My first day on the trading floor was a lot like you’d imagine: an endless skyline of oversized computer monitors constantly flashing with trade alerts, brash young financiers wearing expensively boring dress shirts fighting for attention as they yelled out prices, and a frat-like, but undeniably deep, sense of camaraderie amongst all those involved. I was the newest and youngest corporate bond trader at a Wall Street broker/dealer in New Jersey, fresh out of college, and the pride of my parents who spent most of their life fighting their way through layoffs and major health issues to hold their place in the Scranton, Pennsylvania middle-class.
A desk was cleared for me in no-mans-land between the traders and the sales team, leaving me as the prime target for fashion critiques, finance lessons, and jokes about the “prison tats'' lining my right arm. Like any new hire, I worked my way up from handling coffee runs and lunch orders, eventually passing the Series 7 and trading in my orphaned desk for a seat at the big boy table: the investment-grade, corporate bond trading desk. Over the course of almost three years, I worked to earn the respect of my bosses and colleagues and eventually assumed the role of a full-time trader, responsible for trading millions of dollars in corporate bonds on a daily basis. By all objective standards, my life was good. But all of these amazing distractions, however, weren’t enough to quell the growing unease building in my gut since my first day on the job:
Finance was not my passion.
I was 15 years old when the casting director for our high-school play asked me to play a lead role in our spring musical: Jason Gray in the musical adaptation of Camp Rock. I stormed into her room, more desperate than angry, and begged her to reconsider. The role was fine, but I refused to sing, especially to a crowd of strangers while wearing eyeliner and a fanny pack microphone. She quickly calmed me down, assuring me that she had talked to the music director and convinced him to rewrite my solos as group choruses instead. I reluctantly relented, and left feeling appeased but not particularly relaxed.
By this point in high school I was struggling with pretty severe and debilitating OCD. I didn’t have the kind of OCD that drives someone to keep their pencils in order on their desk, or knock three times before entering a room. I had a much less tangible form of OCD, called “Pure O” that manifested in brutally obtrusive and disturbing thoughts that I could only dispel through prayer or some other mental compulsion I had devised to combat the thought. My closest friends knew about my issues, but to the rest of my high school classmates I was just probably the kid they noticed bowing his head randomly, or blessing himself in the middle of a lecture. It was pure and constant torture, and it was eating me alive from the inside.
I showed up to our first rehearsal, bowing and praying my way down the auditorium aisles towards the piano in the orchestra pit where everyone had gathered. Sat at the piano was our larger-than-life music director, Mr. McGraw, hammering away at some complex piano riff while we watched in awe. He finally stood up and passed out lyric sheets for our first songs. I felt my ears start to burn with pre-embarrassment at the thought of having to sing. He sat back down and began playing the first song, while the cast cautiously began singing along with their lyric sheets in hand. I made my way to the back of the group, palms sweating through the paper as we approached what I was assured would no longer be my solo. I mouthed the words, barely whispering my solo in horror at the realization that the rest of the cast had stopped singing, and I alone was responsible for the solo. The music stopped. Mr. McGraw stood up, grabbed his black leather winter gloves that rested on top of the piano, made his way over to me and gently (but not so gently) hit me with them.
“You need to sing, Michael!” he said.
I pleaded with him that I was assured by our casting director that I wouldn’t have a solo. He insisted, cracking his winter gloves again on my shoulder and laughing maniacally as he restarted the song. I had been betrayed, and it appeared my eyeliner/fanny-pack nightmare would become a reality.
The day of the show was wrought with sheer panic. Like any opening day, there was a nervous excitement among the cast as they assembled their costumes and practiced their lines one final time. For me, it was sheer panic. My greatest fear of singing in public was about to be realized. That panic fed my OCD, which, in turn, deepened the feeling of impending doom inside my stomach, resulting in an endless loop of bows, prayers, and stomach churn.
Finally the show began, and I made my way through each scene, increasingly anxious that my solo was approaching. My ears started burning again as I heard the lines just before mine, and suddenly it was my moment to sing. I felt my whole body shake and my vision tunnel, but I managed to scratch out a rough (but somehow on key) version of my solo. I saw my family in the front row smile, and a few cast mates subtly nod in encouragement, aware of how big of a moment it was for me.
