Twice in my life I have talked to someone who loved their vocation --- not liked it, loved it. Two people who couldn't imagine pursuing a career other than their chosen ones.
The first person was a composition student of mine, Clint Sickles. He wrote an exceptional essay about his love for conducting -- the kind that involves a baton, not a train. Clint is a student at Youngstown State University's Dana School of Music. By the time Clint perfected his essay, he had conveyed a joy I have yet to find in a moment of work.
The second person is the man Clint praised as his inspiration, Dr. Stephen Gage.
Gage is the director of bands at Dana and director of the Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra, the venue where he first influenced Clint.
"I love it," Gage, 45, said of teaching and conducting. A tall, slim man with a joy-filled face, he added, "I teach because I like youth and the energy of youth. When I was a child, I wanted to be a teacher. I liked teachers. I liked school."
Love for the job: Gage taught in the public schools of upstate New York for 11 years until a friend encouraged him to do doctoral work. He attended the University of Illinois and "fell in love with the university atmosphere." He has taught at Dana for nine years.
"I've had so many great mentors," he said. "The influences in your life are so amazing. Even as a young man, I realized the impact of teachers -- not as much as I do now, but I thought, if I could do that 30 or 40 years, how great."
Couple it with music and conducting, and Gage is nearly euphoric in his chosen occupation ... placing it a definite third in his life's loves, behind wife Stephanie and his three children.
"Conducting is the second-best visual language in existence next to sign language," he explained. "Everything you do with your hands, eyes, body is usually representative of a sound. I communicate volume, length, intensity. I must relay the composer's intent. If it's Mozart, I better know Mozart."
For Gage, that means research, listening to music by specific composers and extensive reading. He will even investigate the fine art of a composition's era.
He calls himself "career-driven" in that he is overwhelmed by what other musicians "bring to the table." It makes him search constantly for a "higher level of skill to bring back to my students."
"The people I respect have so much depth," he said, "and I want it yesterday. I really believe in life, you get better or you get worse. Period. If you're not going forward, you're going backward."
Rewards: In return for this hard work, Gage gets what he calls the great moments.
"All musicians, they all live for the moment. Not that a whole piece isn't the goal, but there can be such an emotional experience in spots of a composition, for the musician and hopefully, the audience," he said. "When it really happens, it starts in the base of my feet and goes up until I feel it in my hair follicles."
In that regard, Gage said, nothing matches a live performance. "It's magical. In my human experience, besides the spiritual and childbirth, the 'wow' moment in conducting is the most unbelievable."
"I worry about people with a great sound system listening in a living room alone. It can't compare. We just did Stravinsky's 'Firebird,' " he said, leaning forward in his chair. "The hairs on my head stood straight up, then people in the audience jumped to their feet applauding. It is contagious."
Gage came to his love of conducting via the percussion section; in the fourth grade he selected the only band instrument he'd also heard in Monkees and Beatles records -- the drums. Now he plays a little bit of everything, managing to improvise some jazz percussion on occasion.
As for his former student, Gage said, "I sensed in him a hunger. After all, there must be easier ways to make a living." But, for Gage, none so perfect.