Quite a ride

Quite a ride

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His Rowan overture complete, Steven Solkela and his accordion head off to a life of performance

Steven Solkela--the deep-voiced, blonde-haired, accordion-playing, longboard-riding, back-flipping, Minnesota-born, fancy gold suit-wearing, dimple-chinned, tandem bike-pedaling, crowd-pleasing, always-performing, Finnish-speaking, ever-recognizable, comedy song-composing music major--is graduating.

How will Rowan University carry on without him?

“I’ve been preparing for this emotional departure,” says Solkela, a bass-baritone who earned his bachelor’s degree in music performance from Rowan’s College of Performing Arts on Wednesday, May 15.

“I’ve left my mark here. It has been so great. I love this music department more than just about anything. But there’s a lot of world to cover. I think a lot about Henry Rowan and how he wanted to impact the world. I think I have a positive message that deserves to be shared.”

A first-generation college student, Solkela grew up in a farming community in rural Palo, Minnesota (Population: 36), where the two lines of expected employment were either mining or the military. Solkela, who helped raise cattle, hogs, and chickens, was headed to the Marines.

That changed when Rowan piano professor Veda Zuponcic, herself a Minnesota native, heard his voice as he worked on set designs for the Northern Lights Music Festival. Zuponcic is artistic director of the festival, which brings classical music and opera to Minnesota mining towns.

“He was working crew for us,” Zuponcic says, “and I said, ‘Who is that?’” recalls Zuponcic, who recruited Solkela for the festival’s choirs. “I heard his deep, bass voice. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he comes to Rowan?’”

Back in Glassboro, Zuponcic set up an audition for Solkela and helped him complete his admissions application. After a successful audition, Solkela was admitted and received a Rowan University Performing Arts Scholarship, which covered tuition for four years.

‘I could see myself succeeding here’

In late August of 2015, Solkela set off from Minnesota in a 2003 Dodge minivan. On the way—“I was worried my car would break down. There’s no vehicle in my family we trust to go 500 miles…let alone 1,500,” he says—he wrote his first Rowan song, “Where’s Rowan?” A line in the song states,” Rowan is the school for me.”

“I could see myself succeeding here,” he says.

The idea of going to college at all was shocking to Solkela. Despite his musical talents—he sings and plays more than 15 instruments—a learning disability means that he has to work harder than most to study and memorize song lyrics and content. Today, to learn operas—he can sing in English, German, Russian, Finnish, French and Italian—he has to place every word on color-coded note cards, turning the entire opera into a puzzle that he can understand. He does the same when he studies for his non-music classes.

“I went to tutoring every day of my freshman year,” says Solkela. “People who struggle like I did don’t usually graduate.”

Solkela, who has applied for more than 200 scholarships throughout his college career, receiving more than 40, thought he would be a shy, quiet, music major. To his delight, that never happened.

“I thought I would be that shy boy with a lot of hidden talents. That wasn’t the case. Within a week, I felt that celebrity status,” he laughs.

Recognizable across campus

With his blonde hair, deep voice and ever-present accordion, an instrument he taught himself to play in high school by watching YouTube, he became one of the most recognizable underclassmen on campus. He got involved immediately, singing and playing his accordion in public spaces around campus, playing trombone in the Pep Band, and performing for the Rowan Opera Company, the Men’s Choir, the Honors Choir, the Concert Choir, the Contemporary Music Ensemble, and Collegium Musicum.

His Over-populated One-Man Band, in which Solkela plays 11 instruments at once while also singing, has been featured at scores of University events…from Hollybash to Relay for Life to “Battle of the Bands,” which he won his freshman year.

“I wanted to be a singer who can accompany myself. The accordion is a difficult instrument to play. It took me forever to get good,” says Solkela, who plays at festivals, ethnic celebrations and weddings. Once, he played Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on the accordion at a graveside service. He made $100.

His sophomore year, Solkela was hired as a resident assistant. Without that position, he would have had to leave Rowan due to finances, he says.

For the past three years, Solkela has been an RA in the Whitney Center, serving students in the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration in the Honors College. Though he’s not in Honors himself, members of the Honors Choir asked him to join the group because of his distinctive voice.

“Being an RA changed everything for me,” he says. “My apartment is bigger than my house at home.

“I’ve never been so grateful. In my building, I set the attendance record for programs for residents. I succeed especially well with Honors kids.”

Ripple effect

Solkela’s influence goes beyond his residents, says Barry Hendler, assistant director for leadership, community development and residential initiatives in the Department of Residential Learning and University Housing.

