Updated: Mar 14
"I've signed you up a new student for Thursday morning," my boss Bart phoned me. "He's an adult, he seems a little bit...off...but harmless."
"What does that mean?"
"He's just...well, you'll see... But I'll be in the studio for his first lesson, so you'll have support. Just in case. And if you decide you're not comfortable teaching him...well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there."
The next Thursday morning found me waiting in my lesson studio. The top of the hour rolled around, and there was no one in sight, except my boss doing paperwork in the next room.
Suddenly, a figure sprinted past the front windows, the outside door opened and slammed, the studio door flung wide and smacked the wall, and the blurry figure rushed in and stopped dead in its tracks in the middle of the waiting room floor, panting.
"Richard -- hi! I see you've made it," Bart stepped forward and offered a handshake. "This is Jess, your new voice teacher."
"Nice to meet you," I offered my hand.
"Hi, good to meet you," he replied in a nasal tone. His palm was clammy and his handshake weak.
"Our lesson studio is this one," I gestured.
He dashed inside. Somewhat stunned, Bart and I exchanged a shrug.
"I'll just be in the next room..." Bart mouthed.
"Thank you," I mimed, and followed Richard inside.
"So Richard," I began my new-student spiel. "On the first lesson we do more talking than usual, so I can get a grasp of who you are, what you've already done, and what your goals might be. So I have these questions..."
He nodded aggressively, sweat glistening on his forehead and dripping from his thick black curls. He sat perched on the edge of a chair with his legs clenched tightly together, knees bouncing up and down while his hands, white knuckled, gripped his thighs.
Whatever this dude was on, I wanted none of it, ever. Yikes.
"What do you do for a living?" I asked.
"I just started working in construction a few months ago," he stated. I noticed he didn't allow his voice to utilize any chest resonance. He kept it in the mask of his face, unnaturally high-pitched, like a drag queen, with a decisive lisp.
"Why do you want to take voice lessons?"
"I've recently found the church," his face lit up and he gestured wildly. "I've never felt such forgiveness and salvation! I got involved with the music ministry, and I'd like to perfect what I do to be on American Idol to bring Christ to the world!"
The things people say to you in their voice lessons, for which you have to maintain a straight face...
"Alright, so we're going to start off by doing some vocal exercises. This way I can hear your voice -- see where your technique is -- so I can brainstorm some tunes to work on that might fit you. These are basically a series of silly sounds that show me what your range is and how well you control your instrument."
Despite the affected femininity of his speaking voice, the exercises revealed a rich baritone spanning about three octaves. It lacked finesse, but this was an instrument a voice teacher could really work with.
"Fantastic, this gives me so many songs to consider..."
"Oh, I already have songs to work on," he interjected.
"Yes. Whitney Houston's 'The Greatest Love of All'."
That wasn't what I was expecting to hear, coming out of this stocky construction worker in his late 30's, wearing a stained, ripped, sweat drenched t-shirt and basketball shorts -- even if he did talk like a lady boy.
We had five minutes left in his half-hour slot.
"Would you like to sing it for me?"
"What key do you do it in?" I asked, perplexed.
"I don't know what that means..."
How silly of me to think he'd have a concept of theory, I thought. He's a beginning student.
"Don't you sing it lower than her, considering your voice is much lower?"
"No, I've only ever sung along to the recording."
"Does that feel strained on your voice?"
"Not that I know of."
A karaoke track on YouTube turned out to be sufficient. Richard stood up reverently.
I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way...
He was a little pitchy, singing at the very top of his biological vocal range, in the same octave as Whitney herself, without switching into a falsetto. He really seemed to prefer his voice to sound nasal....
I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow...
Oh God, he went into full fortissimo at the chorus, and it was completely abrasive.
Because the greatest love of all is happening to me. I found the greatest love of all inside Jesus...
Wait, excuse me -- what? You can't just change the lyrics of one of the most well-known songs in the world. You can't just completely alter the message of a lyricist to suit your own purposes -- unless you're Weird Al Yankovic. Even still....INSIDE Jesus?!?
I put on my poker face and held my tongue while I let poor Richard finish the song. There was no denying he meant every word he sung with every fiber of his being, I had to give him that. If he did audition for American Idol, he certainly would get airplay, but not for the reasons he thought he deserved. Then my professional reputation would be trashed; but I needed money so badly, so of course I'd keep teaching him. Oh, how I hated being so beholden to cash flow...
