Monday, April 7, 2014

Working with kids, and how West Side Story just changed my life

It's no secret that the last few months have been rough. I'm grateful to those who have reached out to help and lend their comfort and support. It has truly been a gift.This last week has not been perfect, but it's been a little better. I've been taking it one day at a time, and it's been a battle, but one that I'm feeling better about than before. Enough so that, yesterday after church, I dropped off my husband and son at home and went out to a local school to see their production of West Side Story. Now, this was not a random trip out to see a high school theater production (I am not a fan of West Side Story, despite my love for Sondheim). Let me set this up for you, because you're going to have to understand the background to understand just how important yesterday was for me. Up until two months ago, I spent the last thirteen years working as a private piano and voice instructor, and for the last four years I worked at a music academy, averaging about 35 students a week. One of those students was a young woman that came to me in 2011 when she was 14 years old. She's a natural talent, but had only ever experienced singing from the choral and show choir perspective. Since she was interested in doing some theater, a lot of the work we did together was not so much technique (though of course that was a part of it), but how to relax and stop trying to make the sound so "pretty" and pure (if you're a theater singer, you get what I'm talking about here). We focused on musicals (classic all the way to modern) and I started introducing her to some jazz standards and torch songs, which she warmed up to quickly. We worked on warming her tone, watching how her voice reacted to her posture and body movements. We also did a LOT of work on just building trust and confidence--her trust in me, our trust in each other, and her trust in herself.

Almost a year ago, my student (I'll call her Amy) came into lessons and told me that her school was going to be doing West Side Story for the Spring 2014 musical. She had done a few shows, and was starting to attract the attention of her directors and other students. As such, she felt a lot of pressure to perform well. The bigger problem was that, because she is beautiful and sweet and has a fabulous voice and sunny disposition, her directors had a tendency to type-cast her as the good girl leads, regardless of voice part. She came in afraid that her directors were going to want to cast her as Maria, despite the fact that Maria is a Soprano I part (up to a high C). Amy can hit a high C, but it's at the very top of her range. There's no question that this girl is an Alto, and a low Alto at that (she can sing a low D with ease). She is also Filipino, and she was worried that she might actually be cast as the Maria because of her ethnicity. She was unsure that she wanted to play Maria, despite it being the lead, and I couldn't blame her. I think Maria is a terrible role. This girl needed to be Anita. We started preparing a full six months before the auditions were even announced, so that she would feel confident going in.

We spent the entire summer working on Sondheim and jazz. Interpretation, diction, movement, feeling, and finding a part of herself in every single song she learned, no matter what. I remember we spent a month doing nothing but Broadway songs that we both hated, just so she could learn how to find something in any song, no matter how awful, that she could identify with as an actor and person. Authenticity was the focus. I also spent a LOT of time just talking to her about her thoughts on the audition, and encouraging her to go after what she wanted. I don't know how many times I told her, "Don't let them decide who you are going to be in this show. Show them who you ARE. If you want Anita, go get her. It's your part--they just don't know it yet." By the time auditions came around, she was confident in what she wanted, and that was Anita. Who can blame her, Anita's the best part in the entire show. For the first round of auditions in November, she went in with one of Anita's songs prepared, and she nailed it. After she sang, she moved over to the cold-read section of auditions, and she was given Maria's script. She looked at it, looked her director dead in the eye, and said, "I'm not auditioning for Maria. I'm auditioning for Anita." No question, no room for argument, just pure confidence. This is a sixteen year old girl, how ballsy is that?! The director just blinked at her, and said something akin to, "Uh, okay. Um, well, sure, here's Anita's script then." Again, Amy went in there and nailed it. She was so excited when she came into voice lessons the next day. She got called back (there was no question she would), and texted me the minute call backs were over. In her own words--"I KILLED it!" The cast list was posted the next week, and she was Anita. She did it.

Two months later, I had a job offer I couldn't turn down. I left my position at the music school to go to work for the city, and that meant leaving my students. There were several that were just really painful to say goodbye to, and Amy was one of them. I promised her that I would come see her in West Side Story when it went up in April, and she gave me a balloon and a beautiful note telling me how much I had done for her, and that I had made a real difference for her. It was very sweet. Fast forward to a couple of days ago. I got a text from Amy telling me that the show had opened the night before and it had gone really well, and that she hoped I would be able to come see it. I admit, I had forgotten the dates and probably would have missed it if she hadn't texted me. So on Sunday, after church, I went to Kroger and got her a small bouquet of roses, and went to go see West Side Story. While sitting in the packed theater (completely sold out show), I started chatting with the mother of one of the chorus kids, and mentioned that I was there to see a former voice student. When she asked which part Amy was playing, I said she was Anita, and this woman's eyes got as big as saucers. "YOU taught her voice? She's amazing, she steals the show! Do you teach in the area?" I laughed and told her no, but referred her over to my former music academy for her son. It was a good feeling. Then the curtain went up, and I could barely contain myself, I was so excited to finally get to see Amy perform. You'd have thought I was her mother, not just a former teacher. I was in no way prepared for what I saw when she finally appeared on stage.

