The Formal Education
I started what would be a 6 year ride as a music major in August 2003.
After leaving school officially with my first bachelor’s (but sticking around to sing in the choirs) I had a full time job with the now out of business vitamin chain Great Earth Vitamins, now known as Earth Wise Vitamins (I’ll have you know that I am a Certified Dietary Supplement Specialist, Master Level). I was still working almost 40 hours a week when I decided to go back to school full time for my music degree. This was my general schedule:
- M: 810am-1250pm Class, 130pm-930pm Work
- T: 935am-155pm Class
- W: 810am-1250pm Class, 130pm-930pm Work
- Th: 935am-155pm Class
- F: 810am-9pm Class, 1245-930pm Work
- Sat: 1245-930pm Work
- Sun: 11am-4pm Work
So I was basically getting ~40 hours/week at work in addition to 12+ units. And boy, was I tired! I remember getting home around 10pm on a Tuesday night and realizing that I still had reading and homework to do for my classes. And I hadn’t even eaten dinner yet. Some nights I would just get home and sit in my empty, dark living room and stare at the TV, which I hadn’t even turned on. I was simply too exhausted to want to even make myself dinner, let alone even get up off the couch. I don’t think my body ever adjusted to this first semester. I did figure out an efficient routine though – Home by 10pm, homework/reading, shower, asleep by midnight-1am, up at 730, changed by 740, out of the house by 745, get to school/look for parking around 755, in my seat by 808 – all for my 810 class. I can’t say that I was on time all the time, and I admit that I missed more than my allotted share of 810am Ear training classes, but I slowly adjusted and by the 2nd semester I was getting into the flow of things. I also think cutting back my work hours to less than 30 also helped.
I realized when I started school again, that my musical background gave me a head start compared with that of the average 1st year undergrad student. First off, I was about 10 years older than your normal 18 year old. Also, my years arranging a cappella enabled me to test out of Ear Training 1. And, having passed out of Class Piano 1, I took Class Piano II for fun as a minor. This should have been a good thing, but I think in hindsight it was mostly bad. Bad as in I put barely any effort into my schoolwork that first year. About the only things I cared about were my performing ensembles, Chamber Singers and University Chorus.
This apathy also carried on to grad school in Chicago. I could care less about ‘Heroic Beethoven‘ (Sorry Ludwig!) well at least when it came to performing at that specific moment in my life. Looking back, my mindset was more in line with getting an Artist Diploma or its equivalent. However, my technique was not quite up to par. There’s really no in between stage, so I was forced to have to take academic classes. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything in my academic classes. I learned a great deal, and had some really great teachers. But my heart just wasn’t into it. I did everything last minute, and I was even put on academic probation in my 3rd semester. I think what saved my grade in that Heroic Beethoven class was the fact that I participated in the discussions and also that, while my papers may have been late, I still turned in quality work. Well, as quality as last minute papers can be!
I was having a good time, sailing along as a music education student, seeing the world, meeting new friends, until one day, a teacher planted a tiny seed in my mind: Why don’t you sing opera?
I’m still trying to figure out which pic shows my bigger brush with fame:
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.
(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.)
Marisa Atha (nee Gray) was an old classmate of mine at SF State University. I only knew her as a singer and had no idea of the aspiring photographer and writer side of her. Please take a visit to her FB page and also to the links below!
I remember her when she was a freshman at SF State and though the years have passed she’s still the same – just as loud, just as tough, just as real!
This past September and early October, I had the privilege of being in a production of Max Lee and Howard Rubenstein’s show, Romance of the Western Chamber, which is a collaboration between the Carnegie Arts Center and the Confucius Institute of Valparaiso, IN. It’s based on a story by the same name, aka Story of the Western Wing, written in China in the 13th Century (itself based on 7th century Chinese story called The Story of Yingying – just goes to show that rewrites/covers/rebirths existed throughout the arts and throughout time!)
