Teenager's Gift Helps Young Singer Pursue Her Passion
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Teenager's Gift Helps Young Singer Pursue Her Passion

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The love of music brought together two girls at Converse College’s Lawson Academy of the Arts last week.

Emma McDaniel, 16, has taken piano lessons at the academy for eight years. Some in Spartanburg may recognize her from her philanthropic efforts. At age 11, Emma, who is home schooled, began cutting coupons and donating the items she bought to charity. A few years ago, she founded a fashion show that has so far collected $47,000 for local charities.

“It makes me feel good when I sing for other people.”

Brianna Shirley, 13, is legally blind and a student at the S.C. School for the Deaf and the Blind. She may also seem familiar, from her YouTube videos that feature her singing and for making the news after singing several times with one of her favorite musicians, Zac Brown.

Brianna started taking voice lessons at Lawson Academy in September. On Thursday, she learned that Emma had made it possible by donating a $1,000 scholarship to the academy.

“Really?” Brianna said, her face lighting up with genuine surprise as she met Emma in the lobby of Converse’s Blackman Music Hall.

“I love music,” Emma said. “Music is such a big part of my life, and for someone else to have the opportunity I’ve had at Lawson Academy, it’s just a great feeling.”

Emma sat in on a lesson with Brianna and her teacher, Aimee Gans, who received a master’s degree from Converse last semester and recently directed the Spartanburg Repertory Company’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

“Music is such a big part of my life, and for someone else to have the opportunity I’ve had at Lawson Academy, it’s just a great feeling.”

Gans accompanied her young student on piano. Brianna said she had to “practice, practice and practice” for an upcoming recital, and began rehearsing one of her songs, “Oh, Shenandoah.” She will also be performing “Where Is Love?” and “Tomorrow.”

“I can really feel that song,” Brianna said, when she finished “Shenandoah.” “It’s really soft and calm.”

Brianna said she was nervous at first when she began her private lessons with Gans. “I feel at home now, though,” she said. Gans was also a little nervous, having never taught a blind student before. She said Brianna has a good ear for music. “Brianna is comfortable when she sings,” Gans said. “It’s very natural.”

Next semester, the two will work on sight reading. Gans said she’s figuring out a way for Brianna, who can see things close up, to better see notes on the page. “She’s spunky,” Gans said. “She tells me like it is, when she doesn’t understand something.”

Brianna says she’s been singing since she was 3 years old. She sings mostly solo in church, although occasionally the choir pulls her up on stage to join them. “Choir teaches me how to behave when I’m performing,” Brianna said. She’s also been in school plays and enjoys making people laugh with her impressions.

Through her YouTube videos, Brianna caught the eye of Zac Brown, lead vocalist and guitarist for the Zac Brown Band. Brianna most recently saw Brown Oct. 25 at a concert in Charlotte, and got to sing “Colder Weather” with him. “I’ve always been a fan of his,” Brianna said. “Oh yeah, he’s my bud and I’m glad.”

In addition to Emma, Lawson Academy director Paula Morgan also observed Brianna’s lesson Thursday. The meeting of the two girls was emotional for Morgan. “It is just amazing,” Morgan said. “Economic situations for many families are changing, and it’s getting harder for some of them to afford arts activities. I’ve never had a student say, ‘What can I do to give?'”

For Brianna, Emma’s gift was sweet, and Brianna feels that her singing has improved with one-on-one instruction. “I’ve always wanted to learn more,” Brianna said. “Ms. Aimee has taught me a lot of techniques.”

By the end of the meeting, Emma invited Brianna to be in her fashion show, coming up March 21 at Summit Pointe Conference and Events Center. Emma’s fundraising efforts benefit the Hope Center for Children and 4-H, an organization with which she is heavily involved. She was impressed with Brianna’s lesson. “She did great,” Emma said. “She has a beautiful voice.”

After the lesson, Brianna hugged everyone in the room. “I feel like I accomplished something,” Brianna said. “It makes me feel good when I sing for other people.”

Lawson Academy, which offers music and dance lessons for all ages, will hold spring semester registration Jan. 5-16, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For details, call 596-9022 or visit www.converse.edu/academics/school-arts/lawson-academy-arts.

Written by Jenny Arnold of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Photo credit John Byrum

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