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NEWS | Jan. 1, 2023

A Resounding Yes: An Artist's Journey

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cameron Edy

The Girabaldi Theater of Santa Maria Capua Vetere sits on a cobbled road, Christmas lights twinkling above an Italian and American crowd as they move between tall, carved doors. Laughing children, winter wardrobes and starched suits, sparkling with military medals, all land on a velvet carpet where they wait as Musician 3rd Class Bobby Novoa’s crescendo begins.

His voice reverberates through the theater’s marble-arched foyer, across its plush seats and up through four levels of golden galleries, until it bounces off the full-ceiling mural and back to waiting ears. Now stilled to a whisper, his voice slowly rises again with a palpable yearning – a lifetime of music packed into a moment of breathtaking vocals, and this is only the sound check. Soon Bobby Novoa’s moment will begin, amid the brass and woodwind rhythms of the U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa Band.

For Bobby Novoa, singing is his life – in fact, he was singing before he could speak.

“Even before I could remember, my mom has videos of me with this little keyboard and microphone that they had – I didn’t even know words yet,” Novoa reminisced, sharp face softening with the memory. “I was making noises and trying to sing with this little mic. From there, it never stopped.”

Novoa, supported by his family, kept at it. But Pat Brotherton, his grandmother, always kept the title as his number one fan. She would beg him to sing, exclaim to her friends how talented he was, campaign nonstop for his performances, and would even write a letter to the President of the United States imploring him to hear Novoa perform.

“I don’t know whether it was the family dynamic – me being the youngest, and the only boy – but we just had this really special bond,” he said, swiping to a picture of her Presidential letter, and another to the two hugging in their backyard. “I just felt so much love from her. She was always talking me up, like a song would come on and she’d say, ‘Oh Bobby can sing better than that.’ Especially looking back and hearing old recordings – I wasn’t that good. That support has carried me for so long, it’s hard to even put it into words.”

He’s unsure of exactly when he fell for singing. It may have been those nights in late 90s, watching Michael Jackson and mimicking his voice to match the cadence. Another “aha” moment was when he sat transfixed during “Selena,” a biopic of the American Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla Pérez. Or it could have been the nights he would sit and listen to his sister’s tunes – rhythm and blues, hip hop, pop – an eclectic mix that turned his San Francisco home into an urban concert hall. Regardless of how it started, it led to him joining the Golden Gate Opera company in elementary school – a program that demanded scheduling, rehearsals, and consistent dedication. For the first time, art took work.

This didn’t last though. Middle school rolled around, and suddenly he was out of the band and the company. With no rehearsals, he began to slide – first his grades, then ambition, at least until high school where an early mix of Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) and an induction into the gospel choir birthed renewed dedication. Strangely, considering his eventual career in the U.S. Navy, he describes NJROTC as more or less a footnote in his life, whereas the Touch of Class Choir was a god-send for the vocalist.

His days were filled with choruses, swapping lunchtime for singing, electives for choir class, and ballpark play for after school vocal practice. Shows popped up and school days were missed, so academic excellence was demanded. If he failed chemistry, there would be no choir. All told, it instilled in Bobby at an early age that if he wanted to do what he loved for a living, he had to work at it.

“There’s this expression that really resonates with me now, looking back at it all,” Novoa mused. “It goes, ‘If you do something for 10,000 hours, you become a master at it.’ I’m sure I had 10,000 hours of singing by the time I finished high school, but in no way, shape, or form was I a master.”

When he graduated in 2008, his next step was obvious – Los Angeles.

“I was so confident,” he said, laughing and shaking his head. “I was pursuing music, and I knew that’s all I wanted to do. So, I said to myself ‘I’m not going to college. I’ll just move to LA, get on one of these TV shows, and call it a day. Of course it didn’t work.”

He soon found himself living in a Craigslist-advertised apartment, trying out for shows while working full-time. Throughout it all, he kept auditioning, kept swallowing rejection and telling himself it is, “not a no, just a no this time.”

As time crept on, he found himself doing more retail work and less singing, sliding quickly into the “struggling artist” stereotype, until he caught a lucky break – he was laid off.

With days no longer consumed by work and his music taking center stage, he turned his eyes toward college. He found a school, applied to its gospel choir, and began to pick up the keys missing from his career. At this point he was, in his words, little more than a “glorified karaoke singer.” He began studying music theory, the International Phonetic Alphabet, and the technique behind making music.

Novoa said that this type of classical training from a university helped him emphasize core skills while also showing him a systems-based approach to master the art of his craft. College saw his hobby broken down, analyzed, and crafted into a science.

“Until this point, I was describing music by saying ‘I want it to have this feeling,’ and most of the time the response to that was, ‘uhhh, what?’ It’s the difference between me depending on the band to support my vision, and knowing exactly what I want and how the whole band can accomplish that,” said Novoa.

