Following one's dreams during a pandemic
Updated: Nov 16
“Surely, in the light of history, it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done.’” - Eleanor Roosevelt
photo by Mo Rackers: Saint Dominic High School's production of Les Miserables, 2019
It’s no secret that the 2020 pandemic hit the music industry particularly hard. Broadway, the New York Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and nearly all other live entertainment agencies in the USA and around the world are closed until Fall of 2021 at least. In a time when the life of a musician has been turned upside-down, the foresight and perseverance of one high school senior in Saint Louis is setting a standard of hope.
Charlie Wehde discovered a passion for the stage during his freshman year of high school. When nominated for Best Actor for his performance as Marius in Les Miserables during his sophomore year, the idea of making a living on stage solidified. His natural talent, engaging personality, self determination, and supportive family have leveraged him well in this regard.
Charlie threw himself wholeheartedly into every opportunity to better himself as a musician and an actor, juggling a loaded schedule of school, private lessons, and music productions. Just in 2019, he played roles in seven different musicals, including such notable leads as Jesus in Godspell, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, Marius in Les Miserables, and Jack Kelly in Newsies.
“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play.” - Richard Strauss
One critical thing was missing from these activities, however: formal singing lessons. Last year the heavy singing schedule was starting to take its toll on the voice of the self-taught singer. Charlie knew of Michael’s work as a teacher of singing, having witnessed the transformation of his classmate, Soprano Lily McKnight, from a shy chorister to a captivating star performer in their school musicals. (Lily has gone on to pursue a degree in vocal performance at Southeast Missouri State. She was awarded scholarships for academics and for music.) Once learning of Michael’s own history as a professional singer and actor, he knew he had found the missing link.
photo by Mo Rackers: Charlie Wehde and Lily McKnight starring in Godspell, 2019
Charlie began voice lessons in a respected and distinguished singing and pedagogical lineage at the beginning of his junior year of high school. “Michael opened my eyes to a lot of things. He has given me knowledge of the anatomy of my instrument, and applications for that knowledge. A lot of my progress in navigating my instrument has come from recognizing that my voice is, in fact, a complicated instrument. It’s not just a simple lever which you push harder to get more sound, if that makes sense.
"I’m happy to see that Broadway is shifting away from the era of belters and screaming tenors and mezzo-sopranos. Versatility is important. I’m excited to see what Broadway looks like in another 10 years.”
Charlie quickly excelled in Michael’s studio. In March of 2020, at the end of his junior year of high school, he was looking forward to performing the star role of Sky Masterson in Saint Dominic High School’s production of Guys and Dolls.
But the virus had other plans. Just days from opening night, it was announced to a heartbroken cast that the musical had to be cancelled entirely.
Uncertainty about the future is pretty normal for a high school senior. Career choices, college applications, and leaving one’s circle of friends and family can all be sources of apprehension. Add a worldwide pandemic and the shutdown of Broadway into the mix, and Charlie naturally found himself questioning the future. “Should I be pursuing a career on the stage, when Broadway itself is closed indefinitely?”
photo by Mo Rackers
Tom and Sarah, Charlie’s parents, have been encouraging him to hold tight to his dreams, reminding him that the pandemic won’t last forever. It hasn’t always been easy helping him to follow those dreams, however, when the path is so unclear.
Sometimes the only thing that a person can do is take the next step. When one is determined to eat an elephant, one must do so simply one bite at a time.
In Michael Rocchio’s studio, that next step was transitioning in-person lessons to virtual lessons. As private lessons, schools and productions all over the country shut down during that historic week in March, Michael brought to the fore the skills he had honed as the very first online teacher of classical singing a number of years ago. Having worked with students as far away as New Zealand, he had already developed methods to deal with sound latency and less-than-perfect audio technology. Michael was able to maintain a solid connection with his students in a time of confusion.
Charlie’s mother, Sarah, could not have been more grateful for Michael’s presence in Charlie’s life during such an historic time. “Michael gives great advice, and is a real mentor. In a world which Charlie wants to be in perspective, he helps him to take the blinders off, to see his own potential. Michael works with him not only from a vocal standpoint, but helps him to build self confidence and to develop as a person. I’m so glad that Charlie has his mentorship right now.”
photo by Mo Rackers: two of Michael's voice students; Charlie, Tenor, as the Tin Man, and Nate Johnson, Basso Profundo, as the Wizard of Oz, 2019
The "Performer's Mindset" is something Michael develops with his students. Michael helped Charlie to see the opportunity within adversity. The world may have gone through a shutdown, but Charlie didn’t have to. The absence of theatrical productions was presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perfect his craft of singing.
Charlie committed himself to the shift, and in the past several months has made tremendous strides as a singer. Following Michael’s lead, Charlie has also been focusing on the virtual world, seeking out opportunities for online exposure. “The internet and social media are avenues for expression that have been begging to be explored. Now is the time to do it.”
Charlie added that feeling safe in one’s environment is necessary for doing one’s best work, and is thankful that many arts programs are taking Covid-19 safety precautions so seriously.
It was in this online quest that he learned from another family member about Broadway World’s Next on Stage competition. Among several giveaways, Grand Prize winners will receive a $1000 donation to a charity of choice, get to record a single for the Actors Fund on Broadway Records, and take part in a behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway casting session.
“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.” - Chinese Proverb
Charlie recorded and submitted a video for the competition, not knowing what to expect. At the time of the writing of this blog article, Charlie has advanced through the Top 30 and Top 10, to the Top 5, and is undergoing voting for the Top 3 position, running against candidates across the country from San Francisco to New Jersey.
Charlie has applied to all of his colleges of choice, and plans to pursue a BFA (Bachelor in Fine Arts) degree. When not singing and going to school, he has been working with his guitar and channeling energy into writing, the latter having been an interest for which he had no time prior to the shutdown.
When asked about his experience taking voice lessons online, he observes, “The connection of in-person experiences is hard to recreate, but with all the technology we have now, we are getting closer and closer. The time we live in gives us new opportunities. I have noticed that with online lessons, I need to create the space in order to learn productively. Just sitting on a bed is not a proactive environment for me. I don’t like to compare in-person lessons to online lessons too much, though. They are just different kinds of experiences.”
Looking back over the past seven months, Charlie acknowledges that the shift into this new way of life has not always been easy. Nonetheless, he is grateful for many of the changes. “I didn’t have a break in years. I loved what I was doing, and just kept piling stuff on, not realizing how thin I was spread. Time for myself was missing, and that was translating into my craft. I was so used to working under rushed settings with deadlines. Now I can say that my most productive work has not been under the deadline of a show.
"Not being under pressure now, I can explore what I really love.”
Wehde family L to R: college freshman Delaney (Contralto and former student in Michael's studio), Natalie, Sarah and Tom, Mary Kate, and Charlie
Michael Rocchio is a professional singer, and teacher of singing, with a voice studio in Ballwin, MO. He has worked with students in all forms of music: Classical, Musical Theater, Jazz, and even Rock, teaching the ‘real deal’ - true Bel Canto singing.
photos by Mo Rackers; senior portrait by Hannah Wilmes