summer at Camp Greystone as an artist-in-residence, I moved to New England that fall.
Life in the White Mountains is once again a place of learning and discovery, which among many things, has given me amazing access to the sacred world of nature. I have loved swimming in the lakes, walking in the woods and mountains, and listening to the rivers — all of it contributing profoundly to what becomes the music that eventually flows from me.
When I first moved here, I was honored to meet and work with doctor and poet, Rob Richardson, who introduced me to the poetry of Rumi, Rilke, David Whyte, Mary Oliver, and others. Playing during his poetry recitation had a profound influence on my use of space and silence in composition, and the poetry itself became a part of my spiritual practice. Through these poets, I have found new companions for this journey who speak in fresh ways, and connect directly to the heart and its longings. Through music, poetry, and contemplative practice, I am interested in participating in the shared experience of becoming truly present. I feel strongly that our culture desperately needs this kind of support and encouragement. My desire to be a part of this support inspired the production and recording of Dancing At The Gate in 2002, with Silent Night to follow two years later.
Another powerful influence in my life since coming to New Hampshire has been to work for over eight years with an organizaton out of Germantown, MD who offers retreats on issues of faith and money. It has an unusual name, The Ministry of Money, and is staffed by people of deepest integrity. Offering music and poetry in the context of these retreats and listening to the participants has been such a gift as I seek to understand my own relationship, as a global citizen, to money and power.
In the summer of 2005, I began corresponding with Will Ackerman, and within a few months, had the honor of working with him as the producer of my most recent recording, The Color of Light. The experience of working with Will and his engineer, Corin Nelsen, has been one of the highlights of my life, both personally and professionally, and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. It would not have occurred without the love and support of many people.
At the present time, I purpose to broaden my opportunities for performance and to sow seeds of peace in a culture of stress and hurry, wherever I can, and to actively explore ways in which my music can directly contribute to those among us who do not have enough or who are marginalized in any way. I welcome my audience in helping me creatively addressing these goals.
Looking back respectfully once again, I am grateful for the gifts that are such a part of who I am ... my family — my wonderful mom and dad, my brother Scott and his wife Barbara, and the apples of my eye, their children, Dallas Dane and Ava Grace. . .
. . . the love of my grandparents and the strength and integrity of their lives . . . the amazing friends who have graced my life, those whose contact has remained constant and those who have woven in and out. . . the beauty of the earth and a strong desire to embrace it . . .
. . . the presence of animals (especially Charlie) and all that they teach us . . . the experience of loving and being loved . . . the sacredness of slowly coming to understand the similarities between falling in love, and falling asleep, and falling 'awake' to life . . . the experiencing of surrender as the entrance to the holy. What a celebration! May the simple light move in and through us, and may music help open the door.
Dana Cunningham, Winter 2007