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Finding partner, playing on the streets help classically trained musician

August 7, 2013

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Pleasant Ridge native Alison Donahue has formed a musical duo, Cello-Bella, with Dearborn resident Mike Wilhelm and the two will play Aug. 13 at the Ferndale Public Library’s Summer Concert Series. Donahue is classically trained on the cello, while Wilhelm taught himself how to play guitar in his free time.

FERNDALE — At the age of 9, Alison Donahue began taking lessons to become classically trained on the cello. The Pleasant Ridge native and Ferndale High School graduate fell in love with the music and continued to play beyond her youth.

However, a career-path change in college and the birth of her first son saw Donahue giving up the cello and music for quite some time. When she returned, she realized music wasn’t the same as when she was growing up.

Enter Mike Wilhelm, a Dearborn resident who helped Donahue bring her sound into the 21st century while still remaining true to her training and love of classical music.

The duo, who call themselves Cello-Bella, has been playing together for five years, and at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 13, Donahue and Wilhelm will be closing out the Ferndale Public Library Summer Concert Series.

“Having music in your life is such an expanding thing, and it puts you in situations you wouldn’t be in during your regular job and puts you out in the community,” Donahue said. “Mike and I play a lot of different gigs around the area and we enjoy getting out there and reaching out to people and hopefully lifting up their day.”

Donahue originally went to college to study music, but she changed to communications and marketing, and eventually earned her master’s degree in video production from the University of Michigan. Still, she played for more than 10 years as part of the Birmingham-Bloomfield symphony orchestra.

But when Donahue had her son, there was no longer time to continue pursuing her music passion.

“Once you start to get a family, even one kid, there are so many demands on your time and it is very easy to not put the time in for practices and rehearsals,” she said. “It is harder to juggle raising a kid and a full-time job, along with whatever capacity of a music career you have. I was doing the same type of music for a long time, and my whole career as a musician, I felt I had been there and done that. I didn’t realize there was another type of music out there.”

When Donahue decided to get back into music, she started going to AJ’s Café in Ferndale to play in front of small crowds. In 2008, she met Wilhelm at the café and the two realized they had a common passion for music from the early 1920s and ’30s.

However, while Donahue is classically trained, Wilhelm taught himself how to play the guitar during his free time at home.

“I am not a classically trained guitarist, but I like very much playing music with Alison,” Wilhelm said. “I first picked up a $15 guitar in 1964 after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and it’s been all downhill every since. I began to explore the wonderful American music called jazz and, in 2007, I took an early retirement from Ford Motor Company and (eventually) met Alison.”

In the five years since they started playing together, Wilhelm has helped bring Donahue even farther out of her comfort zone. Recently, the duo has started to play on the streets for those who walk by.

Going from hiding in an orchestra with several other players and a conductor to being front and center as part of a two-person band was a learning experience, Donahue said.

“I was brought up in a music world that was rigid and was very full of rules of how you approach music,” she said. “On the street, you hang yourself out there and see how you rate and if people will stop and listen. Before we went out, I was embarrassed and thought people would look and make fun of us, but they just ignore you.

“If they notice you, like a father and daughter stopping to dance to our music, that is why we are out there — to make memories for others.”

As Cello-Bella started to play more and they released their first album, “From the Basement,” in 2009, Donahue continued to grow and learn more about music outside of classical.

“Mike knew all these songs I had never heard of and he had this broad spectrum of songs he knew from playing over the years, and he writes songs,” Donahue said. “In an orchestra, each person would play one instrument and you didn’t need another instrument, but I see people now who play every instrument in the band.

“It was really expanding and broadening and so much fun to have that kind of freedom I didn’t have before. The audience didn’t have any rules of when to clap at AJ’s, so it was fear and fun at the same time.”

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