White Chapel’s mysterious midnight musician, veteran and pastor Mike Rake

GuitarWith eyes closed, and body rocking to the music, Mike Rake’s fingers danced across the fretboard of his guitar with what seemed like a mind of their own. It was 12:30 a.m. on a quiet Friday night and the chords of his six string bounced off the pews of an empty White Chapel.

Often playing for an audience of one, Rake has spent many nights this way for the past ten years, filling the chapel with music. From smooth country melodies to folk and blue-grass grooves, Rake plays it all, even adding a subtle vocal harmony from time to time.

It has been a long, winding road that has brought Rake to his place of musical solitude at Norwich. His darkened fingertips and chiseled hands are testament to years of hard work.

“I’m a hard-working guy,” Rake commented, “a working-man.”

For those who have marveled at his playing and wondered who this musician in their midst playing late at night is, here’s his story.

Rake grew up an Air Force brat and the oldest of five brothers. He first picked up a guitar as a teenager while living on a NATO base in Izmir, Turkey, playing in a band with other young teens of military families.

His musical interest traveled with him across the Atlantic when he began college at South Carolina State University and continued to play with friends purely for the enjoyment.

Following his graduation with a degree in journalism, Rake said his playing came to an end and he enlisted in the Navy with a specialty in communications.

“Smoke pot, take drugs, and show up for work,” Rake said, explaining his naval experience. “It was the era of shame in the Navy, there was no discipline and they tolerated it. But I could do my job, I was a good sailor, and I got out with an honorable discharge.”

His sturdy sea legs led him down a wobbly path in the years to follow. Working a number of different jobs in South Carolina, Rake ended up in Vermont after accepting a pastoral position at a small Baptist Church in Northfield.

Through this position came a friendship with Norwich’s Reverend, William Wick, and Rake’s connection to the Chapel.

Rake pastored at his church for 16 years while also holding a job as a manager for a commercial cleaning company in southern Vermont. Consumed by his hard-work ethic, balancing two jobs, and supporting a family of a wife and four daughters, Rake began to strum chords again as a release from the stresses of his life.

“I used to play guitar after work in a CVS parking lot,” Rake recalled. He would be perched against his car and share his music with whoever happened to pass by.

Before long though, Rake abandoned his parking lot concert hall and moved into White Chapel after an invitation from Rev. Wick. Rake explained he was playing in the chapel one night while the reverend was still in his office. “I was just playing because I needed a place to go where I could just play the guitar and write music.”

Stepping out from his office, the reverend told Rake the chapel, with its excellent acoustics and resonance, is open all hours of the day, all days of the year, and was his to use for practice.

And so began a night time tradition that Rake continues to this day. “I had very high pressure jobs and routines so I did it for myself. After a while it started to take on a life of its own so I just kept coming.”

What began as a simple after-hours hobby has now turned into a dream. “I would like to make money by doing this because I like doing it,” Rake said, but at the same time, he is not looking for the attention that comes from sitting under the spotlight.

“I would like to do it for a living, but without all the complications.” Chuckling, Rake added “I don’t need anyone publishing articles on my belly-button.”

Rake decided early on in his guitar career that he had no interest in playing covers. He also never sought out any professional instruction. What has developed as a result is a beautifully unique style based on trial and error, and wandering his way through chord progressions.

“I really don’t think I’m that good,” Rake admitted with eyes cast down, “but it’s my technique that’s unusual.”

As Rake strummed his callused fingertips down the length of the strings, he said he intentionally learned to do everything without ever using a pick. “Because I get a fuller sound, I use all my fingers all the time. People tell me it sounds like more than one guitar.”

Ask Rake to explain the music theory behind what he is playing and he will likely be at a loss for words. Having never been given instruction, he never got the chance to learn the theory behind the notes he plays.

But let his fingers effortlessly find their way up and down the guitar strings and there will no question of his expertise and ability.

Rake’s style has evolved over his years spent playing in the early morning hours, and as a result so has his confidence. Encouraged by students who stumble upon his midnight jam sessions and become instant fans, Rake began to add original lyrics to his original music. “Whatever comes to my mind I’ll write.”

One of his largest struggles has been to overcome the hurdle of confidence in his voice. Rake faced discouragement from one of his younger siblings early on who told him his hopes to ever create music professionally were futile.

But Rake recognizes he can sing, and with a slight smile he quipped, “I can sing if I don’t think about the fact that I am singing.”

To make his point, starting out quietly at first, Rake’s raspy, low voice effortlessly transitioned into a soft, soulful falsetto as he delved into one of the many stanzas spread before him on worn and torn pieces of paper.

Writing about love, life, spirituality, satirical views, even ominous warnings, Rake explained he wants his lyrics to be “suggestive and provocative.” Words that, coupled with the harmonies of a guitar, “make you feel things.”

It is not just Rake’s lyrics that convey messages; his humble, genuine manner and attitude towards playing speak volumes about what he hopes to convey through his playing. “I just feel like it’s a gift,” Rake commented.

Rake has yet to allow himself a paid gig, not yet feeling worthy of providing listeners with the experience he feels they should have.

“If I’m going to play for money, I want it to be like, WOW,” he explained, never content with feeling sloppy in his playing or satisfied with only “half-way there to great.”

And his commitment to perfection is evident in the scars on his fingertips. Bryan Adams’ song “Summer of 69” could have been written about Rake when it said “played it ‘til my fingers bled’.”

Rake recounted a number of nights when he would practice for five to six hours at a time leaving the tips of his fingers raw and bloodied.

Super glue provided a quick remedy to fill in the cuts: a bottle rested in his case on stand-by. “You don’t make any progress unless you really are going to pay the price,” he added wryly.

His dedication can also be proven by his peculiar practice hours. The primary reason for his being an invisible artist little-known throughout campus is that Rake comes to play his music only after his job’s and family’s needs are taken care of.

“I work and I have a family,” he explained. “Once they go to bed, then I go out and play. I don’t like spending one-third of my life asleep. I’m going to make the most of the hours.”

Rake enjoys his private practice times in the chapel as a chance to lose himself in the endless wave of chords that flow from his fingers. But even more than enjoying the Nirvana-like experience, Rake enjoys the way the “wordless part,” of his music affects people even more: the soul that travels from him, through the vibrations of the strings, and out to the audience.

“It would be worthless if it didn’t do anything for anyone but me in the end,” Rake said, “I get the best rush from being able to make the sounds like the sound of my heart and put words to it. That’s the best part. But I sure want to do good to others.”

And good to others, he does. “I think he is really good,” commented Maris Riley, 22, a senior civil engineering major from Carthage, N.C., “and I think he should do something with it.”

Maris said he appreciates the uniqueness of Rake’s playing, feeling it adds something to the story of the chapel and admits to only finding out about his playing through conversations with his friend.

His long-time friend Chaplain Wick attested to Rake’s personality and character. “The impression I would say is a genuine man, humble man. He is someone who, in his quiet ways, is worth getting to know,” Wick said, adding that “he is a fine guitarist.”

With a little more practice and preparation, Rake feels ready to head to the streets and share his music with the public. “I am amazed and gratified that people would like it. It kind of humbles you. Actually it scares you. I have played and rocked it and felt like, whoa, I don’t want to do this. But that’s selfish, so I’m going to have to stick my neck out. So if I do okay, I will be really grateful.”

Dec. 3, 2015

White Chapel’s secret musician

The story behind a mysterious man and his late-night soulful music

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