Meet nine alums who have made music an integral part of
Not-So-Simple Gifts: Anthony Ashur '82
Lack of a music major at Holy Cross was a lucky break for
Tony Ashur 82.
a history major instead, and channeled his musical talents
into as many activities as possible. Two decades later, he
hasn't changed much. Today
he is a pianist, music minister, composer, teacher, producer, lecturer, recording
artist, husband and father of three.
"I do a little bit of a lot of things," he
said, "which makes it hard, as there are a lot of things I like to do." He hasn't
always known what he would do best. After graduation, he got an urban planning
degree from the University of Virginia and became a real estate appraiser in
the Boston area for five years.
But music had been a part of his life since he began lessons at the New England
Conservatory Preparatory School when
he was about five. So in his free time, Ashur returned as musical director
for two Holy Cross productions and accompanied the college choir on its tour
of England and Ireland. In 1990, the pendulum swung back to
music full time. He and his wife moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where
he began a master's degree program in music and piano performance at Catholic
University. He also began his first position as music minister. Four years later,
he became the organist and choir director at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church
and music teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel School, where he teaches 550 children
from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Teaching music prompted him to found the Ashforton Music Group with two other
educators. They all had difficulty finding developmentally appropriate musical
materials for children aged three to 10. So, in less than two years, they produced
a series of three cassettes, Tunes and Tales that Teach, with Ashur's original
music and his colleagues' light-hearted stories that strengthen children's listening
skills and capture their imaginations. "And the songs won't drive parents
crazy," Ashur said. Critics concur, as two of the three tapes were nominated
for awards by the Washington Area
Music Association in 1993.
In Ashur's work preparing older children for Mass, he found few knew traditional
hymn tunes. To preserve that tradition, he updated their arrangements on piano,
added some improvisational jazz elements, and recorded two CDs, Mirror Morning
in 1995 and Simple Gifts in 1997 (both available from the Holy Cross bookstore).
Parents tell him their teenagers play his music while studying or before going
to bed, "but they'd never admit it," he said. His music is used for worship services,
yoga classes and music therapy. He feels he has achieved his
The debut of Mirror Morning was a 1995
fund-raising concert for his school. Ashur performed each work, but more
importantly, reflected upon the hymns themselves and their inspirational
power. His history training had prepared him well. Audience members
told him after the concert that they had liked what he had said as much as what
he had played.
"It's become a real ministry to
me," Ashur said. "With this music I can affect greater numbers of people." And
when he discusses his music and the impact it can have in people's lives, he
said, "I'm not working. It's like chatting with friends
in my living room."
He has experienced the powerful effect of music firsthand. Two songs on his last
CD were commissioned by a friend for her own memorial service. She knew she was
dying of cancer, and asked
Ashur to arrange "Marching to Zion" and "When the Saints" for her. When he first
played them for her, he said she cried. He promised to give her a tape of them.
By the time he recorded them, she had hospice care at home and was comatose,
near death. As the first notes played, she opened her eyes, moved her hands and
lifted her arms. "That was the last thing she
did," Ashur recalled. She died less than 24 hours later.
"If something I did had that much effect on
someone, everything else is unimportant," he said. "I want to share that feeling
with others. We all need to recognize and use our God-given gifts for the best
Delivering that message and performing have become priorities for Ashur. Another
natural evolution of his work, he said, is producing a children's musical, Keepers
of the Earth. He is also working on printing his music. And with three small
children at home (ages six, four, and 20 months), he would like to find a better
to his current seven day work schedule. But the list of projects is a long
one. "Music is a gift to me," he said. "I'm here to share
what I have."
* * *
She Sings Every Day: Amy Lechner Conley '81
"I like to play. I'm just a big kid," said
Amy Lechner Conley '81, teacher, performer, writer of music for children - and
mother of three. And play she does - the guitar, harmonica, piano, banjo, mandolin,
kazoo, and doumbek, a Turkish drum. For Conley, performance is participatory.
