Lynda Ables remembers the late Dr. Jay Dunnahoo, a conductor of Hill Country Youth Orchestras

Recently, Kerrville suffered another great loss in the community. Dr. Jay Dunnahoo, born on June 18, 1936, passed away on May 12, 2018. He was very involved in Symphony of the Hills and Hill Country Youth Orchestras for many years and was also a member of the Hill Country Youth Orchestras Advisory Board. He has been described by many as a Texas music giant, an incredible teacher, and an encourager.

HCBN talked with Lynda Ables, Founder of the Hill Country Youth Orchestras, about Dr. Dunnahoo and how she will remember him.

Ables says, “One day he calls my office and says ‘ My name is Jay Dunnahoo’ he didn’t say doctor or tell me all the big awards he has won. ‘My wife and I are going to be retiring to Kerrville and I went online and saw that you have a website for the Hill Country Youth Orchestra. I have experience in working with youth orchestras and kids and although I am retiring, I would like to become involved, if that’s a chance.’ He was telling me nothing about what he had been doing in Houston. Nothing like that.”

“He called again and asked if we could meet next time he came to town. We immediately became friends. He would get really excited about music and kids and so do I, so we really hit it off.”

She explained that his arrival couldn’t have come at a better time for the organization. At that time, they had about 60 students and three orchestras, ranging from 4 and 5-year-olds to the older students. They were in need of a fourth, more advanced orchestra, for the students that were really talented and needed to be challenged more.

Ables described Dr. Dunnahoo, “He was incredibly humble, an encourager of other people. He was just a giant. He was also a big dog in music in the state of Texas.”

“The neat thing about Jay Dunnahoo, he never forgot the concept that there was a reason we call it ‘playing’ music. It’s supposed to be joyful. It’s supposed to be fun and he was such an encourager.”

It was said by Ms. Ables that he developed close relationships with his students. “He was the kind of guy that would go and sit next to a student having trouble with a part and he would go ask what they were having problems with. He would work with them and encourage them. He would also sit with the kids and play any part that was needed. I remember thinking, ‘Here’s this man, sitting next to a 14-year-old, teaching and encouraging the whole time.'”

Ms. Ables said he would also encourage churches to use their top players when they would have a church orchestra performance.

“We had a quartet of three sisters and my daughter Mollie, called The Seraphim Strings. Jay coached the quartet. Mollie did the program notes for 14 years, as well, and after she would send them to him he would write her back and tell her what he thought. He was just a wonderful guy.”

She tells a story about him, “I play a terrible viola. He called me up one day and said ‘Hey! I remember that you always wanted to play the Beethoven 5th with a big orchestra. We’re going to play the Beethoven 5th Symphony so I am going to come by and bring you the music because you have always dreamed of doing that.’ I laughed and said, ‘Well Jay, in my dream I was really good!’ He brought the music by anyway and we had a good visit.”

She mentioned that the two of them were both crusaders to get a string program in the public school. So every time KISD would get a new superintendent, they would parade up there and talk to them about it. When Dr. Dan Troxill became the superintendent, he had previously been at a school with an orchestra program and had seen what string study could do for kids. He agreed to start an orchestra program in the school but wanted to find the right instructor. Dr. Dunnahoo suggested Pat Lee, saying she was a great performer, teacher, and organizer.

Pat Lee moved to Kerrville and has been involved in the symphony ever since.

Ms. Ables says of Dr. Dunnahoo, “The orchestra respected him and enjoyed playing for him. He never stopped teaching and never stopped smiling. He loved what he did and he loved music. He loved the joy of introducing good music to kids. We knew they weren’t all going to be professional musicians, the world didn’t need them to be, but we knew those kids would grow up and be future audience members of the Symphony of the Hills and wherever they are, they would have the opportunity to listen to good music. He was so successful at what he did and he made it look so easy and so much fun that it was contagious.”

She continues, “I have lived in Kerrville a long time and I would say he is probably one of the most respected members of the community. He was a giant. He never stopped teaching and encouraging. He is a huge loss.”

She goes on the say that every time they needed someone, someone came but she believes that nobody stepped forward and did more for the organization than Dr. Jay Dunnahoo.

Dr. Dunnahoo was always wanting to know what was going on and regularly attended HCYO Advisory Board meetings. She says that he always really showed his support until the day he passed away and he never quit smiling.

Ms. Ables remembers another story about Dr. Dunnahoo. “He and I were standing in the hallway on a Monday night. At the time, he was conducting 90 students. There were two little girls, about 7 or 8 years old. One was lugging a half-sized cello in the door and the other had a violin. They were having this intense discussion about who was the better composer: Bach or Mozart. And Jay looked at me and said, ‘This is why we’re doing this!’ I’ll never forget that. We laughed about it for a long time. Maybe it would get really hectic and I appeared to be frayed, he would look and me and say, ‘Remember why we do this.'”

“If I ever had a question or something,” says Ms. Ables, “if I needed to talk about a situation or a student or whatever, I knew I could call Jay. I don’t know what he would be doing but he made it sound like he was just waiting for you to call to visit with him. He was such a great man. Generations of children and youth and concert performers and concertgoers are going to miss him.”

Again, she describes that he was a generous, patient, kind, and a brilliant teacher and conductor. She states that he always kept in mind that the musicians weren’t working the music, they are playing the music and it should always be joyful. “It’s hard to believe he is gone.”

As stated on the Symphony of the Hills website, “Dr. Dunnahoo’s extensive experience in music includes serving as a public school orchestra teacher and music administrator. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Southwest Texas State University and master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Houston. He is a past-president of the Texas Orchestra Directors Association, Texas Music Educators Conference, Pasadena Philharmonic Society, and the Texas Music Adjudicators Association.

Dr. Dunnahoo’s 1976 symphony orchestra at Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena was named the Honor Orchestra of the state of Texas by the Texas Music Educators Association. The Texas Orchestra Directors Association named him its Orchestra Director of the Year in 1992. Also in 1992, Southwest Texas State University’s Department of Music honored him by recognizing “His Outstanding Contributions To and Distinguished Career in Music Education.” In 2007, the music division of the National Federation of State High School Associations awarded him its Outstanding Music Educator Award.”

Dr. Jay Dunnahoo’s memorial is set for June 9 and some of his former students will be playing.

You can read more about Dr. Jay Dunnahoo’s life on the Hill Country Youth Orchestras website or the Symphony of the Hills website.

HCBN would like to thank Ms. Lynda Ables for taking the time to speak with us about Dr. Dunnahoo. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who knew and loved him.