You’ve caught David Brunner in one of his “moments.” He admits to having them quite often.
What did I interrupt? you ask Brunner, who sits among wadded-up sheets of paper and a Steinway piano. “Just starting on a new composition,” he says in a gentle … no, a melodic voice. “The beginning is the playful part of the process, with so many possibilities. It’s why music can become obsessive.”
Brunner’s office is a solitary place in every sense. You might think of his international acclaim in composing, conducting and teaching music, and imagine instrumental sounds filling this space — even if just a trickle. But there is none. It’s quiet. Or at least it’s quiet in this space.
“I can hear voices in my head,” says Brunner. There’s an awkward pause, so he elaborates. “It’s beautiful choirs of voices. Sometimes I hum and I’m not even aware of it. But now that you mention it, yes, music brings me alive in a way that’s hard to explain.”
This is the beauty of Brunner’s mind. Instead of explaining the effect of music, he has the innate ability to simply share it. It’s been this way as long as he can remember, including the past 31 years as a professor and director in UCF’s music department. He has passed this passion on at elementary schools, across more than 30 states and around the world.
“Music brings me alive in a way that’s hard to explain.” – David Brunner, UCF professor
“David’s calming presence makes him good with people of all ages,” says Kelly Miller, choral instructor and music education coordinator at UCF. “Everyone, even the little ones, are intrigued by his skill. But his inviting personality keeps them engaged.”
Brunner can relate because music began shaping his life as a boy growing up in the prairies of Peotone, Illinois, 45 miles south of Chicago. In the family’s living room, little David would bang on mom’s piano with vacuum-cleaner attachments. The piano made an impression, and the feeling was mutual.
“The piano keys were chipped from that point on,” he says.
Another major bridge occurred when Brunner saw a poster for a student recital. Something must have been stirring in his young head because he wrote a choral piece and asked some friends to perform it. The process of hearing his music come to life became a catalyst.
“I hesitate to call my career a choice,” he says. “I never chose it. It just happened.”
Once it happened, however, Brunner did choose to do whatever it took to keep it happening. He taught his first class at UCF in 1988 as a one-year visiting instructor, commuting 100 miles each way from Tampa. He also had a second job in Sarasota. The inside of car became his companion.
Often, he heard the voices of those choirs — choirs that didn’t even exist yet.
Listen carefully. In the background of Brunner’s story is a message to students who want to pursue music as a livelihood: When it chooses you, embrace it back. You’re creative, so create opportunities. There’s literally no telling where they might lead.
For Brunner, they’ve led to royal halls in London, ornate cathedrals throughout Europe, Carnegie Hall and … the list is endless.
One night, June 12, 2013, still reverberates particularly loud and clear. A publicist asked Brunner to lead UCF’s chamber choir in what she merely described as “a high-profile show.” Brunner and the choir had done big shows and so he politely mentioned that the students would be out of school for summer and unavailable. The woman said he might want to reconsider, given the band they’d be accompanying: the Rolling Stones.
“David and I were on opposite sides of the stage that night,” says Miller. “It was indescribable.”
When the 24-member chamber choir opened the Stones’ encore song (You Can’t Always Get What You Want), the 60,000 people at the [then] Citrus Bowl generated an electricity that Brunner can practically feel to this day.
“I remember thinking, ‘You know, I’ve had a lot of incredible experiences, but nothing like this.’ People at the university say, ‘Yes, we know you’ve done Beethoven’s 9th at Canterbury Cathedral … but tell me about the Rolling Stones.’”
Yet he’s just as eager to mention the 1,000 thank-you notes he received from a school in Oklahoma. Or the UCF graduates who have careers in music. Miller even did her doctoral dissertation on Brunner’s work. On Nov. 22, Brunner will give his final performance at First United Methodist Church in downtown Orlando. The program, he says, is loosely based on the idea of a journeyman traveling the world and going home.
“It seems like maybe eight years here at UCF, not 31,” he says.
Brunner has a picture of where he imagines the journey taking him. It’s vivid in his mind — a quiet little place next to a babbling brook in the forest. It’s where he can compose as freely as he wants. And this picture, no doubt, is framed by the invisible sound of a beautiful choir.