Dreaming with Eyes Open
By Kiersten Cooper
Who hasn’t dreamt of performing at renowned venues, surrounded by thousands of star-struck fans, mountains of money, and the awe-inspiring sound of people screaming your name?
Being a musician sounds like a dream come true! Having time for as little as half of a sandwich between jobs, performing for a distracted audience, and receiving only the occasional spattering of applause; not so much. Nevertheless, for the past five years, musician Mark Briles has been sharing his fantastic talent and ever-expanding collection of songs with audiences in this exact kind of environment at Luigi’s Ristorante.
At first glance, Mark’s commitment to being a long-time musician at a local restaurant could seem like a waste of his talents. On the contrary, because Mark sees music as a tool to deeply connect with others rather than as a ticket to stardom, he has reaped far greater rewards than fame and fortune.
At 57 years old, Mark balances a 9 to 5 blur of working at Wilton’s Office Furniture and Supplies with nights of passionate performances, playing anything from rock and roll to country. When off the clock, Mark can be found writing tear-jerking songs, saving the day with his side-kick guitar always close by, or practicing his collection (sometimes for 8 consecutive hours!)
That’s right; taking pride in his music, Mark rehearses until each song’s quality is high enough that he himself would enjoy listening to it — even if that means he practices so long that he must, in his own words, “grit [his] teeth because it hurts.”
Regulars at local restaurant, Luigi’s Patio Ristorante, are able to witness Mark’s incredible work ethic and dedication to providing memorable performances.
Humbly, Mark confesses, “They say I’m the only one that doesn’t take breaks.”
Sweating and strumming under the lights for three hours is no easy task. However, Mark explains, “If I take a break for 15 minutes, and someone was really enjoying me for the hour they were there, I missed out, because I want them to enjoy it for their hour…So that’s the type of thing that keeps me moving.”
Mark’s commitment to audiences and to consistently performing at Luigi’s has allowed him to form friendships with Luigi’s owner, Dulio Tani, Dulio’s son and current manager of the restaurant, Andres, and pianist, Greg Tivis. These friendships have led to greater opportunities for Mark to perform at Chef Tai’s restaurants, Veritas and Paulo’s, and allowed him to interact with more restaurant patrons. Mark is passionate about performing well, but most importantly, he is passionate about forming deep connections through music with local residents.
In fact, the reason that Mark sought out his job at Luigi’s in the first place is because he missed having musical interactions with audience members. He says that music “gets [him] charged up at night.” The rush of playing for people and being able to delight in music with others excites him and brings him on stage again and again.
Fortunately, keeping his fame on a smaller-scale has given Mark the freedom to significantly invest in the people who are important to him off stage. Until only a few years ago, Mark had paused the performance side of his life to enjoy the luxury of spending time with his wife and four kids. Now that his kids have moved out, Mark has more time to invest in music, yet he still finds thoughtful ways to combine the love for his family with music.
For example, Mark recently wrote a catchy and sweet song for his daughter titled, “The Weirdest thing about Austin”, which you can find on Youtube. Mark reflects on the deeper meaning behind the song, stating, “You know, there’s a lot of weird things in Austin, but for me, the weirdest thing is my daughter has grown up.”
Mark’s daughter is not the first member of his family to influence his music; he attributes his biggest musical influence to his grandfather, Wayne Dennis. In fact, Mr. Dennis is the reason why Mark fell in love with the benevolent power music holds. At a young age, Mr. Dennis recognized a deep, music-driven purpose within himself, and he devoted himself to playing the guitar, writing songs, publishing them, and singing at local churches and rest-homes. At one rest-home performance, Mr. Dennis told Mark, “Sing with me!”, and Mark happily obliged, and stepped on stage, unafraid.
From there, Mark saw how his grandfather could positively affect his community through his performances. Mark recounts that his grandfather’s powerful radio voice deeply resonated with others.
“When he talked, people were like, ‘Who is that?’…when he played, he could sing out loud, and it was a very booming voice. That affected me to hear that. So, I’d just imagine myself doing that.” Mark soon grew to love music, as his grandfather helped him turn undirected passion into talent.
In sixth grade, Mark taught himself how to play the guitar, and he continued improving his skills. Mark observes that a turning point in his musical career was completely unexpected.
“I went to Cisco Junior College to visit. As luck would have it, they had this sign hung up that said ‘Choir Try Out.’ I think, ‘I’ve never been trained in choir, but I kind of know what I’m doing.’”