College came and went. Struggling to make ends meet solely on a performer’s pay, music once again took a backseat.

It would be unfair to say the next seven years weren’t worth mentioning – Novoa still attended vocal courses, fell in and out of love, made and lost money. He performed as much as he could and kept up with the industry, but the dream wouldn’t stick.

Then, in 2021, during a daily ritual of perusing social media groups for potential gigs, he came across a flyer advertising positions in the United States Air Force Band. He’d seen military bands and watched a couple of online performances, but he just assumed they were engineers or administrators, with a side-gig in the arts. That is, until he started researching military music, and the gears started rolling.

At this point, Novoa had seen artists come and go, some realizing their dream, some giving up and moving back home. But the success stories were all the same – they jumped into the deep end when the game demanded it. With the added nuances of COVID-19’s crippling effect on the entire music industry, this Air Force flyer became a call to action. He auditioned with a classical-focused package that, as he would say, “nearly killed” him, and was rejected almost immediately.

“That just fueled my fire even more, to make sure everything for my Navy audition was as perfect as possible,” said Novoa passionately. “I already wanted the Navy more than the Air Force anyway and at this point rejection was nothing new. I had auditioned for each singing show two or three times, and it’s all the same. You stand in front of somebody for 15 or 30 seconds for them to say, ‘Thank you, but no.’ I don’t know why, or when it happened, but I stopped seeing it as ‘no.’ Instead, I saw it as ‘It’s a no this time.’ It’s going to be a yes eventually, I just have to keep trying. So, what can I do to be more successful for round two?”

The stars aligned for Novoa’s naval audition. COVID lockdowns meant a month-long coordination for their zoom meeting, which gave him time to practice the expected pieces. Friends came to set up his gear and acted as a vibrant audience for his takes. And the surprise song (in naval auditions, attendees are asked to memorize a song 24 hours in advance), ‘Golden’ by Harry Styles, was simple enough for someone with his pop-centric background. To this day, he’s convinced that he missed a lyric, sang the wrong part or changed a tempo, but an education in free-form jazz saw him through. He finished his living-room concert to the blank stares of naval judges, with polite comments and a promise of a call. His heart fell. He’d heard that before.

Ten minutes later he got the call. They said yes.

“There came a point, especially when I was finishing college, where I was being a little bit more realistic about my aspirations,” Novoa said. “As long as I could make some kind of income while doing music, I’d be satisfied…so that moment, getting that call, it felt like destiny realized.”

With days blurring together, he was in a recruiter’s office in the blink of an eye, signing paperwork, then raising his right hand at a Military Entrance Processing Station, then on a bus to Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes. A far cry from struggling to sing in LA, less than a month later he was wearing a uniform, nestled into one of boot camp’s 900 “triple threat” divisions – named because of their band, choir, and drill-team composition. Like others, he learned the ins-and-outs of Sailorization, knots and ships, following and giving orders. Unlike everyone else, his Saturdays were dedicated to rehearsing music, Fridays for graduation performances.

“For what it was, and what we had to work with, it initially felt basic,” Novoa said. “Simple songs, simple acts, but still music in a place where we were often deprived of it. Saturdays were a break from the demands of boot camp, but Fridays were special. My first graduation performance was really special – it almost felt like we were the score of the ceremony. You had all these new Sailors marching, with friends and family watching them proudly, and then there we were, elevating the whole thing, making it almost cinematic.”

It wasn’t easy though – boot camp is intentionally a lonely experience, separating the would-be Sailor from their previous civilian life. But an intrepid class of 3rd graders from Apricot Valley Elementary changed that. A longtime family friend and schoolteacher found out Novoa was joining the Navy and asked if she could write him letters when he was away. This developed into her whole class writing letters, and the first outside contact Novoa received was a giant bag of drawings and letters from the kids – so giant it became too much just for him. He started sticking the letters in bunks and bags for the whole division to receive.

He'd eventually graduate and make that final march himself on a cold November morning in 2021. But he remembered the letters. Wearing a dress-white uniform and joined by a local musician friend, he made a surprise appearance to a shocked elementary school class.

“The kids flipped out – they knew me, and they just lost it when I started to sing,” he said. “It felt so empowering, building other people up and showing them they can succeed. They were also, technically, my first show. It was really sweet. They wanted to take photos and didn’t want me to go. They were so supportive when I needed them, so it was great to be able to give that back.”

During his initial naval school, he received orders to Italy – more specifically, to the U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa fleet band. It’s here in Italy that Novoa would find his passion realized.

