Staying True to His Strings

65-year-old Rob Turner is currently triple-majoring at SUNY New Paltz.

Several years ago, 65-year-old Rob Turner decided he would rather make $100 a day as a substitute math teacher than $6 an hour as a hall monitor.

His daughter won a scholarship to travel to Washington, D.C. But Turner had trouble finding a job that would pay the airfare without a bachelor’s degree under his belt. After roaming the halls to make ends meet, he is now back in the classroom to pursue a math degree, in addition to something more – mastery of performance and composition in cello.

“I figured, ‘Why don’t I take music classes and get credit for what I already know?’” said Turner. “Well, big surprise, there’s a lot I don’t know. Had I’d gone to college I would’ve learned it and I’m learning it now.”

Turner said he is more than grateful to be back in school to perfect his musical craft since 7 years old.

Born in Seattle, Wash., Turner dropped out of high school to become a musician. After graduating from technical school, he decided to move in with his uncle in Brooklyn Heights in the spring of 1964. After his uncle kicked him out for drinking his beer and leaving dirty dishes in the sink, Turner started playing bass in an acid-rock band called The peepL. When the band split up, Turner began working at the Fillmore East for two years.

Then Turner decided to follow the music by heading upstate.

“I came up for Woodstock Festival and stayed because I loved it so much,” he said.

In Woodstock, Turner started playing in a number of bands, including playing lead/rhythm guitar for Falling Rock. Turner also got asked to play bass in many bands.

“I stupidly got talked into playing bass because I had been a bass player in the city,” he said. “Then I became the side man in every band that came down the pike. I neglected my own music for years. I wrote on the side but I never performed my music, so I’m a very frustrated singer/songwriter.”

Playing with groups like Life Force, a Middle-eastern rock band and two Elvis impersonators, Turner spent the majority of his life helping others with their careers but never his own. Aside from the bands, he  became principle cellist of the Hudson Valley Opera and the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra. And, through his reputation, he was also able to write the string arrangements for Dinosaur Jr.’s first album, Where You Been.

In 1978 and 1991, he gained two degrees, an AASEET electrics and Associate of Science with a concentration in voice from Ulster County Community College (UCCC). While at UCCC in 1976, Turner was commissioned to write a symphony by the head of the music department. It turned into a 15 minute piece called “Symphony for Winds” which was too difficult for the college’s band to play.

“My symphony was gonna be about the life of Christ and then they came out with Jesus Christ Superstar. So I decided to keep it a symphony with a chorus. There’s a libretto and vocal part which gives precepts that Christ put forth in the New Testament,” Turner said.

However, Turner is still in the process of finishing the piece. He has completed the first movement and is currently working on the second.

After transferring to SUNY New Paltz in the fall of 2009, music professor Susan Seligman convinced Turner to take on a performance major.

“I’m basically getting better for what I already know,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is I’m learning so much about tone. Susan Seligman is a really good teacher. I really respect her.”

Turner has already had two of his own pieces, “Dubles” and “The Sun is Blue” performed at SUNY New Paltz. He also recently performed one of his pieces, “For Earth’s Sake” at the Student Composers’ Concert in Parker Theatre on April 14.

As a third-year transfer, Turner has to complete eight semesters of lessons, and is doing so during the summer, fall and spring. With all three majors, Turner isn’t sure he’ll be able to finish on time and thinks he’ll graduate more towards fall 2012 or spring 2013. However, Turner has been funded $2,000 for the last few semesters by the Obama administration as a grant for math teachers. He plans on using his  degree to substitute at high schools because there is currently a high demand for math teachers. However, with a competitive job market, Turner is worried about his age.

“They’ll look at a 65-year-old and say, ‘What are you doing here? You’re going back to school because you’re not successful in life yet? So you’re a loser, basically,’” Turner said.

Although Turner has the chops to teach music, that field is even more competitive.

“By comparison maybe I’m not a loser, but they’re gonna look at the kid fresh out of college with their expertise all ready to go and at least 30 years to invest. They’re gonna look at me and maybe my expertise will count for something but I only have five, 10 years maybe max to contribute,” Turner said. “Who are they gonna pick? They’re gonna pick the kids. So, I figured the only career that I could successfully get now is math.”

Turner’s ultimate goal is to get his music documented. He said that he has hundreds of songs already written, including jazz, pop and Christian tunes. By putting all his songs to discs, he said he hopes that his four children will have “something to remember me by if I don’t sell any of them.”

As an eclectic musician, Turner plays the guitar just as much as cello and is a singer/songwriter. He has started a new jazz/rock band, The Protons, and will be playing guitar, cello and singing lead on original songs.

“Eventually I’d like to make my living out of my music, performing my own songs,” he said. “Being a concert artist puts a lot of responsibility on you. If that happens for me, I’ll do it. [But] I’d rather push to get my songs heard. I love to sing and I love to glorify God. I’m really grateful for God. I feel that I’ve been given a second chance for life.”