In Conversation with Michelle Alonso

In the Meet Our Musicians series, Jellynote introduces you to the Creators behind the sheet music on our platform. Discover their musical style and get to know them!

There have been two constants in Michelle Alonso’s life: music and faith. The two have stuck by her and helped her through all the difficulties she’s faced: growing up in a town without much exposure to the arts, learning to deal with debilitating stage fright, seeing her dreams of studying music at college crushed. Throughout all of this, her faith in God and her love of music were her motivation, her guiding light, her passions. They inspired her in everything she does, and continue to do so.

Check out Michelle’s lead sheet of “How Great is Our God” for piano.

How Michelle got introduced to music

Michelle’s first introduction to music were the piano lessons she received when she was five. Her house was filled with music. Her mother, in particular, loved to sing. While Michelle strongly believes she could have become a professional musician, a lack of opportunity and self-believe initially prevented her from considering that path. Living in a small town in Brazil, access to music and teachers was sparse. As such, the idea that she’d ever become a professional music seemed ‘far-fetched.’ In fact, it didn’t even occur to her until she moved to the US after graduating high school to attend college.

Michelle’s passion for music was nurtured alongside her beliefs. The two have always been complimenting each other, serving as two sides of the same coin. She belonged to a variety of different church choirs and music ensembles. She was a member of the children’s choir and, somewhat unusually, also sang in the adult choir. The countless hours she spent as a baby in her mother’s singing rehearsals prepared her well for a life dedicated to praising God through her music.

Her father had different musical passions, perhaps somewhat unusually – Gregorian chant.

“One experience I remember vividly was my dad putting on Gregorian chant for us to listen to. At first I thought it sounded really weird, but I thought that if my dad liked it, then I should give it a chance. I think that’s how I ended up developing a taste for all kinds of vocal music”

Michelle Alonso tells us about how she was initiated to music by her parents

When reality did not match the expectations

At 18, Michelle thought she had it all figured out. Having moved to the States with her family, she would attend a community college for a year or so to save money. She would then transfer to a four-year university where she would study classical performance perhaps at Berkeley, UCLA or Irvine.  After graduating college, she would attempt to establish a career as a performance pianist. This was her plan.

Though she quickly discovered that life seldom goes to plan. After completing her time at the community college, she ran into trouble with her documentation and was forced to put her higher education on hold for five years. For many, this would have been a bitter blow, and in some ways it was. However, Michelle, rather than putting her career on hold, decided to make the most of the time she had been given.

How Michelle dealt with a 5-year hiatus from school

“It was during this 5 year hiatus from school that I discovered composition, even though it felt very frustrating at the time, I wouldn’t be where I am without it.”

It felt right. Deep down, she knew she didn’t want to study classical performance.

What strikes me about Michelle’s origin story with regards to composition is that there wasn’t one moment where it all fell into place. She just started writing songs and, in doing so, realised that you didn’t have to be a ‘genius’ to write music.

“I had very naive ideas about music,” she admits, “I never considered composition before, even though I’ve always had ideas about what might work musically. My friends thought it was an obvious choice but it never crossed my mind!”

Check out Michelle’s lead sheet of “Good Good Father” for piano.

When things start to fall into place

During her time away from college, Michelle began to experiment with composition. She took a few private composition lessons. This process was life-changing for her. Not only did it open a new door to her, the belief of her teachers, her family and eventually herself allowed her to break away from the limiting thoughts and self-doubt that had weighed down upon her all her life. Eventually, she wrote her first song. Then her second, then her third, until she had a small portfolio to submit as part of her application. And she was accepted. 8 years after she was initially forced to stall her education, she graduated from the University of North Texas, with a degree in composition. She then stayed on to do a Masters in Jazz Studies, with an emphasis in composition and arrangement.

Considering applying to a music college yourself? Check out our article on how to ace the audition for all our top tips.

Since graduating, Michelle has devoted most of her time to songwriting and released an EP in 2018. She started putting the songs together in 2016, some of which she wrote in 2012 while still at college. The songs are uplifting to say the least. Five minutes into her Spotify collection I feel as if I could write a successful self-help book. It feels as if they come from a place of optimism, with truly inspiring lyrics and a wonderfully melodic piano accompaniment. The songs were home-recorded but you wouldn’t guess it. With my years of ingrained British cynicism, I’m half-expecting to cringe at their religious subject matter, but I can’t help but love them. Their purpose is to “empower people”, to make them feel “loved or less lonely”, “at peace.” Ultimately, she wants to have a constructive impact on the world around her.

“I don’t really like to categorise my songs as religious or secular because it’s so difficult to do so. I’ve written love songs that aren’t religious, but definitely have underlying values that are grounded in my religious experience. Everything’s connected,” she explains.

“I probably wouldn’t get involved in a project that condones values I don’t think would have a positive impact on society. Is it a positive message that is going to help people, empower people? That’s how I decide whether I get involved in a project or not.”

Michelle’s music feels so authentic and unique to her personality and character. I can’t help but wonder how much of her composing ability was innate and how much she learned at college. She acknowledges that she’s applied some of the concepts of melody writing and arranging to song-writing, but admits that she was never taught how to write lyrics, which has become an integral part of her song-writing now.

