My choral beginnings
I joined the SFSU University Chorus in Fall 1999 and immediately realized that I had made the right decision. I had a lot of fun singing that semester, the guys in my tenor section were super cool, and I got to be the Tenor Section Leader, which sounds a lot cooler and responsible than it actually was. That year singing allowed me to gauge my own music level, and, seeing as how I ended up missing out on a trip to China in Spring 2000, I made up my mind over the summer that I was going to come back and audition for the SFSU Chamber Singers.
Here was my dilemma: I was basically finished with my BA in Asian American Studies. At the current rate that I was taking classes, I could have finished in Spring 2000 (I did walk the SFSU Fil-Grad), but since I didn’t want to pay more money as an extended education status, I decided to add a music minor to my degree. This allowed me to stay on at SFSU paying in tuition undergrad fees, which at the time was like $900-1000/semester for a load of 6.1 Units or more.
I came back in Fall 2000 and auditioned for the group, and Dr. Habermann, knowing that I had a semi full-time job at FedEx, accepted me into the group. Immediately, I knew I had to step up my game. I was put next to MIchael Miller, a tenor who had one of the prettiest voices I’d ever heard. As a chamber choir conductor, Dr. Habermann was very liberal with his allowance of the singers using our vibratos (since most of the singers in the choir were there for Vocal Degrees). Therefore, in an unconscious attempt to blend with Michael, I tried to emulate both his tone and his vibrato, not knowing his voice was almost 10 years older than mine. Everything was working out: I was in the top classical choir in the school, singing beautiful music, I was making money at my job and had even started seeing someone – which would be both a blessing and curse on me as a singer. That next year was a whirlwind, and in the midst of it, I started doing one of the worst things a singer can do to their voice – I started smoking cigarettes, Marlboro Menthol Lites to be exact.
This habit started out rather innocently, but I guess that’s how they all start, eh? I started hanging around folks who smoked about a year earlier. We would be hanging out at a party and they would light up. The first few times I would politely turned down their offer, but after more and more hanging out and partying, I started saying yes. I would have maybe one or two ONLY when I was hanging out and partying. And then I started hanging out more and more, and partying more and more. Then I told myself, “Only when you drink,” and so I thought I was limiting myself. But no. I couldn’t wait to have a sip of beer just so I can bum a cigarette. Then I started seeing a girl who herself just started smoking. So I would hang out with her and we would go outside, talk and share some cigarettes. Then I started buying my own to share with her. And then, the moment I knew I was addicted – I would get up in the morning and my first thought would be, “I gotta smoke!” And so, by the end of 2000 I was addicted to cigarettes.
Of course this had a big affect on my voice. At the time I joined the Chamber Singers I was a Tenor 1, and when we came back in the Spring of 2001, I was put at the end of the tenor section, right next to the Baritones. In fact, I would often be a “guest” baritone, singing with them when they had rather high runs and lines. Now, if you don’t know this, Tenors are generally considered the highest singing male voice (not counting CounterTenors and Male Sopranos) and we make our living singing high notes. So a demotion from high to low is not a good thing for a Tenor’s ego. I quit smoking in August 2003 and it wasn’t until a year and half after I stopped smoking that I was able to get back into the Tenor 1 section.
Smoking aside, I learned a lot of things about ensemble and musicality from singing with the Chamber Singers. I also got to use my passport a whole lot, as every other year we did an international tour (2002 Cuba, 2004 Germany/Prague, 2006 France). Around 2003, after a domestic tour northward which culminated in Eugene, Oregon, my good friend Steve H. convinced me that I needed to be a music major. More specifically, a Music Education Major with a Vocal/Choral Emphasis.
The more and more I thought about this, the more and more it sounded good to me. And at the same time, I missed the deadline for application to the SFSU Masters Degree in Asian American Studies, so that was no longer an option. Steve told me to talk to his advisor, Dr. Wendell Hanna. [Note: About a year earlier I went into the Music Ed office to talk about being a music major, and there encountered one of the most bitter, tired and annoyed professors I’d ever met. It’s funny too because this professor is all over the California Music Educator’s Association Journals (she shall remain unnamed, but know that she was Dr. Hanna’s predecessor).] After dinner with Steve, and despite the last year’s experience with the Music Ed department, I decided to make an appointment to meet with Dr. Hanna. To my pleasant surprise, Dr. Hanna greeted me with open arms and was genuinely excited that I wanted to teach music. After an hour long advising session, I was convinced that this would be my next step.
But first thing’s first: QUIT SMOKING!
Yup, I was still smoking after all this time. Even after my GF and I broke up, even after singing in the choir and getting a stern lecture from Dr. Habermann, even after my parents shaking their fingers at me and saying, “I’m telling you so!” I was still smoking. But now I was smoking Lites because, you know, Menthols are “bad for your voice”! (Yeah, I still laugh at this one) So once I made the decision to audition for the music school, I knew that I needed to quit. I mean, what’s the use of getting voice lessons if you were undermining all the teaching by killing your vocal cords (and body) with tobacco? And so I did what any normal person would do, knowing that they were about to make a major life change by quitting a bad habit – I smoked like a chimney, culminating in an epic 1 week session with the little brothers and cousin in Hawaii, where I’m pretty sure I smoked at least 1+ pack (pack = 20) of Marlboro Special Blends a day. [Although I was addicted, I usually spaced mine out daily, no more than 5/day]. Once I returned to the Mainland from Hawaii, I quit, COLD TURKEY, and coached my songs with an uncle of mine, Ka’ala Carmack, who himself, among other things such as ukelele player/teacher, pianist, choir director, was once an aspiring classical singer who graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.
Whoops, I forgot to tell you – As a music education major at SFSU, my voice lessons were not going to be in Jazz Voice (like I wanted) but in Classical Voice (like I didn’t want). I didn’t like opera, and though I faked the vibrato well enough, had no aspirations to be a solo singer, which is what I thought taking Classical Voice Lessons was all about. Obviously now I know Classical Voice lessons are not just about opera, but at the time I was dreading them.
I need to end this post soon, so yeah, like you probably guessed, I did indeed get into the SFSU Music Education program (as an FYI for you singers, I auditioned with “Vittoria, vittoria” and “Where ‘ere you walk”). Thus, my formal music education officially began.
Me in front of the Che Guevara Hotel in La Habana, Cuba
(I know some of you rolled your eyes in disbelief when I told you I went to Cuba, so here’s the proof. Nyah nyah.)