Throughout relaying his story, Novoa had been a soft spoken, cautious interview. At first glance he seemed almost nervous – he pauses, thinks about what he says, and how he says it. There’s also a hint of quiet destiny in the way he talks, like he’s not shy of the past mistakes that led him here. But then he’ll speak about singing – specifically, the moment he connects with a crowd, and his eyes light up, all caution gone. When he began reminiscing on his first engagement in Italy, that passion came pouring out.

His first official live event was this year, in Normandy, France, unveiling a Lone Soldier statue in commemoration of D-Day. The event, hosted by the French military and attended by U.S., Danish, and British forces, requested a vocalist and offered a diverse set-list, including each of the country’s national anthems. Novoa, still new, was requested on short-notice and had a week to learn all three national anthems. In their native languages. Sung to a crowd of native speakers.

So he learned at every waking opportunity he could find during the day - in the shower, at the gym, in bed, and at work. He would practice, recalling his college courses on the International Phonetic Alphabet and referring to the native speakers for guidance. Along with the band, he arrived at the massive French venue, with a crowd equal in size, and nervously began his vocal warm-ups. To make matters worse, the organizers weren’t expecting him to sing the national anthems and didn’t prepare a microphone for that portion of the ceremony. In fairness, who would expect an American to learn three anthems in multiple languages for a single performance? Skeptically, they offered him the podium, front and center of the stage. Their doubt was palpable. Then, he sang.

“It felt so cool, to get there and in a week be like ‘I got this,’ and confidently sing their national song in their honor,” Novoa said, bubbling with the excitement of it. “The response was great, I had French and Norwegian people coming up asking how I learned that. Putting in all that time and effort, and seeing that response, it makes all the work worth it. The entire experience left me saying to myself ‘oh my gosh, I’m here.’ Like my destiny led me here – how crazy is that. All those setbacks happened for a reason, and now they’re not even setbacks. It just wasn’t for me. Everywhere we go, I have a random moment of awe.”

His life now is peppered with these moments. Concerts that host world leaders, venues that pull entire towns to their doors. He’s sang in seven languages, traveled to eight countries for concerts, and sang every genre. But it’s the sentimental harmonies, in the host country’s language, that connect him with the crowd.

“Music is something that resonates with everyone – if you hear a beat, you tap your foot,” Novoa said. “It translates beyond language barriers. It’s an expression of emotion that people can feel and understand, that opens the heart and mind to making a connection. It’s hard to do that with anything else. It’s pretty cliché, but they say it all the time in our program. Music is a universal language. That’s why I love it.”

As a naval musician, he finally has free rein to do what he loves – but more than that, he’s a part of something greater. Working alongside other talented artists, he now performs for a cause bigger than himself.

“A lot of times we’re the face of this thing they think of as the ‘U.S. Navy,’” he said. “Most of the places we go to are part of NATO, so it genuinely feels like what we do is strengthening those connections that [the U.S. Navy] has. It opens their minds to discussions – way above my pay grade, but it feels important. It’s funny, but I kind of see it as the same thing as visiting someone’s house for a party – either you show up empty-handed, or you show up with us. Whether it’s doing outreach in foreign communities where many of them are able to see and hear live American music for the first time, or for fellow Service Members and Veterans that have sacrificed so much - it’s such an honor to serve and lift peoples spirits.”

During his holiday performance in Girabaldi Theater, there was a breathtaking moment. The band had wound down from a lively jazz ensemble, and it felt like the night’s concert was beginning to end. Then Novoa, geared in a dress blue uniform, looking solemn, approached the mic. He thanked the audience for their support, and in Italian said, “In honor of, and as thanks for hosting us on this wonderful night, we have a special song we’d like to play.”

Then, quietly, he began to sing “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle,” or “You Come Down From The Stars,” a famous Italian Christmas carol. It started sweetly, quietly. His voice was smooth and crisp, with a gravitas towards the song that translated through his voice. Then, someone in the crowd began to sing along. Then another, and another, until the hall was filled with Italian voices, carried by the band. Meanwhile, Novoa, an American vocalist, led them through the climax of the song, his voice returning to the forefront, his arms spread wide towards the ceiling as the lasts notes rang true. The crowd was silent for a moment, then – thunderous applause, shouts, all on their feet. It wasn’t the final song of the night, but by far the most beloved.

The performance came to an end and the audience, buoyed in spirt by his fluent rendition of their beloved song, slowly exited the theater and emptied onto the street. With the lights dimming, an elderly Italian woman, who had waited in the wings as the crowd moved through their congratulations, approached him with her husband.

The husband gestured to Novoa, holding up his phone, asking Novoa to stay for a photo. Novoa, happy to oblige, stood next to the woman and asked how long she’d been waiting. Her husband replied in broken English, good-naturedly, “Not long. All she wanted was a picture with the singer.” Novoa smiled.

All those setbacks, all those hours, all those no’s – here in Italy, it’s a resounding yes.