Posts tagged ‘singing’

20 Year Dream

The Dreamers.

That’s all you need to say, and a flood of memories, music, and friendship wash over me.  It was, and continues to be, a significant part of not only what I’ve done, but who I am.

Use whatever means of time conveyance you have at your disposal for this post, be it time machine, TARDIS, phone booth, starship slingshot around the sun, tricked out DeLorean, or incredibly spicy Indian food.  Set your clocks back to the fall of 1989.

There I am, a newly arrived freshman at Penn State University, all of 18 years old.  I was not athletic, not charismatic, was not a gregarious person, but by all accounts I was kind of smart, generally a nice guy, and eager to learn as much as I could.  And I was passionate about music.  Music, and specifically being a music teacher, was to be my career.

My first semester on campus was rough.  I was away from home for the first time.  I did not have any high school friends that journeyed from Lansdale to State College that year.  And at the start of the semester my closest acquaintance was my roommate Marty Bound, whom I shared some common ground with as a music student and native of upstate PA, where my dad was from.  As a vocal major I auditioned for and joined as many ensembles as I could, including Glee Club (who gave me a scholarship), University Choir (for only a year), and Concert Choir (on dead man’s boots: I ranked 21st and missed the cut, but someone above dropped out and I was in).  As the semester continued I began to make friends in these ensembles.  I also noted that some of them sported sweatshirts for Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, which I learned was a national fraternity for men in music.  I learned some more about the fraternity from my friends John Kenney and Fred Irwin, who were in a way atypical of Phi Mu Alpha at the time in that they were voice majors, rather than Blue Banders.  But they informed me that this fraternity was a great group, and encouraged me to learn more, with an eye to rushing in the spring semester.

Now return to me at the end of the term in fall 1989.  There I am walking the long walk from my dorm in East Halls across the frozen plains of parking lot 80, and into the northern part of campus, passing by the Forum on my way to the music building.  Another guy that I knew – as he sang in some of the same groups as I did –  was approaching me.  His name was Kevin McMahon.  Like John and Fred and others in Sinfonia, he asks if I am going to pledge in the spring.  I said that I was interested, but was still thinking about it.  While the actual exchange is lost, he did ask if I was interested in singing with the Dreamers, the 50’s doo wop acappella group he started the previous spring.  I believed I said I might be, that it looked like it would be fun.  Kevin opened up his ever present smile and said he hoped to see me at the rush party next semester.

I did rush, of course, and John Kenney was my “big brother”.  I was in a group with seven other probationary members:  There was Allen Stevenosky, who went to high school with my roommate Marty so I’d gotten to know him a bit more, and was also a talented singer in the choral ensembles.  And Marc Fusco, who lived two doors down from Marty and I on the 9th floor of Sproul Hall.  And Shawn Pearce, who was another music ed student and vocalist.  And two Chris’s, Graham and Hoffman, who played trombone for Blue Band.  And Jeff Fink, not a music major but still wanting to share in the fraternal experience.  And Kevin Tutt, a talented percussionist who became our class president.  We attended the meetings, we learned our fraternal history and philosophy, we met these men of Sinfonia, who gave us tasks in our black books, and told us tales of the Alpha Zeta chapter.  And Kevin McMahon invited those who wanted to to come out to rehearsals for the Dreamers.  It was here that I started to learn music that would become etched into my mind and weaved into the fabric of my life from then on.  Allen, Marc, Shawn, Chris’s two, Jeff, and I all came out to sing with this group.  And by the time we experienced our initiation ritual and chapter president Lou Persic gave us our membership certificates christening us Sinfonians, I knew that I would be singing in the Dreamers for as long I could.