"Thank you, that gives me a good idea of what your voice is," I concluded. "It was good to meet you, I'll see you next week."
"Uh...what time?" he asked.
"The same time as today, every week. That's your lesson spot."
"Oh," he trembled. And with that, he sprinted back to the parking lot, slamming every door behind him in his haste.
"What was that?" my boss poked his head inside my studio.
"I have no idea..." I pulled my hands through my hair. "Why does a grown man SPRINT everywhere he goes?"
"I dunno...but now you see why I said he seemed a little off..."
"Are you going to be comfortable teaching him?"
"I guess so..." I shrugged. "I don't get the impression he's into women so it's not like I feel unsafe..."
"Would it make you feel more comfortable for me to be around during his lessons?"
"It sure would, if it's not too much trouble."
"If his lesson time were when another teacher had a student, I wouldn't offer," Bart stated. "But you're the only one who teaches in this slot...I just don't want you to be alone with him."
"Yeah -- thank you."
Lesson after lesson went by, for weeks. Richard didn't like my suggestions of singing music appropriate for his vocal range, age, or gender. He informed me that changing random lyrics to "Jesus" was the only way for him to get his ministry across -- only pop songs can reach people who haven't yet found Christ. Despite my gentle attempts to dissuade him, and maybe steer him towards some Christian Contemporary, he was going to perform "The Greatest Love of All" in church when it was ready, and then he was going to bring it to American Idol.
So why do you take lessons from me, if you refuse to use anything I teach you?
And he still sprinted in and out of his lessons, every time without fail.
Thus passed my month of June 2013. I was quickly growing weary of this lifestyle, of working 60 or more hours a week to barely earn $30k a year, being surrounded by needy people who couldn't get their own lives together, who drained me of my will to live -- now every Thursday I had to deal with this nut job...
The only thing going well for me was a cover band I started with my attorney and good friend, Bryan. But without that, I had run out of reasons to continue my career as a musician. I needed out of this life, or I was going to spiral into the depths of another depression. At that point, I'd already started my descent...
...until July 13, when I was offered my first ship contract! It was for a six star cruise line, for nine months -- for double the money I was used to making. I would be a fool to turn it down. Finally, my life's work was paying off, and maybe I didn't need a career change after all! The first thing I did was email the contract to Bryan, to make sure it was legit. The last thing I needed was to cancel my entire life, then show up at the airport with my Earthly possessions crammed in two suitcases, only to discover my flight ticket had been a fake after all.
Upon Bryan's stamp of approval, which came with much sadness for the future of our band, the contract was signed. I had less than a month to tie up my affairs before flying to rehearsals in Vegas! And that included telling my students that I was leaving and wouldn't be back.
"Not even when your contract's over?" most asked.
"No, not even then," I'd say. "I'll be moving to a bigger city that has more better-paying work."
Most students wished me well. Some people cried. Many expressed a desire to keep in touch. It was all very moving. One needy mother even begged me to continue teaching her son over Skype.
"I'm afraid I can't manage that..." I politely declined. (Translation: "I have zero interest in continuing any semblance of this lifestyle ever again.")
But when I told Richard, he had an all-out panic attack.
"When do you come back?" he whimpered.
"I won't be moving back to North Carolina after the ships," I calmly repeated.
"So -- NEVER?" (This was widely incomprehensible to people in the Carolina's -- nobody leaves. Nobody wants to leave. And the people who move there, stay there, and never leave.)
"That is correct."
"You have to help me find another voice teacher!!!" he cried.
The only other voice teachers I knew were opera coaches -- they'd never waste their time with someone who resisted learning and only wanted to sing pop. And Richard didn't sound interested in them, either.
"I'm afraid I don't know anybody else," I stated. "I can't make any recommendations."
"But can't you call around!?!" he pleaded.
"No, that's your job. I don't have time. I'm giving away my furniture, trying to sell my car, and storing the rest of my stuff at my parents' in Virginia -- while packing what I need for nine months in two suitcases that weigh less than 50 pounds. I can't possibly search for a new teacher for you." (Translation: "You're a grown man, sign up for your own damn voice lessons.")
He was distraught. The next week he came in with a list of music studios he'd asked to sign up with.
"I'm sorry, I've never heard of any of them," I reiterated.
