In the fall of 1986 I was headed to SUNY Fredonia as a Tuba Player with an intended major of Music Education. In high school having performed in both chorus and band, and all the school musicals, and every “select” and “all-county” and “all-state” avenue possible as a high school musician, I figured as a young gay man I was destined to become a music teacher. I would probably end up in a rural school district not much different than the small town school district I grew up in. I’d teach music to junior and senior high schoolers, probably garner a few rumors in the mill about my homosexuality, and do my best to educate our promising artistic youth. Personal questions would fall to the wayside.
Ultimately it turns out that’s not the way I’m wired.
I originally auditioned at SUNY Fredonia as a vocal major but they deemed me not good enough. I was “too pop or Broadway” sounding and they wanted me to be able to sing in three different languages in an operatic voice. My singing voice to this day is more geared to covers of Human League songs (hey hey hey hey). Not to be deterred, I auditioned at SUNY Fredonia a second time (it was the only school the family could afford at the time) as a tuba player and I was accepted into the music education program. This acceptance was probably on a wing and a prayer. As a tuba player the audition process was easy; there wasn’t that many tuba players and as long as one could read music and play a B-flat scale, you were in. All-county band was the same way. All-state band was the same way. It’s what a tuba player does. There’s usually three tuba player slots in any given band or orchestra, and we’d be lucky if three tuba players auditioned to begin with. Grab a baritone player if you have to, and all that.
By the end of my senior year of high school any passion I had for playing the tuba has dissipated. Deep down I knew this. I never vocalized it. I soldiered on. I had other career ideas; computer engineer, civil engineer, airline pilot, but these things didn’t seem gay enough and I knew I was gay and knew that gay boys did things like music and art. That’s the way it was, at least in my head, and I had no gay role models or avenues to know otherwise. I had no plans other than to be come a music teacher. After all, in 1986 that’s way gay boys did: fly under the radar, do what gay boys do (like become a music teacher), keep your mouth shut, and your liaisons private. Yes, Mom and Dad, I was still a virgin when you dropped me off at college in August of ’86.
I lasted two semesters at SUNY Fredonia because I had lost the passion needed to achieve my preconceived goals. I was still figuring out who I was and that was taking too much bandwidth from my studies. This, coupled with my lack of passion for what I was suppose to be doing, destined me for failure.
Playing tuba was fun but ultimately tedious. I could take it or leave it. I didn’t feel the drive to hole myself up in a practice room three hours a day to run scales or “Flight of the Bumble Bee” on a tuba. I really wanted to sing. Since I had bombed the initial audition (I knew the day of that vocal audition that I had bombed it but it would be a week or two before I had confirmation via U.S. Mail), the team at SUNY Fredonia threw me into a “remedial vocal lessons” class with a handful of other student failures in an attempt to get us to sing like Pavarotti. I ended up sounding like the front guy of “Simple Minds” and still cracked an A in the course. The professor of remedial voice has no idea why I was in the class, as I could “sight sing” and had nearly perfect pitch when asked to sing a scale or a designated part in a complicated piece. I just did it all as if I was on a stage on Broadway or in a dive bar. And I did it loudly. In high school we were all trained to sing loudly as the school couldn’t afford a sound system for the 700-seat auditorium. In the interim I had discovered the art of being gay, drinking some alcohol, and watching men take a shower and more importantly to my wiring, shave in front of the sink in their underwear in the communal dorm bathroom. That was hot.
When I ultimately failed out of SUNY Fredonia, simply because I had lost my passion for my artistry and what was really not where I wanted to begin life, I was not sad. In the second semester of my freshman year I had several opportunities to sing with others; we formed a cover band and sang in the student center. A bunch of us would jam in practice rooms of one of the smaller performance auditoriums in Mason Hall and sing a bunch of current hits. Our voices would mingle, the keyboards and other instruments would sing, and it was a glorious experience. It was like “Fame” without Shady Sadie. Collaborative artistry is a beautiful thing and that was the only time I ever felt fulfilled as a person at SUNY Fredonia. As a tuba player I never found that magic. As a vocalist, I could sing all over pop songs with little effort. We even laid down some tracks in the newly christened recording studio on campus and did our own cover of Toto’s “Africa”. I never wanted to sing solo, I always wanted to be in the background singing vocals to fill-in the musicality of the piece. The first time my backing vocals were multitracked in that recording studio on the left at the end of the hall was magical. My heart soared and I was beaming ear to ear. The tape was subsequently erased because we were just fooling around with the equipment, but it was a magic I knew I loved.
I haven’t found that satisfaction as a musician since those days in 1987. Not to worry, my life has not been lacking in any way; I have done plenty in my life that I’ve found artistically and aesthetically fulfilling, but I would give anything to get together with a bunch of other middle aged musicians one more time and have a weekend long jam session covering 80s tracks. Once in a while I’ll peruse through ads on Craig’s List looking to see if any 80s cover bands are looking for singers. I once sent a recording in response to an ad in Chicago. I never heard anything back from them. Maybe I should look around here in Tucson.
Pop music of the 80s was a magical time. It still required real musicians, autotune would be over a decade away (and still way too soon), and there were only basic electronic gizmos adding to the mix. You didn’t have to be pretty, you had to be talented. Pretty helped as the 80s wore on, but in the early days it wasn’t important. You leaned on your talents first.
I think of these things when I see old music videos from the 80s, especially the first half of the decade. Sometimes I wonder if I had to stayed on a vocal path with a passion fueling that path if I would have had any chance of maybe singing backing vocals for someone famous someday. After my stint at SUNY Fredonia I did lay down a couple of backing tracks for a band in Cleveland, Ohio, and for a friend who was majoring in Sound Recording in Connecticut. I know what happened to the backing tracks in Cleveland; the band didn’t really hit success and disbanded before the end of that decade. The Connecticut tracks were never to be heard again. But being in a studio, much like that studio on the left at the end of the hall in Old Mason at SUNY Fredonia, was never daunting. It was magical.
Before I kick the bucket, I need to find that magic, at least one more time.