Her instruments and strong alto voice that sounds like it's smiling invite her
listeners to join in singing folk tunes,
both familiar and easy to learn.
Sharing music is important to Conley. She values its "capacity to nurture
our spirit," and its ability to "bring us to other times and places, like reading
a book, as well as give meaning to the present." While music has always been a part
of her life, her experiences as director of the folk group at Holy Cross brought
into clearer focus the role it can play in people's spiritual
"We played at three weekend Masses," she recalled. "At late-night Mass,
everyone would sit around the altar on soft hassocks,
maybe 20 of us. Ruth Flynn and I would play guitar and sing St. Louis Jesuit
songs like 'Be Not Afraid.' It was very peaceful."
Her children, ages one, three and five, share
in that peace today. "Each one gets a song at night," Conley said. But
she doesn't pressure them to study music. It's just always around. She'll
play the piano while they use shakers and dance around. Her three-year-old
comes along to the Music TogetherR classes she teaches in their town
of Milford, N.H.,
for preschoolers and their families. Her one-year-old "helped" edit
and mix her latest tape of folk music, I
Sing Every Day, recorded while she was pregnant. "He was present
at each stage of the process," she said with a smile. And her husband
brings the whole family to her concerts.
"Music should be natural, not optional," she
said. Research has found that children under six have the opportunity to
develop their musical aptitude as well as their ability, which is strengthened
with experience. "The parents' attitude toward music creates the child's
attitude," she said. Just having music in the background "doesn't quite
do it. You have to dance to it, sing along or make
your own music." If a parent or caregiver doesn't feel musically inclined,
she said, go to a class. Conley herself didn't begin formal piano
lessons until she was eight and guitar at nine.
She started offering her Music TogetherR classes last year, after undergoing
training on teaching music with age-appropriate
methods. The classes are unusual because they include children from birth
to four years old, and allow children to experience music at their own individual
level, taking cues from their parents' or caregivers' classroom
activities. Parents get newsletters to help reinforce the class themes. "I
had tried to teach a class like this by myself," Conley said, "but I didn't have the level of support this program offers." The
curriculum was developed by the Center for Music and Young Children in Princeton,
N.J. Some 45 families now participate in her programs.
With a master's degree in education from the University of Massachusetts- Lowell,
years of after-school and music camp experience, a roster of workshops teaching
teachers, and two recordings
under her belt, "teaching and performing are my priorities right now," she said. She
works with a number of nursery schools, day-care centers and libraries on music
enrichment programming, and performs frequently before intergenerational audiences
in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, including two concerts as part of Worcester's
most recent First Night festivities. She also does birthday parties,
where her ventriloquist skills emerge together
with her puppet collection.
"I'm doing what I love and making
a career out of it," she said. "That's my greatest thrill."
* * *
Accordions and All That Jazz: Angelo Di Pippo ’51
Next time you see the movie, The Godfather, check out the accordion player on
the truck in the wedding scene. You'll see Angelo Di Pippo ’51 practicing
his craft, making a living and thoroughly enjoying his music.
Filming that scene on Staten Island took "at least a month," said Di
Pippo. He recalled director Francis Ford Coppola telling all the musicians, "This
is a wedding. I want you to have a party." And they did – the set
had "real food," according to Di Pippo, brought in by caterers every
day. Off screen, Di Pippo has performed for "a million" weddings, but
he stopped doing them about 25 years ago. He has continued to play on soundtracks,
however, demonstrating his versatility during such films as Wise Guys and Cookie
and television shows including The Edge of Night, As the World Turns, The Regis
Philbin Show, and Sesame Street.