"I keep going to all these places!" he moaned. "They refuse to let me sign up, or they ask for references...I don't know what to do!"
"I don't know what to tell you -- I've never heard of anyone having problems signing up for music lessons, and I've certainly never heard of anyone needing references," I said honestly. "That's totally bizarre."
A few days later, as I was getting my vehicle repaired for resale and moving my stuff to Virginia in a rental car, the chaos was interrupted by a phone call.
"Hello, is Jessika Brust available?" a timid lady asked.
"This is she."
"I'm so glad I caught you. This is Stacy from Nass Music Studios in Cary. Is this a good time?"
"As good as any, I guess."
"Are you the voice teacher of Richard Latorre?"
"He came into our studio yesterday, wanting to sign up for voice lessons, saying that you're leaving to work on a cruise. And...well...there's no gentle way of asking, but..."
I laughed. "Go ahead and say it -- chances are I've already thought it, and agree with you."
"Oh good," she chuckled tensely. "We were wondering if you've had any...problems with him. You see, he met one of the voice teachers we have on staff, and he made her very uncomfortable. Honestly, he made everyone uncomfortable."
"Yes, he is awkward," I began.
I told her everything, from running everywhere like Flash Gordon, to his spastic body language and tacky musical choices, and of how my male boss saw fit to personally be present during his lessons -- just in case. I added my own observations about his sexuality and how he seemed more likely to identify with women than to want to BE with a woman.
She listened with rapt attention.
"At the end of the day, though, you have to do what works for you. If your instructors aren't comfortable with him, don't let him take lessons there. No one will blame you for that," I concluded. "He's a little creepy, but I'm pretty sure he's harmless."
I was mentioning this in passing to Bryan, while we were trying to hire my replacement in the band.
"What if..." his voice trailed off over the phone. "Well, what if I looked him up? In the secret little databases that lawyers have access to?"
"I mean, why not?"
I could hear him typing away.
"Richard Latorre, huh?" he asked.
"That's the one."
Bryan starting giggling mischievously, like he did. "I'd better email this to you."
I opened my inbox and sure enough, there was the mugshot of our Richard Latorre. Below it, two criminal charges were listed: public indecency and sexual misconduct with a minor.
"Oh my God..." I gasped. "That explains a lot.... Thankfully I only have to teach him one more lesson, and that's it. Forever."
"How do you even find people like this?!" he said incredulously.
"I have no idea! It seems to be my lot in life unfortunately..."
"No one has more eff-ed up stories than you."
Later that week, Richard blazed into my studio like Sonic the Hedgehog, one last time. We went through our warm up routine and sung through all his repertoire, and finally his 30 minutes were up.
"I guess this is goodbye..." he trembled, sweat glistening on his face.
"Yes, so it is. I wish you all the best Richard -- keep singing!"
He stood awkwardly in the doorway of my studio, looking at me sideways, knocking his fists on the side of his thighs. He looked like a nervous kindergartner.
I guess he isn't going to leave without a hug... I reluctantly surmised.
I opened my arms and a smile of relief passed across his face, and he accepted my invitation. Such a sad man with what was undoubtedly a horrific story, who seemed to mean well but just couldn't figure life out on his own.
He pulled me in tight. I gave him a few pats on the back, but maintained a little distance so as not to get his sweaty hair on my face, holding my breath to avoid inhaling his bad hygiene.
"Good luck on the ship," his nasal voice quivered.
I pulled back from the embrace. He turned on a dime and sprinted to the door.
Once his back was facing me, I could see a line of dark diarrhea stain, going the full length of the middle seam on his workout shorts. It was an inch wide, and extended a full eight inches up onto his white t-shirt, as well.
I just hugged him!!!!! my mind screamed as the front door slammed behind him.
My boss stood in the doorway, watching from his studio. We saw Richard dash to the parking lot past the front windows.
"Well," Bart stated. "I won't miss him."
"DID YOU SEE THE TIRE TRACKS?" I wailed.
"Oh yeah." Bart grinned.
"I TOUCHED HIM!!!"
"Yup," he snickered.
"I have to clean EVERYTHING HE TOUCHED!!!"
Thus concluded my last day of teaching before working on ships full time. I never wanted to return.
At lunch break, I couldn't help myself. I had to text Bryan: "You'll never believe what happened at Richard's last lesson..."