June 27, 2013

The Courage to Be a Musician

By Mark MacNamara

Ariel BowserAriel Bowser has always suffered from stage fright. From the sixth grade on, and it has never gotten much better.

Bowser, now 18, is one year out of the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco. She was one of Vocal Department Chair Todd Wedge’s original students and remains one of his most promising. “She’s come so far,” he said recently. “And what a pleasure to hear her sing.”

But when she found music, in the sixth grade, at first more experience provided little support and even standing ovations did nothing to lessen Bowser’s fear in those first few minutes, coming out onstage, with the indomitable lights, the people rustling in their seats, the eternal wait for a first note and that slow bridge from outside the music to inside. People said they could see her knees shake, and she knew that sometimes she messed up. She felt so bad about that, so bad she could nearly die, and all she could think was, don’t judge me, please, just give me time and you’ll see who I am, you’ll see how great I am.

She spent sixth grade in a Japanese immersion school and sang in Japanese in the choir. As always people noticed. The next year, during Black History Month, she sang a Mariah Carey song and again the crowd rose. And then each year she started winning prizes, not just applause.

In eighth grade, at Everett Middle School, she took her first music class. She learned rhythm, how to read and warm up, do scales and sing with a piano. She was also introduced to classical music. Her teacher suggested she try out for SOTA. “You won’t be singing R&B anymore,” he told her. “You’ll be singing classical but you’ll do just fine.”

In the Deep End

SOTA is not for the faint of heart, and it was the year before Todd Wedge arrived. The school was in transition. Teachers came and went. Bowser felt like “a very small fish in a very big pond,” and her lack of classical music knowledge and training didn’t help. In the hallways and out in the courtyard would-be divas ruled and Ariel heard them whispering: “I don’t understand what’s she doing here; she’s not so great.” In the music labs it was no better. Always the feeling of judgment. The worrying about not being good enough. And the relentless competition.

Ariel BowserBowser’s sophomore year was much better, in no small measure because of Todd Wedge. Suddenly, there was order. Egos had to be put away in your drawer. She regained her confidence, found a fit, and in a performance of Orpheus, nailed it. For a moment, she was no longer the underdog.

But then, in junior year, the rollercoaster plunged once more. Bowser's beloved mentor at Everett died. Her father died; she barely knew him. She completely lost interest in school; even her closest friend, Eugene, couldn’t help. But in the second half of the year, the world turned, her labs improved, Wedge took new notice, and, most important, she felt respect within the diva cliques.

In her last year, in 2012, the good times kept rolling. She got a grant for voice lessons, she got more singing opportunities. In February (and again this year) she sang Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” the magnificent, jazzy hymn that closes the revised version of his Black, Brown, and Beige suite, with a youth jazz ensemble at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the audience put down their sandwiches and wine glasses to listen, and loved it. She was invited to sing at the African American Honor Roll event at St. Mary’s Cathedral and chose O mio babbino caro and Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.”

She also sang at a TedTalk: Tedx Presidio. “They had us dress in baggy clothing and hoodies and we were standing with our backs to the audience and you had the sense of some kids coming out to do some hip-hop, but then we turned around and sang opera. It was a wonderful play on the misconceptions that come out of stereotyping African Americans”

And so that last year at SOTA it all came together and this year it’s been a little tougher. She’s in a community college but would love to study at Pepperdine. She sang The Star-Spangled Banner for the San Francisco Bulls hockey game at the Cow Palace. “The music is taking off,” she told us the other day. Slowly, but it’s happening. “I don’t want anything to get in the way.”

Perseverance: The Hard Lesson

No matter which year it is, no matter the obstacle, Bowser’s aunt always tells her, in one way or another, ‘Ariel, you’ve got to move on. Whatever happened, happened. You’ve got no excuses and no wants to hear it anyway. You have to own your talent and move on.’

Ariel doesn’t like to talk about the past. Because then people throw pity at her and that’s the worst judgment of all. But here it is anyway, told very dispassionately, with that smooth clear voice. It’s about her mother being a drug addict in the Tenderloin and her father too, and how about the only time Bowser saw him was on his deathbed, and how the minute she was born she was sent off, into foster care, to her grandmother in Vallejo, and eventually to her aunt in the Bay View; her aunt who saved her. She did, and if Bowser has ever had a mom that’s who it is.

As for her real mom, she has not seen her, but not long ago, and for the very first time, she talked to her.

“I wanted to see if I could build a relationship. The experience was hard, but it was cool. I’m still angry about a lot of issues, but it’s okay. The time we talked I was laughing; she was laughing. I see her more as a friend. I thought maybe there was a way she could be my mother again, but it didn’t happen. She lives in the Tenderloin and from what I know she says she’s clean but I’m not sure.”

She changed the subject back to stage fright. “Whenever I perform, it’s still a battle not to let nerves overtake me, and I know that sometimes my stage presence looks like someone who’s scared.”

She says that but her videos give no sense of reluctance, much less fright. We said as much. She agreed. “These days I think I look more comfortable and confident; I feel the songs, and when I’m singing and I’m really in the music I always feel very much who I am.”

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.