The Lee/Rubenstein version stays fairly close to the original plotline. Would be Imperial Scholar Chang Junrui (aka Zhang Sheng) goes to the capital city, where he stays overnight in the Western Chamber of the temple. As he’s paying his respects to his deceased parents, he spies and falls in love with Tsui Yingying, who is staying in the Eastern Chamber with her mother, Lady Tsui, and her maidservant, Hong Niang. The three women are there to pay homage to Yingying’s father, who was the Prime Minister. After seeing Chang, Yingying also falls in love. There are two problems though:
- Yingying and Chang are from different classes
- Yingying’s father has already promised her hand in marriage to Cheng Heng, who is the new Prime Minister’s nephew
At the same time,the local bandit, Flying Tiger, who is also in love with Yingying, decides to storm the temple to kidnap Yingying to be his wife. Despite her daughter’s prior engagement (and with Yingying’s urging/suggestion) Lady Tsui announces that she’ll offer Yingying’s hand in marriage to anyone who can stop the bandit. Chang, who is blood brothers with General White Horse, uses his pull to arrange for the General to stop the bandits. General White Horse is victorious, Flying Tiger runs off, and Chang rejoices in winning the hand of Yingying.
But Lady Tsui reneges on the deal, and now the two are left to do what young lovers do- sneak around behind the parent’s back. Hong Niang sneaks Yingying into the Western Chamber, where Chang and Yingying spend the night. Lady Tsui finds out and realizing that her daughter loves him, tells Chang that she’ll consent to their marriage, assuming Chang can place in the top 3 of the Imperial Examinations. Chang packs his things and leaves, telling Yingying that he’ll return.
While Chang is gone, the spurned fiancee, Cheng Heng, shows up and tells a lie to Lady Tsui that Chang got 1st place, and with that place he was awarded the ambassador’s daughter as his wife. Lady Tsui, furious, tells Cheng Heng that he is once again Yingying’s finacee, much to Yingying’s dismay. When Chang returns, he convinces Yingying that Cheng Heng is a liar, and then in a battle of scholarly wits, soundly defeats Cheng Heng in a poetry contest. Defeated Cheng Heng leaves and the two are finally together.
Where have we heard this story before? Oh yeah, it’s like every RomCom ever made.
Anyway, here’s a ‘documentary’ made by one of the musicians for a class at Valparaiso University. Enjoy. I will post real clips in the future.
*Romance of the Western Chamber has been renewed for another run in the Midwest in Spring 2014*
My blog won’t be just about me. I have no shame in plugging any and all of my friends’ works. And so this will be the first posting in my Shameless Plugs category:
James LaMear is a good friend of mine in Chicago. He’s someone who always has a beer for me and is willing to volunteer his house if I have some grilling that I want/need to do (I don’t have access to a grill at my apartment). After working in the finance world for 6 years, he decided to leave his job and follow his dream of becoming a writer. He and I are basically on the same path and I’ll always have his back.
Please visit, read and support James! (Even though he’s a StL Cards fan)
The Beginnings of my ‘formal’ Music Education
Let me tell you a little bit about church jobs. They ask for a 2 day/week commitment from most singers (usually a weeknight rehearsal and a Sunday morning/afternoon, depending on your contract, etc.) One thing that’s expected out of singers is that they must be available for Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day. A singer at my church jobs wouldn’t be hired if they weren’t available for those days. I mean, after Easter, that’s the most important day of the year.
This means that every year since 2007 I’ve had to fly home AFTER my services on CHRISTMAS DAY. Which meant packing up my things the night before, getting back into the city from the burbs, making my way to O’Hare and, counting on the 2 hour time difference between CST and PST, hopefully getting onto a flight which would arrive in the Bay Area around dinnertime. (One year the snow was particularly bad, and my original flight got cancelled. I ended up hanging at the O’Hare Miller’s Pub and drinking Bloody Marys with all of the other folks delayed by their cancellations as well. I ended up flying into San Jose Airport around 845-9 pm. Yeah that sucked big time!)
I decided that I would stay from 12/25 until early February. This gave me a lot of time to sit back and start to really think about what I was doing there in Chicago. Like I said in my earlier post, I was singing. Quite a bit actually. But was this the type of singing that justified me moving away from family and friends?