He started playing accordion at age eight, and his father, a Providence jeweler,
sent him to New York City for lessons every two weeks, even while he studied
at Holy Cross. After graduation he spent a few months in Washington, D.C.,
playing with a society band, but soon realized the action was all in New York.
got regular work as a staff member of WOV radio, and as part of the Ted Steele
show on WOR-TV. He joined Jackie Gleason's company and played for Gleason on
his two-and-a-half week cross-country train journeys (Gleason hated to fly,
and got party music on demand throughout the train trips). Di Pippo also played
as a pianist with Max Kaminsky's jazz band at the Metropole every Monday and
The accordion is Di Pippo's first love, but he's survived as a musician by
arranging and conducting music for other artists. "Angelo Di Pippo and His Quartet" played
a lot of jazz clubs in the 1960s. They appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show
and at the Newport Jazz Festival. But there was no money in jazz, so he turned
to commercial music. In addition, accordions were
once considered a low-budget way to provide a full sound, but demand for the
instrument declined in the "post-Beatles" era, according to Di Pippo. "It
was considered an ethnic, corny instrument. I was phased out of the business."
While his English degree from Holy Cross wasn't preparation for the music business,
Di Pippo said he had taken a one-year course on music arranging with band master
Doc Mirliani. Di Pippo began to work closely with Metropolitan Opera veteran
baritone, Robert Merrill, touring with him throughout North and South America.
He would arrange the music, travel with Merrill, rehearse the local orchestra
for three-to-four hours, perform and move on to the next concert date. It was
a good career move. He has now worked with Merrill for 23 years, and has done
similar work with soprano Roberta Peters.
Working with Good Music Company, which produces and sells albums through catalogs,
and collaborating with artists on other labels, Di Pippo also has recorded
more than 200 albums. His best-selling album, Accordion de Paris, sold more
copies. Other title credits include Call of Hawaii, Polka Party and Late Night
As an arranger and conductor, he has written albums for entertainers such as
Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. The thrill of his life, he said, was working
with Billy Eckstine on his last album in 1988, I Am a Singer (soon to be reissued
as Swan Song). An entertainer popular in the late 1940s, Eckstine was "bigger
than Sinatra, much hipper – a gigantic star." A fan since boyhood,
Di Pippo said "it was such a gas to be hired by him. We made a wonderful
Writing music for another artist means "you have to conform to a certain
style," Di Pippo explained. But "with your own album, you can write
it the way you want it." And that's exactly what he did with Arthur Street
in 1994, when he made a critically acclaimed jazz album with accordion, trombone,
bass, guitar and drums. A collection of jazz standards, Arthur Street (his address
in Garden City, N.Y.) also includes two original songs by Di Pippo. "I get
seven cents a song for each record sold," he said with a laugh. While he
described album sales as "mediocre," the album made it to 31 on the
radio play charts. Di Pippo was named Best Accordionist in America by Keyboard
Magazine that year. "It was incredible," he said. "That album
did so much for me."
He is working on another jazz album now. But that's just one of his projects.
There are also commercial soundtracks, a cable TV cooking show (he plays the
background music), a double album of dance music with society band leader Lester
Lanin, and an album with singer Debra Holly, which includes big band jazz versions
of "A Night in Tunisia" and the theme from "The Addams Family."
"Music is the greatest business in the world," said Di Pippo. "But
it'll drive you nuts." He offers this advice to aspiring musicians hoping
to make a living from their passion: "If you're a good writer and arranger,
there are so many things you can do."
* * *
A Passsion for New Music: Jean-Marie Minton ’78
When your first exposure to music comes from studying piano with a nun missing
a finger, chances for a musical career could be slight. And for the longest
time, Jean-Marie Minton ’78 wanted to be an actor. A history and German major,
she didn't take a music class at Holy Cross until senior year. When she walked
into Professor Suzanna Waldbauer's classroom, she couldn't read music.
To expand her skills on stage, she took voice lessons with Susan Clickner at
Clark University. After graduation, she attended the New England Conservatory.
She worked as an usher when the Metropolitan Opera came to town. And then she
met baritone Sherrill Milnes and saw the power a singing voice could have.
