The Origin of This Crazy Musician

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Whenever I write a bio for press releases or sending out to radio stations…or adding into the “bio” section of websites like this one…I never tell my beginnings in music. Why? I think it’s boring. I don’t think it’s that interesting, really. But I’ve been reading a lot of other musicians’ bio pages lately, and have found that most of them do talk about their early beginnings in music, and how they got to wherever it is that they ‘are’. I find their stories interesting. I can relate to some, marvel at others for their unique qualities, and secretly scoff at a few, feeling quite sure that some of the content is fabricated for interesting-ness. I won’t create any wild, imaginative stories for the pleasure of your entertainment, but I will go ahead and share my story.

I was born September 4th, 1981, which I should note is the same day Beyonce Knowles was born – but that’s neither here nor there, and will be saved for a different post. My earliest experiences with music were of my father playing violin for me. I’ve seen photographs of him playing for me when I was just a baby. I didn’t begin learning the violin until I was in the 4th grade, and even then I was a very reluctant learner and had trouble following direction from my dad. His early expectations were perhaps a little too high for my level, and I was discouraged soon off. In 5th grade, I joined the orchestra in my elementary school, made friends with a girl named Amanda, and we would visit each other’s houses to practice the orchestra music. Before I ever began playing the violin, I was singing in church on Sundays, and occasionally sang solos for the “special music” part of our Sunday service. My first solo was for the Christmas program at my school when I was in 1st grade, “The Song Of The Littlest Angel”. It was quite a moment for me, as I got to dress up as an angel in a long white robe with cardboard wings that had silver garland stapled to the edges. I had shoulder-length curly blonde hair (perms were in style in the 80’s), and large rimmed pink glasses.

When I went to middle school, I really wanted to be in both the choir AND the orchestra, but students were only allowed ONE music elective. My dad went to the school to speak with the principal, and with a bit of convincing that my grades would not suffer, I was allowed to be in both the choir and the orchestra.

The summer before my first year in high school, a friend of mine invited me to volunteer in the school marching band’s parade. I got to be one of the girls who carried the banner in the front that said “West Vigo Marching Band” and lead the parade down the street. It was fantastic, but I really wanted to play an instrument. At the guidance of Mr. Eggloff, I took up the clarinet and joined the band my freshman year in high school. The band performed at all of the holiday concerts, sporting events, and state and local contests. It was because of my love for all of this activity and involvement that I chose clarinet as my instrument in my first years of college.

During high school I participated in the school choir, and also auditioned for the school musicals. I was immensely excited about the main roles of “My Fair Lady”, and auditioned for the part of Eliza Doolittle. I watched the movie version several times before the auditions and prepared some of the music, but at the auditions we were asked to sing something generic rather than songs from the musical, and part of the audition involved our abilities to be creative and act – – which I was not one of my strengths at all. I was sadly disappointed when I was assigned to the role of “Maid #3″, “Backup Street Boy”, and “Party Attendant”. Surprisingly, this musical was one of the most fun, despite my not being in the spotlight. I also auditioned for “Mame”, but was once again given a nameless role. Being a headstrong teenager, I opted out of being involved with that musical. I also did the school plays, and was assigned something like “Woman 3″ in “Alice In Wonderland”, and was the goddess Venus in “Get Bill Shakespeare Off The Stage”. After becoming less interested in choir and feeling more accepted in the band, I focused more and more of my attention toward instruments – and the piano.

Ah, piano. When I was about 8 years old, I got one of those small Casio keyboards for Christmas, and begged my parents for piano lessons. After doing quite a bit of tinkering on my own at the piano, I was signed up for piano lessons at the Conservatory of Music in Terre Haute, IN. I’m pretty sure the lessons were overpriced, and completely sure that the woman I took lessons with should not have been teaching. I was regularly humiliated in lessons and treated as if there was no hope for my development as a pianist. After several years, many tears and much pleading, my parents found Stephanie Bartlett, who taught me to play piano.

The musical of choice during my junior year was “Give My Regards To Broadway”, which was chosen partly because it was one of the less expensive scores to purchase, and we were a poor choir. The past director had retired, and much of the choir’s funding had left with her and the parents of students who had graduated. I was cast in the lead role as “Mary” in Give My Regards, which came as a pleasant surprise after always being given nameless roles.  It’s no wonder that “Give My Regards”  was cheap, though. It wasn’t a score at all! We were given booklets of music, but there was only ONE vocal line. There was no harmony written into the score at all. This was my first experience with part writing. With permission from the new choir teacher, I wrote harmony parts for the alto section in all of the choruses of the songs, and a group of us worked to learn the parts on the backstage piano during part of rehearsals. It was interesting since many of us that elected to sing “alto” were actually in the choir’s soprano section, including myself. It was a wonderful experience in part-writing, playing piano for an ensemble of singers, and testing our success during group rehearsals.