A little about me: I feel a bit lucky to have been born into a musical family. My paternal grandmother was a singer. My dad is a classically trained jazz bassist. My mother played violin at a young age. Both of my brothers are musically talented as well (and I admit are even better than me at some musical abilities. Note: SOME musical abilities!) I started out on piano, then SF Boys Chorus, then played saxophone throughout Middle/High School and even Junior College (I wanted to be Charlie Parker in my former music life.) It was in High School that, after listening to a friend’s recording of some a cappella (no instruments, voices only) stuff, I decided that I wanted to put an a cappella group together, mostly in the effort to get girls. So I rounded up my two younger brothers, and along with two family friends, formed an a cappella quintet. We practiced once a week and even got a few gigs. Our problem was our stage fright, which always got the best of us. However, I digressed…
Allow me to backtrack a bit (more like 14 years, to 1999)….
When it came time for figuring out what I wanted to major in in college I had no idea. I applied to UCLA and I thought I’d try Asian Languages but got my first life PFO – Please F*@k Off Letter (I should’ve just put ‘Undeclared’ instead of putting a real area of study, but then maybe my life path wouldn’t have taken me where I am today.) I put in 3 years of Junior College before I decided to just go to San Francisco State University, where, because of my interest in history, I decided to do Asian American Studies, with an emphasis on Filipino American History. I purposely avoided music, because I didn’t want music to ever feel like work.
However, something funny happened around the final years of my degree study. On a whim, I took a “Singing for Self-Expression” class and the follow up class a semester later. This helped a lot with getting in front of folks and helping to get over the stage fright which used to consume me and turn me into a shaky, quivering mess in front of an audience. After taking both Level 1 and 2 of these singing classes, I came back the 3rd semester and my teacher said, “Well you’ve already done both levels. You can add Level 1 again, but I’ll just assign you a special project since this is the second time you’ll be taking this class.”
So I nodded my head in agreement, and just then another thought hit me: on the way to the class I noticed a sign up list for SFSU University Chorus auditions. Now, I’d done choir waaaay back when I was 10 and what I could remember was that they made us DiCTaTe every worD So thaT the audienCe CoulD understanD whaT we were Saying(uh). “Ugh, too stuffy!” I thought as I passed by the sign up list the first time. But, for some reason, the prospect of a special assignment sounded like too much work, and so I told her I’d go and think about it.
I left the class and wandered back down the hallway. This time I stopped in front of the SFSU Choral bulletin board and looked at the University Chorus sign up sheet. There was an opening in about 15 minutes. “This couldn’t be too bad, ” I thought. A few years earlier, I joined my Jr. College professor’s church choir and had been singing tenor with them. I was a good reader and this experience helped start syncing up the brain-vocal chord process. I put my name on the list, went back down the hallway, and told my teacher that I was going to audition for the University Chorus, and if that fell through, I’d go through Level 1 again and do that special project.
I expected an old, graying person to be doing the auditions. But when I walked into the room I saw three young guys looking at me. The man at the piano stood up, shook my hand and said something along the lines of, “Hi I’m Dr. Habermann, but you can call me Josh. Do you mind if my grad students sit in on this audition?” Now Josh looked no older than me! And on top of that, although he had his DMA, and was professionally known as Dr. Habermann, he used his first name, which was a pleasant surprise. Not stuffy at all.
He led me on some vocalises (la la la, bumblebee, etc. stuff) and then asked me to match pitch. Then he said, “Great. Thanks.”
“What, no sightsinging?” I said.
“Not unless you want to audition for the Chamber Singers.” (which was the top choir in the school)
In hindsight I should have auditioned for the Chamber Singers, because even without ‘formal’ music training, I was at a level that was equivalent to the Chamber Singers’ standard. However, not knowing both my own level and their level, I turned down the audition. Too bad, it turns out, because they ended up going to China the next spring.
Anyhow, I made it into the University Chorus that fall semester, and it would turn out to be a huge influence on me.
The would-be Charlie Parker. And shut up, yes, I know I’m playing the Tenor (a hint of things to come?)