An Audience Perspective: An Interview with Ralph Rexroat

From: Walled Lake, MI

Age: 60

Profession/Job title: Draftsperson & Project Engineer at Brunt & Associates

Instruments Played: Tuba from 6th-11th grade; Barbershop Quartet, Madrigal group and choir in high school; bass voice in Men’s Glee Club at University of Northern Colorado

Favorite Brew: Black coffee; Bell’s Two Hearted Ale; Luzanne Iced Tea

Carrie Rexroat: How have you been involved with music during your life?

Ralph Rexroat: I started playing the tuba in 6th grade and played it until 11th grade. Then I joined the choir for one year and sang for the competition stuff. Besides singing in the choir I sang in a barbershop quartet and in a madrigal group, which is all pretty much medieval music. We did very well in competitions, so the music director obviously had skill. It was a small school, the band was horrible, no one cared, the marching band was horrendous. Once in awhile another tuba player and I would take sousaphones to a basketball game and go out to mid-court during halftime and play one song. I don’t even remember what song, but that was fun. I played in the pep band, and we played Hawaii Five-O all the time. In college I was in Men’s Glee Club for two years at the University of Northern Colorado and we traveled, we went to other schools and senior centers and we sang a bunch of music. My first year at college I somehow finagled voice lessons in the Music Department to count towards my credits.  I was told after my semester recital that they just didn’t have room for me, so that was the end of my singing career. I was a bass.

CR: Wow, I had no idea you were so involved with music, Dad.

RR: Yep. Though that wasn’t what I went to school for. When I went to college the intention was to be an actor, but that never panned out. The technical side was exciting so I worked on a lot of stuff like operas and musicals. University of Northern Colorado had a summer theater program called Little Theater of the Rockies and they would run five shows throughout the summer. They’d mount a show, run it, then close it and bring up another one, so I was always exposed to that. I really liked opera.  But, relating to my direct involvement with music, by the time I finished with the Men’s Glee Club, playing or singing music was done. I couldn’t play guitar, I didn’t pick up a tuba again. I’ve never played a musical instrument after that. I sing the hymns in church is about the extent of me involved in music. Now that I think about it I actually worked on a number of road shows (concerts coming into town for one night performances) for the Stagehand union when I was a technician.

CR: Cool! What was that like?

RR: It was work. People thought that was cool, but it was just work. I worked hard, made good money, and hoped to get called again.

CR: Interesting. Have you ever wanted to get to know more musicians?

RR: I can’t say that I’ve ever been around classical musicians. However, from your experiences at U of M with Professor Haithcock, you would think that if you were in proximity to him it would be exciting to be a part of music. I’ve never had any great desire to be able to talk to musicians but I find reading about them to be fascinating because it does give a humanistic view of them as musicians. Like the young lady from Colburn that got the fourth horn chair with DSO, Johanna Yarborough. I thought what she said was interesting about how she worked so hard and pushed herself to be the best she could, but then lost herself. That really humanized her and it made sense. I mean, people who are in specific professions have drives to get to some level of professionalism, and I understand it probably more from the arts and theater perspective, but it made sense and it really made me go “wow I understand that. I can relate to that.” I can’t recall any other interviews that made me think that, but she did.

CR: Why did that particular interview resonate with you so well?

RR: Because she was honest. Coming from an arts background I can understand her struggle for sure. I worked long hours for no recognition and little pay, I understand all of that. But, it was just her honesty about it, how she had to work so hard to achieve it and when she did the bottom fell out and she didn’t know what she was going to do. I don’t know why, her interview just sticks out to me.

CR: I see. What’s a major struggle that you’ve personally had to go through?

RR: Well it has no relationship to music, but the biggest failure I’ve ever had to endure was the failure of my business, our business. Music really played no part other than I just enjoy listening to it, but it didn’t take me away from it. It certainly couldn’t resolve it.

CR: When the business failed, what was that like for you?

RR: It was very stressful. There were times where we weren’t sure what was going on income wise but we had to raise a family. Your mom was still working so that made it easier, but there were repercussions that were felt from that closure that kept going on for several years. It’s basically resolved itself which is good, but there wasn’t an easy way to get away from it. I could listen to music, read books, go to movies, but it was still all there. I didn’t want to isolate myself, but it was what it was.

