Two Governor Mifflin graduates attribute their musical success to community support
Berks County is no stranger to good music. From the Reading Symphony to the Berks Jazz Fest to festivals like West Reading’s Arts on the Avenue, music is easily heard and found in Berks. An important part of this music scene is the many school and county youth programs such as Reading Symphony’s RSJSO and RSYO, the Jazz Festival jamsand, of course, the Reading Music Foundation.
This appreciation of music that the people of Berks have made it easy for musicians to perform and sometimes make a name for themselves.
Two such musicians are Erich Cawalla, a seasoned musician with a long career in music, and Emme Ryan (Drago), a newcomer to the Berks music scene, both Governor Mifflin graduates. On Monday, July 4, they’ll play a bit of a homecoming, taking the stage on the opening night of Shillington’s Community days.
Erich, a multi-instrumentalist (primarily alto saxophone), vocalist, and bandleader of the Uptown Band, grew up and began his musical career in Berks County, making it his lifelong home ever since. He credits much of his success to his hometown, believing he wouldn’t have been so likely to succeed had it not been for the local musical appreciation. This appreciation continued even after Erich’s initial professional career with the area’s current musicians; one of the county’s youngest rising musicians, singer-songwriter Emme, and she’s looking to take a similar route to a music career. Both natives of the area and graduates of Governor Mifflin, Erich and Emme joined me for an interview, talking about their musical upbringing and all that Berks County has done for them.
Sitting on my porch in Shillington, admiring bird notes and a neighbour’s lawnmower, Erich told me stories from the neighborhood (in which he had lived), and going back into his past, he came to the origin of his saxophone playing.
“I didn’t start playing my instrument until I went from 8th to 9th grade,” he said, “and I sang in the choir and all that, but I never really thought it was something I was going to do.”
His parents weren’t the biggest advocates of a future in music, he said, so he decided to pursue an accounting degree at Shippensburg University. He began performing semi-professionally with another local musician, Bobby Mercer, who had a big band touring the East Coast.
Erich told how they met.
“I get a call on the line from a guy named Bobby Mercer, and he’s like, ‘Oh you gotta go out and see my band! I saw you play at the jazz festival. It took him three calls but I ended up going. I ran the spotlight that night and only played one song, and from then on I started playing music professionally. .
Erich continued to work as an accountant while performing, but he never really saw it go anywhere, especially one day when his company wouldn’t let him leave early for a performance.
“They didn’t let me go. So this Monday I gave my two weeks notice,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was giving up to quit. I just wanted music to be my life.
Emme’s musical game started a little earlier.
“When I was five, the first instrument I learned was the violin,” she said. “I learned the violin and I didn’t play any classical. Instead, I learned everything by ear, and I feel like that really helped me a lot, you know, even finding melodies for the songs.
Her father, a musician and teacher at Governor Mifflin, was a big influence on her and she “picked up the guitar and started writing songs because of him”.
“I started writing more and more and performed in a little number at one of the high school performances. I performed an original song in front of an audience for the first time, and it was a bit the moment I thought ‘I really like doing this, I could do this for the rest of my life.’
From then on, Emme began trying to get gigs in the area and succeed as a musician.
Unlike Emme, Erich wasn’t always so sure of himself and of a future in music. In fact, he nearly dropped out once, while in high school, discouraged by his initial inability to perform. Music didn’t come easily to him, but his band manager wouldn’t let him quit, encouraging him to continue playing at Mifflin High School.
“I only had about two months of training. I started marching band there, but I couldn’t really play my scales, and I couldn’t really do much. I remember the section chief laughing at me. So I was ready to quit. One day I went to the manager of the band and told him that I didn’t want to play anymore and that he wouldn’t let me give up. He said, ‘No, no, you can’t give up. You will continue to play’, and I did not stop. He was so quick to turn me down and thank God that I didn’t. It’s the job of educators to move us forward, and that’s what he did; it’s so important. Berks music community is really good, we have really good educators here.
Erich also included the Reading Musical Foundation and what it does for the community.
“I’ve worked with RMF for at least fifteen years, and what they do for children – providing scholarships, instruments and lessons for children – is fantastic.”
“I benefited a lot from the resources they distributed,” added Emme. “I think it’s great. It says a lot about the music community that we have an organization that is so willing to give to kids. Thanks to that, it really helped me to regain self-confidence, especially in my voice, because I was able to take singing lessons. Without them, I certainly wouldn’t be so confident.
Emme found she was encouraged by everyone in the community around her. “Older musicians are so willing to give advice, and they really energize you and really encourage you to keep going,” she said.
Even Erich, sitting right next to her, gave her advice, saying, “Yeah, it sounds like you’re really doing the right thing with your writing. Do as many collaborations as possible, whether it’s with an idiot like me, or someone else. Play as many types of gigs as possible, as this will always help you become a better performer, and the money from it can be reinvested in yourself, to make the music you want to make. Keep investing in yourself.
Emme took the advice, given that she is only a year old in the field and is young.
She said, “I just try to focus on the present, and that’s all I have to think about. For now, I don’t know exactly what I plan to do in the future. I just know that I want to play.
Erich told her that was fine, and even made a few suggestions, but made it clear that she needed to continue being herself musically.
I ended up asking them what they would do if they weren’t professional musicians, and they both looked at me weirdly. It was a difficult question for them to answer; they knew that was what they wanted to do. Emme just started it, and Erich has done it for most of his life at this point. But they share the same passion – which has been underpinned by Mifflin’s music program.
“The music is there no matter what; I hear it no matter what,” Erich said, again referring to the lawnmower, “the music is everywhere.
“Sometimes I can’t help but write…and yeah, I think it would always be there.”
They don’t need it to just be in the background, however, they make it work, following the dream. Erich only recently started releasing his own music and is now incredibly proud to have released the kind of music he really wants to play with his new American songbook album and Emme performs almost exclusively her own music. They credit this creative independence to the supportive community around them.
“To celebrate the upcoming performance, the three of us covered the Hooverphonic trip-hop classic ‘Mad About You’. Listen at the link below.