Several years ago, Belmont resident Jamilyn Helms, now 14, was getting to enjoy some hard fought opportunities and was realizing some successes that included learning to figure skate, taking acting and dance lessons and learning to sing in front of an audience.
Jamilyn is, by her nature, an extremely quiet, reserved and attentive young lady and is never one to draw attention to herself.
That is until it comes to her love of music and musical theater.
Jamilyn Helms, 14, daughter of Dennis and Joyce Helms of Belmont, practices with her vocal coach Jennifer Vanella (standing at left). In February, Jamilyn participated in her first classical vocal competition, held in Philadelphia at Temple University, and wowed the judges with her performance pieces sung in English, German and Italian. Vanella said her student, “works at the level of a freshman in college for music and singing.” Jamilyn is a freshman at St. Clairsville High School.
“The Phantom of the Opera” is one of Jamilyn’s favorites. The teen has seen the play more than five times, and recently took in a performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic at the Ohio Theater in Columbus, Ohio. Joining Jamilyn, right, was her friend Samantha Klemm, left.
All those interests seemed to come together for her in February as she steadied herself to step out on a stage - essentially alone - at a select juried competitive vocal competition held in Philadelphia at Temple University.
It was not a competition for the faint of heart, and yet this very soft spoken 14-year-old performed flawlessly. Of her competition performance pieces, two were sung in other languages: German and Italian.
The high school freshman was the youngest competitor, but that did not prove to be a problem when it came to the successes she enjoyed that weekend. It was her first classical vocal competition. Clearly, it was not destined to be her last.
That day she literally wowed the judges with her performances of three classical music selections.
The vocal competition experience was nothing short of a life changing event for her, her family and even her professional vocal coach who had only had the young singer as a student for a short time.
Jamilyn has hardly been able to stop smiling since singing in the Philadelphia-based competition, nor should she. Quite simply, the girl can sing with a voice that would be viewed as exceptional for an adult professional vocalist who would have been working diligently on such a talent for years.
While many pieces for Broadway and some modern operas are composed in English, this local teen is now perfectly comfortable singing complex operatic pieces in their original German or Italian.
Jamilyn first took voice lessons locally from Myra Thorton. When the family decided it was time to intensify her focus on learning the art and science of singing, it was a lucky selection provided via Google that would quickly prove itself a pivotal connection for the young vocalist.
Joyce and Dennis Helms approached the founder and creative director of Sing and Relax Studios in Pittsburgh, European-trained opera singer and performance vocal coach Jennifer Vanella, about working with Jamilyn.
When Vanella opened her studio in Pittsburgh a little over two years ago, she had eight students, and now has more than 60. The latest addition to her professional and academic credentials is having just recently become a certified coach with the National Association of Teachers of Singing.
The paring of Jamilyn with Vanella has proven to be a sort of musical dream team, and one with limitless possibilities for the immediate and long-term future.
The local teen is likely one of the biggest fans of any and all things connected to performances of "The Phantom of the Opera," having seen it performed live on stage no less than five times. She is looking forward to the 2015 performance of the show in Pittsburgh, to which she has already secured tickets. The single bittersweet aspect of that performance will be influenced by the May 3 exodus from the production's cast of her "Favorite Phantom," Hugh Panaro. Her most recent opportunity to see the show was the touring company's performance at the Ohio Theater in Columbus. It was made additionally enjoyable by the fact she and a good friend, Samantha Klemm, took in the show together.
A freshman now at St. Clairsville High School, Jamilyn is a member of the school's highly selective Chamber Choir.
However, at the urging of her coach and increasingly enjoying the challenge of gaining a degree of ease with performing, the young vocalist is up for the challenge - whether in competition, as part of a community celebration or even by taking part in an informal effort to bring music into a hospital or care facility.
Until this past weekend, Jamilyn had not had the opportunity to personally experience the always passionate performances that are brought to a stage via a professional opera company. Vanella treated her young student to a live performance of La Boheme this past weekend, and did everything she could to ensure it would be a memory that would be imprinted on her musical soul for a lifetime.
Her connection to the performance's cast that day was personal and professional as she had previously worked with several of the show's leads. According to Joyce Helms, the effort did not disappoint.
What does the vocal coach think of her young student's chances at making it as a professional singer and performer some day?
"Jamilyn came in as many of my young singers do, with tons of potential, but not really sure how to use it. She started off very quietly and it seemed like a tiny voice at first. But, we worked hard, and by the spring recital, she was starting to open up and blossom," reflected Vanella.
"Girls Jamilyn's age usually have their head in the clouds and just want to sing. Not this young woman. Her work ethic, vocal ability and intelligence set her apart from many of the young girls I've met in my teaching career. She goes above and beyond what I ask her to do for homework and works at the level of a freshman in college for music and singing," said Vanella.
"Jamilyn is a high soprano. She has the ability to sing some notes that some professionals I know can't hit," said the coach, adding the young vocalist recently surprised herself and her coach by bringing forward what is described as her "coloratura voice." Coloratura describes the voice of an operatic soprano who specializes in music distinguished by agile runs, leaps and trills.
Why go for things like vocal competitions?
"A classical competition is a great way for a singer who is thinking about a career in music to try out the experience. You prepare three pieces of music, two in foreign languages and one in English. You master those to the best of your ability, then stand on a big stage in front of a panel of judges and just sing your heart out while a pianist plays for you," she explained. "While it is an excellent way to learn about the business of classical music first hand, you have to be very brave to get up there and sing, and as competitions progress, you can win money, scholarships and performance opportunities.
"Singing, taking lessons, having concerts and doing competitions are huge elements to a young person's growth and in finding their 'inner artist'," she said.
Jamilyn's passions have now all come together fueling her confidence to begin working toward what looks to be a destiny built on her innate vocal talents, outstanding coaching guidance, her stage presence and abilities to focus solidly on virtually any specific goal or challenge put before her.
Like most teens, her cell phone is filled with songs by any number of artists, and she has memorized the words and music for each and is always happy to sing along.
As a vocal and performance coach, Vanella is open to helping Jamilyn try her hand at a variety of musical styles, seeing each as an educational opportunity and experience for a young artist working to find her personal, and possibly professional, niche in the always competitive environment typical of the performing arts on all levels.
"She is one of the most persistent, vibrant young women I have ever met, and I think anything she puts her mind to she can do," said the proud coach. "For now, the world is her oyster, and I am simply here to guide and support her on that journey."