In this post-holiday season, Chad Watkins' "The Journey" offers a soundtrack for relaxation, meditation and midwinter hibernation.
This collection of 20 piano solos lures the listener in with delicate arrangements of subtly layered piano melodies certain to uplift the spirit while simultaneously soothing the soul.
But this collection of music also represents a personal journey for Watkins, a longtime music instructor who also has ties with local theater.
Born and bred in Gainesville, Watkins is a music teacher at Haw Creek Elementary School in Cumming. He began playing piano at age 5 when he took to picking out melodies sung at church on the family's old green upright piano.
By high school he was touring with a southern gospel chorus and teaching piano lessons on the side. He went on to earn a degree in music education from Brenau University and spent several years teaching middle and high school chorus in Dawson County before falling for the theater.
Growing up in a strict fundamentalist Baptist household, the only music Watkins knew as a child was southern gospel.
"As an artist, there were always obstacles due to a strict upbringing," he explained of his metamorphosis in music. "I had to go out and find my own way."
Watkins was well into adulthood when he was invited to serve as the accompanist for a production of "Carousel" at the Holly Theatre in Dahlonega. He said he was immediately hooked on the energy, applause and special camaraderie and became deeply involved in musical theater, eventually becoming co-owner of STAGE, a performing arts school in Dawson County where he taught piano, voice, theater and dance while still working with the Holly Theatre, even writing, directing and choreographing shows.
In 2005 Watkins and his partner sold STAGE and he moved on to the Black Bear Dinner Theatre in Helen before returning to teach in the public school system in 2006, while continuing to teach and perform on the side.
It was a lot for one man to keep up with, he said.
"So many things in my life were really going good, yet I was the most miserable I'd ever been," said Watkins of the period spent teaching all day and working nights and weekends as well. "When you do love what you do, you take on more and more till there's no more you left.
"Literally all I did was get up, go to work and work some more."
The hyperactive schedule soon led to exhaustion and illness, and he spent an entire year suffering from recurring chronic bronchitis.
"I'd spent an entire year and never listened to a single CD myself," Watkins said. "I never stopped long enough to do anything that was feeding me."
"The Journey" represents a turning point in Watkins' life. After battling his own illness and taking a few steps back from the demands of his busy life, he then turned much of his energy to helping his father through a serious illness. As his 40th birthday approached this past year, he found himself shifting focus in his own life.
"I'm now more interested in creating music that would help people enjoy their life - I had to learn to do that myself."
Following his natural talent for teaching, "The Journey" offers a series of life lessons that Watkins chronicles on his blog at www.chadwatkins.com. Solo piano instrumentals titled "Sunset," "Conversation with an Old Friend," "Journey" and "A Drink of Water" are realized as moments of enlightenment when reimagined through their creator's words.
The quiet piano solos of "The Journey" are a far cry from the boisterousness of musical theater or the rowdy sing-alongs of elementary school. The music is undeniably spiritual, but it is separate from the rapturous gospel music of Watkins' youth.
"Even as a child I had a spiritual nature, but I didn't necessarily agree with everything I was taught in church," Watkins said. "Sometimes I feel religious music is feeding people's emotions rather than feeding people's spirit - it's the same reason people go to a ball game. I just want to learn to be in the present and be OK."
The spirituality of "The Journey" certainly transcends the tenets of mainstream religion. When listening to the album, one could conjure images of rain falling on leaves, woodland walks, streamside sit-downs and cloud-shrouded mountains reflected in a mirror-surfaced lake.
"Being in nature almost does the same thing the music does to me - they both go hand in hand," he said of finding his muse in Mother Nature's wonders. "You have to take time in life to stop the mind chatter. ... I want people to stop and take time to experience today."
Watkins is already working on a follow-up album, another collection of piano solos that he suggests will be slightly more upbeat and jazz-influenced. And he's working on lyrics for a vocal album that will continue to share the lessons of life, love and self-awareness explored in "The Journey."