“Steve is a staff member who can truly connect with everyone,” says Hendler, who notes that Solkela received the “Ripple Award” from the department this year. Created with his distinct contributions in mind, the award was presented to Solkela to honor him for making a great impact on the department and the University.

“Everyone knows Steve. He genuinely cares for people. What’s unique about him is that he allows other people to see themselves in him. They see him as a role model. And he’s authentically and genuinely Steve.”

A devotee of the well-crafted metaphor, Solkela jokes that Rowan students thank him regularly for being “a fat polar bear.”

Huh?

“Yah,” he says in his Minnesota accent, smiling. “I’ve broken the ice for them.”

The message is clear. Solkela feels he’s done his best to make it cool to be quirky, creative and fun. 

He thinks nothing of riding his longboard across campus while playing his accordion…and then creating a train with other skateboarders on the patio of the Chamberlain Student Center. He regularly offers students running late for class a ride on his tandem bike. He’ll do a backflip just for fun wherever he is. And he jokes that while he tries to get work done while eating alone in the Holly Pointe Commons dining hall, it never works out. Everyone, he says, always stops to chat.

Solkela’s Rowan influence was in full effect in March, when his senior recital was standing room only. He promoted the recital for weeks, handing out fliers to everyone, everywhere. Nearly 250 people showed up to Boyd Recital Hall, a space that holds 210.

“I singlehandedly put my posters up on every board on campus. I don’t want to be on my death bed knowing I never put effort in to promote myself,” says Solkela, whose recital featured songs in Italian, French, German, Finnish and Russian. His finale, which included choir members that he paid himself, was an ode to America, a nod to the patriotism he feels so deeply.

“I wanted people to think about being better Americans,” says Solkela, who performed in a red, white and blue striped jacket and is recognized throughout campus for the fancy gold suit that he also wears for performances.

“America is the greatest country in the world. You’ll never hear me complain about America.”

‘Beauty, realism, authenticity’

“We have never seen an audience for a student recital like Steven’s. It was really remarkable,” says Rowan voice professor Lourin Plant, Solkela’s teacher and mentor, who praises him for his “naturally gifted voice” and his keen understanding of music theory.

Plant affectionately calls him “my little songbird.”

“He’s overcome a lot of obstacles,” Plant says, noting that Solkela’s confidence grew exponentially during his Rowan years. “Earning his degree was a personal and financial mountain for him to climb. The future is very bright for him. Rowan has been a life-changing place for Steven to bloom. He will remember the success, the feeling of love and acceptance, he had here.”

Solkela shines while singing African-American spirituals, according to Plant.

“He has a deep affinity for those songs and a real ability to understand and express them,” says Plant. “This is my 25th year of teaching. I haven’t had a single student with Steven’s background perform those songs in that way. He understands the music and sings spirituals with beauty, realism and authenticity. It’s something special.”

“I’ve learned a lot from Dr. Plant about performing emotionally. In a lot of singers, emotion is very neglected,” says Solkela, whose Minnesota accent, with its long, drawn-out vowels, is considered superior for singing.

Musical love letter

Despite holding no fewer than seven jobs on and off campus—RA, Pep Band, the Rowan Boulevard mailroom, teaching music and singing, and the occasional landscaping and roofing jobs—Solkela found time to offer a parting gift to campus. He recorded “Where’s Rowan?”—an album of a dozen songs about the Rowan experience that he wrote and performed with his Overpopulated One-Man Band…and a little help from some talented friends.

The album, a musical love letter to the University, is available on Spotify. On it, Solkela pokes fun about everything from eating alone in the cafeteria to students who set off fire alarms while cooking (“Fire Alarm Polka”) to  “It’s a Sunny Day in Glassboro,” one of his favorites.

“Every accomplishment begins with the choice to try,” he sings. “Many people have done great things. So why can’t I?”

Fittingly, the album ends with Solkela’s reverent treatment of both Rowan’s fight song and the Alma Mater.

His own Rowan “overture” complete—“We could call it ‘Minnesota Magic’ or maybe ‘Solkelamania,’” he laughs--this summer, Solkela will travel nationally and internationally for gigs he’s personally set up for himself. He’ll perform from Minnesota to Michigan to Illinois to Florida to Canada to Finland. After that, he’ll see. But he expects to perform worldwide and hopes to make an impact wherever he goes.

“Rowan changed me. I’m more professional than when I came here,” says Solkela, who performed Irving Berlin’s “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on” at his final voice class.

“You and the song are gone,” the song states. “But the melody lives on.”

“I’m the kind of person who looks at conclusion as a new opportunity,” says Solkela, who writes rhymes and lyrics in his head all day long. “I want to influence and help others. I’d be pretty happy traveling, performing, composing and being remembered for the goodness I’ve shared.”