"Somewhere in Boston," Minton said, "I decided it would be opera,
not acting." A soprano was born. She moved to New York and began a cabaret
career, studying with Martha Schlamme. She sang operetta with the Light Opera
of Manhattan. At the invitation of composer Luciano Berio, she made her operatic
debut in Florence, Italy, singing in Monteverdi's Orfeo. Two months later, she
moved to London to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and voice
with teachers from the Royal Academy of Music and the Guild Hall of Music. When
her visa had nearly expired, she didn't have enough money for a plane ticket
home, so the restaurant where she worked as a waitress helped pay her way.
But New York didn't feel like home any more. "I was too agitated by the
stress there," Minton said. So she followed her singing teacher to Chicago
in the spring of 1985. Home to the world-class Lyric Opera, Minton knew Chicago
would be a good place for her career. "My passion was now paying off --
it was all coming together," she said.
In Chicago, Minton could nurture her interest in new music and women composers.
As vice president of the American Women Composers Midwest, she has worked closely
with composers, commissioning new works. At the end of February, she sang two
concerts back-to-back: international women's music, and the next day, a program
of works written by Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger's stepmother) in the
1930s. Last fall, she was a semifinalist in New York's International Contemporary
competition. And last summer, she performed with the Chicago Opera Theater
in The Shining Brow, a new opera based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. "The
audience should be the judge of what makes its way into history," she said. "People
should be able to choose" among male and female composers, and music old
Minton doesn't ignore 18th- and 19th-century music. She recently sang as Marcellina
in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro with DuPage Opera, and has sung in Gilbert & Sullivan's
operetta Iolanthe. Other opera credits include La Traviata, Die Fledermaus, Faust,
and several Spanish operettas (zarzuelas).
"Combining old and new music as a singer is most fulfilling for me,"
she said. Another experience important to her musical development was serving
six years as cantorial soloist for a Jewish temple for the deaf and hearing
impaired in Skokie, Ill. "The shabbat service was all in voice and in sign language," she
said. She sang a cappella, as instruments were reserved for high holy days. "That
helped me to be a better singer. I got to know my voice better." As did
her second daughter, born during Minton's weekly cantorial work. "I sang
throughout labor," Minton said. "It took the edge off, and the breathing
was second nature."
Motherhood has seen Minton's voice shift to mezzo-soprano, but she finds it
a richer sound. "You learn what muscles you should be using for singing after
carrying those babies," she said. "You have to concentrate on supporting
that breath." And in turn, support new music for that next generation.
* * *
Singing Like Ocean Swells: Rebecca O'Brien ’81
Imagine a warm evening in late April or early May. The backdoor of the Holy
Cross chapel is open to let in a breeze. Beautiful music wafts out as the choir
At moments like that, Rebecca O'Brien ’81 recalled, "I knew I was
more passionate about singing than schoolwork."
Now a dramatic soprano, O'Brien credits Holy Cross for much of her inspiration
and success. Although she began singing in high school, she fell in love with
music on Mount St. James. She created a special studies major in music and
literature and felt supported in her work. She sang with Schola Cantorum, the
Chamber Singers. She worked in the dining hall, and she even sang there. A
rendition of "Danny Boy" would get her extra steak, she said. In her final recital,
she sang it as her encore for her friends, the cooks. Since graduation, Choir
Director Bruce Miller has encouraged her solo work on numerous occasions.
Her work with the choir on the Verdi Requiem in 1993 led in part to her Boston
concert debut in 1995. Jeffrey Rink, conductor for Boston's Chorus Pro Musica,
called her parents' home to see if she could sing the Requiem at a week's notice.
The answering machine message featured the climax of her Requiem solo performance
at Holy Cross. Rink knew she could handle the part. Later that year, O'Brien
felt strangely relaxed performing her debut, Rossini's Missa Solennelle, in
Boston's Old South Church. "Standing up there with the choir behind me was so familiar,
as I had done this so many times at Holy Cross. I am really grateful for that."
