by Adrienne Nyamsi
The story goes that my mother, tired of the loud 6-year-old singing Debbie Gibson songs in the house, finally asked ‘Why are you SO loud?’ But 6 -year-olds don’t understand rhetorical questions. So, I earnestly I explained, ‘because I need to hear my voice.’
I’m grateful that my mother heard and invested in the intent behind my throwaway response; what followed was a lifetime of vocal and piano lessons; my teens, singing in an award-winning children’s chorus and a specialized arts high school and my early twenties pursuing a BA degree in Music Theory and Performance.
The experience in itself birthed an apparent skill set; I’m a classically trained vocalist. I can read music (albeit slowly, these days). I have access to a part of my brain that non-artists perhaps do not.
What I did not realize was that there would be other less tangible but vitally important gifts that I’d receive, reference and most important, share with others for the rest of my life.
I saw the world and expanded my idea of my potential
By the time I was 16, singing took me to London, the Czech Republic, Austria and much of the US. I’d sung at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and had been on the cover of the Art and Leisure section of the NYT.
I am the first, first generation American in my family. I am the child of two Cameroonian immigrants. I grew up in the 90s. Although my family made it clear that I had (and was required to reach my) infinite potential, when I left my family’s warm embrace, I existed in a world that whispered a relentless counter message of low expectations for girls like me. But my experiences with music kept that message pianississimo, so to speak.
Everyday, access to art reminded me that absolutely anything was possible and that I was worthy, brave enough and talented enough to access such fortune.
It’s ok to be odd
I was a strange art kid. You know, one of those kids that came to school an hour before first period to have access to the piano and create 4-part harmonies to pop songs on the radio; Those kids who went to the Nederlander Theatre every Sunday morning to try to get cheap, front row tickets to RENT; those kids that once got reported to the police on the train for being loud trouble-makers, and when they came to investigate, they found six kids singing the 9th movement of the Bach Motets in E minor (we were, indeed, loud though).
We made perfect sense--to each other. But a quick interaction with kids that had different high school experiences reminded us that we were as weird as possible.
There are many interesting things that came to be true about ‘those kids.’ Perhaps the most interesting is that whether life took us to Broadway, the front of a classroom or a boardroom, that singularity and comfort with being left of center continues to be the secret to our success. We never did what everyone else did. And that was ok.
I wonder, what might life be like if more kids were affirmed for being different? Whom might they be brave enough to become?
Discipline was regular part of my childhood
From the ages of 11-18, Tuesdays and Thursdays afternoons were devoted to choir rehearsal. And so I, along with about 60 young people, fresh from eight hours of school, would shuffle into our rehearsal space. We sat like overcooked noodles in our chairs. Limp. Insolent. Over it.
In response to a room vibrating with teen apathy, our choral director simply said ‘Sit for singing.’’
Like alchemy, every back slid forward and our feet found firm ground. Regardless of what happened during the school day, what followed my choral teacher’s call to action was two hours of physical, mental and artistic focus.
‘Sit for singing’ is a declarative statement but it was never, ever a demand. No one forced me to do this work. No one forced me to keep poring over my music binder long after rehearsal was dismissed. But I learned early on that access to music required an investment of my time, mind and body. And so, I did it.
I think creatively about my work and find unique solutions to tricky situations
Like many musicians, I have tons of stories about that ‘one time’ the show did not go as planned. That time when I was 11 and a soprano fell off the riser (she’s ok!). That time when my college friends and I sang a quick Messiah for Christmas money and someone fainted just as we got the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ (she’s ok! Handel probably isn’t too pleased, though). That one time I sang background vocals for someone, she couldn’t hear the key, came in completely off-pitch and whole band had to figure out how to either get her back on pitch or transpose to meet her, mid-song.
Here’s what I know now; often, life happens in between the plans you make about how life will unfold. At work, things can fall apart. But ability to trust that they will resolve, that there is always a solution and that the solution may be an unexpected one is a lesson I learned as a child, on the stage.
The experiences I had as a young artist were profound. I am, without a doubt, a better, smarter, human because of it.
Adrienne Nyamsi is a political and issues-based campaign operative and education equity advocate. She has worked on hyper-local, city and state-wide political and issues-based campaigns in leadership capacities across New York State. Currently, she is the Senior Director for Community Impact at Democracy Prep Public Schools. In her role, she leads the scholar recruitment and enrollment process and designs the hyperlocal community engagement strategy for DPPS schools across the nation. Adrienne holds a B.S in Political Science and a B. Mus from Hunter College. She is a Coro Fellow and has received campaign operations training through Emily’s List and the New American Leaders Project. She’s also a recovering fashion blogger and life-long singer that doesn’t sing much these days and thus, she’s kind of angsty.