They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. It's funny how these words make it easy so start something. It makes you think of the end goal and the first step, but what it leaves out is what comes between the two.
You see, it never mentions how much resistance you will encounter. It fails to bring up how your own mind will become your worst enemy and how even those closest to you will doubt you and want you to do what they see as better.
I decided to pursue music when I was 5 years old when I saw my dad on stage at The Elk Creek Steakhouse in Piedmont, SD. It was all I wanted since the day I met my dad. My first obstacle was myself. I was shy and quiet. I was content sitting alone in a crowded room. through grade school I spent most of recess following around one of the adults that was supervising. I didn't naturally go find friends and connect with peers. I had one friend in grade and middle school and he, like me, wasn't as social. It was just how I was.
It was easy to say, "that's just how I am," and leave it at that. Even in High School, when people did know me and I had more friends, I spent most of my time as a loner. I didn't talk to many people and I began to identify myself as a person who could survive without anyone. I didn't think I'd ever have the outgoing charismatic personality needed to entertain.
My second obstacle was the fact that I couldn't sing. It was not just bad. I was believed to be tone deaf and just "not born with the gift." I remember many of my family saying that if I wanted a life in music, I'd better pick up an instrument and get good at it, because I would never be a singer. These were people that loved me. They were truly looking out for my interests and trying to guide me away from disappointment.
My own father wouldn't let me get on stage to sing with him, but I was allowed to play bass guitar on a couple songs. I jumped at it fast. Music was my life. I picked up guitar and even a little piano, but couldn't get away from wanting to sing.
My Freshman year in High School, I got my chance. I signed up for Men's Choir. This was the entryway into the schools music world as a singer. Anyone could sign up and learn the basics of singing. My teacher was Mr. Southwick.
Mr. Southwick was my first mentor outside of family that I truly trusted with my dreams. He had a way of not only teaching music, but he taught about life and the world we live in. Not only that, he was the same choir teacher that taught my father years prior. I immediately felt connected to him. As he spoke of my dad coming into his class and always being so attentive and all the little stories, I was drawn into the idea that he could help me gain my musical dreams.
I worked my tail off that year. Did everything I thought humanly possible to improve myself and not let myself down. Week after week, month after month, I dedicated so much to beating my biggest weakness keeping me from my goals.
The end of the school year, before you could just sign up for Concert Choir, you had to audition and prove you had the abilities needed to make the cut. I thought I'd be able to get in so I auditioned.
Mr. Southwick came in and did a number of exercises. He found my lowest notes. He found my Highest notes. He had me sing different harmony parts and even had me sing some solo parts based on music alone. He had me go through the whole process before I waited.
I waited in a plastic chair that wasn't designed for comfort. It was literally designed to keep your back straight for singing posture. I never really noticed how uncomfortable the chairs were till I was sitting there waiting for him to finish his assessment. Although I'm sure it was only a few minutes, I remember wondering if it was ever going to be done.
Mr. Southwick came out after going over his notes and told me I didn't make the cut. I wasn't good enough once again. It was like reliving everything I already knew. I was never going to be a singer because I just wasn't born with "the gift." When he offered me a spot back in Men's Choir again, I declined and intended to give up completely.
My Sophomore year in thought I'd be done singing. I began to dig deeper into guitar and piano and found that I was able to learn little bits on each pretty well. I wasn't as passionate about learning these instruments, but it was close enough to feed the hunger I had for music.
I also dug deep into writing. I wrote short stories that weren't worth reading, but I enjoyed writing them. I wrote poetry that I hid from the world because I felt it wasn't good, but mainly, I wanted to know how to write songs. I got this crazy idea and filled a notebook with every lyric to every song I liked (mostly Garth Brooks at the time) I had them all numbered and as I wrote them I analyzed the rhyme patterns and chord structure (I didn't have a great ear, but with the guitar, I was able to figure out most) I wanted to know how my favorite songs were put together.
The whole time, I still wanted to sing. I couldn't give it up. I ended up going to the music store and saw an old simple system that was in rough shape. I told my dad about it, and he came to look at it with me. I wanted to know if it would work for me to try and start my own open mic nights or even to perform my own original songs.