Her career has progressed so far, she said, because "once a conductor hires
me, he tends to hire me again." Given the opportunity to sing with someone,
she works hard to prepare reliably, perform well, and remain cooperative. She
tries to be friendly when she sings with a chorus, because "I'm just one
of the instruments. It's their show."
O'Brien spent four years at the New England Conservatory, where she studied
opera and received a vocal master of music degree, with distinction in performance.
She credits her voice teacher at Clark University, Susan Clickner, for protecting
her voice when she began lessons during sophomore year. O'Brien began as an
and her voice gradually matured into soprano with a bigger sound. The voice
of a dramatic soprano, she explained, reminds listeners more of "swells in
the ocean rather than waves crashing on the beach." She enjoys singing Wagner,
but in small doses, as it is very demanding music.
For several years, however, O'Brien sensed her voice was "off." Something
wasn't working right, and she often sounded flat. Nearly two years of work with
teacher Patricia Craig in Boston, however, has evened out her voice and pulled
her technique "totally together," she said. "Now I have to market
Her work is starting to pay off. She recently landed her first regular soloist
job at Center United Methodist Church in Malden, near her home. But the applause
is still ringing in her ears from her opera debut last spring in Cavalleria
Rusticana, singing the part of Santuzza with Chorus Pro Musica in Jordan Hall. "It
was a huge role -- 70 pages of music and about 25 minutes of singing." Recorded
for WGBH radio, she said, the performance ended and the audience response was
better than she had ever hoped for. "They went ballistic. They roared. They
jumped to their feet."
O'Brien will be singing Poulenc's Gloria in Worcester May 2 with the New England
Chorale at Salem Covenant Church, a piece she first sang with the Holy Cross
Choir in 1993.
"I've had little successes all along," she said. "I keep picking
away at it. Singing is just something I have to do. And Holy Cross was a great
place to start."
* * *
A Foot in Both Worlds: Kristen Plumley ’87
"She knows what she wants," said soprano Kristen Plumley ’87,
discussing Norina, a character in the opera Don Pasquale. "She's no meek
and mild maiden. I like her pluckiness." Plumley could have been describing
herself. Last month, she sang as Norina in Don Pasquale for the third time.
Plumley has known that she wanted to sing since middle school, and she has
worked toward her goal ever since. She caught the performing bug at 13, when
and sang in the chorus for Guys & Dolls. One of the leads complimented her
on her voice and suggested she audition for a bigger part the next year. The
show was The Sound of Music, and Plumley wanted to be Liesl. Instead, at 14,
her high soprano voice landed her the part of the Mother Abbess. "I fell
in love with being on stage," she said. "Acting and singing seemed
to come naturally." She began doing community theater near home outside
Hartford, Conn., studied with a voice teacher, and auditioned for everything
that came her way.
Her college decision-making process highlighted the inevitable conflict between
wanting to perform and making a living. "I wanted something musical. My
parents wanted me to support myself," Plumley explained. "Holy Cross
seemed very homey. And the music major began my freshman year." Her compromise:
a psychology major with a concentration in music. In retrospect, she's glad she
didn't go to music school. "I got to be a big fish in a small pond," she
said. "It was a chance to get in there and do some performing without 500
other sopranos to compete against." And she valued her strong liberal arts
education and classmates. "It was a chance to be with people who aren't
That balance is important to her. "I couldn't exist solely in one world," she
said. And as a musician, she can't. There have always been temporary day jobs
to pay the bills, most recently in the compensation department of the Wall Street
firm, Goldman Sachs. She moved to New York from New Haven last August, and now
feels she's "in the loop" for singing opportunities. After Holy Cross,
Plumley went on to the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Music and received
her Artist Diploma in 1990. That experience helped steer her to opera.