No place for regrets

Does she regret going to college to learn something she might have learned by herself?

“It’s tricky,” she tells me.

She recognises that her degree taught her so much, but wishes they had covered some of the more practical aspects of making it as a musician like, for example, copyright.

“In my programme, I wish I had had a course, even just a semester where we would have gone through copyright law, understanding what you can and cannot do. It’s almost impossible for an educational system to be able to keep up with the changes that are happening in society. It’s this big, rigid thing so it’s hard to change and incorporate things.”

On the subject of regrets, I cannot help but ask Michelle if she wishes she had received a more musician training growing up.

She pauses for a moment, before truthfully telling me:

“Maybe at some point in my life I did. I thought it had prevented me from learning certain things, but now, looking back, I realise I have learned so many other skills. Maybe in two years time I’ll have something else to say. But at the end of the day, I think we have to play with the cards we’re dealt and do the best we can with the opportunities we’re given.”

Check out Michelle’s lead sheet of “Everlasting God” for piano.

Michelle’s routine

Nowadays though, her dedication and commitment is clear. She has a set routine that she follows, which involves getting up early, doing some reading, meditation and praying, exercising, eating breakfast, getting ready, all before 8 am. She’ll then compose from 8 until 2, setting aside everything else – emails, social media, practicing for upcoming gigs. Routine is crucial for her, otherwise she easily finds herself “pulled into so many different directions.” So often, a musician’s career is made up of so many different things – teaching, composing, performing. For Michelle, between learning the specific repertoire for the variety of gigs she plays and trying to promote her current EP, it can be difficult to find time to actually compose. So imposing and sticking to a set routine makes all the difference.

In addition to this, Michelle recognises the way her family has encouraged her and the support she has received from her husband who is, in her words, her “number one fan.” While not a musician, he understands the difficulties of the industry.

The question I always find myself asking whenever I meet a professional musician is – were you always so dedicated? Michelle’s answer is slightly unexpected, as she tells me that her parents would struggle to get her to practice when she was a child.

That said, the understanding that she needed a drastic change in mindset has really revolutionized her approach to music. In the past, Michelle suffered terrible performance anxiety, verging on full on panic attacks. It took her a while to understand it, but she now puts this anxiety down to a fear of not possessing the ‘It Factor’, the level of talent that would put her over the top. This fear would slow down her learning process because whenever she faced obstacles she would accept them, spiralling off into self-pity and self-loathing. She has worked tremendously hard to change this thought process.

“These are just problems to be solved and if you can’t solve it one way, you have to think of a different way, and if the second way doesn’t solve the issue, think of a third way, and a fourth way. You keep going until you solve the problem.”

Learning to embrace her mistakes and not limit herself has been “really liberating”.

Finally, she attributes her success to her ongoing and constant faith in God, which, she believes, has instilled her with a sense of purpose. Her calling? To show love to people through music.

Check out Michelle’s lead sheet of “I love to praise him” for piano.

If Michelle could turn back time

I’m keen to ask Michelle what advice she’d give to her younger self, if she could, as the song goes, ‘turn back time.’

Her first piece of advice is simple – write. Write as much as possible, every single day, and don’t stop. Finish your songs.

The next piece is perhaps more difficult to follow.

“Don’t take things so seriously,” she replies, “I have a tendency to take things very seriously – I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take life seriously, but I think having a lightness to music, and to the arts in general, helps a lot. I think it would have helped me to not question myself so much.”

Giving back as a teacher

Michelle also spends her time teaching students of all ages. She enjoys it a lot though finds that some students, especially teenagers, sometimes struggle to fully trust their teachers, especially if the process does not come as easily as they expected. Her advice for new students, therefore, is to listen to your teachers and not give up if things get hard! Learning music is a slow process, don’t be disheartened if you find it difficult!

Are you a music teacher looking to expand your client base? Check out our article on how to find students in your local area.

Michelle loved music theory as a child. For her, taking time to draw each note perfectly was an artistic exercise. Learning theory allowed her to progress and take on more advanced concepts, enabled her to understand scale degrees and chord construction etc. Of course, most students do not have the same relationship with music theory. As a result, she has to find ways to make it seem accessible and fun. How does she do this seemingly impossible task?

“You have to tailor your classes to your student’s interests, which can involve a lot of work as you have to properly get to know the student. You should also try a more integrated approach, putting the theory into practice. The reason kids often don’t like theory is because it’s hard to translate what they’re seeing on the paper to the actual playing. Bridging this gap, translating one to the other, is how you can get them to actually enjoy music theory.”

And her relationship with Jellynote?

Michelle is very happy to be working with Jellynote, praising the sense of connection to other musicians it offers her. She is very excited to get her next pieces uploaded and continue the collaboration!

Visit Michelle’s Creator profile and play Michelle’s favorite songs!

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About author
William Ridd is a writer based in London. After a messy divorce from the clarinet, William decided that playing music wasn’t for him, but he continues to appreciate it and likes writing about it.
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