What do you want to be?

Photo by John Arce

I remember when the teacher came around the classroom and asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. She was making a list so they could put this interesting piece of information under our names in the yearbook. Professional baseball player, horseback rider, hula hoop champion—these are just a few things I heard my classmates say as she walked around the room. At the time, I was probably trying to figure out how to do simple math problems on a sheet of paper. Thinking about how many numbers were subtracted or leftover somehow had a way of making my mind crawl at a sloth’s pace. But when my teacher approached my desk, before she even finished asking me what I wanted to be, the words were already out of my mouth— “Disney Animator,” I said without hesitation.

The fact that I knew that was even a profession at the time still puzzles me. There must have been something I saw during my ritualistic pastime of fast-forwarding and rewinding old VHS tapes. Maybe it was a behind-the-scenes look at how Snow White was hand-drawn that prompted my inspiration. But drawing was a huge part of my childhood. As a 10-year-old, you would find me at my desk for hours trying to perfect every little detail. Nonetheless, that was what I told my teacher and that is what ended up under my name in the yearbook.

As I got older and started to try new things, that little title under my name in the yearbook changed a few times. By the time middle school came around, they stopped asking all together. I still question why they took that part of the yearbook away. Does it even make sense to ask a 4th grader what they want to be when they grow up versus an 8th grader? You would think we’d be closer to a decision or something, but I digress.

As high school and college rolled along, competitive swimming became a very big part of my life. I was climbing the ranks in my New England U.S.A. club swim league. I was beginning to find my place in the pool. I went from placing 24th in events at championships, to 7th place, to 3rd place, and then I was at the top of my league. I was placing first in the 50 freestyle. That’s when it hit me. I knew exactly what I wanted to do…

I wanted to play drums in a rock band.

My friends and I would gather after school, and before practice, to play music together in my friend’s loft. We’d call it “band practice,” but really it would mostly consist of intense Super Smash Bro. tournaments on the Nintendo-64 and scraping my shins trying to learn new tricks on my skateboard. We had some good sessions and memories that I laugh at to this day. It wasn’t until I tried to learn every song on the album American Idiot by Green Day that I started to take playing drums seriously. I listened to that album day and night, until I knew every single note on the drum set like the back of my hand. Soon that became too easy for me, and I was hungry for something new. That’s when the genius drumming of Travis Barker took my ears by storm. I was down in my basement playing Blink-182 songs until my family finally needed to go to bed.

I was playing in multiple bands at any given time during my high school days—a jazz band, a punk band, a rock band, a metal band… I loved playing shows for people, and I wanted to show people the things I could do. That’s when I discovered YouTube.

One day, my dad drove me to a Guitar Center. He probably had no idea what I was going to do with the few things that I got there, but he supported me. My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to. They always pushed me to try new things and to not be afraid of failure. I can’t thank them enough for all their support and guidance throughout my crazy endeavors. That day, I came home with some equipment the guy at the store said I would need for what I wanted to do. The problem was, I had no idea how to use any of it. I remember it took me months to finally figure out how to record my drums with the set of microphones and software I had purchased so eagerly. The issue then became how to record and edit a video. Luckily, I picked up on editing fairly quickly. I took my dad’s camcorder, set it up on a few boxes, and got this weird little cable that plugged right into the computer. Another month passed and I finally summoned the courage to record my first video—a drum cover to the song “Two Weeks” by All That Remains. I remember being so confident and happy with the work I put into it. I made a channel on YouTube in November of 2009 and called it “LowandSlow8,” and I posted the video. Little did I know that this would be the start of my future…

Over the years, my taste in music would fluctuate I tried to post drum covers on my channel as frequently as I could. Throughout this whole process I became obsessed with perfection. I wanted my drums to sound amazing—clear, crisp, and better than everyone else’s. I learned new techniques every week, and I started recording my friends and the songs they wrote. Word spread that there was this kid with a little recording studio set up in his basement and was recording the local bands for cheap—that’s pretty much what happened. And it happened again, the imaginary line under my name in the yearbook changed. This time it read, “Recording Engineer/Producer.”

This was getting to be around the time when I was looking into what colleges I might want to go to. I was trying to get into a school that had a sound recording major. It came down to a couple places in upstate New York, Ithaca College and SUNY Fredonia. I had to perform some percussion solos in front of the school’s professors and students in order to be accepted into their esteemed programs. I went to both auditions with snare, timpani, and two-mallet marimba solos. A two-mallet marimba solo meant I had one mallet in each hand playing on something that looked like a big wooden xylophone. I was never really good at the marimba to begin with. Most hopeful students came in with four-mallet solos. That’s two mallets in each hand looking like chopsticks. It made no sense to me, and I thought I was solid enough in the other instruments to get by the audition process. I was wrong.

It looked like I was out of luck. I wasn’t going to be able to go to school to do what I wanted. It was like everything I was told about how I could pursue whatever I wanted was a lie. What was the whole deal with that line in the yearbook? Why would they ask kids what they wanted to be and build up their hopes if you could work so hard and fail? I was having a hard time seeing what I was going to do next.

