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Mark Unruh


Headshot of Mark Unruh
Photo: Amy Tucker Photography

Folk Art: Music

By: Gail Obenreder

“I believe music [and] children come through us and not from us. If one cannot play from the heart, technical prowess and theory knowledge are of little use, and I remind myself of this daily in practice and performance.”

Masters Fellow and multi-instrumentalist Mark Unruh has been intensively playing music most of his life. He began at age nine on the trumpet, and as a teenager – when he listened to the iconic “Dueling Banjos”—he “undertook fingerstyle banjo and guitar.” He had a few lessons on each instrument but he’s mostly self-taught, inspired by old-time music sessions where he learned the basics of fiddle tunes, guitar runs, mandolin, and clawhammer banjo playing.

Growing up in Kennett Square as the youngest of seven, Unruh took full advantage of the region’s musical resources before beginning college at James Madison University. He was a trumpet major, but he soon he switched to classical guitar and then to the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts (now The University of the Arts), and due to his instrumental gifts he started to perform professionally at age 21 and teach privately two years later.

Still a committed teacher, Unruh averages almost 2,000 lessons annually and also directs the Folk Music department at the Music School of Delaware. Many of his former students are now practicing musicians, something from which he derives enormous pride and delight. As a composer, Unruh’s influences are widely varied. On “Chrysalis,” one of the works submitted for the Fellowship, his lyrics were “shaped from the sublime writings of Irish poet John O’Donohue, while the opening chords were borrowed from a Coors beer ad!”

“Chrysalis,” 2016
Full length: 3 minutes 51 seconds
Work sample: 3 minutes 51 seconds
Instrument: vocals, classical guitar, 12-string guitar, mandolin, mandola, piano, keyboard strings, acoustic bass

“Soldier’s Joy,” 2019
Full length: 3 minutes 34 seconds
Work sample: 3 minutes 34 seconds
Instrument: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, clawhammer banjo, fingerstyle banjo, mandolin, acoustic bass

Strongly bonded to his “extended family of musicians in Delaware and beyond,” Unruh continues his lively, masterful, and vivid performing career. As well as being a singer and songwriter, he plays electric and acoustic guitar, upright and electric bass, ukelele, 5-string banjo (fingerstyle and clawhammer), mandolin, mandola, fiddle, trumpet, and piano. This enormous versatility has made him indispensible at hundreds of concert and club gigs; recordings in studios (large and small) nationwide; three-time guitar honors at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention in Virginia; and appearances with a raft of notable musicians.

The Division’s Masters Fellowship has been truly well-bestowed on this versatile and committed musician. Unruh sums up his career as “44 years playing, 35 years teaching, and I’m still learning.”  No matter where he’s making music and no matter what the size of his audience – “crowds of a thousand or gatherings of just a few” – this artist feels “thankful to be able to give of myself, serve the song, and bond with students, players, and listeners.” Devoted students and thankful listeners agree.

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