She was dazzling. Breathtaking. She just shone on stage, like she was meant to be there. She was so fluid and natural and gorgeous, and her voice was strong and healthy and confident. She did, indeed, steal the show. I giggled at her playfulness with Bernardo, and her unrepentant confidence at her own beauty and sensuality (something that a lot of teenagers have a hard time pulling off). I cried with her when she sang "A Boy Like That." I physically felt her fear when she was tormented and assaulted at the diner by the Jets. I have never been so proud and moved by anything or anyone in my life. She was transcendent. Luminous. She is a star, and every single person in that sold out theater knew it, and they made sure she knew that they recognized her talent.

I waited for her outside the stage doors, flowers in my hand, willing myself to not cry when I saw her. After all, this is a seventeen year old girl, I REALLY didn't want to be one of "those" adults and embarrass her in front of all her friends and castmates. She was one of the last people to come out, and when she saw me, she froze. I hadn't told her I was coming, she had no idea I was there, and it had been more than two months since I had seen her last. She took one look at me, cried out, "Oh my God, you came!", and then promptly threw her arms around my neck and burst into tears. This sweet girl literally laid her head down on my shoulder and just sobbed. She couldn't even speak she was crying so hard. I didn't stand a chance. I cried as hard as she did, and we would, every few minutes pull back and look at each other, and through laughter, try to talk but would end up crying all over again. I finally managed to choke out how proud I was of her, and how much I loved her, and she just cried and held on to me tighter. After about five minutes we pulled ourselves together and laughed, and I gave her the roses, and told her I would always be just a phone call or text away if she needed anything, and I pushed her over to her friends who had been waiting so patiently for her (and who had no idea who this woman was that Amy was clinging to--they were clearly confused).

I cried all the way home, and knew that I needed to write about this experience because it made something so clear to me. That experience, those precious moments where I had a TEENAGER hug me and tell me how much of a difference I had made in her life, is the reason I have chosen to work with children. I hear people say all the time, "Lawd, I couldn't work with kids. They would just drive me crazy." They're absolutely right, they do drive you crazy. When you work with kids, no matter the age, it's going to be a challenge. It's going to be tough, they're going to challenge you, and aggravate you, and push your buttons, and why shouldn't they? They are PEOPLE, and PEOPLE do all of those things on a daily basis. The main difference between working with  kids and adults is that, when you work with kids, you are impacting and helping shape a fellow human being, and those kids remember who supported and nurtured them. They take everything personally, and their emotions are like live wires, ready to go at any moment. They absorb everything they see and hear and are influenced by the smallest details, and often they can't just shrug things off like most life-weary and embattled adults can. They don't forget, for good or bad. It is an amazing thing, to realize that you have made a positive difference in a young person's life, and that they realize it and are grateful to you for taking the time to help them.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a star. I wanted to perform and be famous, and not because I was desperate for attention, but because I was terrified of the thought of being forgotten. I don't know why I was so preoccupied with the idea, but I wanted to make sure that, whatever I did, I made an impact and that there would be something left of me to be remembered by future generations. In the musical, Little Women, there's number called "Astonishing," in which Jo March proclaims, "I will blaze until I find my time and place. I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace. I WILL NOT DISAPPEAR WITHOUT A TRACE." That was me. I was determined to be remembered and do something important. Somehow, when I wasn't looking or trying, I accomplished that. I've made a difference. I choose to work with children and teenagers because I can make an impact, and have. I cannot fully put into words what it means to have had this experience and what it feels like to have made a real difference in the life of a young woman, to know that I did something that I love, and helped her find a part of herself she didn't know she had. There's a reason I got into teaching music and directing theater. There's a reason that I am now working in the children's department of the public library system. I get to see and work with children from every demographic every day, and yesterday I realized that I really have made a difference, and that I will be remembered by this wonderful young woman. I also realized that she isn't the only one, that there have been other students whose lives I have influenced in some positive way. As difficult as the last year has been, I have confidence that I'm doing something important, something that I'm good at, and that I'm exactly where I need to be. What a gift to be given, and how funny that it took a musical I hate to make me see that.

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