Now move forward in time to the fall of 1992.  Over the course of my time as a music education undergraduate, I had evolved from a retiring, doubtful singer unsure if he was really worthy of being in his peers’ company, to a singer who was integral to the groups he was part of.  And no other ensemble did more to encourage that growth than the Dreamers.  Through numerous concert performances, impromptu gigs for birthdays, recording sessions for a CD, and countless Singing Valentines, I had not only found a place to sing music that brought joy to me and to the world around me, but allowed me to create friendships that are the dearest to me to this very day.  The end of the fall semester was bittersweet, as I sang my final performances in ensembles I had devoted myself to for the past four years, and looked forward to my student teaching semester, the capstone of my Music Education training.  There was sadness in leaving the warm, embracing world of college life, mixed with the anticipation of getting to fulfill my goal, and tinged with sweetness as I began falling in love with a shy, smart, and funny girl named Cathy.   I finished my degree in the spring, on time (that I’d regret a bit later in that not finishing meant more time performing: There’s something to be said about being reckless).

Now we’ll jump ahead a few years, to the spring of 1996.  I was living in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh, to be closer to my Cathy as she slogged through medical school at Pitt, working retail jobs and substitute teaching.  I heard through my friends Pete Kennaday and Brian Panulla, both of whom I helped initiate into Phi Mu Alpha and sang with in the Dreamers, that the group was recording another CD.  I was asked if I’d like to sing on it with them.  I was unsure, since I had not been active in the group since I graduated, and the repertoire had changed a bit since my time.  But the desire to sing with that group again was too enticing, and in May I traveled to State College with Cathy to learn some of the music and (remarkably) be a soloist.  The group had changed since I left: For one thing, it was being directed by Tom West, a guy we initiated my last spring on campus.  There were a few familiar faces, like my probationary brother Shawn, but some really strange characters, like their manager Rob Woodcock.  Yet during the days spent working on the album a mighty truth was revealed.  Repertoire may change, faces may be different, but the experience of singing with the Dreamers was something that was always the same.  And I became closer friends with some of these new Dreamers.

Another burst forward, a long one, to 2004.  Cathy my sweetheart is now my wife, and after a short time in Michigan we were settled into our lives in South Central Pennsylvania.  My life had taken a significant turn, and the dream of teaching music was abandoned:  whatever “it” was that made a successful teacher was not in me, and that harsh revelation meant moving music to my passionate avocation, fulfilling my music needs with Harrisburg Choral Society.   I was informed by Matt Gourley, another Sinfonian who started his tenure at the absolute tail end of my undergraduate career and became a friend after college while in Pittsburgh, of the planned Dreamers 15th Anniversary concert, where as many alumni as we could get were invited back to perform.  I jumped at the chance, of course.  The event was very fun, but it didn’t capture the real sweep of the history of the ensemble.  The group had continued to function and thrive with new directors and managers, swelling the repertoire and upholding many established traditions while bringing on-board new ones.  But of the “old” Dreamers, Shawn and myself were the “earliest” members.  Having a reunion concert without the men who started it all just didn’t feel right.  This would be remembered.

Now we land at our final stop; last weekend, January 31st, 2009.  The Dreamers are celebrating their 20th anniversary as a part of Phi Mu Alpha, as a part of the Penn State culture, and as a part of the lives of over 100 Sinfonians over two decades.  But this time, we, the Dreamers alumni, took the bull by the horns to make sure that this event was to be shared by as many of us as possible.  Tom set up space on his website for information and sheet music.  Matt created a Dreamers mailing list to keep everyone informed on developments.  Shawn became Grand Central, making sure the details were handled, t’s crossed and i’s dotted.  And we all kept in communication with the current collegiate Dreamers to make sure our requests were to become reality.  Alumni were contacted months in advance to ensure schedules, travel arrangements, and child care were accounted for – the current trappings of responsibility for aging Dreamers.

