Lights hit my forehead as I walk on stage squinting, guitar in tow. I’m nervous, although at this point I’ve sung this song a million times.
Fortunately for the audience, the only thing I’m channeling from Gaga’s 2009 VMA performance of “Paparazzi” is the chorus with a shortened range. I’m not in tip-top vocal health, but I’m determined to make this performance the best I can. Singing in front of 500-plus people is not something I do everyday.
I know a lot about music. It’s given me purpose throughout my life; it’s what defines me. As a kid, I was often ostracized for my obsession with certain artists. Mainly Christina Aguilera, but I also clocked a lot of hours listening to records like Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and Breakaway. The first album I ever owned was …Baby One More Time by Britney Spears. I was 6.
I remember hitting play on our family sound system and staring at the loudspeakers, feeling the music vibrate over me as I lay stomach-down on my living room floor. That first chord progression of …Baby One More Time is etched in my musical memory forever. I’m moved — it’s my first introduction to the power of melody and harmony. I take this as a sign: pop music will be my thing. Not just as a passing interest, but for the rest of my life.
I’m the only kid I know that is fanatically involved with popular music at such a young age. Not lessons playing an instrument that my parents forced on me, but actually going to stores like f.y.e. and buying records that I discover by watching TRL.
“We should enroll you in some piano lessons!” my mother says. Those last a few frustrating weeks. Eventually, my instructor sits me down and says, “I’m not sure this is a great fit for you.”
“Miracles happen,” I think to myself.
I run back home to Britney and Christina, letting out sighs of relief along the way. Learning to read and perform music in that way seems counterproductive to me. I see it turning into a chore, and that is the last thing I want from my cherished hobby. I can learn by listening. Listening and Listening and more Listening until eventually my parents insist that I take my headphones off and “be present” or get grounded.
Fast-forward about a decade, and I’ve listened myself into singing, writing, and recording my own music. I am 16 and underwhelmed by high school, so I regularly cut class to go write songs.
My sister — a budding creative writer — comes home one day and announces that she wants to go to boarding school. “I found one in northern Michigan called Interlochen — it’s an arts school where kids can go and pursue whatever form of art they’re passionate about.” Since we are attached at the hip, I can’t imagine her going there without me.
I sing and play guitar, I think. I guess I qualify!
I don’t do any research about the school’s programs before showing up for my audition. Turns out, the process for getting in is as intense as applying for college.
We fly into Chicago and then change to a tiny plane that we take to Traverse City, Michigan. The campus is beautiful and I instantly fall in love with the idea of studying music here. When I arrive, my tour guide, Stefani greets me. She is a vocal performance major. She asks me, “So… what’s your vocal part?”
“I-I’m not too sure what you mean,” I say.
“Like alto, soprano?” she clarifies. I have no idea what she is talking about, so I ignore the question.
She leads me to the choir building. “Choir is one of my favorite classes. Here, you can read along with me.”
“Read what?” I think, as I am handed a choir folder with pages and pages of sheet music inside. As the room erupts into a German song, I start to realize a few things.
Interlochen is home to countless mind-blowingly talented, classically-trained musicians. I’m thrust into a miniscule minority of people who listen to and perform popular, contemporary music. I had no idea that there were teenagers who were interested in classical music, let alone ones who wanted to dedicate their lives to it.
Instead of exposing my complete lack of knowledge though, I decide to play it cool. I pretend to read the sheet music over Stefani’s shoulder and quietly sing my best German impression.
A few hours later, it’s almost time for my audition. I can’t let nerves get the best of me. Time to focus.
I arrive at my destination, a small practice room drowning in fluorescent light. Guitar in hand, I’m met with stares from the vocal staff. “Do you have any music for your accompanist?”
I know what that word means. “I… uhhhh… no. I will be accompanying myself.” I stumble forward, nudging my guitar in front of me.
“Ohhhkay,” they say hesitantly through smiles. “What will you be performing for us today?”
All of the hours I spent teaching myself an instrument… Every music class I turned down to practice on my own… All of the absences I accumulated skipping school to go to concerts at the 9:30 Club… Every friend I had lost contact with due to simply believing that music was the only outlet I needed… Britney and Christina and what they meant to me as strong female role models…
“I will be performing “Gimme More” by The Legendary… Miss Britney Spears. I hope you all like it.”
Smiles fade and the room tenses as I mention the name of a performer whose songs were probably never before sung in Interlochen’s halls.
I strum and sing: “Every time they turn the lights down…”
Part 2 coming soon.