This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Atwood Magazine has invited artists to participate in a series of short essays in observance and celebration of the month’s significance. Today’s submission comes from Calvin Langman of New Jersey indie rock band The Happy Fits.
Howdy! I’m Calvin, I’m 24, and I play cello in The Happy Fits. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “Cello? In a rock band?”. Let me explain how I got here.
I started playing classical piano at age six and then took up classical cello when I was eight. My Filipino mother (Maria, who I talk about in length in last year’s AAPI Heritage Month series here) would spend afternoons and evenings driving me and my two older siblings to endless lessons in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. My mother was never a stereotypical “Tiger Mom” figure in our lives, but instead guided us with a caring heart and never-ending support. At one point, I was taking cello lessons outside of Philadelphia so she would have to drive me an hour-and-a-half after school to make sure I was getting a proper cello mentor.
Growing up in rural New Jersey, I was just one of a handful of other Asian American kids. We were all pretty tight with each other, kept our heads down socially, and got good grades together. I never let the thought of being in the minority bother me, but in my subconscious I always felt like I was different. As high school rolled around, I started getting really serious about cello and knew I wanted to play professionally when I got older. I began going to pre-college programs in New York City in eighth grade, with three years at Mannes Prep at The New School and two years at the Juilliard Pre-College. It was here that I finally found myself in a community of other Asian American musicians.
The best way to describe this new environment, for me, is subliminally competitive.
I remember doing a few math competitions when I was younger (also an Asian American dominated environment), and the vibe was very similar; parents in the shadows pushing their kids to be the very best possible. My experience at these pre-college programs was humbling to say the least as I was literally surrounded by some of the most gifted young musicians in the world. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with 12 or 13-year-olds there with skills and technique eons beyond mine and their goal in life wasn’t even to play classical music when they were older, but rather go to an Ivy League and become a world-leading scientist or engineer.
I was always a good student and a good cellist, but being around such immense talent, I really started to unhealthily compare myself to others. Since this was the first time being around people that looked like me, I would constantly project on to my classmates and ended up building some very unrealistic expectations to be exactly the same as them.
In my heart of hearts though, I wanted to make indie rock, but that thought was unheard of in my circles. I would keep my love for rock music private as I was afraid of judgement from my peers for liking music often looked down upon by our genius but pretentious professors. The cognitive dissonance was unsettling, but as senior year rolled around, I started writing rock music in my free time out of necessity. I slowly found myself gravitating to little jam sessions Ross and I would set up on the weekends. Eventually, I was spending more time writing music than practicing, but I would keep it as my dirty little secret from my parents. By the time I got to conservatory in late Summer 2016, our EP Awfully Apeelin’ started getting some looks on Spotify and I could feel the flames of hell pulling me closer. By the time I decided to leave school half way through my freshman year of college, I felt like I had really dug myself a hole into this classical-cello-life-path that I didn’t really want anymore.
Telling my parents I was dropping out was maybe the hardest conversation I’ve ever had.
I distinctly remember my father laughing in my face when I told him I was leaving school to be in a rock band, which hurt a little to say the least. As I sit here five years later, I couldn’t be happier with that decision. As we’ve toured around the country nine times by this point, the amount of joy I get is unreal from hearing how inspiring it is for other Asian American fans to see me rocking on stage with a cello. I’m so happy I can add to the movement of recognizing AAPI’s more in American arts and culture. I hope no other Asian American kid has to feel the same unrealistic expectations I felt to have to conform to what society thinks of us or what society makes us think about ourselves. Yes, we’re bright and disciplined and hard-working, but our experiences, emotions, and ideas are just as beautiful and human as anyone else. – Calvin Langman
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