Scientist enjoys spiritual side of making music

Elizabeth Davies

By day, he’s a straight-shooting scientist.

But ask about his hobbies and Tom Mac is anything but ordinary. The 48-year-old has performed at Carnegie Hall, worked as an extra on “ER” and been on stage as the opening act for the Beach Boys. It’s the kind of side gig that keeps his artistic side energized.

“There is something spiritually rewarding about making music,” he said. “Playing music and performing, for me, is really about sharing our human experience with others.”

Most recently, he performed in “The Beggar’s Opera” with the DuPage Opera Theater. It’s the third production he’s done with that group, and he’s been singing opera for about the past five years. He also fronts a 10-piece band called The Tom Mac Group. The band features Latin, rock and jazz music and has performed at festivals throughout the Rock River Valley and southern Wisconsin.

“I’ve got some great local musicians in the Tom Mac Group,” he said. “I’ve got four classically trained backup singers, a contingency of jazz musicians and I will represent the folk/rock section of the stage on the acoustic guitar. All the different styles of musicians have really come together to form a nice blend.”

It’s been quite a ride for this self-made musician, who has had little professional training. He took piano and guitar lessons as a child, but has been mostly self-taught beyond that.

“I found out that when I surround myself with great talent, I have no choice but to become a better musician myself,” he said.

Q&A with Tom Mac

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m getting geared up for summer festivals and am working on music for The Tom Mac Group. I’m also learning the ensemble part for “L’Elisir d’Amore” by Gaetano Donizetti. The DuPage Opera Theatre will be performing the piece in Italian in mid-July. 

I started my third album a while back but have put that on hold for the time being. That CD will consist of African spirituals as well as some revamped Mozart. I’ve also been writing a book on the topic of the psychology of dreams. 

Q: What are some of your goals moving forward?

A: More of the same. A lot of perspiration mixed in with some aspiration. 

Q: You’ve done a bit of extra work for film and television. How does a guy from Rockford get Hollywood work?

A: The extra work was all done in Illinois. As long as one is willing to drive someplace at 4 a.m. and film all day, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. I was an extra in “Mercury Rising,” “ER,” “A Thousand Acres” and “Unconditional Love” and was also a super in “Tosca.”

The most memorable experience I have about doing extra work was sitting around outside the Rochelle courthouse with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Robards, and Keith Carradine making them sing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” just because they were in the Midwest. Sometimes its fun to do harmless “uncool” things to put life into perspective. As far as I could tell, they had fun doing it — after the initial embarrassment went away. 

Q: What advice would you offer someone starting out in your field?

A: I sometimes hear young people say after a great concert “that musician was so awesome that I’m never going to pick up my guitar again.” This is totally the wrong attitude with music. There are always going to be musicians out there who are better, unless you’re in the league of the superstars. 

The way I view music, I’m always looking to improve, I’m always looking to better myself. My teachers are great vocalists, songwriters and guitarists. I listen to these men and women and study them, as I’m certain most musicians do. For any young people who are just starting, or maybe have been at it for a while, the best thing to do is to listen to the great artists and do what they do.

Certainly make your own music and have your own voice, but get a good solid foundation from the musicians who have gone before you.

Rockford Register Star