My Secret Life as a Musician


I’ve noticed as I associate with other creative types, many of our fellow authors have other creative pursuits that they pursue. Mine has been my lifelong alter-ego as a musician.

It didn’t happen by accident. My father and brother were huge influences on my pursuit of this ‘hobby’. As a writer, I have used music as a device in the lives of my characters.

I thought I would go through my early influences and musical life through the decades just to show how much of a part of my life it has been.

Early Influences:

Anyone doubting the effects of growing up around musicians has never been around my family. The earliest images of one of my big influences playing music was from my dad. He was in the Army Air Corps (pre-Air Force) during World War II. He had a brother killed at Normandy prior to joining the effort and spent his duration in the war stationed in Las Vegas, Nevada. This was nearly 20 years before I was born, but the stories were influential.

This made for some great stories and for some great musical experiences for him. I remember him telling me about having Gene Autry (the movie singing cowboy) in his unit as well as his experiences playing piano for some famous singers.

My dad played the bass drum in the Army Air Corps band. Here is a photo from Armistice Day (Now Veterans Day) 1944.

1940s3

It wasn’t all marching in the heat, however, my dad played in some cool dance bands back in the day. From what I could tell from the pictures they were anywhere from 4-piece to 18-piece bands.

My dad had a great voice as well and I played piano for him many times as he sang in later years. He was a huge influence, but passed away much too early when I was in my early 20s and he was in his mid 60s. The synergy with my dad continues as my wife and I had a child when I was in my 40s as well. I’ve tried to get her interested in music and she has been dancing and singing since she was able to walk.

The 1960s

I was born in 1962. When I came into the world, my dad was working two full time jobs to put food on the table. My older brother was already 13. He was (and still is) my role model and he is also a musician. As you can see by these early photos, they pegged me as a guitar player, but I would rebel. I was about two in these photos.

My brother played the accordion (as most Italian boys did in those days) I would later switch from guitar to accordion and then to piano. The piano was the instrument our dad played and that was what we were attracted to. As a side note, in the photo of my brother playing the piano, that piano was a Wurlitzer that is now over 100 years old. It was a baby grand that went from my grandmother’s house to my parents’ house to my house and now to my nephew. It’s a beautiful piece of carved rosewood even though it is woefully out of tune and needs the guts replaced.

Here is my solo accordion career along with a brief stint on drums. I actually liked practicing the drums, but my parents didn’t realize there would be noise.

The 1970s

The 1970s, my teenage years, were pivotal in my personal growth and music was there to give me a push. In the early 1970s, I went to Catholic school and continued to play the accordion and piano. In sixth grade, we moved to the suburbs and I started a a new public school. As for music, I took lessons, but never practiced. I didn’t want to play the classical music I was assigned. I wanted to play the jazz and old big band standards that my dad taught us. I developed quite an ear and discovered I have perfect pitch (more of a curse than a gift sometimes). I was also introduced to the baritone horn/euphonium which would also change my musical direction a bit.

In 1976, my life took a huge turn. I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis and had to have major spine surgery which put me in a body cast for a year. That same year, I was entering high school in a body cast for all to see and pick on. Music got me through and I discovered something that would change the rest of my teenage years, the marching band.

That’s my brother again, still by my side helping my 13 year-old self with music. I found that, with a uniform on, the body cast didn’t show and I looked somewhat normal.

After I had the body cast removed at the end of ninth grade, I literally came out of my shell. I was tall, skinny and had an amazingly straight back. I had gained confidence after a couple of years in the marching band and, in my sophomore year of high school, I tried out to be the drum major/field conductor and, to my amazement, I was selected.

This new position gave me confidence and our band, during the period from 1978 to 1980, won every competition we competed in at the state level and won the state championship each year. We were also invited to competitions all around the east coast including the national Festival of Bands in Florida.

I also began playing jazz piano in the high-school band and, at 14, had my first professional gig as the piano player in my band directors wedding band.

The 1980s

California_State_University_NorthridgeI started out the 1980s in music school at Cal State Northridge in California. The list of alumni that went on to successful music careers includes, Danny Elfman (Movie composer – Bat Man, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.), Grant Geisman (jazz guitarist and member of Chuck Mangione’s quartet) and Andy Summers (guitarist from the Police). I spent a year at community college getting my act together and then took the big plunge. It was a great experience and taught me a valuable lesson. I played baritone horn/euphonium in all of the select bands and played professionally around the Los Angeles area with members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. I also played piano a lot for virtually no money, but I learned a ton and played with a lot of great musicians.