The choir director asked Mark, “We don’t have hardly any bass, can you sing bass?”
“I don’t know,” Mark replied at the time.
“Well do you have any training?” the director asked.
“No,” Mark replied.
“Well, don’t run away because we need warm bodies!” the director joked.
Mark was persuaded by the unclaimed choir scholarships, and soon, was able to fine-tune his skills while developing a great appreciation for music. “I didn’t really deserve to get [the scholarship],” Mark modestly says. Regardless, the educational opportunity was the catalyst that caused Mark to become serious about strengthening his musical skillset.
A background in music education isn’t what impels Mark to get on stage, however. The drive behind Mark’s evening performances runs much deeper; he too believes music is linked to his purpose.
Mark reflects, “I can think through a lot of places that I’ve played and people that I’ve played for: Funerals, rest homes, churches. I’m just now as I’m saying this, realizing that, you know, I have a purpose there.”
While many musicians look to share their talents with crowds of paying fans, Mark uses music to love on people who are often overlooked. For example, Mark taught science for nine and a half years and frequently brought his guitar to class to play for the kids.
“The principal sometimes looked at me funny when he’d walk by my science class and I’d be playing a song,” Mark says. “I got a pass though because he realized the kids enjoyed that. They looked up to me which made me a better teacher.”
Mark recognizes that the time spent playing for those kids deeply brightened their weeks; and, whenever he runs into past students, they always contest to that fact.
Mark has played for many other people who would never have otherwise encountered his gentle demeanor and musical gifts, too. For example, Mark volunteered for hospice with the hope of “sharing something with someone that’s leaving.” Today, Mark lights up in excitement, recounting a story in which he was able to help a man give a final performance in his last few months of life.
Mark begins the story, explaining that he was asked to drive a far distance to visit a hospice patient named Elvis.
“He motions me in; and, he can’t talk. He’s got no ability. So, he has a notepad and [writes] ‘Hello,’” Mark remembers.
“I told him, ‘My name is Mark…I brought my guitar and I’d like to sing, just to have a good time,” Mark told Elvis.
“And he wrote, ‘I play too.’”
Later, as Elvis scrolled through his phone to make a call, Mark recognized a name in Elvis’ directory.
“I said, ‘Is that THE piano player?’ [Elvis] nodded and goes, ‘Do you know Jimmy Ray?’ I said ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ And he goes, ‘I used to play with him.’ So he used to play with him, right? Well, so did I.”
After realizing the uncanny connection between the three musicians, Mark brought Jimmy to the hospice wing of the hospital where Elvis was staying.
“They had a piano in the dining hall,” Mark says. “He had his bass guitar, I had my guitar, and I have a drum set that’s on a computer. So, we had a full band…Elvis got to play one last time.”
In the moment, Mark says it was difficult for him to see the importance of that performance because it’s “just what [he] does.” Today, however, Mark reflects, “I’m just now seeing that touch points in my life were music... realizing that those are real, you know, that it’s not just events that happened; they’re touch points that matter.” Mark recognizes that everything in his life purposefully led him to moments like these; because of his talent and heart for people, his love and music have the power to change lives.
Instead of chasing worldly fame, Mark chose to pursue more feasible ambitions that have rewarded him in a richer, deeper sense. When discussing his aspirations, Mark comments, “Sometimes you can get misled like ‘The sky’s the limit.’ I hate to say that cause it sounds negative, but life is not always going to be limitless.”
Dreams can come true in different ways than originally expected. Mark explains, “If you can’t hold yourself back because you’ve got that dream so big, it might mean that you’re really meant to do it…[But] if there’s even a shadow of a doubt, reroute your work – your dream as far as what can be done.” Because Mark recognized that his true dream was not to gain mass popularity, but to deeply touch lives, he has been able to fulfill his dreams with his small-town performances and community involvement.
Mark’s story is a reminder to us all to avoid becoming discouraged when our lives follow a different route than we first envisioned. It is important to acknowledge the joy that other paths can bring. Mark’s path did not diverge away from his musical dreams; instead, he incorporated music into the reality of his everyday life. Mark realizes that his dream was helping others all along, and it has come true.
Looking forward, Mark is working to create a program called Altruistic Artists, in which marginalized individuals such as the forgotten, those in rest homes, and those with Alzheimer’s are connected with volunteering artists such as musicians, storytellers, and painters. With this program, Mark hopes that individuals who hold dreams of using their passions to help others will find community and an opportunity to make a positive impact. If you are interested in joining Altruistic Artists, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.