If I were to let the book of my personal history fall open to the final days of 2008, you would likely find me seated at an upright piano in a closet-sized practice room deep inside of Berklee College of Music, poring over sheet music late into the night. Or, quite possibly, I was perched in the window of my dorm room, my forehead pressed to the cold glass as I watched the snow fall silently onto the roofs of downtown Boston, piecing my thoughts together into the lyrics of a new song.
I remember the year that I discovered songwriting. As an eight-year-old, while waiting for the bus in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, I would compose songs about whatever caught my eye—mourning doves perched precariously on the telephone wires above my head, or tiger lilies wilting in the sunlight, leaning over the steps down to the street. I would come up with rhymes and melodies until I heard the bus roar around the corner. I filled pages and pages with pieces of stories and songs whenever inspiration struck; I kept a tape recorder next to my bed for nights when I would awake with a melody or set of lyrics running through my head. And gradually, as I grew older, these simple songs turned into more detailed expressions of my thoughts. At thirteen, I learned to play the guitar, and my first full-length song came about shortly thereafter, following the first heartbreak of my teen years (though certainly not the last).
At the same time that I was discovering ways to manipulate words and music to authentically capture my most poignant experiences, I was finding my voice as a singer as well. What had always been a hidden pleasure of mine growing up became one of the most salient aspects of my identity as a teenager. My first public performance took place shortly after my fourteenth birthday; and a few months later, I co-founded my first band, which remained a huge part of my life until I left for college. I performed in every possible choral group that I could, all across the country; and an opera teacher helped me to discover facets of my voice that I otherwise would never have accessed. I continued to perform as a solo artist throughout high school, testing out my original songs on various audiences and learning first-hand how to be a professional musician through countless performances and the occasional embarrassing, humbling moment. Each time, what kept me going was the enormous amount of positive feedback and support that I received from the community that surrounded me.
By the time that I started seriously researching colleges, I had begun to consider studying music full-time. It quickly became apparent that if I wanted to pursue a career in contemporary music, there was only one option: Berklee College of Music. To attend a conservatory would require ceasing to study anything besides music, which was a sacrifice that I didn’t fully think through at the time. My parents and I argued about my future plans at least once a week for the entire year before I was to audition for admission to the program. My father had been a professional musician, and he tried to impress upon me the impracticality of receiving a degree in music, especially as someone who had shown promise in many other areas. However, he had raised me to be independent and strong-willed, and so I dug in my heels and refused to consider any other options. I would only listen to evidence that strengthened what I had already decided was best for me.
I visited Berklee in September of 2007 and can still recall the incredible excitement that percolated inside of me when I first saw the hundreds of students crossing Massachusetts Avenue, instrument cases in hand. I had never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be a part of that community. After returning home, I applied at the earliest possible date, and then returned to Boston to audition on December 1. For weeks leading up to that day, I had panic attacks and lost days’ worth of sleep trying to decide what to sing and ruminating about whether the auditioners would be as excited about me as I was about Berklee. But I remember that once I crossed the threshold to the room where the auditioners were seated, waiting to meet me, I was suddenly filled with a sense of peace. I sang my favorite Joni Mitchell song while my father accompanied me on the piano, then performed an original piece with my guitar. Throughout the audition, I felt a sense of certainty that if I was meant to attend Berklee, then things would inevitably work out.
Exactly two months later, in the middle of a choral festival, I received my letter of acceptance via a friend’s iPhone; my entire chorus erupted into an outburst of spontaneous celebration in response, halting the production for several elated minutes.
That August, I moved to Boston, and college began.
My first year at Berklee was one of the most difficult periods of my life, in every aspect. I quickly realized that I had always relied entirely on raw talent; but suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people who were equally talented but worked much harder than I did, or who were just plain better than I was. This was the consequence of attending a highly selective conservatory: Once the flattery and giddiness of being accepted had worn off, the reality of being in direct competition with the top ten percent of up-and-coming musicians in the world quickly sank in, leaving my sense of who I was and what I was good at extremely vulnerable.
I could barely read music and knew only the very basics of music theory, but I had an unusually good ear, and so I was mistakenly placed into courses that were much too advanced for me. I convinced myself that the hours that I had to spend preparing for each class, and the intense anxiety and amount of tears that this caused, were worth the prestige of being in higher-level classes as a first semester student. I continued to deny the reality of the situation to protect my self-esteem, even as my teachers were telling me that I wasn’t advanced enough to be in their classes. I pushed through, working hard to prove everyone wrong by just barely scraping by, even as I was falling apart emotionally.
On top of everything else, the severe stress that I was experiencing resulted in a host of health problems, including a terrible bout of acid reflux that ruined my voice for the majority of my first two semesters. This took away the one thing that made me feel like I deserved to attend the best contemporary music school in the world, and it damaged my belief in my own talent beyond repair.