I was immediately relieved. Then, as I analyzed my performance in my head... embarrassed. What was most lasting, and far more profound however, was the realization that while I was singing, for the first time all of my fears, obsessions, compulsions, prayer impulses, intrusive thoughts, completely stopped. I was so petrified of singing that it monopolized my thoughts, and for those brief moments I was on stage it drowned everything else out that was in my head. For me, that was a drug. More importantly, it changed the trajectory of my entire life.
From that moment forward, I began singing as much as I possibly could. Still terrified of an audience, I’d wait until my parents left the house to practice. I’d lock the doors, close the blinds, and plug my phone into the radio, blasting The Lumineers or the Killers and do my best to strain my way through each song. As soon as the wheels of my parents’ car touched the driveway, I’d shut off the music, unlock the doors, and sit on the couch with the TV on, acting like I hadn’t moved since they left. This went on into my college years, and was a secret only my dog and I knew about. It had consumed me entirely and became my life’s passion, and at the age of 19 I decided to get serious and start learning piano so I could write my own songs. I spent the next few years writing in secret, only crafting the vocal melodies when my parents left the house. To the outside world, I was a successful college student pursuing a degree in finance. In my mind, I was a musician in waiting.
On a random Friday, when my parents and I were out to eat at an Italian restaurant in Scranton, I decided to tell them my secret. I told them that finance was not my passion, but, at most, was a means to an end to fund my dreams of becoming a musician. I told them I was considering dropping out, moving West, and waiting tables while I tried to make it in music. I still remember my parents’ faces, completely blindsided and unaware that I had even uttered a note since my performance in Camp Rock. I could tell my Dad was trying his best not to throw up the chicken parmesan he just finished as he processed what I just told them. I watched as they attempted to balance being supportive with being realistic, and we ultimately agreed that I would continue writing music, but finish college and reassess the situation down the road: a fair compromise for an unfair bombshell.
I sat in disbelief as I read the flashing Bloomberg headline on my trading computer: “First Case of COVID-19 Confirmed in NJ”. There was an anxious chatter that erupted in the office as the reality of the situation set in, and concern about kids, parents, and our own health creeped into our minds. For me, however, I was watching the potential collapse of my dream unfold before my eyes. I had made good on my compromise with my parents, faithfully and secretly working on my music behind the scenes in the little time I had outside the office, and had already committed mentally to quitting my job in March to finally record my EP. I had tucked enough money aside to take time off, planned my escape, and even negotiated with my landlord to let me out of my lease early so I could return to parents’ place in Pennsylvania to record my first EP. Now, a once-in-a-century disease threatened to upend everything.
I paced nervously outside our office building and called my parents. They begged me to reconsider, asking me to wait it out another year or two until the virus had passed. I felt my heart sink into my stomach. They were right. They were good parents. But I had this unshakeable sense that if I didn’t leave now, I never would.
As the trading floor transitioned into a virtual environment, I used the opportunity to sneak back into the office and clean out my desk. I glanced at the Manhattan skyline outside our office windows before leaving, and made my way back to my Weehawken, NJ apartment to finish packing what was left to bring home to Pennsylvania. On March 31st, 2020, I called my bosses and gave them my two weeks notice, blindsiding them with the same story I told my parents years earlier at the Italian restaurant in Scranton. As disappointed as they were, they were equally excited and supportive that I was taking a risk to pursue my true passion.
By April, I was free. After almost 10 years of practicing, dreaming, planning, scheming, saving, and stressing, I was finally able to pursue my music full time and give it a proper shot. Over the next few months, I followed the same schedule I had for trading and applied to it recording my EP. I would wake up at 5am, disappear into the makeshift studio I had built in my parents’ basement, and emerge 14 hours later ready for dinner. This time, however, I looked forward to my alarm clock, and made it a point to thank God each day for the opportunity to work on my dream. I was finally chasing my passion, and there was an inexplicable feeling of alignment between my work and my purpose.
In August of 2020, after months of recording, mixing, remixing, testing, branding, and music business crash courses, I released my first single from my debut EP, My Name Is Not Kaiser under my solo project “telco”. I sat outside with my family and friends, drinking a beer as the song went live on Spotify at midnight, thinking about how grateful I was for the chance to chase my dream. I thought back on the decade long journey that led me to that moment, and looked forward to wherever it would lead to moving forward. It didn’t matter to me where the journey led me, I was just thankful that I was finally doing what I loved. Music is my passion, and I am finally chasing it.