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Bret Dale says he has world's greatest job: opening door to world of music
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Photo: Todd Welvaert/twelvaert@qconline.com
Bret Dale, programming assistant at the River Music Experience, takes a moment for a picture on Dec. 30. Mr. Dale spreads his love of music to students through educational programs on both sides of the river.
DAVENPORT — Getting students excited about record players and early American music is no easy task, but for Bret Dale, the challenge lies in showing them there's more to music than "Top 40 radio."

"Everyone has their favorite CD," said Mr. Dale, programming assistant at River Music Experience, 129 Main St., Davenport. "You don't have to play music to understand music is literally a way of life."

This has been true for Mr. Dale since he picked up the guitar at age 16. Now, more than a decade later, he teaches students to understand the history of music and appreciate its value.

Mr. Dale, guided by his affinity for the blues, dreamed of moving away to perform in "Sweet Home" Chicago, and after graduating from Davenport West High School in 2000, that's what he did.

This "young, naive ambition" was off to a shaky start, working job after job to keep his head above water financially, until he met Chicago blues legend Lonnie Brooks.

"He taught me everything, him and his family," Mr. Dale said. The Blues Hall-of-Famer took Mr. Dale in as a guitar tech, where he came to fill in on guitar, he said. "I had no business being there."

Through his time with the veteran team of blues artists, he said he learned to let go of anxieties that were holding him back as a musician.

"Being in Chicago afforded me to meet amazing people who showed me how to do things the right way and not be so green about it," he said.

He spent the next 10 years traveling around the world with the band, playing gigs and meeting fascinating people.

While these times were incredibly exciting for Mr. Dale, he said he felt as though it was all happening too quickly, and if he were to stay in Chicago, another 10 years might pass by and he would miss out on some of life's most valuable experiences.

So Mr. Dale decided to move home to the Quad-Cities to be closer to family. He bought a house and landed a job as cafe manager at the RME.

Ellis Kell, the RME's director of programming and community outreach, invited Mr. Dale to get involved with the River Currents Tour, a collaboration with the Figge Art Museum to teach grade-school students the history of American roots music.

Over time, Mr. Kell delegated more outreach work to Mr. Dale to handle the growing number of projects.

"Now that I'm pretty much (working exclusively in) programming, our outreach program has just grown exponentially," he said.

Mr. Dale said he's had a blast since his promotion. He teaches subjects such as introductory music theory to elementary students with Davenport Community School District's "Stepping Stones Enrichment Program" and music history to middle-schoolers in Rock Island.

He said the fun lies in sharing what initially drove his lifelong love of music — histories on individual artists and how music became what it is today — "the attention to detail's fun."

On one visit, he brought in a record player and more than a dozen vinyls spanning several decades, to give students a feel for the progression music has made. The albums featured performers from the mid-1900s, such as gospel artists Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers, through modern day, including a recent release by a Chicago-based indie rockers, Wilco.

"Out of 12 or 15 kids there that day, only two of them had ever seen a record or a record player before," Mr. Dale said.

He asked the students to inspect the player on their own, and after a moment of adjusting the arm and seeing it in action, "they freaked out; they loved it!" he said.

"So, it's stuff like that, that you start to realize that I am making a difference," he said. "Most of these kids could probably grow up, graduate high school and never hear Elvis before."

Mr. Dale sometimes asks during his demonstrations for a show of hands of students who enjoy music, he said. "And, of course, everybody raises their hand.

"When you're happy, it can make you sad. When you're sad, it can make you happy," he said. "And it's the same thing when you actually play music because playing music is really challenging, but once you actually (learn to play) it opens up something in your mind."

Mr. Dale said he aims to open a door to the rich world of music and allow students to explore it.

"And being able to see a kid walk through that first door for the first time, I mean, you sleep easy at night," he said. "It's the world's greatest job."

In contrast to spending all his time on the road with Lonnie Brooks, his job allows him to maintain the perfect balance between professional life and family life, while still allowing him to play festivals and record music with his band The Candymakers, he said.

At the same time, he's working to enrich young lives, Mr. Dale said.

"I'm working with some really great people. We're not here to make money; it's a musical not-for-profit. We're here because we love it."







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1914 -- 100 years ago: The Board of Education secured a site for the New Central Grammar School by purchasing additional property south of Irving School for $3,400.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The total number of workers employed at the Farmall Works of International Harvester Co. has reached a peak of 5,300, the largest payroll in Rock Island.
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(More History)