Daniel Austin Sperry hopes to help other musicians make a living playing for parkgoers
By Jim Flint for Ashland News
A series of serendipitous events led an Ashland man to rediscover his love of music in a new and unique way. As a result, he founded a tax-exempt nonprofit organization to help spread the joy.
For 11 seasons, Daniel Austin Sperry has performed on his cello a couple hours a day, five days a week during the warm months, for thousands of visitors and local residents in Ashland’s Lithia Park.
Over time, he realized how much emotional healing, solace and delight people were getting from his music. That prompted him to establish Beautiful Music in the Park last fall, getting 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS.
The goal is to acquaint younger musicians with the possibilities of sharing their musical gifts in new, culturally expansive ways, and to develop a directory of public venues suitable for those kinds of performances. The organization is raising funds to support those musicians.
Sperry plans to begin by funding a musician in Ashland and another in Des Moines, Iowa, hoping to expand the idea around the country and around the world.
“We’re attempting to show that with a little help, the right musicians can develop sustaining support for their artistry and make a viable living,” Sperry said. “To do that, we feel we need a couple of successful examples.”
To that end, the nonprofit hopes to launch two musicians this May: violinist Kathleen Strahm in Lithia Park and pianist Kimberly Starkey in a Des Moines park, contingent on raising necessary funds.
Sperry invested some of his own money in the project, crowdfunded for a time through social media, and received a grant of $2,500 from the local Haines Foundation to help get started.
He projects paying musicians $150 per two-hour performance, three times a week (Friday through Sunday), for a period of eight weeks. Including taxes, the total cost per musician would be $4,950.
Not on his radar
Sperry, 67, who started playing the cello at 4, had a career that involved music off and on, but also included stints working in sales, marketing, stock brokerage and call center management.
The last place he expected to find himself was playing cello for passersby in a park.
So, how did it come about?
In 2007, he moved to the Rogue Valley after a divorce, to be close to his son from that marriage. The boy’s mother had moved here to pursue a real estate investing career. Sperry was working as the marketing director for a web development firm.
“In 2008, I was at the end of my rope with all that,” he said. “I knew that if did not start playing music in some form or fashion, I would never get the chance to make my living at it again.”
He made a commitment to play for anyone who wanted to listen, any time, anywhere. A series of remarkable events followed.
He was invited to play a house concert for a gathering at a friend’s home. A woman, apparently impressed, approached him afterward and offered to buy him a cello. He was playing a rented instrument at the time.
“We went to a cello shop the next day and she purchased the instrument I now play, a $15,000 William Harris Lee cello.”
The following weekend he went to Lithia Park to toss a football with his son. “He wanted to hear the new cello,” Sperry said, “which was in the back seat of my car.”
He took it out of the case and sat on a stone wall not far from where he now plays regularly.
“Playing that cello then was like getting on a jet plane. It was so beautiful, resonant and lively.”
A surprise in the cello case
After about half an hour, his son said, “Hey, Dad, come look in your case.” A sum of about $25 had accumulated.
“I had no idea what ‘busking’ was at the time,” Sperry said, “but I took note of the fact that I could play for people in the park and make grocery money.”
Sperry played off and on through that fall, and in the spring of 2009 he began experimenting with different locations and times of day. He eventually settled on a spot near where the first footbridge leads into the park from Winburn Way. He played two seasons, then went on the road to do a series of house concerts for three years, during which time he performed 200 times.
When he returned to Ashland in the spring of 2014, he wasn’t sure he was going to stay. But when he returned to the park one afternoon, a group of young people in a Eugene college choir on a field trip stopped to listen. What happened next was the sign he had been looking for.
“Within minutes, they all lined up on the stone wall and on the benches in front of me and sang along as I played ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen,” he said. “It was their last act before they got on their bus to return home.”
Afterward, one by one, they came over to Sperry to thank him for his music. “They shook my hand and said, ‘This is really beautiful, what you are doing. I hope you keep doing it.’”
This is his 12th season. During those 12 years, he has been playing music full time. Along the way, he began composing “musical portraits” for people, personal pieces commissioned for an occasion or as a gift. It became another source of income.
“Many of the pieces I play in the park are musical portraits. I have composed more than 50,” he said.
He declined an invitation to play with the Rogue Valley Symphony, partly because he makes more money from solo gigs and commissions than he could make playing with the orchestra.
“Even though it is hardly predictable, and the off-season can be challenging, it is the life I prefer to pursue,” he said.
There have been some unexpected bonuses from playing in the park.
“They include the gift of an electric-assist bike I ride into the park every day, meeting my beloved partner there, and scoring two movies as a result of being there,” he said.
Some magical moments
Sperry has experienced some magical moments when performing in the park. Many he puts in the category of falling and being in love. He sees couples spontaneously begin dancing to the music. “I’ve seen couples who look harried, like they’ve been very busy, suddenly finding themselves entwined,” he said.
Couples tell him coming to the park to hear him play has been part of their courtship. Some ask him to play at their weddings. And recently there was the wedding proposal.
“Just a couple weeks ago I got a call from a young woman who had been coming regularly with her girlfriend,” he said. “She wanted to know if I would come to the park to play for her to propose.” Sperry said yes.
The next Saturday was the first sunny day in a while and in the 50-degree range. The idea was for him to play “When You Wish Upon a Star” as the young woman dropped to her knees and to propose.
“And that is exactly what happened, on a gorgeous day, with their family and friends waiting respectfully at a distance behind the trees. The celebration that followed, accompanied by my music, was a joy to witness,” he said.
And then there are the kids, curious about the music, entranced with the instrument and Sperry’s artistry.
“One Fourth of July, I played into the afternoon after the parade for hordes of people,” he said. “One boy, about 6, who was autistic, stood about 8 inches from my fingerboard as I played, pouring more attention into the movement of my fingers and the sound of my cello than 50 adults could have.”
Kids come regularly to dance to his music. One little girl left a donation in the cello case with a scrawled note that said, “I love your songs, from the girl that always dances.”
A 6-year-old golden-haired boy on another occasion danced while swirling around quickly, moving his hands in a very particular way. He said he was a bee and he was collecting honey from the music.
If you are interested in supporting the hive and spreading the honey, you can learn more about Beautiful Music in the Park and donate to the cause at parkmusicbeauty.org.
Reach writer Jim Flint at email@example.com.