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VerseProse Poetry and Writing Blog by James LaMear

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)

Origins: 3 Year Plan Part 2

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?)

13 Years old, playing Tenor sax at a teacher's wedding

13 Years old, playing Tenor sax at a teacher’s wedding

Origins: The 3 Year Journey Starts

The 3 Year Journey starts

In August 2007, I left home in the SF Bay Area to attend the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University for my Master of Music in Classical Voice.  When I graduated in May 2009, I had started networking within the local classical singing community and decided that I’d give it a go singing in Chicagoland.  After all, I had just finished a summer gig covering a role in Wisconsin, I was a section leader at a church in the suburbs and had already sung a few concerts with paying chamber choirs. In order for me to stay (since I exhausted all of my financial aid money) I got a serving/bartender job and kept up with the church and choir gigs. I had the grand notion that I’d use the money from my restaurant job to help pay for things such as lessons, coachings, application fees (more on those in another rant), etc.

I auditioned for 3 companies that fall and was able to get an invitation to spend June/July 2010  in Princeton, NJ, hanging around a bunch of young, eager opera singers like me.  Of course, all of this was unpaid (minus a $150 check as a ‘ringer’ for Orff‘s Carmina Burana) but I gained a lot of valuable experience and also bonded with my fellow singers, many of whom were in the same boat as me: post grad school, auditioning for everyone who’d hear them, hustling jobs here and there to make ends up meet, homeless (as some of us were between leases) but hungry and appreciative of the opportunity to get a chance to sing.

I returned to Chicago in August 2010 and went right back to the restaurant job and my church job. Two chamber choirs invited me to sing with them again and so my usual routine started up again. I auditioned for and got a part in another local opera company’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (we sang it in English) which went up in early 2011. That summer I had the chance to perform my first musical theater role as Jack from Sondheim‘s “Into the Woods”.  The bonus was that a lot of my castmates were my musical family from San Francisco State University, where I completed my undergrad degrees.

It was after this production, and talking to a lot of my friends from back home, that I started contemplating a move back home. Despite the fact that: I had a weekly church job, I was  a paid chorister, and I had done 4 productions since graduating, I still felt that I was not fulfilling the main reason I moved away from home. Yes, I was getting paid to sing.  Yes, I was doing some shows. But I also hadn’t taken more than 2 lessons a year since graduating.  And with the exception of the summer of 2010, hadn’t gotten one coaching since May 2009.

So I made a decision to just sublet for a few months and then move home to SF for a month.  It wasn’t a huge length of time, but enough for me to get away from what ended up being a routine in Chicago that I wasn’t trying to get out of.  Luckily, industry jobs (serving/hosting/bartender) are full of people who will jump at the chance to pick up a shift or two so my manager had no problem with me leaving for a month or so. I was able to pawn off the rest of my big stuff (dresser, futon, sleeper sofa, bookshelves) and basically just had clothes, books and music to move.

I boarded the plane and took my first extended leave from Chicago since finishing grad school.