Meanwhile, I had sent in a recruitment form to both schools telling the swim coaches my current times in all of my events. The coach at Fredonia expressed some interest to my parents in my coming over to check out the pool and meet some swimmers on the team. He seemed to think I would be a good fit with his current roster and he really liked the times I had sent him. I showed up one weekend, after a seven hour drive through the most ridiculous snow storm I had ever seen. We were actually driving five miles per hour on the highway, headlights on, and cars stuck in the snow on the side of the road every hundred meters. We arrived despite the hazardous weather. I met the coach of the team and he introduced me to my student chaperone for the day. He took me around campus and showed me what the Blue Devils were all about, and within an hour, I knew that this was the place for me. I stayed another few days to solidify my thoughts, and realized I wanted to go to this school and swim for this team. Even though finding a new major to pursue felt weird, I was able to find something that was close enough, music business. It wasn’t recording like I had wanted, but it was music and that’s the field I wanted to be in no matter what.

Four amazing years go by and there I am, standing in a hat that’s too small for my head and a new phrase under my name in an imaginary yearbook that would read “Bachelors in Business Administration and Web Design minor.” Now I can go off into the world and try to find some entry-level job that will hopefully take me in the right direction. Although it was not easy, I was able to find a job at the local radio station taking pictures and videos at events and updating their existing websites. It was great. I was working with artists and meeting new people in the industry almost every day. But there was still something missing…

During my last year of college, my roommates and I rented an apartment. It was a place where we could do whatever we wanted—play video games until the sun came up, decorate our fake Christmas tree with Baja Blast cans and top it off with an Anakin/Padme prom pic, and cut loose on the weekends with some Pewdiepie and Fullmetal Alchemist. After we finished one show it was on to the other. We started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was like the third time I watched it, but for some of my friends it was their first. Probably my favorite show in existence. After finishing all three seasons with them, for some reason I missed watching my favorite characters so much that I started to look up behind-the-scenes of Avatar videos on YouTube. This is when I discovered the people behind the voices—that people actually voice these characters. It seems like a dumb realization, but at the time, it blew my mind. For some reason, I couldn’t stop myself from looking up what in the world this job was and how somebody gets to do this. I learned it was called voice acting. You would think I would have understood what that meant, that all of my favorite cartoon voices were actually someone’s voice in the real world. I guess it was just something I had always overlooked—until now.

From the comfort of my bedroom, I discovered a way to try my hand at this idea I had become so fascinated with. I already knew how to record with microphones. I had all the equipment. It was easy compared to the drum recordings I was used to. I set myself up in a good spot to get the best quality sound and I went for it. I auditioned for a bunch of random projects I found online from people from around the world looking for voice actors. I got a lot of great feedback. Everybody seemed to think I was funny and loved the quality of my voice in my recordings. I wasn’t making any money with these projects, but it made me happy.

Two years go by after graduating college and I’m working at a radio station, coaching my old high school’s swim team, and still recording my voice in my spare time. That’s when I saw it—the contest. “Perfect Idol” was the name of this amazing thing that seemed so unreal at the time. My friend sent in an audition for this contest on YouTube looking for new voice over talent; that’s how I saw it. I got behind a camera as soon as I could, and I sent in my two audition videos. They wanted to see a video of some of my talents and a video of some interpretations of anime characters. I chose two of my favorite lines that I thought would set me apart from all the other contestants. One was by Amon from Legend of Korra and the other by Greed from Fullmetal Alchemist. Everyone in the contest was picking the typical iconic hero quotes, so I thought I had a good chance of standing out. A judging round and live webcam audition later, I found myself sitting on the edge of my high school pool training a long-course swimmer when I got the email. I was chosen as a Perfect Idol Finalist. They asked if I was free to fly out to Los Angeles for a few days for the finals with more information to follow.

I had to read the email over a few times before I actually understood the words in front of me. I felt like I was stuck reading in a foreign language and I couldn’t break out of it. When I came to, my right leg gave out and I fell backwards onto the bleachers behind me. This sounds like I’m dramatizing the situation, but seriously—I’m not. I looked up at the head coach across the pool, and tried to say, “I did it,” but all that came out sounded like the shrill squeak of a bat. I got myself up and walked over to the side of the pool where my sister was swimming. My sister was on the high school swim team I was coaching at the time. She stopped when she saw me bent over the pool in front of her lane with a face looking like something wasn’t right. She asked what happened, and I told her the news. She leapt up and gave me a hug getting me soaking wet. I then turned to the swimmer I was suppose to be training and apologized for my lack of attention.

This was the moment when I knew what I was meant to do. I could finally write something down in that yearbook that I knew was suppose to go there—voice actor. It’s a different feeling when you know what it is, versus what you think it could be or what you wish it to be. It’s hard to put down in words, but bear with me. I knew that whatever happened with this contest, whether I lose in the final round or not, I was picked from all those contestants for a reason. That I was suppose to go out to Los Angeles, and that new adventures were waiting for me there.

This is the story of how my aspirations shaped my path. Somehow everything I had done that brought me to the realization of  what I wanted to do, no matter how different each stage was, all worked in some oddly cohesive melody. The things I learned in different stages of my life helped me reach this exciting chapter. I also realized that you don’t just have to have one thing written down when they ask you what you want to do when you grow up. You can write all of it down. Things change, and it’s how we adapt that shape how things turn out. And in that, I’ve found what I was looking for.