The school was highly competitive. I auditioned for the four select jazz bands and, out of 200 piano players, I came in sixth. Not bad, but not good enough to take one of the four spots. I think it was the first time in my life that I didn’t pass an audition. It was a reality check.

I also found out that many of the students were not in pursuit of a degree. They were in pursuit of making contacts and catching on with paying jobs. Very few graduated. This did not work for me as I was into stability. Life as a musician offers very little.

I returned in 1982 with my tail between my legs and began an education in Information Technology as I continued to play piano as a way to pay my way through school

The late 1970s through the late 1980s were the heyday of the wedding band. If you’ve ever seen the movie, The Wedding Singer, that is my life. I played every weekend and, very often, made more money than I did at my full time job as a computer programmer.

To continue The Wedding Singer thread, I met my wife in business school, but she was a waitress at a local wedding reception venue (owned by her then boyfriend’s family). I saw her working at a reception that I was playing at and the next thing I knew, we were dating, engaged three months later, and married within about a year. Our parents were mortified at first. Thirty-two years later, we are still married and she still looks like that cute waitress I was originally attracted to.

The 1990s

This was a weird decade musically. I took a shot at running my own band, but wedding receptions were turning to the much cheaper and versatile DJ for entertainment. I played keyboards in a 1950s through 1970s oldies band for a little while, but between the smoking by every member, the late nights for little money and the out of tune lead guitar player, it was a short engagement.

During this period, I discovered the fun of playing in church. Now, I’m not overly religious and playing with great musicians int he choir was a way to get me up on a Sunday and into church. I first started playing with a small group at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Syracuse. The group had a great mix of people from our harmonica playing leader to our guitar playing obstetrician that often had to leave rehearsal, and even a few masses, to deliver babies. We also had another musician that could play any stringed instrument and would change the sound of the choir depending on whether he played guitar, banjo or mandolin. It was great fun.

stcharles_sySt. Charles Borromeo

The Florida move

In 1995, my wife and I moved to Florida. We had been through enough winters in upstate New York and needed a change. Moving to a new part of the country after living 33 years in the same city was a big change for me. My wife had moved several times with her family so she handled it much better.

Musically, I went dormant for a while. We were both busy with work. Finally, after about four months, we were checking out churches. The church is very important to my wife. We stopped into this church not far from us called Blessed Trinity. It just so happened that, in the bulletin that week, they were looking for a piano player. I decided to try out and it ended up being a 15-year relationship with a great group of people that I’m still in contact with today.

blessed t

While at Blessed Trinity, I met a number of great musicians. I had the opportunity to branch out and play with some of them that have bands around Jacksonville. One group, a 17 piece Latino band, was a thrill to play with. I learned a whole new style of playing the piano and taught them some jazz standards.

Another group was a quartet that played every Sunday at an Irish pub. I learned to love Irish music, food and the culture with this group.

The 2000s

In the 2000s, work and family took center stage. I stopped playing in church when my daughter Lillie was born in 2008. I wanted to sit with the family. I stopped playing altogether for a while.

Frank Immersed - CoverIn 2014, a good friend of mine from high school asked us to go on a cruise with him and his family. He hires much of the talent for Royal Caribbean and is one of the most talented musicians I know. While we were on the cruise, his son, the ship’s music director, asked me to sit in with the ship’s big band. His dad brought his trombone and played as well. It was a memorable experience and we made many memories. In fact, the trip became the backdrop for my book,ย Frank Immersed,ย in which Frank Rozzani and his partner in the detective agency go under cover on a ship as musicians to solve a case.

sjdrAbout a year ago, with my wife active in our new church, San Juan Del Rio, and my daughter now an altar server, I decided to offer my piano playing services to the Saturday 5:15 choir. This is a great time to go to church as I still have two wonderful weekend mornings and I’m done by 6:30 on a Saturday evening. It’s been interesting. I’m a little rusty and I need glasses to see the music, but it came back to me and I’m enjoying a little bit of playing.

I don’t think my activity with music is done. I still like composing and arranging and may get back into it when I have some time.

So what about you, my fellow authors and bloggers? Do you have any hidden (family friendly) talents that you’d like to tell us about?

