I was 15 when I started my professional music career. We had just moved our crazy, Italian family from New Jersey — the land of big hair, sarcasm, and amazing cannoli — to Connecticut where my dad (a former singer/songwriter turned “responsible” business professional) was being promoted to VP of a stock brokerage firm. I asked my parents, “Can I work at G.Fox at the Danbury Mall with my girlfriends? I will learn how to work a cash register and make $3.03 an hour!” I was excited.
My parents looked at me like I had a squirrel on my head.
They shook their heads.
“Stacey, you have a gift in music. If you want to work before college, you’re going to have to do something in music for your job.”
Totally NOT the answer most kids get, right?
I had been taking piano lessons since I was 10, writing songs since before then, and knew all the words to Karen Carpenter, Rush, Barbra Streisand, and much to the chagrin of everybody, Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”. (“Mom, what is this song about? I don’t get it!”)
I performed in any talent show at school, and sat most nights at the piano practicing the songs, from classical to pop, that inspired or were assigned to me and I had just spent my summer at the illustrious “Center for Creative Youth” at Wesleyan University in Connecticut with some of the best professors and professionals in the music field, honing my craft in the arts.
They were right: I did have a gift.
My mind dreamed up places I could play: Our church, as an accompanist — my community theatre for the musicals — as a teacher of young, interested students.
I can’t remember if my dad brought it up or I did but the question came, “What about our country club?”
Before you think I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth, let me assure you with clear images of a gold Riviera in my head, that I wasn’t. I watched my dad climb the corporate ladder, and my mom run the house and hold part time jobs in the office at our school. I remember the tense arguments behind closed doors and when we lost the house when the market, and my dad’s job, had crashed in the late 70’s.
What I had was a sense of “I can do anything.” Despite all the whacky stuff that I was raised in that I won’t go into because I spent enough years in therapy for all that — I was also sent this message: “Anything is possible and you can do anything, Stacey.”
So, I got dressed up and my dad drove me to the country club where I talked to Tom, the manager, and found out that the pianist had quit two weeks ago. Tom needed a new pianist starting this weekend. He would pay me $50 for 2 ½ hours of playing so, I basically was making $20 an hour in 1985, doing what I loved in a beautiful setting with really rich people who drank expensive drinks.
It was awesome.
Tipsy people talk to you at the piano and don’t really think, “Hey. Maybe she’s busy reading music right now so, I’ll wait.” Nope. They just lean on your piano with their really expensive whiskey and start telling you stories and asking you questions. So, I learned how to listen to people and talk while I played. They asked for songs I didn’t know, but I was a great sight-reader and would pull out these compilation books to play new/old songs, on the spot. Totally honed skills I had no idea would benefit me for my entire career.
I was able to, with my money, go to one of the most esteemed vocal teachers in Connecticut, Lucibelle Anderson, and study Bel Canto method with her since my dad, who always paid for my piano lessons, absolutely refused to pay for my vocal lessons so they were on me. He told me, “You’ll never make money as a singer. You’ll always make money as a pianist.”
He was wrong by the way – and he was right: I made money as a singer – a lot of it, for sure — but most the time, I got the gig over the singer because I could accompany myself on the piano. I was a built-in, two-for-one special. I could run rehearsals, warm up other vocalists, pinch-hit for the uber-talented pianist who was a no-show.
I became invaluable.
Those following years were spent as a short stint as a music comp and theory major until I just had so much work that I left school. Performing live and in the studio, recording songs that I had written or with different artists and, after I married at the tender age of 20 to my sax-playing/singer husband, Rock Robbins, (PERFECT name for a sax player, right?) ended up traveling all over the US performing music at spiritual conferences, being hired by companies for their amazing corporate events, and working with major artists on their projects, in addition to teaching, leading workshops, special choirs, and CD projects for kids.
People were booking their wedding dates around our availability and I had 40 students on my wait list after teaching 60 students a week.
It was crazy.
I had no time to cash the checks that would sit in a pile on my desk in the living room.
I definitely wasn’t the most amazing musician in the world — I was just one of those who was good at what I did and had the business mind and savvy to carry it all out. I was one of those on-time, on-task, get the job done really well, no matter how much chaos was in my life — and trust me, there was a lot — kind of people. I did it with a lot of heart and my life was balls-to-the wall music for 80 hours a week.
At some point? I resented it.
Hated it, even.
I fell out of love with music.
And everything changed…
(Stacey’s story will continue next time in part 2)