"Opera is a real challenge and a real discipline," she said. "I
feel a great sense of accomplishment after mastering an operatic role." But
her voice was still young, and she needed time to let it grow. She auditioned
for musicals as well as opera apprenticeship programs. In the winter of 1991,
she was invited to a creative workshop on 20th century opera at the Banff Centre
for the Arts, in the Canadian Rockies. "It's a big artistic playground," she
said. Composers and performers worked together on creating new music. "It
was intense work without the old conventions." She gained new respect for
modern music and went back the following year.
Beyond simply training her voice, Plumley has learned along the way what it
means to be a professional musician. "I work with people who are highly excitable," she
said. "The performing arts draw big personalities." With a resume listing
11 operatic roles, eight in musical theater, several concerts and a summer of
cabaret on the Cape, she knows how to be a good colleague. She separates business
and pleasure, when she can.
And now she is in New York, with an agent who keeps a finger on the city's
pulse for auditions. She has a steady church job as soloist at All Saints'
She has sung in two productions with the Metropolitan Opera Guild, performing
works for new audiences, especially schoolchildren. Her goal now is to make
her living solely on singing.
"I'm here to establish my career," she said. "I'm auditioning
now for bigger companies. I know what my niche is." And with both feet on
the ground, she knows how to grow.
* * *
Long Play Piano: Mark Randall ’73
In the fall of 1969, most students came to Holy Cross with their stereos and
album collections. The Who. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. But jazz pianist
Mark Randall ’73 came with a different set of vinyl friends -- Benny Goodman,
the Mitchell/Ruff Duo, the Andre Previn Trio.
"I am used to being musically anachronistic," he said. Growing up with
his parents' World War II-era music in Pittsburgh, he said, "I just didn't
get into that rock ’n’ roll thing." Swing music was "better
crafted than the usual Elvis three-chord" song. When he was seven, he was
very interested in music, but agreed to piano lessons "without much enthusiasm." It
was a good investment. By high school, he discovered he could get paid to play
He went on to be a double English/French major, sang with the glee
club and studied piano with harpsichordist and music Professor Tim Culley. "It
was the classically oriented part of my musical life," Randall said.
But music remained just a part-time activity. He spent a year in Limoges, France
on a Fulbright teaching grant. He spent two years figuring out that, as he
world in an oil crisis recession had little use for English/French liberal arts
majors." So in 1976 he started business school at Wharton. And he's been
in Philadelphia ever since.
With his M.B.A. in hand, however, Randall realized his (previously) part-time
work as a pianist was more appealing than a full-time business career. Despite
his parents' fears, he became a professional piano player. In an ironic twist,
he said, he thinks he ended up with greater job security than many of his Wharton
classmates as they experience downsizing and corporate restructuring.
"Even in lean times, I can usually scrounge up some work," he said.
For years he was known locally for his lunchtime playing at department store
Strawbridge & Clothier, a landmark in downtown Philadelphia. Ownership changes
ended that position, but recently, there has been a "little renaissance" in
his line of work. "I'm now busier than I've been in a few years." He
has a regular noontime job playing piano for a few hours in the lobby of One
Liberty Place, Philadelphia's largest office building. In the evening, he plays
another few hours at Nicholas Nickolas, a restaurant in the Rittenhouse Hotel.
He also plays at private parties and corporate functions.
"People think it's a glamorous job," he said. "But it is work." And
like most jobs, it can become routine. He knows hundreds of songs, but gets into
periods where he feels he plays the same 50 songs over and over. He comes to
work without a list, but plays song after song in stream of consciousness sets. "I
may do rain songs, which lead to Fred Astaire movies, then songs with women's
names. It's a chain. I play little games." And he does play requests, but
has little enthusiasm for current pop music. "Please don't call me piano-man,'" he
Although some may consider his music simply background ambiance, Randall said
audience response is important to him. "All you need is that one person
-- the knowing nod or smile. It's tremendously energizing when you know someone
is listening." One evening he was pleased to learn Andre Previn was listening. "He
complimented me to the waiter and after his dinner we met. I've admired his jazz
playing since I was a kid."