The following year, I was cast as the lead female (Christina/Chrissy) in “The Phantom Of The Country Opera”. Yes, it was just as ridiculous as it sounds. It was a mixture of opera and country music, comedy, romance, and confusion. A lot of that last part.

It was during high school that I started rehearsing and performing with the Terre Haute Youth Symphony Orchestra, (THYSO) which I auditioned for when I was in middle school when it was under the direction of Sherry Spicknall, but had become too busy and had to leave for a few years. (It’s possible that Mrs. Spicknall was an assistant…though it has been so long, I really can’t remember.) When I came back to THYSO it was under a new director, rehearsals were held in the new band rehearsal room on ISU campus, and the music was much more challenging. But I had also gotten better. I was placed in the first violin section, siting 2nd chair to the concert master, Andrew Chan. He was an amazing violinist. And his sister Annie, who sat just behind me as 3rd chair in the first violin section was also quite good. I was sure that if she ever asked the director to have us compete for our placements, she would have had my seat easily.

In college, I chose clarinet as my major – because it seemed that I was better on that instrument than any of my others, at least in my own perception. I studied Music Education at ISU for 4 years, studying clarinet, piano, violin, and “choir”. My third year I changed my major to voice, because I thought it would be easier than the high demands on the instrumental study. And it was.

The music we sang in my voice lessons was like nothing that I had heard in school or church or on the radio. We studied classical music. I did not love it at first, and I had trouble adapting my voice to have the depth and power of what I would consider “operatic singers”. In the choir, we would sing a wide range of songs, from culturally significant compositions to more “fun” ones. Many were in foreign languages, and each semester there was always something in latin. In my last year at ISU, we toured to New York City and sang John Rutter’s “Mass Of the Children” under his direction in Carnegie Hall. We also sang a mixture of other songs, one of which I remember was a traditional African song that we were to sing with a very nasaly tone in parts. This was a wonderful experience. I should also add here that studying music at Indiana State University (ISU) between 2000 and 2004 was very difficult. The department was under the first sweep of financial cut backs, there was a mixture of new teachers and teachers on the verge of retirement, and it seemed that the enrollment in music was unwavering. SO much so that there were group meetings in which they openly stated that most of us would not graduate with a degree in music. I had heard from several teachers that their job was to “weed out” the “ones” who were not fit to have a degree in music, and there was a lot of belittling of students in classes and ensembles. I had my share of embarrassments and since I was working a full-time job caring for people with special needs and dealing with my parents’ divorce and my difficulty in finding a place to live I was often caught in a situation where I had not prepared enough and was the one who was ‘called out’ on in class for being a loser and a failure. Even though I had immediately fallen in love with classical music, opera singing and technical piano pieces, I was just as quickly driven away from it and into the practice rooms in the basement to hide and write my own compositions. (Much like the Phantom in the French catacombs, only with less costuming and broken mirrors.)

The year before I graduated, the Community Music part of ISU was desparate for teachers and my accompanist got me hired to teach voice lessons to a few students. This meant I got a key to one of the classrooms, which I enjoyed, and I got to be there after school hours when the older music building was quiet and relatively empty. I taught my three students for a semester, but never got paid because there was a mix-up with paperwork. This was a very good teaching experience though, and I don’t regret it.

I had been writing songs since I was 15 years old, but had never performed or shared very many of them. A few songs I had played for friends that stood around the piano, but it was never a formal thing, and my song-shares were few and far between. After meeting my husband, moving to the east coast, and enrolling in a new college to complete my degree, I began to write a lot more original music. OK, That’s not entirely true. First, we got established in the Philadelphia area and I was a “housewife” for several months. This was very boring, but it allowed me a lot of time to practice music at the piano, which was nice. I got a part-time job at Dress Barn, but the environment turned catty and hostile, and since it was a “just for fun” job, I left just before I went back to college.

When I auditioned for the music department at West Chester, I sang The Jewel Song from Faust, by Charles Gounod, and along with my test scores for theory and my interview, they were happy to take me as a student, but when I learned that there were no equivalencies in place between WCU and ISU and found out that it would probably take me 3 years to complete my degree in music, I was crestfallen. How could I have suffered all of that struggle at ISU only to have to basically start over? It was a terrible thought. I love music, but in that moment of my career, I hated music. I hated that it had led me down a never ending path of rejection and failure. I hated that music had consumed my entire life for so many years. And I hated that I had kindly let my past professors and instructors emotionally ‘kick’ me while I tucked my tail between my legs and bowed to their positions of power. So, for my first year at WCU, I quit music. I majored in Health Sciences (Nutrition), and took the lowest-level, non-major choir that I could find…Women’s Choir. From that unassuming metal chair amongst the 100+ other folding chairs in the room, I thought I would be able to analyse the music department of WCU without actually being part of it. At some point during the semester, I ended up helping music students who were in the Women’s Choir with their music theory homework. For a year, they urged me to get back into music. I resisted. But they were right.

