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Trans-Siberian Trio Williamsville South grad gave up physics degree for stage career

Robert Kinkel recalls snuggling into the comfort of his mother's lap when he was 2, plunking on the piano's keys, and turning the pages of color-coded music books with his tiny hands.

Today, he travels nationwide, performing titanic concerts for sell-out crowds as the keyboardist for Trans- Siberian Orchestra, a red-hot, multiplatinum band widely recognized for its twist on classic Christmas tunes.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), formed in 1996 by Paul O'Neill in collaboration with Kinkel and Jon Oliva, is a band that refuses to be pigeonholed into a single musical genre. An eclectic blend of rock, metal, classical, R&B, Broadway and more, TSO has multigenerational appeal as it draws fans of all musical styles.

"Trans-Siberian took off in a way none of us could have imagined," says Kinkel. TSO was borne of the success of the song "Christmas Eve" (Sarajevo 1 2/2 4), a rock opera originally recorded by the band Savatage, in which O'Neill, Kinkel and Oliva took part. The song, quickly picked up by Florida radio stations that recognized Savatage as a local gig, led to the production of a Christmas album by the trio. Says Kinkel of the Savatage tune, "When it played on the air, the phone lines just lit up... everyone wanted to know who it was. And that's how TSO was born."

" There was always music around, I grew up with music," says Kinkel, a Buffalo native. His parents were involved in the arts, and Kinkel sang in the Calvary Episcopal Church choir, played saxophone in elementary school, and played in the band at Williamsville South, where he graduated in 1975. " A lot of the music people at South were amazing," recalls Kinkel. " They got instruments into the hands of kids really young, which was great."

Kinkel attended Hamilton College to study pre-med. He began as a chemistry major, switched to physics, and by junior year, realized he had taken every music elective the school had to offer. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in music with a minor in physics, and went on to Columbia University on a physics fellowship. While at Columbia, Kinkel found an opportunity to work at Record Plant Studios in New York City, and left the master's program.

"Music is a great thing to know, but you need to do something real. So, at first when I quit graduate school to work in the music industry, they weren't too happy," says Kinkel of his parents. "But when things started taking off, they said it was all right." Now a professional keyboardist and music engineer, Kinkel writes, produces, and plays keyboards for TSO. He is also the band's musical director.

His first job at Record Plant was assisting in the production of big name bands such as The Who, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Genesis. "At first, you're a little awestruck, and then it's just working with people," observes Kinkel. "You get to work with people and get inspired by them, and see what makes certain people great, and others not. It's part of the education process."

This Sunday, Kinkel returns to Buffalo to play two back-to-back concerts with TSO at HSBC Arena in what has become an annual treat for WNY concertgoers. Recalling both his attendance of his first concerts as a teenager at the old Aud, and later returning to play onstage with TSO at Shea's and HSBC Arena, he says, "Just being on the other side and playing for all the people who grew up in your hometown, it's amazing. You feel like you're home."

For this year's shows, TSO is raising the bar. The extreme lighting, a trademark of the band's concerts, is ramped up. Last year's eight enormous truckloads of pyrotechnic toys has increased to 12. The massive lighting fixtures, weighing tons, are constantly moving above the audience. "It has a very magical look, almost like Harry Potter magic," says Kinkel. "It's incredible. We've got more fire, more lighting, more lasers."

A TSO concert is a grand, orchestra- supported experience that runs the gamut. One song may be a dualstaged technological marvel that dazzles, a symphony of sound, chorus, lights and flames that warm your face from across the arena. The next piece may be a solemn, introspective ballad that brings tears to your eyes and leaves a lump in your throat, as a lone blue spotlight reveals a pianist playing soulfully to a hushed crowd.

If you have a passion for music and are seriously considering the pursuit of a musical career, Kinkel has some words of advice: don't set out on a quest for stardom. "I know tons of people like that, and most of them don't make it," he says.

Kinkel started out his career doing sound engineering behind the scenes, and ended up performing on the stage as well. Regarding a career path in the field of music, he states, "You don't know what's going to happen. I've been extremely lucky, and knock on wood any time I think about it."

As with any career choice, you should have a passion for what you do, according to Kinkel. "The main thing is, you have to love doing it. You hope things will happen, but that's not what's driving you," he says. "In some ways you become obsessed with music, you start hearing it in your head and you just have to get it out, so you get driven," he reflects.

Whether one's passion for music begins with playing piano from a mother's lap, playing in the school orchestra, or jamming with friends in a garage band, one thing is common. For those considering music as a career, Kinkel says, "If it's for you, then you'll know it's right."

Madeleine Burns is a sophomore at City Honors.

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Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at HSBC Arena. Tickets range from $39.50 to $49.50.

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