He remains amazed that he can make a living playing music that was popular
between about 1925 and 1965. "Occasionally I think that the whole idiom is fading
away, along with the World War II generation that grew up with it, but then Tony
Bennett or someone else will come along and renew interest in it."
Randall has a strong local reputation, including several years of "Best
of Philly" listings for piano music, and a place in Keyboard magazine's "Lounge
of Fame" for his "relaxed mastery of the repertoire."
"It's an odd business," Randall said. "But I guess I've found
* * *
Litigator and Luthier: Brian Robinson ’87
Call him a Jekyll and Hyde. Better yet, use his preferred term, "Renaissance
man." Brian Robinson ’87 is a corporate litigator by day, guitar builder
and player by night. His passion is vintage guitars.
His family has photos of him as a toddler in Paxton, Mass., picking up his
brother's "gigatar." And
he'll never forget the day he came home from a dentist appointment and his mother
asked if he'd like guitar lessons. At 10 or 11, he couldn't say "yes" fast
enough. Within a few months, he'd moved from acoustic to electric guitar. He
never looked back.
Until he decided to go to law school and become a corporate lawyer. But the
lure of music was too strong to resist. Within six months, he'd formed "The Angstmen," a
band of fellow legal associates, "born out of a hatred for working at a
large institutional law firm," he said. A "bar band" that played
a mix of covers and original songs during its four or five annual appearances
at Boston area bars or on a rented soundstage, the Angstmen enjoyed making music
-- within their own limitations.
"Our lead vocalist had a terrible sense of meter and couldn't carry a tune," said
Robinson, adding with some understatement, "That limited us." The drummer
stayed with the group because he always needed legal advice. The bass player
was a sculptor and previously had been a member of New York's performance art
world. When the band performed, Robinson said, "we were billed just below
the lunch special of macaroni and cheese." Total compensation during their
roughly four-year career? "A few beers from a watering hole in the financial
But it was "a blast" to make music after 12- to 14-hour work days of "vaguely
unsatisfying work for corporations that didn't seem to care," he said. The
attraction seemed to be a common one among lawyers. A senior partner at his law
firm asked to jam with them. When the bass player left to teach in Oregon, they
jokingly ran an ad for a replacement in Massachusetts Lawyer Weekly. They got
40 responses. "There's a huge undercurrent of rock-star wannabes practicing
law in the Boston area," notes Robinson.
And his business, Robinson Custom Guitars, caters to that interest among baby
boomers seeking to own an icon of the rock ’n’ roll era: the Gibson
Les Paul guitar. "Vintage guitars have outperformed the S&P 500 for
the last 15 years," he said. "They're not just toys." Robinson
restores, builds, buys and sells guitars on line as a hobby. It will never be
his full-time job, he said. "If I did it every day, I'd be worried about
profit margins and would come to hate it."
He started the business a year before he quit his first corporate law job,
which happened literally the day he paid off his student loans. For a few months,
ran a Boston music store, Daddy's Junky Store. "It was the most fun I ever
had in a working environment," he recalled. But the long hours for one-third
of his previous pay got wearing, so last spring he found another legal position
at McDermott, Will & Emery. "I didn't want my daughter telling her
classmates at show-and-tell that Daddy sells broken guitars."
Robinson builds four or five solid body electric guitars a year. He'd always
enjoyed refinishing them, but making the body from one piece of mahogany or
swamp ash is a challenge. He used to glue on the necks (people prefer their
he explained), but it's faster to bolt them on, and players can adjust or replace
those more easily. With one baby under his roof and another on the way, he
expects his productivity to slow. But he notes with pride that he's named as "luthier
of choice" on an album produced by a Nashville blues singer, Tony Savno.
Luthiers are stringed instrument makers. Descendants of the mandolin, guitars,
in some primitive form, date back to the 14th century.