CR: Was there anything that made it better or worse?

RR: What made it better was the support of the family. I just began seeking other employment and tried to make an income. I wasn’t really emotional about it though, I was more practical. My focus was on my family and keeping us afloat.

CR: Is there anything currently that you’re struggling with?

RR: You and your brother are gone, but no. Things are pretty stable right now, there’s no true hardship. Your mother and I have the opportunity to do stuff for us now. It was fun to go to NYC because I’d never seen a show on Broadway. Considering I’m 60 and that was the first time I’d seen one was exciting for me.

CR: Being that you are 60, what are some things you might tell your younger self about getting through life, some advice?

RR: Finish school. Whether you liked it or not, get the degree; that’s caused a number of problems over the years. I certainly have a lot more experience than a lot of people but I have no credibility because I don’t have a degree. My parents never pushed me, they never gave guidance. You probably think of us as being overbearing, but I think you and your brother have become your own individuals because of it. You think analytically about what’s ahead and what it could mean, and some of that came from us pushing you, but some of it’s there because of who you are. So, if I could have done that as an individual for myself, that would have been great, but most of that comes from guidance. You can probably find only a handful of people that actually wind up actually doing what they wanted to do when they were eighteen. Or if they do, they only do it for a while, get burned out and find something different. But, the one thing we tried to do with both you and Jake is try to develop honesty and good character, being trustworthy and being the type of individual that people can depend on. Those are valuable traits in life.

CR: Good advice for sure. If you knew nothing about music, what would your first thought be if I told you that I was a professional musician?

RR: I would be interested in knowing the kinds of things that you did. But, how you approached that I guess would determine whether or not the conversation would continue. If someone said, “Oh, well I play with so-and-so, and they think I’m great”, well guess what, I’m done talking to you. But when people talk as people, they have the same foibles, concerns, and quirks. I know that no matter what profession people are in, if I can talk to them on that kind of level, I find them more interesting. If I had the opportunity to sit down with a musician at a cocktail party I may ask them questions about how the make it work. It’s a different gig than I do so yes, I’d be interested in finding out how musicians make it all work out.

CR: Interesting. Can you speak more to that?

RR: I’m just interested in people as people. Yes, some people may have something more to contribute to society and that’s fine, but when you’re with people, you have to value the relationship that you’re both human beings; on that level you are of equal importance. Someone like Yo-Yo Ma, I mean I don’t know what kind of person he is really, but my perception of him is that he’s constantly teaching so he’s giving back. Every media thing that I’ve seen of him he seems like a very approachable guy, and he’s involved with music in a way that he gives back to and relates to people which I like very much. He uses his talent to connect with other people. Maybe he’s not that type of person, I don’t know, but the way that he’s perceived in the media is that he comes off that way.

CR: How does perception play into your opinion on musicians and the music community as a whole?

RR: Well I don’t know how to answer that truthfully because some perceptions of musicians come from media that’s fed to you. I have no personal contact to truly know, so I don’t know what kind of people they really are. All I’ve seen of them is their stage persona.

CR: Do you think about them as a person while you’re seeing them in concert, as someone other than their stage persona?

RR: Not really.

CR: How come?

RR: I guess I don’t want to. I just feel that I am too far separated from them

CR: What would help make you feel less separated?

RR: It’d be great if there was a small group of musicians who gave a concert and then wanted to sit down with me afterwards and have a question and answer period. I know it’s not their job, but it would be interesting because it would humanize them. The DSO is doing something I think is really fascinating, and I really think that other symphonies should really start doing this (they probably are), but they are performing neighborhood concerts. They’re taking the symphony to places that make it more accessible for different people to see them, and it would be great if orchestras could bring the music to the people rather than the people having to go to a specific concert hall. We don’t have that opportunity most of the time.

CR: This is really interesting for me to think about. Obviously because you’re my dad you know that I’m a person, but to thousands of other people I’m just another one of the many on the stage. To them, in that moment, I may not be a person.

RR: Well it’s different if you have some common knowledge about who an individual is. For us we would go and listen to you, to Carrie. We don’t necessarily go to ensemble this or symphony that, we go listen to our daughter play.

