As a boy, Stephen Gage would go with his mother every year to the local Fourth of July parade, where he would watch the bands play. When the teachers went around asking all the children what instrument they would like to play, Stephen Gage said drums.
And they let him play.
It was the first time Stephen Gage played an instrument, and it sparked a lifelong passion for music.
“You fall in love with things like this. The great thing about performing arts is that there’s a humanness to them,” he said.
Stephen Gage grew up with his mother and two brothers in the small town of Perry, N.Y., right outside of Rochester. His love for music followed him into his collegiate years. He applied to the State University of New York at Fredonia in hopes of becoming a professional musician.
During his first semester at Fredonia, there were 16 percussion majors, as well as a sense of confidence and ego among them, he said.
“I quickly realized that by no means was I the best percussionist there. And that if I was going to end up being that, I would have to work really hard,” he said.
Throughout his time at Fredonia, Stephen Gage’s love for music changed. He went from wanting to play drums in a jazz band to falling in love with concert and
Stephen Gage was first introduced to the sound of Youngstown State University when Michael Crist, director of the Dana School of Music, brought the YSU Jazz Ensemble to a jazz event in central New York in 1988.
Stephen Gage and Crist knew each other through mutual friends. So, during a trip from Illinois to see his eldest son in New York, Stephen Gage and his wife, Stephanie, stayed at an inn near YSU.
During their trip, Stephen Gage spent time with the music students at YSU.
After he worked with the students for half an hour, he knew YSU was the right place for him.
“I could just tell that the kind of students at YSU were the kind of students I wanted to be around,” he said.
On their drive back to Illinois, Stephen and Stephanie Gage decided that they would move to Youngstown. They settled in Poland, where they still live with two of their three children.
In 1993, Stephen Gage applied for the vacant director of bands position left by Leslie Hicken, and he’s been at YSU ever since.
He and Crist had known of each other many years before Stephen Gage came to YSU. They had both worked in public schools in upstate New York, and their paths had crossed indirectly, Crist said, but they had never actually met until Stephen Gage applied for the job.
“He keeps throwing this back at me, but when he applied for the job here, he looked at me and said, ‘What would you like me to do?’ and I said, ‘Steve, the best thing you can do is have the absolute best band program you can make with what we have.’ And I think that’s probably the most significant contribution he made here,” Crist said.
Throughout his 20 years at YSU, Stephen Gage has been inducted into American Bandmasters, has published multiple articles on different conducting techniques and other band literature, and has guest conducted in more than 30 states.
In 2005, Stephen Gage and the YSU Wind Ensemble traveled to New York and played at Carnegie Hall. He said that this is one of his most prized memories.
“I remember walking through the doors, and these 50-some-odd students bringing their instruments and sitting in this famous concert hall in the middle of Manhattan,” he said. “And I turned around to bow after the first song, and I saw all these people out there. It was surreal.”
Stephen Gage has high expectations for himself and his students. He said he believes that if we don’t have people around us to push us to our potential, we need to find new people to be around.
“It’s always a little paddling, but still with a hug at the same time,” Crist said. “He’s not a mean person, not a vindictive person, but when you’re not doing the right thing, he’ll let you know. And then, the next time he sees you, he’ll give you a hug.”
DJ Colella, a junior majoring in music education, recalled Stephen Gage’s tough love with a smile and a laugh.
Colella, who plays the euphonium, said that his favorite memory of Stephen Gage was during Stambaugh Youth Concert Band. He said the band was doing a piece by Gustav Holst that had a euphonium solo in it.
“We practiced that every week. And every week after we got done with the solo, he would stop and go, ‘DJ, this note was out of tune; this note was out of tune; this note wasn’t good,’” Colella said. “He’d break it down and make me want to eat my mouthpiece every week and go home. But by the time the concert came, it’s probably one of the best solos I’ve ever done.”
Stephen Gage said he has a mindset called “be the music.” He said that if he’s going to conduct a piece, “you have to go there.” He takes the time to study the music and the composer in depth so he is able to convey what he believes the composer wants to convey.
“[He’s] very passionate. He believes in what he knows. Cares about it. And committed,” Stephanie Gage said. “He’ll do what he has to do. He’ll do what he has to do to learn the music himself, and he’ll do what he has to do to teach the music.”
One of the things Stephen Gage said he loves about his job is that he gets to work with the same students daily and build relationships with them. Stephen Gage is also the conductor of the Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Stambaugh Youth Concert Band, which allows him to build relationships starting in students’ freshman year of high school.
“I love the kids. And I don’t mean that in anything but the truest sense,” Stephen Gage said. “I respect them. I listen to them. I care deeply about them.”
Crist said that Stephen Gage has a way of connecting with students through things other than just music, and said that his love of music is infectious.
“As a matter of fact, there’s some T-shirts going around that has his face on it and says, ‘Love music,’” Crist said.
Colella said Stephen Gage was one the main reasons he chose YSU for music school, adding that he’s the reason Colella wants to teach at the collegiate level.
“I definitely view him as an inspiration, and, actually, even though his personality and my personality — we’re incredibly different — I definitely view him as a role model as how to be a good person,” Colella said. “Everything he does, he tries to be the best kind of person he can be.”
Stephen Gage said he can’t ever see himself not doing something with music, and that he is always looking for opportunities to grow in his field.
“I don’t know except for the birth of my three children, my wedding day with Stephanie and some very special days that we’ve had since then, I’ve never had anything else touch me and my soul the way music has done,” he said. “So, to get to do this for over 30 years has been unbelievable for me.”