Transitioning from a guitarist with aspirations of becoming a virtuoso to a person who produces music for other artists is as far away from a unique story as possible. Having academia as a variable in this transition, on the other hand, throws a few right hooks in this seemingly unremarkable narrative. I started making music in one way or another almost 20 years ago, and the path that got me to where I am now was sinuous, to say the least. In this first of a two-parter, I take a look at what made me want to take up the guitar in the first place and never let it down. As I mentioned elsewhere, whether or not I achieved any level of real success is irrelevant to this story. The reason for putting it into words is catharsis. It’s a way for me to trace the various moments that led to me becoming a music producer and also acts as a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to pursue a life of music: the trodden path can lead to unhappiness and professional non-fulfillment. (Don’t worry, though; the story does have a happy ending!)
Dipping my toes
I’ve always had a passion for music. As far back as I can remember, I was a fan of Queen and especially Michael Jackson. I vividly remember watching the video for ‘Earth Song’ and ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’ for the first time at the age of 5, when they came out. The quasi-religious experience was heightened by the fact that I actually saw Jackson in the flesh a year later, when he visited Romania and performed in Bucharest (for the second time). He came out on the balcony of the People’s House, where a few years prior only Ceausescu and his clan were allowed to flaunt, and emphatically waved to everyone. This made a huge impact on me, and while I didn’t start making music then and there, I was inspired to educate myself in it as best as I could. I became a devotee of the emerging dance scene in Romania and kept up with international pop .
It took a bit of time until I actually started making music. I technically picked up the guitar at the end of 4th grade, in 2001. But for the first couple of years I only picked up the instrument — and I’m not exaggerating — about once a month. The first song I learned was the theme to ‘Zorba the Greek’ (from my cousin Alin) and then, by ear, a Romanian pop hit whose title roughly translates to ‘Jimmy, Jimmy, you love girls in bikinis’. Classy.
Thankfully, no one in my entourage forced me to practice or even touch the old guitar that, for the first years of ‘playing’, lived in a dusty corner of my room. They let me play football and just generally be a kid. They figured that there isn't much value in forcing me to play. Wise decision.
In the autumn of 2003, just when I was starting 7th grade, I became serious about playing, thanks to Ionut, the son of my primary school teacher. I began entertaining the idea of taking private guitar lessons and my folks humored me. (What ramifications that decision had!) My guitar teacher happened to be a huge Iron Maiden fan and thought that it’d be a good idea to teach me their iconic ‘Fear of the Dark’. I remember listening to it for the first time: my heart skipped several beats. It was even more intense than seeing Michael Jackson. Little did Ionut know that this would be the single most important moment in my musical development, and a turning point in my life in general. From that moment, I became obsessed with learning how to play Maiden’s songs on the guitar.
I soon realized that weekly lessons weren’t enough to satiate my ambition. I wanted to constantly learn. Almost every waking moment was dedicated to playing the guitar. I started waking up earlier and earlier just so I had more time to practice. I was always a morning person, but from 7th grade to the first year of my BA studies, my schedule was pure insanity. I started going to bed at 9ish in the evening and waking up at 6 o’clock, then at 5, then at 4, then at 3, then at 2, then, eventually, at 1. In the morning. At the apex of this practice, I would get irritated if I woke up at 4 or 5 (the average was 2–3). I took advantage of the fact that no one was awake at the time to distract me. I lived in an apartment, but, luckily, had no neighbors (for various reasons: pharmacy downstairs, notary next door etc.). I used to wake up, play guitar, go to school, come back from school, and play guitar until I went to bed. Despite the slight unorthodoxy of my schedule, family members were OK with it. Hey, at least I was at home and not getting myself into trouble, right?
I didn’t have access to the internet until 9th grade, in 2005, so most of the self-teaching happened in the form of watching a bootlegged copy of Maiden’s Rock in Rio DVD I got from Ionut (ripped, in true Eastern European fashion, onto 2 CDs!) and trying to figure out what the 3 guitarists were doing. I used to play it in Winamp, which kept track of how many times you watch a video. The play count was 297 in 2007, when I last checked. It’s uncanny how much I learned from that live performance. It forced me to understand theory, song structure, composition, technique, and feel. Had Maiden not put out that live concert, my life would surely have taken a completely different path.
High school came and nothing of consequence occurred until 2007, when I participated in a guitar contest organized by Adi Manolovici, one of the great Romanian rock guitarists. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was just one of those spur of the moment decisions. (Ha, I just remembered that I actually skipped a few classes and exams to attend the competition — but that just shows how all in I was with my guitar playing and how little anything else mattered!) Competition day came and I took my trusty $100 Behringer electric guitar, all the mojo learned from Rock in Rio, and went in headfirst. I was extremely nervous. I hadn’t really performed in front of more than a handful of people, all friends and family, before. But I got onstage and something just clicked. I let loose, leaving all nerves at the bottom of the small staircase that took me to the stage. It seemed that everything had led up to this moment. I ended up winning the competition, with a setlist made up of Vai’s ‘Babushka’ & ‘For the Love of God’, and Maiden’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’. (Some 2007-quality footage here.) It was a tremendous moment for me, as you can imagine.
Up until that point, very few people even knew I played the guitar. Winning this competition gave me the confidence to start letting people know of my nocturnal extracurricular activity and pursue it further. Moreover, on top of winning a fantastic Jackson guitar (that I still occasionally use), part of the prize was also a national tour, with Manolovici’s band. This was eye-opening, as I saw that there was a living to be made by being a musician. Believe it or not, I didn’t think it was possible to do something you loved as a career. I decided that I want to do music full-time from that moment on. I started being a bit more serious about performing (was in a couple of bands), composing, and recording, inspired by artists such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen (as any 16 year-old virtuoso-wannabe would), and, of course, Maiden. I did a first guitar-centric demo and sent it to my friends, who seemed to enjoy it, so I made more! I ended up composing and recording 6 instrumental guitar songs that I was quite proud of at the time. Things were looking great.
I still had 1 more year of high school to get thorough, though. I sucked it up and got through it, all the while preparing for the National University of Music entry exams (with Constantin Stamatiade, my music teacher, one of the greatest people I’ll ever meet). While the entry requirements were much lower than in the past (as the university was now receiving funds based on the number of students they had rather than purely on merit), it was still difficult to get in, particularly if you didn’t come from a music-focused high school. But, lo and behold, I managed to get in. (Again, thank you Mr. Stamatiade.) Amazing as that was for me and as much as it was a culmination of years of hard work, it also marked the end of my musical creativity.
To be concluded. In the meantime, you can get in touch with me on Twitter @AndreiSoraMusic. Thanks a lot for reading!