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Cave musician David Auerbach
Cave musician David Auerbach of Napa, holding a Persian santur, or hammered dulcimer, plays a variety of rare and exotic instruments in his performances. J.L. Sousa/Register

There are plenty of musicians in the Napa Valley, but only one David Auerbach, a performer of world music on exotic instruments rarely seen in this era of rock ’n’ roll electronica.

For more than two decades during the Christmas season, Auerbach was known for his “Carols in the Caves.” Audiences listened to traditional holiday music in the darkened solitude of wine caves, which added an extra spiritual dimension.

As someone who marches to his own tune, Auerbach promotes his music as “no guitars, no pianos, no violins, no saxophones, no rock and roll, no Lawrence Welk and no ‘smooth jazz.’”

“There are only a handful of people in the world who do what I do,” Auerbach said in a recent interview. “I’ve always had my own niche.”

Even in the best of times, Auerbach said he never earned more than $50,000 in a year. Unfortunately, these are the worst of times, he said.

Auerbach, who bills himself as “the improvisator,” said he is struggling to market himself in new ways while dealing with a mountain of debt. “We may have to go bankrupt this year if we can’t find another way,” he said.

In part, his problems stem from the sluggish economy, said Auerbach, who used to get a high percentage of his gigs through wineries. “All my friends who are musicians are struggling,” he said.

His financial distress began a few years before the recession, Auerbach said, when he began devoting considerable time helping a mentally ill brother in New Jersey to stay out of jail and stay in treatment.

“I pretty much set aside promoting my career. My work dropped off. I had to borrow lots of money from banks,” he said. “My wife and I are among many people who are behind the eight-ball.”

The less a musician works, the worse it gets, Auerbach said. Event managers forget about you. The phone stops ringing.

Auerbach describes his situation with a Zen-like calm. He would like to think of his plight as a “test case.” Millions of Americans are in financial distress, he said. Many will retreat in defeat and shame. He hopes to prove that he has the philosophical maturity and creativity to forge a brighter outcome.

His circumstance is what often happens to people who choose lives as artists, said Auerbach, who was the first kid from his small New Jersey town to go to Harvard, but dropped out after a year.

  “I was restlessly becoming aware that my life might have other possibilities that no one had ever seen in me before,” Auerbach said. “I dropped out and bummed around and gradually discovered that I’m an artist by temperament.”

In the meantime, his parents disowned him. They couldn’t accept that their talented son wanted to commit his life to music, he said.

Auerbach summarizes his life during the ’70 as moving to the West Coast, doing odd jobs, avoiding drugs and falling in love with the Appalachian mountain dulcimer.

He moved to the Napa Valley in the early ’80s with his dulcimer, his wife Jeanne and a young daughter. He had heard that wineries might be receptive to the “pure and simple and ethereal” sound of his dulcimer.

His pitch was simple: “I’m David Auerbach. I play a beautiful instrument, the dulcimer. Would you like to hear what it’s like?”

His music was a “good fit” for the Napa Valley, Auerbach said. “I know how to make people happy and relaxed,” he said.

Drawing on musical traditions from around the world, he began playing at dinners, weddings, wine tastings, Shakespeare plays, even funerals. His collection of instruments grew to dozens, from psalteries and djembes to kalimbas and panpipes.

Auerbach developed a variety of themes for his concerts, with trademarked monikers to match: Carol in the Caves, Cave of the Drums, The Spectral Cave, Drums of Peace and Night Voyage.

A traditionalist about most things, Auerbach used a microphone to amplify his sound. “I’m not a Luddite,” he said.

When his music career recently dropped of, Auerbach said he resorted to odd jobs such as gardening to stay afloat. He and his wife were both census workers this spring, he said.

As his financial situation became more desperate, an idea was born. Drawing inspiration from a friend’s suggestion, Auerbach is seeking sponsors to bring his music into schools.

He spent last week at Donaldson Way Elementary School in American Canyon, giving half-day programs involving storytelling and music appreciation to several hundred kindergartners through fifth-graders.

An anonymous donor in the wine industry is underwriting this enrichment activity, which Auerbach describes as win-win. The students receive a music education that the public school could not afford. He earns his livelihood.

Melissa Strongman, Donaldson Way’s principal, said Auerbach’s classes were a winner with students. “He’s sharing his love and joy of music and storytelling with our kids,” she said.

“He brings to our school an experience our students have never had before,” she said. “He’s very calm. He’s very student-centered. He sees only the bright side of things, the good in people.”

While younger students did group storytelling, Auerbach accompanied each plot development by playing a different instrument, Strongman said.

“He must have hundreds of instruments,” she said. “I’d never seen a water drum before. It looks like a pot you put on a stove to cook spaghetti.”

Arts Council Napa Valley is accepting donations for Auerbach’s teaching effort. Because the council is a registered nonprofit, donations are tax-deductible, the council said.

Auerbach is charging $1,000 for a half-day school program, $2,000 for a full day.

In his letter seeking benefactors, Auerbach says he is seeking “rare people to join me in a leap of faith, to defy conventional wisdom, to put trust in a stranger.”

He casts his schools venture as a “sensible plan for retiring my debts through timely negotiation and the re-establishment of my work.”

“The people I’m looking for are rare and exceptional,” Auerbach said in an interview. “It may be in these times with so much hardship all around, I have only a slim chance of pulling it off.”

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