It all started with show choir tryouts in 7th grade. At the time, I was just on the cusp of becoming of a middle-schooler. I was shy, but passionate. I was wild about old musicals and beginning to discover classic movies. I was obsessed with Elvis. I had wanted to find the perfect, timeless song that would provide me with that optimal moment to step out of my shell and shine in the "spotlight" during my 7th grade show choir audition.
After a general Google search for famous love songs, I ended up discovering Etta James' At Last for the first time. Perhaps it was the soulful fire in her voice, the romantic swell of orchestral strings, or the Doo Wop beat; whatever the case, I fell under a spell. From that moment on, like a flower following the sun, I fell in love with classic ballads, R&B, rock 'n' roll, and jazz; I even made it into show choir for 7th and 8th grade and was accepted into a jazz ensemble, Bravo, in 9th grade.
With every chance I got through taking part in choir activities and voice recitals all throughout middle school and high school, I aimed to grow closer to Etta or Ella or Frank - anything from outside of my own era. Often, I felt a disconnect from others who either criticized me or failed to share similar interests as me in older music; but, I was headstrong about what I liked, and more importantly, I remained loyal to my instinctively positive reaction to the way older music made me feel.
Expanding a Passion
Although I loved the essence of cultivating these musical outlets, I yearned for something more. In hopes of combining my interests in community service and music, I ultimately came up with the idea of coordinating my own vocal performance of my favorite classic songs for residents at Victoria Gardens Nursing Home.
I had always wondered what it would be like to sing for nursing home residents, people who might have lived through cultural phenomena such as the rise of Gershwin or Porter. When was the last time they had heard ballads from the 30s-40s? What kind of memories did older songs house for them? I wanted to know and make a positive impact by providing music that I felt belonged much more to the nursing home residents than it belonged to me.
After arranging a date a month in advance to perform at the facility, my family became invested in my idea too; Dad dug out chunky, old speakers from the garage, as well as a bulky karaoke machine with a microphone; Mom helped me create a program listing the songs I planned to sing; my sister, Leia, offered to start and stop each instrumental track during my performance.
I decided to cover 12 songs by artists including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Etta James. Because I chose several tunes that I had previously known by heart, I felt excited to sing all of them in front of a crowd that was bound to cherish hearing them in ways that high school audiences may not - some with karaoke backings, some a capella. Thankfully, my strong comfort levels with the songs erased any worries or fears I had about stage fright, and my experience of singing for Victoria Garden Nursing Home's residents exceeded my expectations.
To this day, I still think about the looks on their faces - those who went from staring into space to mouthing along with the lyrics; those who transitioned from staring at the floor to looking up at me and swaying with the rhythm; those who wheeled their chairs from the back of the room to the front row; the guy who whooped and clapped when I sang "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" (who later told me he was from San Francisco). I remember less about how I sounded or what I sang, and more about how it made me feel to sing - how it seemed to make others feel.
After finishing my last song, the San Francisco guy rolled his wheelchair up to me and shouted, "You're a star!" I felt myself blush and thanked him. He proceeded to say, "You should be performing somewhere else where more people can listen to you... where there are more people who care. Half these people aren't even awake." I just smiled and thanked him again in response. Deep down, I knew that I would rather sing these songs to them than any other audience, because for the first time during my middle school choir days, I had felt an authentic, musical connection with the nursing home audience in a way that I had never experienced before.
The moment I saw the familiarity of a song that had hitherto been forgotten breathe life into people's expressions, it made me realize the medicinal power of music. The moment I had seen a sense of recognition dawning in their eyes, it made me consider the ability of music to touch a human soul in a way that pharmaceutical convention cannot always accomplish - the ability to reach into the pockets of people's minds and pull out a memory or a feeling and say, "This is a part of you."
Ever since that day, I have learned how to take ownership of my passions, I have learned to embrace my interests, and I have learned the importance of leveraging my passions for the benefit of others. Like a melody that lingers on, my experience at Victoria Gardens not only reminds me to keep singing, but to continue to hold fast to all of the different parts of myself that make me whole.