By TAYLOR ROBINSON
In the Morris Lawrence building lobby, 41-year-old music student Shawn Donaldson humbly sits with his guitar by his side and his beloved golden retriever, Ortega, at his feet. Feeding Ortega peanut butter cookie treats, he tells his story of how playing guitar became his passion, despite being born legally blind.
At the age of 10, Donaldson created a comic strip called “Orville the Janitor.” Due to his artistic talent, the cartoon was published. However, as he grew older and his vision faded more rapidly, other kids in class started catching up to his abilities. That’s when his enthusiasm switched gears. At 14, he picked up a guitar and has been playing ever since.
“I always wanted to do something artistic; that’s how I turned to the guitar,” Donaldson said. “It’s still an expressive medium.”
Wanting to get a degree in music, people talked him out of it. He turned to another interest – medieval history. He obtained a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University. Shortly afterward, Donaldson spent a few years in San Francisco.
“I loved it there. Other people don’t like it. Every time you walk out the door, you never know what craziness is going to ensue every day,” Donaldson said.
Unable to find a job in the history field, he accepted a computer job with a concentration in website programming. Eventually, his job consisted of configuring computers for those who were also blind so that the device would talk to them. Although he didn’t necessarily mind his work, something was missing.
“I was just not really happy doing it. I wanted to be an artist … not wanted to but needed to,” Donaldson said.
Moving back to Michigan, Donaldson continued to practice music, looking to fulfill his dream of being a musician. Inspired by a variety of musicians, ranging from the smooth jazz of Miles Davis to the edgy sounds of Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar, Donaldson loves it all.
“I’m not a snob when it comes to music. I like any kind of music almost. You can learn something from anything.” Donaldson said smiling.
Not only did he learn from music itself, he learned from fellow musician Marc Michaud. Private teacher of guitar lessons, Michaud resides in Donaldson’s hometown of Livonia. Donaldson took lessons for two years, and Michaud learned from him as well.
“The thing that stands out about Shawn is that he’s got a really good ear,” Michaud said. “He’s got really good stage presence, and he’s just the nicest guy in the world. We stay in touch. Usually, I don’t do that with most of my students, but certain students I do.”
Donaldson also stays in frequent contact with most recent band-mate, 21-year-old William Bennett. Bennett graduated from Washtenaw Community College with an associate’s in music production. He’s the main piano player at Weber’s restaurant and hotel in Ann Arbor.
“We play together all the time,” Bennett said. “He’s always been a great guy and a great musician. He never complains.”
Donaldson heard about WCC instructor John E. Lawrence from a fellow jazz musician. Lawrence, a long-time music and performing arts instructor, was the reason Donaldson started taking classes at WCC two years ago. Because of Lawrence’s connections with Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, Donaldson’s had the opportunity to play at the world’s oldest operating jazz club.
Donaldson plans on soaking up as much as he can from Lawrence. “I do feel like I’ve learned a lot practically that I wouldn’t get from a more traditional music program,” Donaldson said. “Johnny throws you right out there in gigs; It’s like sink or swim, man.”
He explains that other schools just have the students learn about music and theories. Because Donaldson learns by ear, he appreciates Lawrence’s style of teaching. He compares it to the discipline of martial arts, another hobby the two share. Donaldson even practiced at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California.
“Johnny’s guitar class is a whirlwind. If you miss one class, you miss a lot,” Donaldson said. “I take it as inspiring, while others can take it as discouraging. If you want to play like he does, you’ve got to practice a lot.”
Donaldson reaches down, gently stroking Ortega’s head. The conversation turns to his canine companion. “He picked me,” Donaldson began. The name “Ortega,” came from a chili pepper, and not only described the dog’s red-gold fur, but also his fiery personality.
“When he was young, he really did like to test me,” Donaldson said laughing. “They really kind of mess with you to see what their boundaries are, but once they do bound to you, ever since he’s never left my side.”
With Ortega’s red-gold fur turning to a softer gray, he’s reached 10-years-old. He’s overcome cancer and even saved Donaldson’s life from an attack of a neighbor’s dog. Ortega’s getting to the point of “retirement age.”
“But he doesn’t want to,” Donaldson explains. “If I leave him at home, the poor guy just sits at the door staring at it, waiting for me to come home. Ortega’s probably been one of the greatest things ever for me.”
Because Donaldson has dedicated more time to his musical passion, he’s found himself faced with opportunities he wouldn’t have had in the past, including being featured on Channel 4 News in early November 2014. He’s recorded a few songs over time and even contributed to a charity, Giving Songs in Plymouth. The charity records songs and the proceeds from the CDs go to children with disabilities, including blindness.
“That was fun and I hope to do more with them,” Donaldson said.
With Donaldson’s passion illuminated by every strum of his guitar, there’s no way that he’ll be putting down the instrument any time soon.