As an economics major at Holy Cross, Robinson felt prepared for his legal career.
And in retrospect, his experience with jazz saxophone player and band director
Mike Monaghan taught him some important lessons about the music world. "Now
everything he told me makes sense. It's a plum to have him there."
* * *
Applauding from the Wings, Pen in Hand: F. Paul Driscoll ’76
His first paycheck in hand for running the Holy Cross costume shop, freshman
F. Paul Driscoll ’76 had a mission: to find ten dollars' worth of opera
recordings. Mission accomplished at the old Denholm's store. He found two compilation
albums of historic sopranos. "Perfection for $3.98 plus tax," he later
wrote in Opera News. "I was hooked."
"I was always very interested in opera," said Driscoll. A native of
Scarsdale ("only 40 minutes to midtown"), N.Y., he attended Regis High
School in Manhattan, and enjoyed many musical performances while growing up.
Driscoll arrived at Holy Cross in 1972 to find the one course on opera filled
before his turn came to register. "I never took a course in opera, music
or foreign languages," he said. Instead, he spent much of his time in the
theater, a division of the classics department at the time. And he browsed in
record stores, reading liner notes about opera. He majored in English and graduated
without any "direct plan" for his career.
His first stop was just down the hill -- a season acting with Foothills Theater
in Worcester. Then he did summer stock on the Cape and in New Hampshire. He
took on freelance director and designer jobs. When he returned to New York
he took a Christmas sales job at department store Lord & Taylor and stayed
for nearly seven years. One benefit from his work at Lord & Taylor, he said,
was the chance to leave work to attend ballet and opera performances. He became
a department manager and assistant buyer for a variety of departments.
That walk to the opera grew much shorter when Driscoll changed jobs in 1985
as product development manager for the Metropolitan Opera Guild's retail
program. He developed opera-related products for catalog sales and in their
four Lincoln Center shops. He wrote copy for special publication projects.
he decided to become a freelance writer and director.
His first performance reviews appeared in Opera News that summer. By January
1991, he published his first feature story. He continued to write the humorous
essays, record reviews and occasional columns he'd contributed while still
employed and began writing for Musical America, Chamber Music and Stagebill.
News, he created a series "Going to the Opera with..." that interviewed
theatrical and literary celebrities (and his goddaughter) as they enjoyed an
opera performance. He also became the magazine's picture editor. After five years
of development, he published Fantastic Opera last fall, an illuminated "poster
book" about 28 operas, written in collaboration with artist John Martinez.
Driscoll is also in his fourth season as lecturer/interviewer of opera personalities
for the Metropolitan Opera Guild's education department.
"When I write about the performing arts, I try to present a critical framework
for the reader," Driscoll said. Those lessons in "how to construct
thoughts and organize my materials were what I received from all my teachers
at Holy Cross."
His directing career has flourished as well. He spent six seasons stage directing
20 musicals and operettas with the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth,
Mass., and wrote an entertaining and comprehensive history of the 25-year-old
in 1992. He spent two seasons with Scarsdale Summer Music Theater as artistic
director. He directed the Washington Chamber Symphony production of Working
at the Kennedy Center and the New York premiere of Mariage Blanc off-Broadway
the Riverside Shakespeare Company. This spring, he was dramatic director for
the Blue Hill Troupe production of Gilbert and Sulllivan's The Sorcerer.
July will see Driscoll's final work with the College Light Opera Company, because
on August 1, he returns to a desk job. He will become the Assistant Managing
Editor for Opera News and oversee the journal's shift to monthly publication
from its current 17 times per year schedule. "It's the magazine's first
major change in more than 60 years," he said. "I won't be writing less,
just more selectively, in concert with the other editors."
He advises aspiring writers to "never turn down a chance to read or write
anything. It's a tremendous amount of fun."
Allison Chisolm is a freelance writer from Worcester.