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They Write (& Play & Sing & Arrange . . .) the Songs 

Meet nine alums who have made music an integral part of their lives

By Allison Chisolm 


Not-So-Simple Gifts:  Anthony Ashur  '82 

     Lack of a music major at Holy Cross was a lucky break for Tony Ashur  82. 

     He became 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 goal. 

     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 good." 

     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 balance 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 growth. 

     "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. He eventually 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 Dixieland as a pianist with Max Kaminsky's jazz band at the Metropole every Monday and Tuesday night.

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 than 150,000 copies. Other title credits include Call of Hawaii, Polka Party and Late Night Sax.

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 record."

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 Opera 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 and new.

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 sings. 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 Choir and 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 alto 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 this voice."

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 she danced 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 musicians."

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' Episcopal. 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 the piano.

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 said, "the 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 said.

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 my niche."

* * *

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 district."

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, he 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 sound, 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 in 1978, 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. By 1990, 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. For Opera 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 company 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 with 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.


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