Dana Lamb sat on the edge of her seat at Grand Canyon University Arena while riggers worked on last-minute lighting changes high above her head and roadies taped down endless lengths of cord on stage. Someone tested the mike. Someone else checked reserve seating. Then, amidst the pre-show chaos, notes rang out and goosebumps rose on Dana’s arms. The musician played through the score, testing the instrument for perfect tune, and Dana sang along. She knew every single word by heart, of course. She’d written them, after all. And soon the whirlwind experience of the last few years would swirl into the kind of moment most people only fantasize about.
“You Should Dream,” the song Dana had stepped out of the shower to write, would be played to an eager crowd of thousands by rising sensation The Texas Tenors. More amazing yet, the whole performance would be filmed and edited for a nationally broadcast PBS special. Dana had hit the big time. And she could hardly take it in.
It all started with a toy piano. Given to a three-year-old Dana for Christmas, the instrument’s tinkling chords caught her attention immediately. Her family soon realized little Dana had a natural gift when she began playing along with the carols on the stereo later that evening—even though she’d never touched a piano’s keys before. Dana began lessons, progressing rapidly and eventually learning to play the flute and strings as well. Throughout her school days in a small, blue-collar Connecticut town, Dana’s dedication to music never wavered.
“I was the music kid,” she says. “I was never the fastest reader or the best in math. I couldn’t remember the dates in social studies. Music was where I belonged, where I thrived.”
And thrive she certainly did. After high school, she was accepted into the prestigious Hartt School, a comprehensive performing arts conservatory in New England. But while her classmates dreamed of careers on stage, Dana had a different goal in mind. She wanted to become an elementary school music teacher. But music education jobs were hard to come by in the early 90s. After much soul-searching, Dana left Hartt and switched to marketing. She spent a dozen years in the agency life, building a highly successful career and moving up quickly, but she never forgot her first passion. She continued working in music on the side, singing with the Serendipity Gospel Choir, serving as music director for a children’s theatre, and writing songs for churches and retirement celebrations.
“I’ve spent 26 years in music ministry with various churches,” Dana explains. “I’ve been an organist, played in the handbell choir, you name it. I really love growing programs so that people can express their faith through music.” But no matter her career success, or how many music projects she participated in, the idea of becoming a music teacher haunted her. At 33, she decided to go back to the beginning and pursue her original goals.
She began at a small community college in Connecticut, but by then, she and her family had become dissatisfied with the area. “We really wanted a different environment for our kids,” says Dana. “In fact, we’d been trying to sell our home for two years without a single bite. We came to visit family in Newnan and found more focus on prayer and family and home. It was exactly what we were looking for, and we decided to move.” Clearly it was meant to be. Back on the market, their home sold almost immediately, and within a few short months, Dana and her family were on their way south. They moved into their Peachtree City home in 2004. Dana’s son was just 13 days old. She was getting a manicure one day when a stranger, seeing Dana’s music keychain, mentioned that St. Ann’s was looking for a part-time music teacher. Dana jumped on the opportunity and landed the job.
“I was absolutely hooked!” she says. Soon she moved into a full-time position as Trinity School’s music director and began growing its program. When she started, the school taught kindergarten through third grades. Its enrollment was about 200 and it offered only a handful of music classes. By the time she left five years later, the school had grown into a full K-12 institution, had over 1,000 students, and offered orchestra, symphonic band, non-traditional drumlines, musical theatre, and more. She’d taken a group of eight students to meet and play with Itzhak Perlman, and she knew she was doing exactly what she was supposed to do.
“Think for a second about how intentionally our physical bodies are made,” she says. “Our fingerprints are unique, no two eye patterns are the same. Why wouldn’t our purpose be as intentionally and uniquely designed? My purpose was to be a music teacher. And everything I ever wanted was in that classroom.”
The seeds of her songwriting and producing career were planted at Trinity as well. In 2007, the school’s brightest trumpet player insisted—absolutely insisted—that God wanted Dana to write a song and send it in to “American Idol.” The popular show ran a regular contest to choose the song for its finalists, and the student was sure Dana was supposed to enter. She smiled and laughed a little. She was already living her dream. What could be better? But the student persisted and she agreed to think about it. Then, the Saturday before spring break, as Dana was preparing for a cruise to Jamaica, inspiration struck—unexpectedly, as usual.
“I was standing in the shower, waiting the required ten minutes for my deep conditioning treatment to soak in because I knew the sun would fry my hair. And all of a sudden, I heard a song, heard it from start to finish. And I thought ‘Hey, that’s not bad!’ So I hopped out of the shower and ran dripping into the bedroom.” All she could find in her nightstand drawer was a purple marker. So she scribbled down the song, went back to rinsing her hair, and headed off on vacation. She didn’t give it another thought until she returned to school and her student tracked her down to ask if she’d written a song for “American Idol” yet.