He said it would be perfect. The guys at the music store fixed up everything and for $1,000 My music career felt official. When the end of my sophomore year came, I went back to Mr Southwick's office and asked for another audition.
Once again he found my lowest notes. He found my Highest notes. He had me sing different harmony parts and without fail had me sing some solo parts based on music alone. He had me go through the whole process all over again before I waited once more.
This time I know he took longer. He had to have done so. I didn't have any nails left to chew and I'm pretty sure that uncomfortable chair couldn't be shuffled around any more without damaging the floor under it's legs. On a few occasions I found I was talking to myself and going over what I would say when i was rejected again.
Rejection was all I ever knew. I often wondered why I kept trying. I think the answer was I didn't really have a Plan B for my life. I knew what I was and even though others didn't see it yet, I had a vision of who I wanted to become instilled in my head. Nobody believed in me completely, but I didn't really know I needed anyone to believe in me. I thought I could just figure it out somehow. It was just persistence that kept me driven. I didn't need to have it figured out. I just needed to keep doing things so I could adapt.
Mr Southwick came Back into the room after an eternity of what must have been writing my eulogy and sat down next to me. He asked what I had been up to the last year since I wasn't in choir and hadn't really had a chance to reconnect with being busy in classes. I told him about trying to make a business that I hadn't really thought through yet, but I knew I wanted to create something cool and my own.
He said, "Well you've obviously been doing some singing." as he shook my hand and closed with, "Welcome to Concert Coir."
I could have given up long before that point and stayed the normal course of many others. Nobody would have thought less of me or thought I was wrong to give up. They would have said, "at least you tried" and let it be done. Another chapter closed and closure found.
Well my Junior Year in High School wasn't much less chaotic. I still wasn't a natural singer and as I was sitting in that classroom, I still felt beneath all of them. Like I wasn't worthy of the class because they were so gifted and I was not. I had to work twice as hard to do what came natural to them. The idea of singing a solo wasn't on my agenda. In fact when prodded to try out for a solo, I pushed it off and said "No Thanks."
I remember the looks I'd get when I fell flat on a note or when I'd lose tone because I had a natural country phrasing. I remember being told it was my fault my small group didn't win at competitions. I remember questioning why he let me in the class in the first place.
This was all resolved for me at the first parent teacher conferences. My parents were going from table to table talking to each of my teachers and finally came to Mr Southwick. Of course my dad and him reminisced for awhile before Mr. Southwick said to my dad, "I've never met someone who wanted to sing more than your son does and he's done the work to prove it."
It's strange how I can feel shivers and I get emotional just thinking about that moment now. Maybe it won't mean much to you as a reader knowing where I am now, but you have to understand, at that time, I didn't think I'd ever have someone speak of me as a singer in that way.
Later on that same year, all the choirs performed in the Pops Concert. This was an annual event where you could audition to do anything music related as well. I decided to try out to sing one of my original songs for the show.
I'd never sang in front of people outside of some simple karaoke stuff before that. This was far beyond singing some Grease song to a crappy backtrack. I was going to do an original song as an audition. I brought my guitar to School for the audition date and went to my appointed spot. they asked me a couple things about my performance and what I would need before asking me what I would be auditioning with.
"My name is Harley Wilt, and this is my song An American Soldier." I said and I froze for as second because I forgot the first words to my own song. After taking a breath, I started the audition and stumbled through the song.
I didn't even bother looking at the sheet to see the lineup of who made it and who didn't. I completely bombed the audition and knew there was no chance I was on the list. In fact I was pretty sure I knew everyone who made the cut because they were all so talented.
We started doing our Choir rehearsals on stage instead of in the classroom to prepare for the concert. I was still pretty excited to get to sing with the choir and had worked really hard learning my part so I knew I wouldn't mess things up for the other baritones in my section. It was pretty uplifting to be part of something like this. Seeing the work it took to get a simple show was humbling. It was inspiring to say the least.
Just days before the big dress rehearsal, Mr Southwick was on stage and I'd just hung around because I didn't have a class that hour. He was moving some things around the stage to prepare when he called me over to help him. He was looking at the lights area when looked at me in wonder.
He said, "Well Harley, I think we should put your mic right here center stage. I don't thing it'll be a good idea for you to walk around while trying to perform your song."
