The following article is part of our Student Spotlight series, which highlights the stories and experiences of Real School students and their families.
Leighann Hodgkins recently sat down for an interview with Real School student pianist, singer, and songwriter Jenna Holiday. Over the past year, Jenna’s musical career has been taking off, including winning the New England Sings competition in Ogunquit, Maine, with former American Idol judge Kara DioGuirdi, performing a solo song live at the Boston Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony, and performing with the Real School Queen Tribute Band ensemble.
Leighann: Hi everyone, I’m so excited to be here today with THE Jenna Holiday! Thank you so much for coming in and letting me interview you.
Jenna: No problem, thanks for having me!
Leighann: You've been a Real School student for quite some time. When did you start here and what made you come here?
Jenna: I actually started a long time ago at the Bradford School of Music before Real School in Andover was a thing. I started with Jim Zaroulis at Bradford and then it became The Real School of Music. It was so convenient because I live in Andover, so the 30-minute drive to Bradford became like five minutes. And I’ve been coming here since then.
Leighann: When did you start playing the piano?
Jenna: I started playing piano when I was younger. I started by doing a group lesson, which was exactly what you can imagine: eight kids in a room with keyboards and a Russian instructor who's standing there holding up a flash card for about three seconds, putting it down and then being like, "what is the note?"
And me, with undiagnosed ADHD and a little bit of blindness in my eyes was just like, “what's going on?” the whole time! It was just not a fit. I really wanted to quit when I was younger because I hated the lessons, but my parents decided that maybe I should just get a one-on-one lesson and eventually that's how I found Jim. And from then on, I've loved piano and it's just been a big part of my life.
As for singing, I never saw myself as a singer until I realized that it's something that I really enjoy as much as piano. I always thought of my singing voice as the instrument for me to communicate the songs I'd write, so I have to sound good and I have to sing well in order for my songs to sound good. And then recently I just started realizing I love singing and I consider myself a singer now, too.
Leighann: You do a lot of songwriting and recently it's been blowing up for you. Has that been something that you've been doing your whole life?
Jenna: It's weird because I've pretty much been writing songs my entire life and I can't really even think of a starting point. Even before I wrote my first ‘official’ song, I just walked around the house singing random lyrics and words. It was just something that’s second nature... I just did it naturally.
A couple of years ago I wrote a song I really liked and my dad said, "this is good, think this is a song, this is structured, you could release this!" And so for the past two years or so it's just been more like now, with more people hearing it, but it's really just something I've done my whole life and I don't see myself stopping.
Leighann: How has music made a positive impact on your life?
Jenna: Music has been a really positive thing in my life because I feel like it's giving me this sense of consistency. Whenever anything happens in my life, music is somehow connected. If I'm traveling somewhere, I'm always listening to music. I'm always thinking about music and I'll literally be doing anything and I'll think something in my head and I'll say something that's like a lyric. It's just gotten to the point where music is just so embedded in everything I do. It's never been a negative thing, it's always been something really positive.
Leighann: Who are the people who have been most supportive of your musical goals?
Jenna: The people who have the most supportive of musical goals would have to be, of course first and foremost, my family. My parents have told me countless times not to worry about anything, just do music, and we'll support you. We'll put money towards things we didn't realize we have to spend it on for you and put it into anything that you need, because they really truly believe in what I do.
That has been the biggest thing. They've told me countless times that they really want me and my brother to pursue careers that make us happy and to do something that we love, so I think they're really, really on board with music and me doing it all the time.
My dad, the other day, said, "don't worry about getting a job or doing the teenage things. Just write songs, that's your job." And for my parents to take our time we usually spend on vacation and instead go to LA and help me and bring me to meetings and do things like that, it's awesome.
And everyone at Real School have also been really great, too. Since I've been with the school for such a long time, it's almost like I come in and Jim has become less of a piano teacher and more of a mentor. I go in and just rant because he is the only person who really understands the music thing. Everyone in my life of course, they know about it, but Jim, he's been there and he understands music. I can rant to him about a chord progression I hate... he gets it!
Leighann: Who are some of your heroes and who are you inspired by?
Jenna: All of the musical influences throughout my life, songs I hear, and I'll immediately go out search on the person who wrote it and I'll look into what they do, how they live their life, anything to see if I can figure out how they did it.
