Choir student teacher Leah Watts stood alone onstage for the first time. She looked out at the crowd; it seemed like the whole school was watching her. Her legs began to shake as she stepped toward the microphone.
Then she sang.
Watts performed “Reflection” from Mulan during her fifth grade talent show in Andover, KS. Yet, the moment she exited the bright lights, her legs gave out, and she collapsed offstage.
Despite her frantic nerves, she had done it. And from that day on there was no going back. Others saw the shift in her, too; her parents remember the performance was a hit. She was branded “the singer” by her fifth grade classmates.
“She brought the house down because nobody knew the shy little English girl had the confidence to sing to everyone, not even [me],” her mother, Kay, said.
The talent show solidified Watts’ passion for music. Her love has grown throughout the years, guiding her to find her true goal: inspiring people with her music both through songwriting and teaching.
That shy little English girl is now recording music professionally and performs gigs throughout the Kansas City area. She has two iTunes singles and a music video with over 2,000 views on Youtube.
She spends her weekdays at a small wooden desk in the back of the East choir room. While teaching from the grey podium at the front of the room, she always has highlighted sheet music in hand. Despite her achievements, she still struggles with timidness.
“I hate the attention being on me, which as a performer doesn’t make any sense,” Watts said. “But when I’m in the music, I get lost in the music. I don’t think about [my hesitation] as much.”
Her journey towards success began the moment her voice projected across that cafeteria at the talent show in elementary school. Watts had just moved from a small town in England to Andover, KS. She struggled to adjust to her new home; she and her brother were bullied by classmates because of their British accents. However, Watts found solace in music. She escaped her troubles by listening to artists such as Carrie Underwood and making friends in choir.
Watts took voice lessons and piano lessons, attended choir classes throughout school and visited choir camp during her summer vacations. She trained vocally at Kansas State University and records tracks at Green Jeans Studios every year as a Christmas gift from her parents. Carter Green, owner of Green Jeans Studios, has witnessed Watt’s transformation since the time of her first recording session at age 15.
“I could tell right away that Leah has a special gift, as she writes her own music as well as lyrics, not to mention that her voice is simply fantastic,” Green said. “Leah has grown every time she has come to the studio, both vocally and in her songwriting.”
Green has seen that growth prominently in her lyrics. Watts writes about love, loss and the little things in life. She brainstorms ideas for lyrics based on everything from her boyfriend to summer rain, to a quote she saw on a girl’s t-shirt in class. She describes her sound as country-pop and says her music is a reflection of her personality.
She hopes that people can find themselves in her music, inspiring them to follow their own dreams and happiness. She experienced her goal to impact others become a reality as she sang the national anthem at the annual Cure SMA Race-N-Roll on Sept. 19. On a chilly Saturday morning, her voice projected from a single speaker over a small crowd gathered in the Bishop Miege High School parking lot.
This is why I perform, she thought to herself as she looked upon the smiling faces of the handicapped kids and their supporters.
“It was one of my favorite gigs I’ve ever done,” Watts said. “The fact that I could somehow make an impact to that day – I would choose [singing at a small charity event] over singing at the Royals any day.”
Watts also plays in corner spots of local coffee shops, like Caribou Coffee. She often enters herself into songwriting stages at festivals on the weekends. Despite the fact that she is trying to further her songwriting career, she would be fine if her career doesn’t advance out of the Kansas City scene. If she can impact just one person, she will feel good about her music.
Not only does she hope to encourage others with her original music, she also hopes to influence her classroom as well. Watts hopes to experience the best of both songwriting and teaching.
“When I get the question what are you doing after graduation, I always say one thing,” Watts said. “I would love to do something that involves music, involves kids and involves inspiring others.”
She doesn’t know how she will be able to do music, work with kids, and inspire others quite yet, but has begun to explore the teaching side of music during her time at East. Choir director Ken Foley observed how his students have responded to Watt’s presence.
“Our kids know enough about what we’re doing [that] it’s really obvious when a student teacher comes in and has the musicianship and the passion,” Foley said. “The kids have responded really well to her because they can see that she cares. She cares about the music, she knows music and they get the sense that she likes them. And that’s important.”
Watt’s time at East has forced her to live out her one motto: “be fearless.”
“I was terrified when I started,” Watts said. “Even my college choir wasn’t as big as some of the choirs here so standing up in front of 150 people in Choraliers I’m like ‘um I have to teach you something but I currently can’t even say my name’.”
However, encouragement from Foley and the students has elevated Watts’ confidence. She does a happy dance inside when the girls in women’s choir smile when they hear the piece she arranged for them.
East has transformed into a second home for Watts, like her own school choir was a similar place of comfort. She wants to bring that feeling to her students. She hopes that she can always be there for her students to be fearless to accomplish their own goals.
“If you want to audition for that solo, audition,” Watts said. “If you want to do something outside of school with music, go for it. “If [a student] want[s] to be a journalist or a firefighter or go into the army, or do something that has nothing to do with music, I hope I can inspire them [to do that] with music.”