September 29, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 52°F


Tuba professor infuses life with passion for music

Two years ago, Dave Unland was given a 20 percent survival rate after doctors diagnosed him with esophageal cancer. Five weeks after surgery, the associate professor of music performance was back playing the tuba in concerts — this time with a chemotherapy bag attached to his body.

Dave Unland, associate professor of music performance, helps organize annual holiday tuba concerts and plays around town in the brass band Heavy Metal in addition to teaching. Connor Gleason/The Ithacan

“I refused to stop functioning,” he said.

Unland started playing tuba at age seven and furthered his career with a full scholarship to Southern Illinois University, where he played with the St. Louis Symphony. He said when he applied for the position at Ithaca College at age 28, he had no idea what to expect from New York state, but he’s now in love with Ithaca.

“I can’t imagine being in a place I love more,” Unland said. “It’s like living in a resort town.”

Having cancer changed his life forever, he said. He learned that everyone has to face the reality of death, and life became much more meaningful.

“It crystallizes what’s important in your life and what has made life beautiful,” he said.

Unland, who sometimes works with students until 11 p.m., is constantly willing to give his all for his more than 20 students at the college and in the community.

“I have done my fair share of hard labor, but [since] I started playing [music] professionally, I haven’t worked a day in my life,” he said.

Unland, who has taught at the college for more than 25 years, has a very laid back style of teaching that helps him be at ease with students. Junior Mike Horsford said Unland is a caring person and is clear about what he wants.

“His [teaching] is about how the two of us can accomplish something together,” Horsford said.

Unland likes his students to be able to extend their music outside of the classroom and helps organize the college’s annual Oktubafest.

Oktubafest, a Halloween tuba and euphonium instrument performance at the college, is one of Unland’s favorite times of the year, he said. Everyone dresses up in costumes to watch Unland, his students and colleagues play classic and creepy tunes like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Unland tries to get audience members involved by setting up instruments on stage for them to play. Sarah Drew ’07 said Oktubafest is a chance for the studio’s players to bond with the rest of the college.

“It allows us to connect with an audience that we wouldn’t normally see outside of the music building,” Drew said.

Off campus, Unland tries in as many ways as he can to bring his music to the people of Ithaca.

During the summer at Micawber’s Pub, Unland and his brass band Heavy Metal fill the air with classic rock and swinging jazz melodies that get people up and dancing. This St. Patrick’s Day, the band also played a gig at Moonshadows Tavern.

Being a part of Heavy Metal, which includes four of Unland’s students as brass players and a drummer, allows Unland to give a performance that is much more informal and audience-geared than a traditional recital, he said. In addition to classic hits by Elvis and The Beatles, the band also plays original numbers arranged by Unland.

“You see that there’s this other reality of playing,” he said.

Unland is not just interested in classical and jazz. In fact, he likes to listen to a lot of the same music as his 18-year-old son. Whether it is My Chemical Romance or Linkin Park, Unland is always interested in what’s going on in the music world. He believes it’s not just grandiose classical music that can be considered real art.

“If you are moved and changed by the experience, then that’s art,” said Unland.

Though he always has a tune in his head, Unland tries to be active outside the music realm. He enjoys sailing, kayaking, cycling and working out. He said he loves listening to liberal talk radio and demonstrating in political events with his family. Sometimes students tend to get wrapped up in their music, he said, so he recommends everyone play recreationally as hard as they perform music. Unland said outside activities allow people to appreciate music more.

While Unland said he doesn’t sing in the shower, he is always coming up with new melodies and experimenting with scales.

“I have a chance to make a living doing what I love,” said Unland. “How many people get to do that?”