46 thoughts on “My Secret Life as a Musician

  1. I can totally associate with you on this Don!
    My family has rhythm… whether it is dancing or singing, or even a few instruments, music has played a huge part in my life too!
    I’ve been posting my singing snippets recently, as I do love singing, and from a young age, I have been singing at our family weddings!
    My Pops is a fantastic dancer and was recognised by most of the big Bhangra bands in the 80’s and to be honest, even now at 70, he an blow people’s minds with his moves! And thankfully I got that gene too, so we dance together, and I studied ballet, and modern dance at school. I even taught Bhangra for beginners to my school kids for 2 years! My son is continuing the musical theme but being an epic Dhol drum player and he'[s been playing from the age of 2! My daughter has the voice of an angel, and she is always singing too!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, Don. Wow! I guess my hidden talents would be as a dancer. I started with ballet and fell in love with rock and roll, and kept on dancing. When a good friendโ€™s daughter got married, we did a spoof singing and dancing at the rehearsal dinner with yours truly up front and in the lead. A standing ovation and request for an encore, and then more weddings… ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh, Don! This is such a lovely story! I really enjoyed learning about your life as a musician, and I’m glad you’ve decided to keep music in your life, even on a reduced scale. And I must say, you were VERY handsome in your white drum major’s outfit! So glad you persevered with your band interests and kept on going with your talent. Definitely reblogging your story on The Write Stuff! Thanks for such a super post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was such a great post, Don, and introduced us to a completely different side of you. I loved all of the background information and the photos. How wonderful to be musically gift AND gifted as a writer.

    My brother has been a drummer since the time he was 16 and my sister fiddled with guitar. My grandfather was truly gifted musically and played numerous instruments throughout his life. Alas, despite two years fiddling with bass guitar, I never had the talent of my grandfather or brother. All of that aside, I love music and I do love to dance, so maybe that counts for something, LOL.

    BTW, I picked up book 1 of the Frank Rozzani series and hope to be able to start it soon.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Don, I can relate on several levels. I’m not musically talented but both of my children were in band throughout their high school years. My son was a drummer and served as drum line captain in his senior year. My daughter played saxophone during concert season and in the marching band for one year. After that she switched to xylophone in the “pit” during marching season due to a disability she and I share that made it difficult for her to keep up with the marching.

    When I was in junior high I got teased a lot because I walked “funny” so I know what you had to endure. I was very shy and introverted due to my handicap, but my dad (from whom I inherited our familial disorder) pushed me to do well in school and encouraged my interest in painting and drawing. I went on to finish four years of art school and worked as a fashion illustrator and art instructor after college. I still occasionally piddle with little art projects but my hands are too affected by my neurological disorder to compete on a professional level. That’s what prompted me to start writing years back as a hobby, eventually becoming a second career. Without a creative outlet I would have gone insane. When life takes away one thing we love, I believe God gives us something to replace it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Turning a disability into an enabler is what it’s all about. I literally joined marching band because the uniform covered my body cast and made me look normal. My parents were nervous wrecks, but let me do it anyway. It was life changing and I forged friendships that are still strong over 40 years later.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know what you mean. To this day, my husband and I are best friends with other band parents we met during our kids’ high school days. We often reminisce about the fun times we had back then.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. So nice to learn about another of your wonderful talents, Don. I’ve been a singer-songwriter all of my life, and added guitar to the mix at age 14. I love playing in open tunings ~ fuller sound and satisfies my unmet desire to play piano. Not sure if it’s an Italian thing, but everyone in my family loves to sing. Never without an audience! How wonderful for you to be born into a family of musicians. Lovely post. I really enjoyed this โ™ฅ

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Really great to see how music has been an ongoing thread through your life, and that white outfit is very becoming!
    I can relate in a small way, having grown up in a musical family. When I was a kid (I’m just a couple years older than you) I have fond memories of Christmas, when we’d all gather around with our various instruments and play carols and other music, in the days before TV became such a big deal. Amongst us, we played all the recorders, tenor sax, clarinets, guitar, mandolin and ukulele.
    We have also had long involvement with various churches, playing our varied instruments and singing too.
    I ceased to play music quite some time ago, but now use my musical sense to help me create winning freestyle programmes for my dressage horses (the day job), performing in what many people call ‘dancing horses’ competitions. We prefer to call it ‘living art’.
    Another creative avenue, alongside writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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