Determination leads to “sax”cess

Corey Whitt gains a #FalconFamily in the College of Musical Arts

Determination leads to “sax”cess

By Amy West

For many children in the 80’s, the arrival of the annual J.C. Penney holiday catalog was a highly anticipated event. Siblings raced for highlighters, sticky notes and markers to begin the ordeal of creating and prioritizing wish lists. Hours were spent pouring over crinkled, torn pages and composing the annual letter to Santa Claus, complete with detailed requests and promises of good behavior.

However, while Corey Whitt poured over the catalog, he didn’t have any expectation that Santa would be bringing him the one item on his list. 

Whitt, a 2014 music graduate, grew up in Wisconsin with an abusive father. One cold afternoon, his mother was waiting for Whitt and his sister at the bus stop after school. She told the children to grab their backpacks and took them to a place she rented where they would be safe.

The house wasn't completely insulated and the floors were cement. However, the house met one important requirement—the doors locked. In the cold Wisconsin winters, the family huddled in one room for warmth; but they had each other and they were safe.

Whitt knew putting food on the table and providing shelter for the family was difficult for his single mother. So, when he begged for the saxophone he earmarked in the J.C. Penney catalog, his mother’s “we’ll see" response didn’t inspire much hope.

“The kids in that catalog looked so happy,” Whitt said. “I always wanted to play an instrument and something about the little kid holding that saxophone sparked something in me.”

Whitt’s mother scrimped and saved and eventually presented him with his very own saxophone for his birthday in March.

“When I opened the saxophone, I began removing the pads thinking they only served the purpose of protecting the instrument while in transit.  Actually, no, they are extremely important to the functioning of the horn. After putting the pads back on, I used the beginner's book to assemble it. I put the reed on wrong and had the mouthpiece upside down. I was horrid. I'm amazed my mother let me keep playing after that day,” Whitt laughed.

“The saxophone had the same elemental properties as aluminum foil, but I didn’t care. It was mine. We could not afford lessons, but I taught myself to play.”

Whitt searched the library for videos and spent hours studying techniques and practicing. He not only taught himself to play, he got really good.

After years of practice, he took his J.C. Penney saxophone and auditioned at universities throughout the country. He was accepted at every single institution including the Boston Conservatory.

Whitt had listened to BGSU saxophonist Dr. John Sampen frequently as he was teaching himself to play and Bowling Green State University was one of his top college choices. 

“I discovered Dr. Sampen searching through saxophone recordings within music libraries, trying to figure out how the instrument should sound. I fell in love with his tone. It's so unique and soaked in vibrato. You could listen to multiple recordings of saxophonists and always pick out Dr. Sampen. If I could sound like anything, I wanted to sound more like him,” Whitt said.

He arrived at BGSU and auditioned for his idol. Whitt performed the first couple of pieces well, but forgot to turn off the octave key and stumbled through his third piece.  

“Whoops,” Whitt said after finishing the piece. “Yea, whoops,” Sampen replied.

“The drive back to Wisconsin was the longest of my life. I kept beating myself up for blowing my shot at studying with Dr. Sampen. I spent the entire ride chastising myself for ruining my one chance."

Whitt arrived home thinking he would attend the Boston Conservatory. However, a month later he received something even better than the J.C. Penney catalog in his mailbox— an acceptance letter to BGSU.

“It took me less than a split second to make my decision. I was going to become a Falcon,” Whitt said. “I was still waiting on a few other schools, but it didn’t matter, I was going to BGSU.”

"Corey displayed such excitement and enthusiasm for music, the arts and life—and this love for our profession has only increased," Sampen said. "While a student at BGSU, he showed terrific leadership in our saxophone studio and he was well-loved by all members of the class. I am so proud of his many accomplishments. He represents the best of our profession and I look forward to Corey’s opportunities for a brilliant future."

Whitt, now the assistant director of bands at Perrysburg High School, said his BGSU experience was everything he hoped for. 

“What BGSU does better than anyone else is bring the right group of people together,” Whitt said. 

He described how his professors and his saxophone team became his family. During his time at BGSU, Whitt was hit by a car and taken to the emergency room. While being treated for his injuries, he heard Sampen and Dr. Marilyn Shrude, also one of his professors, insisting they be allowed to see him. 

The hospital staff apologetically told the faculty members that only family was allowed back in the emergency area. Whitt heard Sampen reply, “his family is eight hours away and we are the closest thing he has to family right now.” 

Sure enough, both Sampen and Shrude walked through those doors to check on their student. When Whitt left the emergency room, the waiting area was filled with more than 20 students, all part of his saxophone family, wanting to see for themselves that he was okay. 

“One of the best things about being a Falcon is the Falcon family that comes along with a great education and phenomenal college experience,” Whitt said.

 “I still have that J.C. Penny saxophone and will always keep it as a reminder of the sacrifices my mother made and the opportunities her sacrifices afforded me. That saxophone is a piece of history to me and marks the beginning of my success.” 

Learn more about Whitt and listen to his recordings at coreywhitt.com.