note by note by emilia richter

I stand in a room of complete strangers. Heat rises to my face and I know I’m already blushing. Stares pierce through me as I place my hands on the keyboard below. My hands are sticky and trembling, like the rest of me. The silence in the room is deafening. I take a slow breath and open my mouth to sing the first note.

About six months before this, I had started playing the charango (a 10-string Andean guitar). There was nothing I loved more than working out the chords to my favorite songs and singing my heart out. There was a catch, though — I had to be alone. When my mom asked me to sing for her, I froze. My sister told somebody I liked to sing and I looked down, shaking my head. I knew I couldn’t deny it forever, but for a while, I only practiced in the attic or when no one was home. It was my little secret. 

On a Saturday morning in early April, I walked across the parking lot toward the YMCA. In a sudden burst of confidence, I had asked my mom to take me to group singing lessons, taught by a “Mr. Storm.” I shivered with dread as I climbed the stairs to the multipurpose room. Behind a keyboard stood Mr. Storm, a tall, older man with a thick beard. His electric eyes darted around the room, and the red poof on his beanie bobbed as he spoke. After warming up with the group, I felt more confident. As I sat up straighter, Mr. Storm announced that it was time to sing individually. I gulped. 

While deep, bellowing voices sang soulful tunes and high, thin ones sang gospel music, I listened in awe. Time sped by until it was my turn. From the front of the room, I stared at the faces around me. Before I knew it, I was exhaling in relief, enveloped in applause.

Then Mr. Storm told me something I will never forget. 

“You’re very lucky to have a gift like this. You can’t be shy about it — you have a light. Don’t be afraid to shine it.”

I had walked into class feeling terrified, thinking I would be the worst singer in the group. Mr. Storm’s words helped me realize that none of that mattered. Afterward, I sang for my mom. I sang in the car on the way to Canada. I sang for my grandpa in Peru. I even sang in the parking lot. A weight had dropped from my shoulders, and wings sprouted in its place.

My senior year, I decided to do something I never would’ve dreamed of when I joined Mr. Storm’s singing group. I thought to myself, I know what I want to do. Music therapy is my thing. Why can’t I just start already? And then I realized I could. I hopped on a computer and, a couple of Google searches, several emails, and a few phone calls later, I had created a music-therapy-inspired weekly program at three senior centers in Cleveland. 

As I explained to the directors at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, I was not certified in music therapy. I did, however, have plenty of experience playing music for seniors — during my summers in Peru, I frequented my great-aunt’s nursing home, charango in hand. Most importantly, I was eager to volunteer for the Institute, bring joy to senior residents, and learn more about my future field of study. 

The icky, sticky, scary feeling I suffered when I opened my mouth to sing is now a memory. During my music sessions, I feel energy, excitement, and compassion coursing through me. I talk to the seniors, sing, clap and dance with them. I am so grateful I found a way to shine my light.


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