The voice of experience


For Mona Dena, the prospect of reaching the mid-century mark didn't trigger a mid-life crisis but rather ushered in a creative renaissance, inspiring her to write, record and release her very first album.

Known to scores of students and their families as "Teacher Mona," for the past 20 years, Dena has educated the local community through her Music Together and Kids Sing programs and vocal lessons at her Redwood City studio, Mo Music (and before that, at San Mateo's Bayside Middle School for the Arts).

"All through my 20s and early 30s I was a performer, primarily in jazz combos, duos and big bands," said Dena, who earned a degree in vocal performance as well as a teaching credential from Cal State Hayward. "I always saw myself as a singer first. Then, having children just kind of gave me the realization that the lifestyle just wasn't going to work."

She transitioned into music education while raising her now-teenaged son and daughter, alongside her husband, Jeff Redlawsk, a professional percussionist who currently teaches music at Palo Alto's Keys School.

"When my children got to the age where they got to be a bit more independent, I got the mental real estate to remember the artist in myself," she said.

"As an older person, a lot of the lyrics (in pop music) don't really speak to me. There's not a lot of songs about parenting and aging and being in long-term marriages and all those sorts of life experiences. I thought, 'You know, I think I want to just write some songs like that,'" she said. "It was also sparked by the fact that I was 49, about to turn 50. Somehow that number had a lot of impact for me. I really want to feel like I made my creative contribution."

Dena took to her piano, composing melodies and lyrics whenever she could, in between classes and other responsibilities. Eventually she wrote 15 songs, eight of which ended up being recorded for her album: "Running Home."

The record has a jazzy feel, with blues, rock and pop influences, and lyrics that celebrate Dena's grown-up perspective. The title track, she explained, is a metaphor for her enthusiastic return to her creative drive, "this passion to come back and revisit that part of myself." One of her favorite tracks is "Lines," which she described as a fancy word for wrinkles.

"I thought about how with aging, I feel like I have more depth as a person and an artist. It speaks to the lines on our face as being revered and earned, and the thought that through our trials and our ups and downs we create this map, and how that's a positive thing," she said.

Making the album was her first major musical collaboration with Redlawsk, who's played in a number of groups and productions around the Bay Area. For "Running Home," he not only played drums but co-produced, upgrading their home studio in the process, and the two are now continuing to write and play as a team.

"It's been really fun to work together after all these years," she said. "Our kids at the table would be like, 'can we talk about something other than the project?' We would get so excited," she said with a laugh. They also recruited a number of other musicians, including a string quartet and musical advisor Rich Kuhns.

When it came to funding the project, Dena turned to her community, raising a staggering $10,623 to record the album via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, offering rewards including private vocal lessons and custom songwriting.

"I like to be independent, and I don't like to ask for help," she said, initially apprehensive, but she decided she wanted community involvement to help her be able to make the project as high-quality as she envisioned.

"I thought, 'oh, I'll try it,' and I was actually very pleasantly surprised; people want to support a creative project," she said, adding that she was overwhelmed by the support she received from her network of friends and students, both current and former.

"It allowed me to reconnect with many families I hadn't seen in years; it was very positive," she said.

"Running Home" is currently available on CD via her website, MoMusic.org, while Dena mulls the next step for wider distribution, live performances and future projects.

"I don't have an end goal as much as wanting to write really good material and work with really talented people," she said. And more importantly, "I want to show my children we don't stop creating. It's not something we just do in our 20s or our 30s; it's a lifelong passion. I want to show them that I have something to say."

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