Leighann: Why do you think you've done so well in music?
Jenna: I can't see myself doing anything else, and I've considered it a lot. What would I do if I didn't do music and it's kind of weird because I don't think I'd do anything but music. No matter what happens, I'm going to end up somewhere in the music industry with where things are heading now.
it's happening already. It just hasn't really been that much of a surprise to me. It just feels like it was bound to happen and I'm just really thankful. I'm ready to get down into it, make it a job and do it full time. I'm just excited for it!.
Leighann: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who want to better their skills?
Jenna: I've learned so much more in piano and singing and songwriting from simply loving it and doing it. Jim can give me all these classical pieces to work on and, would I do them? Probably not. Would I do it in the lesson? Probably, but would I learn much from it? Not really. I've learned that I don't like classical pieces, I've learned that I'd much rather listen to them then play them.
But my knowledge of where notes are on the piano is developed. It's kind of crazy. I never saw myself as someone who would be able to sit down and solo, that was completely out of the picture. And now when I write songs, I just press record and I know where to go.
I'm like, "oh, I need this chord next," and I've memorized the way the piano works. Not because I just commanded myself to sit there and do chords, scales, the circle of fifths. It's never been that. It's just been, if I want to be able to enjoy this as much as possible, let's make it as easy as possible.
So, for anyone who wants to pursue music or do music, you’ve really got to find time for yourself to enjoy it. And, it doesn't have to be a classical piece. It doesn't have to be a violin. You can find it in anything and I've learned the most about it for myself and by just doing it.
Another big thing is knowing that the people in your life, your instructors here, they also can teach you a lot more than just music. If you want to do different things in your music, never be afraid to ask your instructors weird little things. I ask Jim weird questions all the time, even if it's not related to what we’re working on. Just never be afraid to go to them to ask them things that you think you're gonna need to know, because it could be important.
Being an advocate for yourself and using the resources you have is so important, and I really wish I had treated it more as a resource and less is like a, 'practice your piano and do this or that.'
Leighann: So out of everything you've done, which to this point has been quite a list, what have been your most memorable experiences in music?
Jenna: My most memorable thing at Real School was doing the Queen tribute ensemble performance. That was a really fun thing through The Real School, we worked really, really hard and a lot of people enjoyed it. We were able to raise money for cancer. It was it was a very, very different thing than what I've done before because I do a lot of the just solo things or things that aren't based around a prompt or a theme.
Since it was such a focused experience, I love Queen now more than I did before. I have such a newfound respect for everything they do. I'll hear a Queen song on the radio and say, "I know the parts in the song!" That was such a really fun experience. It was like taking music and bringing up to the level of a play or production.
Another big experience had to be the tree lighting I did in Boston this winter. Because I won Kara DioGuirdi's Ogunquit New England Sings competition, I got to perform an original song on TV in front of a ton of people in Boston for the annual tree lighting ceremony. I feel like that was a milestone in my musical career.
It was my first televised thing where I was in front of a ton of people. Which is fun, because you can't see anything when the lights are in your face, so it just feels like you're on the stage with great sound system. You can hear the bass really well and it sounds like the recordings and it's so crystal clear. It just becomes fun.
Leighann: The funniest part of that whole night was we waited all night for your performance here at the school, and when it came on, I ran so fast down this hallway to get all of your instructors! Because Matthew Condon-Rivera didn't wanna miss it, and Dani Fortner didn't want to miss it, and Matt Fisher and Jim Zaroulis. I just grab them all; they brought all of their students with them and there were about 40 of us in the lobby… all totally silent.
And we have the TV turned up and I said, "look, it's Jenna!!!" And we were so proud. Maybe an hour or so later, I watch the same pink jacket run by the window and thought, "no, that can't be." You came running in and said, "I have Queen rehearsal!" And you just ran back and went to rehearsal and I thought, "that is a really cool kid." (laughing)
Jenna: My parents said, "do you want to go to Queen?" And I thought, "oh my gosh, I can go... I have the time to do it." After what felt like a big moment at the tree lighting, I just really liked the idea of returning to this routine.
Leighann: It was wonderful talking to you! I'm so excited to see where the future takes you and thank you so much for coming and letting me interview you!
Jenna: Thank you for having me, this has been so fun!
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