CR: I know, but it’s just interesting that if you went to a Michigan Symphony Band concert now, you have no affiliation to anyone in that ensemble. To you, everyone on that stage is there existing as one particular aspect of their being, as you say, their stage persona. Personally I don’t want to be known that way, I feel that it’s important to show the human side of me, to show some of the other aspects of my identity that will help with this “I’m not a person” perception.

RR: I don’t know that it would ever happen in a classical environment.

CR: Why not?

RR: Well it doesn’t. Musicians come on stage, everyone is separated. They play, everyone gets up and takes a bow, maybe you have a few people go to the stage door or try and get backstage to say “bravo, fantastic job” but most people just want to leave and get out of there. So there’s no opportunity for me to meet any of the musicians, other than just meeting up with my daughter.

CR: So it’s too formalized for you?

RR: Very much so. I mean it depends on what your level of interest was in the first place, but I don’t think you can change the format other than trying other venues and taking the music to people. I think that’s a much better concept. But I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like musicians want to spend all this extra time to do these kinds of things because it can become a problem. They’d be working more but may not be making more money, which they should in that case. So, yes, maybe they want to be a part of this stuff and make people feel good, but it’s also a commitment on their time in which they probably won’t be compensated for.

CR: Yeah that’s tricky. But I think it’s still important, at least speaking for myself. Going in a different direction, in relation to your profession what do you enjoy about your job?

RR: Well, I like figuring things out, the engineering portion of it, but it’s just a job. I enjoy when I building something, creating it with my hands. It’s probably the same kind of artistic expression that you do as a musician, it’s just a different way to do it. I can take something that’s raw and mold it into something different.

CR: Yeah, I always loved watching you work because it seemed like you were having fun with it. Especially because you always had that funky bluegrass station playing on your piece of shit radio in the garage *laughter*

RR: *laughter*

CR: Every time I smell sawdust I immediately think of the workshop. I don’t know, I guess it’s that sensory memory trigger.

RR: Must be.

CR: So did you choose your profession for more practical reasons?

RR: Yeah, it’s a job. My family needed income and it provided income. I mean there are aspects of it that were interesting, and sometimes I’ve had the opportunity to work on large projects that were cool and I got to be a part of. But, there’s not a lot of artistic freedom in it, just a lot of practical stuff that you have to manage and get done in a timely manner.

CR: What sorts of things do you remember thinking that you wanted to be when you grew up?

RR: Well I came out a generation where everyone wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t know that firefighter or policeman or any of that stuff was ever something I wanted to do. When I got to high school I guess I thought that theater was the place to be, but I just didn’t have the talent. However, I was able to still be involved with it, enjoy it and learn skills so that I could still be in it and enjoy the profession. But I burned out. Long, long hours, low pay and it just got to the point where by the time your mother and I were getting married, I just didn’t think it was worth it to do it. I mean just like everyone’s lives, it could have gone 100 different ways. I was offered a job to stay at Actors Theater of Louisville, and I could have moved up the ladder and been there for years, but it didn’t work out that way; we didn’t do it that way. The desire to have a family became our major focus, but in order to support a family you have to work. It’s not that I’ve lost those priorities, they’ve just changed. We still enjoy going to see a really good theater piece or listening to good music. I was listening to an NPR program about a musician in NYC where the jobs in playing with a symphony just no longer exist. So this person would start the day and travel to job A, get that done, then get back on the subway and go to job B, then job C and D and then go teach, and her day was just filled up with all these jobs that eventually made up her whole day. That’s not a very secure feeling, but people thrive on it and make it happen. For me, it’s much more positive of a feeling if I have a secure job and know when I wake up in the morning I go to work. I know when the day is done I leave and the next day it’ll be there.

CR: As a parent to someone who will probably never have a secure job, what’s one thing you just hope to instill in a child whose pursuing a career without much stability?

RR: There’s a lot of things. I guess just be realistic. Follow your dreams and give it everything you’ve got, but what that timeline is, I don’t know. Actors in NYC will wait tables for years on end, hoping that one job will come along and make them. But you just have to have the wherewithal to get passed that, but you also have to have the smarts to know if it’s just not happening.