I randomly did a search for music-related jobs on “monster jobs”, or some such website, and found a listing that Music Training Center was looking for a new vocal teacher. The teacher needed to be able to play piano well enough to accompany, teach students, and give recitals. Sounded easy enough, so I applied. The interview was more like an audition, with me at the piano and my supervisor-to-be posing as the student. I was hired, and started to really enjoy teaching as my roster of students increased. Until this point, I had mostly been a performer and a composer despite my 4 years of music ed classes at ISU. I taught at MTC for almost 4 years. It was at MTC that I met the other voice teacher Terrance Gaines, who became my friend and got me involved with playing a few gigs in the Philly area with him playing on drums. He was involved in the band Sara & Tara with me, and went on to record my album “Red” at ECR Studios, and the drums in the single “Apple Tree” recorded in Columbus, OH.

After talking with all of my advisors and people from the liberal arts department and teachers and students I tutored in music theory and friends, I came upon the decision to accept my sentence and take the 3 years in music to complete my degree. I should add that the year I spent as a Health Sciences major was my easiest college year, and I got straight A’s, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was also in that year that myself and my friend Tara White formed the band “Sara & Tara”. It began as just a fun thing – – let’s record some songs together. Then I happened upon a student who also had his own recording studio and was passionate enough about music to record us in exchange for lessons. Soon, we had stars in our eyes as we were uploading our recordings to MySpace and planning our little tips-only live shows at small venues in the area. Like many bands, we had some disagreements, became emotionally charged, and eventually split up the band.

The practice rooms at West Chester University were very nice, with a large window in each one that overlooked the campus and let in a lot of natural light, and new Steinway pianos that were regularly tuned. The rooms were clean, simple, small, plain, and very good for letting the imagination paint this blank canvas with sound. It was there that about 120 songs came to me, drifting quietly into my mind and out through the pencil in my hand. I loved this space, and miss the practice rooms even today.

The Music Department at WCU was not the creativity-stifling experience that I had at ISU. There were still professors there who were haughty jerks, don’t get me wrong – but there were more good teachers who were there to teach than I had ever seen before. Even now, I’m not sure if ISU was just a horrible school in the years that I attended or if WCU is simply a really, really good one. It could be some of both. I found many of the classes to be easy, but of course I had taken these courses before under different course numbers at a different university. WCU was an hour away from where we lived, so commuting each day with a shared vehicle was not fun at all, and construction and traffic meant that I would sometimes have to leave for my 8am class at 5am.

At WCU, I participated in multiple choirs and orchestral ensembles, conducting classes, etc. All the things that music majors typically take. (And sometimes twice, if I couldn’t resurrect an old syllabus or prove an equivalent course.) It was during this time that we were recording the album “Red”, and playing a few small shows here and there. I also started streaming live music from my home computer using my online radio stream (around 2010) into the virtual online game of “Second Life”.

I mentioned before that I sang “The Jewel Song” from Faust in my admittance to the program audition. There’s a funny story about this. Every year, WCU has a Senior Concerto Contest, in which seniors who sign up to compete get to sing a concerto solo for the voice faculty and they choose their favorite to perform it at the Concerto Concert with a full orchestra. The Jewel Song is composed for an orchestra, so 4 years after my admission to the vocal program using that song, I unearthed it as my competition solo. I should mention that this particular song is technically demanding, difficult to sing, and impressive if sung well. After the competition, the question arose about this song being the only song I could sing, since the faculty had remembered me singing it for the entrance exam. I still find this question hilarious. I won the competition, and got to sing on the Senior Concerto Concert in a stunning red gown that had gorgeous gathers along the side and hip.

I graduated with my degree in music education, and then promptly became pregnant with our baby, Zoey. Stricken with all-day morning sickness and constant discomfort including every pregnancy complaint one could imagine, I once again returned to being a housewife. In my 8th month of pregnancy we finished recording the album, and released it 6 months after Zoey was born.

Now I stream live music about 3 days a week, write music when I can, and am involved in PASA (Pennsylvania Area Songwriters Association). I still teach piano but have taken a rest from allowing new voice students into my home studio for the time being. I’m still playing, practicing, and improving….and I’m also a mom.

 

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