“I just stopped and stared at him,” Dana recalls, “and it all came together in my mind. I said, ‘You know, I think I did.’” But she didn’t have access to the kind of fancy, 16-track equipment most songwriters cut their demos on. So she dragged out an old four-track recorder and decided to give it a go. Then she searched YouTube for videos on how to turn the track into an MP3 so she could submit it.
“Sometimes we limit ourselves because we think we don’t have what it takes,” she says. “But don’t be afraid to try. It’s worth the risk. I mean, what do you have to lose?”
Dana’s song, “You Should Dream,” wasn’t chosen, but it did make it onto the show’s “Hits They Missed” album. She got to go to Memphis and record it in a real studio. She even got to play the keyboard on the track. But eventually time passed. She still owned the song and she wondered what to do with it—and with her newfound interest in songwriting. The music business is incredibly hard to break into, but Dana decided to pursue it anyway. She began writing and soon had a catalog of 60 masters. People started to ask her to write specific types of songs, and she found she had a knack for it. Fayetteville’s God and Country Night event featured one of her pieces.
And then she got a call from her mother: The Texas Tenors, the best-ever performing vocal group in “America’s Got Talent” history, had posted a Facebook message that they were looking for new material. She hemmed and hawed, but her mom persisted, and eventually Dana sent the song in. The group called her seven minutes later.
“She sent a great email about her background,” explains Marcus Collins of The Texas Tenors. “It immediately struck a chord with us because all three of us, our parents are teachers. We listened to ‘You Should Dream,’ and it spoke to us. It just embodies who we are. It completely changed the direction of the record and became the representation of who we are as a group.”
And then the whirlwind really began: recording, promoting, collaboration, excitement. Then, finally, the live performance taping in Arizona.
“It was so strange. My little song? On national television? It was very humbling. I kept thinking, ‘All of this happened because I got out of the shower.’”
But for Dana, the excitement and satisfaction of writing and producing songs—and the elation that goes with having a major musical group perform your piece as their signature tune—is only a part of her professional life. Her real love, her first passion, and her childhood dream come true, is her career as a music educator. She graduated Western Governors University with an Interdisciplinary Education Degree in 2008 and went to work for Cleveland Elementary in Fayette County in 2009. Everything had come full circle. The public school child of a single mother was teaching in the very discipline that had brightened her days as a kid, educating kids who, like her, had found in music a place to belong. She teaches a wide array of classes and leads a number of activities, from choir to the annual school musical. Last year, they performed “The Little Mermaid” and included 90 students. She took home letters the children had written to the troops overseas and used excerpts to write “Dear Soldier” for a school benefit. Twenty-seven students contributed to the effort.
“The great thing about Dana,” says Cleveland Elementary principal Angie Southers, “is that she gives every child a chance, not just those with obvious or extraordinary talent. Every kid who wants to participate gets a chance, and it’s just amazing to see the quiet ones—and the ones who might not be the best student academically or behaviorally—shine!”
Last year, Dana earned her master’s in Music Education from Boston University. She loves that her own two children got to learn the importance of education by watching her example. And one of the most important aspects of her varied career is her work as an arts education advocate. She serves as National Educational Advisory Director for the Muzart World Foundation, which was started by Ken Kragen and Pat Melfi, the two music business magnates behind “We Are the World” and “Hands Across America.”
“Dana engages people,” says Pat Melfi. “She’s an incredible example of teaching children the way they learn rather than making them learn the way we want to teach.” “She’s capable of so much,” notes Tina Luna, a Cleveland Elementary parent. “Yet she chooses to be here with our kids.”
Dana’s songwriting career has taken off. She receives numerous requests to craft custom songs, and she’s worked with independent artists such as The Band Dakota and Hunter Callahan, a Fayette County singer who’s been compared to a young Bob Dylan. She still teaches at Cleveland and says she can’t imagine leaving. She was a semifinalist for the Grammy for Music Education in 2013 and has been nominated again this year. Her life is very full and very rich, indeed.
“On a Wednesday, I became Teacher of the Year,” she says. “On Thursday, Nigel Wright announced he was producing my song. On Friday I did laundry. That’s my life. My story is that a public school music education gave an ordinary kid an extraordinary life. Thirty years ago I was just a dork with a piano and a violin. Now I’m teaching students, changing lives, and writing songs that make the Billboard charts.
“Live your passion. Drop your pebble with loving intention. You never know what can happen.”