The silver lining to my harrowing first year of college was that I truly developed my abilities as a songwriter. I found that I could rely on songwriting as a way to manage my overwhelming emotions, as well as to continue making music without having full use of my voice. My songs became much more sophisticated in the course of that year, both musically and lyrically, as a function of being surrounded by talented songwriters; learning so much about the fundamentals of music and the components of great songs; and having highly complex emotions that needed to be processed and dealt with somehow. About the relationship that I was dealing with during that time and the way that the songs helped me through, I wrote, “I feel that I should thank you, ‘cause I’ve always been polite/For breaking every promise you ever made/And for all the songs you gave me, I never dreamed that I would write/There’s one for every night you should have stayed,” and “This song is for myself, I’ll keep it for my own for the very first time/To wrap around me like a blanket on the loneliest nights.” I started to take all of the words that I couldn’t say to the person who had hurt me so terribly and set them to music, turning all of the despair that I felt into something tangible that I could perform and feel proud of.
The love and skill that I discovered within myself for songwriting got me through the next year of school, but the straw that broke the camel’s back came at the end of my fourth semester. I had been doing well in my classes and had found a few teachers who saw my potential and provided me with the encouragement that I craved. I decided to apply for the Berklee Achievement Scholarship, the one funding opportunity available to continuing students, which I felt like I had a real shot at attaining. I spent months recording and arranging songs that I had written; obtaining more than the required amount of letters of recommendation; and emphatically writing and editing essays for my portfolio, only to receive an email in the middle of finals week notifying me that I hadn’t received any funding. After four semesters of being criticized constantly and never feeling good enough in the area that I had sacrificed so much to pursue full-time, it felt like the message was finally getting through: “This isn’t the right place for you.”
I got through my exams somehow and traveled back to Pennsylvania for Christmas, where I spent the next month trying to articulate to my parents the reservations that I felt about finishing my degree at Berklee. The conversation continued all the way back to Massachusetts. On the final night of winter break, before he drove back to Pennsylvania alone, my father and I sat down to dinner at a seafood restaurant on a cold, deserted Cape Cod. Oddly, as I tried to explain to him the dread that I felt about returning to school, nearly a hundred clowns arrived for dinner in full regalia and occupied every other table in the restaurant. As I fought back tears while describing my feelings of total failure as a musician, all around us, clowns were making balloon animals, depressing whoopee cushions, and shooting balloons across the room, making for a very strange evening indeed.
That night, my father dropped me off in front of my dorm, and it took all of my willpower to resist the urge to throw my bags back into the car and return to the place where I had grown up to lay low for a while and lick my wounds. I was still trying to convince myself that despite everything that I felt, the blame was on me for not working hard enough or having enough talent, rather than the possibility that somewhere out there, there might have been a better life for me.
I remember the day that the revelation came to me that there might be another way. I was looking out of the window of my traditional harmony class onto the gray winter streets as the snow began to fall. As my mind drifted away from the lecture, the thought occurred to me: “I can transfer to another school.” I was suddenly filled with a level of invigoration that I hadn’t felt since I had first moved to Boston. As soon as the class ended, I took a shortcut through an alley to get back to my room as quickly as possible to start researching my options. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or where, but suddenly the world was rife with opportunity.
I toyed with multiple possibilities for my life during those months, conceptualizing each potential future as branches on a gargantuan tree, where each option had the potential to set me off on a completely different trajectory. I felt revitalized by the vast emptiness and mystery of the future that had opened up in front of me. I knew that music would always occupy a permanent, non-negotiable place in my heart, and that it needed to remain a part of my life in order for me to feel fulfilled. However, ultimately, it was time to acknowledge that I was not cut out for a career as a full-time musician, and that I had to give myself a chance to pursue all of the other things that I had always loved in order to find my true passion. I needed a career where working hard would be correlated with success, rather than having a future that relied far more on luck than on talent, and where I didn’t need positive affirmations from those around me on a near-constant basis in order to survive.
I ultimately enrolled at UMass Boston, which allowed me to stay in the city that I had come to love and where I had made some truly significant connections in the previous two years. As soon as my first semester at UMass began, I found myself excelling in a way that I hadn’t in years; I realized my intelligence and potential in areas besides music for the first time in so long. I immediately fell in love with my psychology and sociology classes and decided to pursue a dual major, finishing my degree exactly two years after I started, and a master’s degree at Brandeis the following year.
More than anything, this experience taught me the importance of being honest with myself about who I really am, as well as the person that I will never be. Deciding to give up on a glamorous but unrealistic dream that I had had for a long time and to completely start over from scratch was extremely difficult; however, I never really doubted that I was doing the right thing for myself.
I went to Berklee’s commencement ceremony in 2012 to see one of my best friends graduate, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that had I stayed on the course that I had set for myself four years earlier, I would be walking across that stage as well. As I listened to the speakers address my former classmates, I let myself mourn the collapse of my grandiose plans for a few minutes, wondering if I would have had a real shot at a career as a singer/songwriter had I stayed at Berklee. But then, one by one, I remembered all of the things that I have to be thankful for that I could never have achieved had I continued to live a life that was not true to who I am, and then spent the rest of the day focusing on the accomplishments of my best friend. And one month later, she sat in the audience at UMass Boston with my family as I walked across the stage and, grinning from ear to ear, accepted my diploma.