Altoona’s Mike Reid holds internship, offers up sage advice

Six Penn State Altoona integrative arts students met award-winning music writer Mike Reid on an April evening.

They would spend four days together for the first go at what is to become an annual internship with the 1970 Penn State University graduate who went on to have a hit-making music career.

Reid, who was born in Altoona in 1947 and now lives in Nashville, has written songs for popular artists such as Bonnie Rait, George Jones, Alabama, Etta James, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Tim McGraw, according to his biography on the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame website.

He wrote several songs for artist Ronnie Milsap, including “Stranger In My House,” which won the 1983 Grammy for Best Country Song, the site said.

He went on to write operas and musicals, including “Different Fields,” which premiered on Broadway, and the award-winning musical “The Ballad of Little Jo,” which he co-wrote, according to the website

He is currently working with Two River Theater Company in New Jersey.

Reid had fears he might waste the students’ time and at one point questioned what he had to offer them.

“My life to me feels pretty ordinary,” he said.

“And then you start thinking about sort of what you’ve gone through as a writer, what you’ve gone through in the business, the good, the bad,” he said. “I forget how young they are and I forget that they have not gone through these things … and so I started thinking about what would I have felt like when I was 20 had I been able to do something like this with someone who had been down a road or two.”

At the end of their time together Reid’s fear was revealed to be for not, according to the students who sang his praises – Taylor Swick, 20, of Johnstown; Kawaun Harvey, 21, of New York City; Ben Eberhart, 21, of Claysburg; Quinten Fletcher, 23, of Roaring Spring; Chris Shrift, 21, of Hollidaysburg; and Shane Sedlemyer, 20, of Nicktown.

The charismatic former football player gave them information from the music industry trenches, but also taught them a bit about life.

The internship included sessions on songwriting, music production, performance technique and the music business.

Dave Villani, instructor in communications and music, and Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, assistant professor of music, worked with the students alongside Reid.

“In the field of music, nothing can replace hands-on experience and the opportunity to work with an individual who ‘knows the ropes’ of the business and who can give valuable advice,” Cutsforth-Huber said in an email. “The students are inspired and motivated by Mike’s generosity, and each one of them grew as a creative artist during their time with him.”

During the internship, they did an exercise to reveal “that the best of who they are, the best work that they will do, lies below the conscious in the non-conscious and how do you get to that?” Reid said.

One of those exercises was taking pen to page and writing freely without lifting the pen.

“Pick up that pen, get that sheet of paper and write … Write junk. Write non-sensical, stuff that makes no sense. Of course you can write. You know the language. You know words, right? Write,” he said.

“It’s a way to try to trick your mind into going out for coffee and doughnuts while you have work to do.”

Through the writing exercise, Fletcher discovered a “dark and searching” side to a song he had written called “When I’m With You.”

“It’s really interesting to get, like, beneath the surface of the conscious mind and get at your deep feelings, and he was saying that when you do that that’s how you can make a song really meaningful,” he said.

Swick said Reid talked to them about songwriting and how it comes from within. The “good stuff that becomes a song” comes from inside, “because you can do best what you can do and you can’t copy somebody else,” he said.

Harvey discovered how much he loved songwriting during the internship. He said Reid told him, “‘Always follow that little reverberation in your heart that’s telling you to do something.’ And that is something I will take with me forever.”

The message touched him because of his own experience when coming to the decision to pursue music.

Sedlemyer said some of what stood out from what Reid taught him was “that it doesn’t matter how much success you have. It matters that you were competent at it and that you tried. It doesn’t matter how many people you reach, but it matters that you love what you’re doing and that you made art.”

Shrift said he tries to balance school work and music, but the last two semesters his music had taken a back seat. He was feeling discouraged.

But his week in the internship turned it around, giving him the most inspiration he had felt in months or even a year, he said. He said he will think back on the experience for motivation.

Eberhart was inspired to keep writing even when it seems undirectional, he said, noting Reid was “more than just a song writer and a great athlete like he’s all around just a great guy.”

Reid said if one can imagine a happy life without pursuing a career in the music industry then do it.

“Because … there will be too many times, too many instances, too many reasons to stop. This endeavor … this pursuit whispers gently in your ear all the time and you know what it whispers, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Do you still want to do this? Are you sure you still want to do this.’ All the time.”

Reid knows what makes him a writer, which in itself is a lesson in what it takes to make it.

“It’s not because I’ve had success at it. Or that I may be good or bad at it. Or that I have abilities or don’t have it,” he said. “No…I know I’m a writer because I get up and write every day. Because it’s simply what I do.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.