I didn't know what to say. I just kinda walked out of the room and went to the classroom. I went up to the lineup sheet I'd walked by every day during class and looked at the list for the first time and there it was. Harley Wilt, An American Soldier.
With only 2 days to iron out my song, I was scared to death. I didn't know what I was doing or why I was doing it, but I just had to hurry
With only 2 days to iron out my song, I was scared to death. I didn't know what I was doing or why I was doing it, but I just had to hurry
I scraped the song together and the first night of the concert, I stood on edge all night. There was no going back now. I'd never felt so much pride and fear in one setting ever in my life. I would have been more comfortable walking up to the most popular girl in school in front of her boyfriend and asking her out. I felt like that was more possible than this.
Then It happened. The song before me was done and the lights went dark. I didn't have time to think. I just got to my place. They handed me my chord and placed the mic stand in front of me. As I was adjusting the stand the spotlight turned on and it was go time. I froze for a second not knowing what to say. I wanted to introduce myself, but the only words that I could think was "holy shit! that was too fast!"
I looked around a only able to see the front rows because of the lights and smiled as I saw an older lady in the front row who seemed content. I got in position with my shaking hands and strummed the first chords to my song and it was like a machine kicked in.
I didn't feel like I did during the audition or playing in my bedroom. I didn't feel like I was performing for a huge crowd. I didn't know if the mic was even working. Good or bad, I just got through the song and as I stood up I felt my legs and arms begin to shake with adrenaline and nervousness. I was instantly hooked on the feeling. It was a drug to me.
I began to dig into my business deep at that time. Making plans and thinking of ideas on how I could create something new and all my own. I was going to be something. That's all I knew.
Graduating my Senior Year with only one plan for my future was easy. Getting married before graduation and having a baby born only months after I graduated, not so easy. I had mouths to feed and worked a lot. I looked for gigs when I could, but being under 21 left me limited on venues and lack of experience left me without a lot to go off of. So it remained a small thing for a long time.
I remember one time, my wife looked me dead in the eye and asked me, "Why are you pursuing something that's never going to go anywhere?" It's no surprise after a couple years of that, she became my ex wife.
It was like being told I'd never be able to sing all over again. The same feelings overwhelming my thoughts and making me question every little thing I did in the business. In the end, the result was the same. I kept pushing forward.
I moved to Oklahoma at one point with my Wife now. I was considering giving up the business for awhile and ended up writing a whole new business plan that involved building a recording studio with video production capabilities while also touring and doing everything a label could do. Every time I thought about stepping away from music, my plans just got bigger and more outrageous. It's part of me and the more people doubt me, the more I feel the need to push forward.
Sometimes it was inches. Sometimes it was miles, but I just kept making changes till I found things that worked. I remained persistent. The only real obstacle I had was my own mind.
Not long after moving back from Oklahoma, I was working a gig at the Slash J Saloon in Piedmont. we'd had a string of slow nights for a while and I felt like I wasn't delivering for my client. Tracy was on of the most common sense driven bar owners I'd ever worked with. Him and his family were amazing people and I didn't want to be a write off for them. I wanted to be an asset.
As I walked outside on their patio/smoking area, I found myself once again questioning what I was doing. Why was I pursuing something that would never go anywhere? This question would come to mind every time I felt things weren't going good.
I'm not the most religious man by far. I don't claim to be a saint or fell entitled to any form of divine intervention, but I found myself at a bar in the smoking section praying to God, in a way I'd never prayed before, asking for a sign I wasn't wasting my life. Just something to hold on to to keep me going for just another year.
I went inside and finished setting up my equipment and started playing music before, one by one, almost every connection I'd made in that little town and abroad started walking into the bar. It was one of the busiest nights I'd had there every and they came for one reason and one reason only. To support me. I knew then that I had a destiny. I may not understand it now, but I'm doing everything for a reason beyond myself. I just have to have faith that if I'm true to myself, I'll end up where I am supposed to be.
I don't know how many steps past that first step I am and I have no idea what obstacles are coming. I just know the only thing that can stop me is myself and I finally believe in myself more than I believe in the doubts of others. I have to believe the last 14 years haven't been a waste of time and experience. I love what I do and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I know when resistance comes, all I have to do is be persistent and I will persevere.