by Tom Reel, VSO Double Bassist
A unique veterans' benefit that came my way 45 years ago changed my life.
In 1975 I played an audition at the University of Kansas for acceptance as a Performance Major in Double Bass, enrolling as a freshman (albeit one with a college degree), having just returned to civilian life weeks before. My work in the air force had not been in music. I worked at ground based radar sites, including 382 days in Saigon, South Vietnam (but who's counting).
Merry Christmas from Saigon, South Vietnam 1971. (I'm kneeling at the far right)
In the hallway as I awaited my turn to play, I became acutely aware of how far behind my much younger classmates I would be, as I could hear their auditions through the closed door. (The cellist who immediately preceded me eventually went on to a professional performing career.)
But I played my student arrangement of a classical melody for the assembled string faculty. I was thanked and dismissed, knowing how far below university standards my audition had been.
Only later did I learn that the elder statesman of the faculty committee, a cello professor named Raymond Stuhl, had convinced the others to allow me a one-year probationary trial as a Performance Major - and for only one reason that had nothing whatsoever to do with my audition. I could not possibly have had anything to do with that!
He saw on my resume something that piqued his interest and his alone. I was a graduate of the Air Force Academy (1970). Might that merit a chance, even if no musical potential had been in evidence? In the face of my audition, he argued for a probationary year. He must have been very persuasive!
Ready to graduate from the Air Force Academy in 1970
That was a turning point in my life. Even further behind than I knew, I enrolled in a Music Appreciation class (as well as Music History & Theory), threw myself into endless practicing, and fell in love with an art form that I'd experienced with limited passion in school orchestras.
My Rock 'n' Roll band at Sleepy Hollow High School (with no idea what the future holds!)
Seven years later, having exhausted G.I. Bill benefits and having taken out a student loan, I had a Bachelor of Music degree and a Masters degree in Double Bass Performance. I secured a part-time orchestra position in Midland-Odessa, TX and a couple years later won the position that I've held for 36 years in the Virginia Symphony.
Life's rewards are not measured entirely in material wealth and my life in Virginia has been rich indeed. My journey and my life's work can be traced to an old professor in Lawrence, KS, already quite elderly when I showed up there in 1975, so raw and inexperienced, and to my bass teacher and mentor Dr. Charles Hoag as well as other influential teachers & friends. Mr. Stuhl died many years ago and Charley passed in 2018. I last visited him and his family in 2013.
Now I wear a different uniform but I keep some reminders of days gone by.
It seems odd today that the best thing that came of my attendance at the United States Air Force Academy in retrospect might be having it listed on a resume in the grizzled hands of an old cellist in 1975 as he listened to my wholly inadequate & amateurish audition. That "veterans' benefit" is the one that changed my life.