Then as the event approached, the emails we had all hoped for fell into our inboxes:  Kevin McMahon is attending.  Doug Rank, the Dreamers original business manager, is attending. Paul Sabourin, a Dreamer who went on to make a living singing acappella, is attending.  Lou Persic, a past chapter president and Dreamers director, was attending.  Marc Fusco is attending.  Allen Stevenosky is attending.  To myself and the others that sang in the earlier days, the names being added fueled our passion all over again.  And not only did their presence inspire us to make this event worthy, it made us all the more excited to see the passion from these folks as well.

For me, the event started with picking up Mike Smith, a fellow Sinfonian, Dreamer, and old friend, who was jetting in from the west coast, and then reminiscing and catching up during the drive to Centre County.  It continued with catching up with brothers in fraternity in the Atherton Hotel bar that evening.  Then, the next morning, seeing the faces from my days as a quiet, awkward freshman coming through the door of Music Building II, older, but unmistakable.  Then to the work of reacquainting ourselves with the sound of the Dreamers.  A highlight of the day was during our lunch break, where Marc Goldberg, a supremely talented vocalist who directed The Dreamers during the late 90’s, suggested we go around the room and introduce ourselves.  Alumni from the beginning and freshly matriculated youngsters and all in between each stood up and joined their names to the roster.  No other moment that weekend illustrated the diversity of the members through the years, and the common thread we all shared.

Then there was the concert.  After the opening set by the current collegiate members, the earliest alumni group took the stage.  Although I was not among them (as I was more “needed” in the next earliest group, with Tom, Pete, Brian, etc.), this was the group I started my collegiate career with.  Once the countoff happened and the sound filled the space I was back to those days, singing those songs to girls in dorm rooms and classroooms for Singing Valentines, or singing at an off-campus function, or on tour in front of high school kids.  It’s like the group I sang with was pulled out of time and then walked out onto the stage.

The set I performed with the second-oldest group went off well.  It was a challenge to follow the original group, but our set was performed well, and our risky try at a new arrangement was a success.  I performed the solo for this arrangement, Tom’s interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”.  In a way it was my development as a singer come full circle, as I belted out the funky stylings of the song with abandon in a building where, right outside almost 20 years ago as an inexperienced, intimidated singer, I was asked if I would like to sing for the Dreamers.

Much to the delight of the alumni, the other two groups of past Dreamers performed great sets, showing the development of the repitoire and some of the extrodinary talent that has passed through the ranks.  The finale, with over 60 Dreamers on stage singing “Goodnight Sweetheart”, provided a nice punctuation to the evening.   But things didn’t end there.

There was the After-glo, a barbershop tradition that we employed for our gathering to give us a chance to continue singing.  After socializing and meeting and enjoying a beverage or two, the inevitible singing started when Dreamers began congregating around Kevin, kicking off tunes and everyone joining in where they could.  No other single image over the weekend illustrated how Kevin McMahon and the student singing group he began impacted so many.  Kevin received the moniker “King of the Dreamers” during the event.  Now here he was, figuratively and literally, in the center, holding court.

After the After-glo, I was tired and decided to head to my hotel room.  After a bit I decided I was hungry, so I went out onto Beaver Avenue to find a bite.  I heard a voice behind me: “Hey, Dave!”  Kevin and his wife approached.  “You going to the Diner with us?”  I hadn’t planned on making a late night of it, but I headed over to the Diner and sat at a table with Kevin, Doug, Marc, Paul, Allen, and Lou – reminiscing about times with the Dreamers and sharing new memories of times after the group.  My short bite-to-eat run turned into sticking around laughing and remembering until 3AM.

Sunday saw us saying our goodbyes and heading back to our homes.  Strangely, the sense that it was all over didn’t occur until I dropped Mike off at the airport and began the drive home, and then there was a tinge of sadness.  But soon I was giving Cathy a kiss and hugging and playing with the boys, and all was well.

Thankfully there is a newfound camraderie and communication amongst the alumni thanks to email and Facebook.  Here’s to hoping that this spirit remains, and we can, occasionally, get together and enjoy the bonds created in music once in a while.

And that is the Dreamers.