I had achieved my lifelong dream: to play music for people in a different city every night. But it was a huge risk to give this a shot. I was starting to feel like it hadn’t been worth it. I was happy to be a piece of the band’s success, but that success wasn’t necessarily my own. And then I found the e-mail.

Courtesy of Ray Malo

It was November 2010. I was in a motel lobby in northern California, taking advantage of the complementary Wi-Fi. Having been on the road for weeks, bored with the usual website options, I gave my old Hotmail account a look. I had received an academic suspension from the University in 2001, so I forwarded my University e-mails to this account to stay in touch with old friends. My inbox now was mostly junk. “Re: Hi,” read most subject lines, from computer-generated girls who wanted to meet up.

Why I clicked on the actual junk folder, I will never know. I guess if this nonsense got past the spam filter, I wanted to see what it was actually catching. Incredibly, there it was near the top of the heap: an e-mail from Dan Freidus, my academic advisor at the University. Dan had written, simply, “Hi, Ray. Did you ever finish school? If not, would you consider finishing back at U of M?”

Wrong turn

I was intimidated the first few weeks of my freshman year. I had been an average high school student – mostly because I didn’t manage my time well, not because I didn’t grasp concepts. But in these classrooms, I just wasn’t getting it. And surrounded by the brightest kids I’d ever met, it seemed like I was the only one. I felt helpless and all I wanted to do was avoid that feeling.

So instead of seeking help, my semester was mostly bros and beer bongs, beer pong and barn dancing. Besides those first weeks, I barely remember setting foot in a classroom. Nevertheless, I was surprised when the academic probation letter arrived. This school is so big. How had they noticed?

The suspension came after another unfocused semester. In an effort to get back on track, I spent the summer taking classes at New York University. But distractions, as you might guess, have a way of seeking out an 18-year-old in New York City.

After a final desperate attempt to re-enter the University, living on campus to “immerse myself in academia” while taking the bus to Washtenaw Community College, I came home to New Jersey, defeated. I had achieved practically nothing in college and any attempt to process this just made me feel sorry for myself. I wasn’t smart enough. Or just didn’t care enough. Either way, I realized that I despised the very concept of school. I simply couldn’t figure it out.

I began working part-time in fashion retail. Unlike the classroom, this was an environment in which I was comfortable sticking my neck out, working hard and moving up. In two years I was a store manager. Four years and three stores later, I was promoted to the Puma store in Union Square and made a move to Brooklyn.

Still, I spent a lot of time trying to plan out the next thing. With no degree, I knew a career like this had a ceiling and would always require thankless late nights and weekend shifts.

My daydreams drifted toward playing music. A musician since age four, I’d always written songs. I was an anxious performer though, especially as an adult, and open mics, cover bands and collaborations had come and gone — but then came the opportunity.

The Risk

An employee walked into work one day and said, “Ray, you play piano, right? This band I know needs a keyboard player for their next tour. I’ll forward you an e-mail.” I always perked up at these offers, but ultimately backed out. I truly thought of myself as an amateur, intimidated by the professionals who had made it in the New York scene.

But I figured it couldn’t hurt to check this band out. I began consuming whatever bits of information I could find on April Smith and the Great Picture Show.

Hey, originally from Jersey, too. A Kickstarter-funded album. Whoa, winner of an NPR Battle of the Bands.

This band was established. I immediately downloaded their record. And from the first kick drum, Songs For A Sinking Ship took a running start and bowled me over. I was completely charmed by these perfect, nuanced pop songs. And that solid gold voice. My head bobbed. My foot tapped incessantly.

I made contact. April was really sweet and seemed genuinely excited after listening to a sampling of my work. I had a week to learn the 12 tunes on the album and then I’d audition at their next practice.

I can still remember how alive Union Square felt the evening I walked out of my store for the last time as its manager. I’d nailed my audition and gotten along well with the other band members. I was their new keyboard and violin player. No more thankless late nights. New York felt inspiring again.

The first tour was the experience I’d always wanted. We played clubs of all shapes and sizes, with big shows in cities like Chicago, L.A. and San Francisco. I was seeing the country, connecting with friends and family in places I’d always wanted to visit.

Only a few shows in, I had become one of the guys. We had deep talks on long rides, swapped books, listened to great records. Stevens, the bass player, and I would pick the best two items on every menu and split them both, landing us the inevitable collective nickname, “tour girlfriends” (even our actual girlfriends used the term).

There were some lows to match the highs, mostly frustration from subpar showings or breakdowns in transportation. Our booking agent dropped the ball on getting us gigs on the way home, so our tour finished 15 hours from Brooklyn, at Summerfest in Milwaukee. But whatever, it’d been almost six weeks. And we were homesick.

On the long drive home, my financial anxieties began to take hold. I realized that, at best, I’d broken even on this tour. I was going to have to borrow money from my mother to cover rent and needed to find an employer that either wouldn’t mind if I had to leave after a few months or that I could fool into hiring me short-term before the next tour. April wasn’t sure whether another tour would even happen. I began to think maybe my plan wasn’t so well thought out.

Back in New York, it took me almost a month to find part-time work. I scraped by for five months before band management put together another tour. In that time, the band had done some big things: gotten a few songs licensed for television shows and ads, made a high-production-value music video, played shows at Newport Folk Festival and the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. We were a band on the rise. But a glimpse at the tour schedule said otherwise: We were playing essentially the same small venues as the last tour. And on the West Coast, an alarming number of dates were empty and thus void of income, though we were assured that they’d be filled in soon.

They weren’t. The financial worries really started to set in. The day I stumbled upon Dan’s e-mail was an unproductive day off. I was intrigued by his concise message, nine years after we’d last spoken. The tour was ending in Chicago and from there I was intending to visit Ann Arbor anyway. I wrote him back, asking if he could meet me. He replied right away, setting up a meeting the day I got into Ann Arbor.

We met for three memorable hours. Dan charted a path toward finishing my degree and we spoke at length about my varied experiences. While he empathized with my current situation, he saw more clearly than I could how much I had learned in my years away. The risk was worth it in the end.

The Return

Things moved quickly after that. I quit the band on good terms and, though I was sad to end this chapter, I knew it was the right thing for myself.

Needing a strong semester elsewhere to repeal my suspension, I enrolled at the New School in New York in January 2011. Charged with a new conviction, I churned out four solid As. An earnest, reflective petition later, I was readmitted to the University.

In the last year and a half, I’ve acquired a passion for classroom learning that would have been entirely foreign to my younger self. I’m now able to do the things most students at this University do effortlessly, like turning in assignments on time and participating in class discussions. And I have found inspiration in the body of work I’ve created: A final paper in a creative writing class proved practically euphoric. Something clicked and words just flowed.

I’ll always play music and I’m sincerely looking forward to my next show, whenever it is.

I’m not your typical college student, and I’m not naïve: Part of me wishes I could have done the traditional four years. Yet the detours I have taken on the way to a degree have provided invaluable challenges I otherwise wouldn’t have faced and rewards I would never have received.

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