CR: OK. How would you define ‘success’?

RR: It’s fleeting. It may happen for a few years, but it eventually disappears. People put too much emphasis on it. If you make a comfortable living you can be satisfied with that, but most people have the drive to go beyond what’s comfortable - If only I was rich - those kinds of things. Be satisfied with what you have, be happy with what you have. Success is nice, but the people that have success sometimes really hate it. But it depends on what success you’re talking about too. Success as a parent is exciting, when your children thrive and are doing well. Success in my job or my business usually means money or whatever that gives you wealth, and you can and can’t be satisfied with that.

CR: Do you feel like you’ve been successful in life?

RR: In some areas, yes. I feel successful with my family and my children. You’re all thriving, you’re an individual, we were a family unit that helped mold you. That’s probably my biggest success.

CR: What are some of your hobbies?

RR: I like to read, I used to like to cook, but not so much anymore. I like scouting; I’m a member of the council advancement committee for the Boy Scouts of America.

CR: What the thing you most value in life?

RR: Family, that’s the most important.

CR: Why do you listen to classical music?

RR: Honestly? It’s long and there’s not a lot of stupid DJs talking. The radio stations here, country, pop, news stations, these people talk, they’re talking heads. At least with classical music they say “here’s Mahler 3” and it takes an hour or whatever to play the damn thing. Classical music is not something that fills my soul, but I like listening to it. I certainly value it. I’ve learned a lot about music from living through you, what you play, what you find interesting, stuff I hear I share with you. When I listen to a piece of music that’s emotional and it’s something to share, especially if it was a horn piece I always think “oh Carrie might like this”, or “hey Carrie I heard this piece and I liked it”

CR: I definitely always appreciate you sharing that with me, it makes me happy. Is there a classical music concert that stands out that you remember thinking that you really enjoyed?

RR: I haven’t been to that many of them, but the one you and I went to in 2010 at the DSO. You went to interview Denise Tryon and they played Shostakovich 5. I liked it because you could really see the professionalism, and I was impressed that Maestro Slatkin could conduct without a score. I like Edvard Grieg as a composer, and his Piano Concerto in A Minor is exciting; some of his pieces from Peer Gynt are great. I like Shostakovich, and every time it comes on the radio I can identify a Shostakovich piece.

CR: Oh yeah?

RR: Yeah, there’s just some sound and then the guy on the radio goes, “that was Shostakovich” and I’m like “yeah I knew it!”

CR: *laughter* So can you distinguish other composers?

RR: Well, I know their pieces but I can’t say that I know their styles all the time. Certain pieces effect me, like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings; the way it was written is amazingly strong. Holst’s “The Planets” you can vividly see what the guy was thinking about when he wrote it.

CR: Definitely. Why did you encourage Jake and I to participate in music programs?

RR: It’s an experience that we all need to have. It’s been proven scientifically that it increases brain power, and since your mother and I were both arts oriented it’s certainly important to support the arts. It teaches discipline, you’re part of a group; we certainly didn’t have any idea that it would morph into a profession.

CR: That’s interesting that you guys never thought that it would go beyond high school when you both were on the path towards a professional career in acting and as a theater technician.

RR: Well we didn’t deny it, we just didn’t know. We’re not experienced to know that you had something, we just knew that we liked what you were doing. But you have to have some kind of creative outlet to work the mind in other directions other than the academic portion of it. Even if someone can’t play an instrument they might be able to sing, so there’s still that connection with music. Plus it’s still very predominant in our society. There’s music all over the place, I mean you know, it’s in games, TV shows, movie soundtracks, it’s there and it exists and someone has to create it.

CR: Definitely. Talking about all this stuff brings up a lot of things, so is there anything you want to talk about more?

RR: I just like music, I listen to it every day. I’m very diverse in my music selection.   Americana and Bluegrass, and the Blues fills my soul. I like Jazz. I saw Oscar Peterson in concert, and Ella Fitzgerald in concert before she passed away back when we lived in Louisville. I liked a band called The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in high school and they were instrumental in making me appreciate Bluegrass with their groundbreaking album “Will the Circle be Unbroken”

CR: Great. Well thanks, Dad! This has been a good conversation, thanks for participating!

RR: Anytime