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. I tested out my original songs on various audiences and learned 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 top music school 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.
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 top music school: 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…