Out of 18,000 high school students from around the entire world who auditioned, a student from Libby is heading to Carnegie Hall in February as one of 200 selected for the 2019 High School Honors Performance Series.
Libby High School senior Sophie Lee was getting ready to sleep on Halloween night, doing a last check of emails. Then she saw an email from the Honors Performance Series.
“And I was like, ‘OK, I’m either going to cry because I got accepted, or I’m going to cry because I didn’t get accepted.’”
Lee recalled her mother, Sandra Douthit, making proud exclamations as Lee called her boyfriend. “And lots of tears,” Lee said.
But getting into the program wasn’t the last hurdle. To cover the cost of participating — as well as food, lodging and travel — Lee needs to raise about $3,000, she said. With the help of the community, she is about halfway there less than a month later.
“This is a small community, but whenever somebody needs something or wants to go somewhere, we pull together,” Lee said.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the people in the community are helping to make it real, Lee said.
And for each, there is a different way to help.
When Nora Berry, who works in the cafeteria at Libby High School, found out about Lee’s acceptance into the Honors Performance Series, she offered to donate her time and food to help raise money.
That spaghetti dinner and silent auction takes place at the high school at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Several area businesses have also stepped up to donate baskets for the silent auction.
Lee’s grandmother, Jan Murray, noted how significant it is for the community, and not just for Lee, to be sending someone to be part of a select international choir performing at Carnegie Hall.
“It’s somebody from Libby, Montana. What are the chances out of that many kids?” she said.
Between representing Libby on an international stage and the support she has received from her friends and neighbors, Lee acknowledged she does feel the significance beyond herself of her performance.
But regardless the pressure she feels, she said she does not feel too nervous about how the performance will go.
After arriving in New York, members of the choir will spend six to eight hours each day for two days working together before they perform. They will also take in a Broadway play, and Lee said she hopes to make time to visit the Statue of Liberty.
And she won’t be alone, her mother and grandmother will accompany her to New York.
Murray, who was not in town for Lee’s audition and had to hear it as a recording, will get to see her granddaughter perform at Carnegie Hall.
When Murray sang in a choir, she was an alto as Lee is now, she said.
“I just, I love her voice,” Murray said. “And I just — she’s my granddaughter, so what can I — she’s great.”
Murray’s earliest memory of Lee performing was with Irish dance, starting around 7 years old, she said. From talent night at school to the county fair, the family would always go to watch her.
In fifth grade, Lee started singing in the school choir.
“I always enjoyed singing, I always have, and choir’s just somewhere I can express myself,” she said.
Lee said that singing is a stress reliever, and she will often sing to herself in her car after a rough day. “It’s really nice just to kind of let it out.”
But she takes special pleasure from singing with others, especially others who love singing as she does.
She recalled a moment from the All State Music Festival last year when the choir of around 200 came together in perfect harmony.
“We hit that note, and it’s like you get shivers, you get goosebumps down your entire body, and it’s just so amazing,” she said.
Lee also takes joy from the joy she brings, she said. Watching the audience during a performance, she takes pleasure in seeing they are enjoying the music she is helping to produce.
But achieving moments such as that or reaching the stage at Carnegie Hall takes more than just natural talent, Lee acknowledged.
She has had the support of her family throughout, she said. “Whenever I was down about feeling like I didn’t have a great voice, they were there, pushing me, keeping me going.”
There was push as well from her choir teacher at Libby High School, Lorraine Braun. Yet, motivation was only a part of Braun’s contribution, Lee said.
Through her work with Braun, Lee learned techniques to extend her range and project her voice and about the dynamics of music.
“(Braun) always kept me going as well, and always gave me new opportunities to do things, and I owe a lot of my progression in singing to her,” Lee said.
Braun was also the one who nominated Lee for the Honors Performance Series, and who accompanied Lee on piano for her audition.
Lee was already preparing to perform “Vergin, Tutto Amor” (Virgin Mary, Full of Love) for the District Music Festival in the coming spring. When she found it in the book of possible audition songs, it was a perfect match.
Since she doesn’t speak any Italian, Lee had to learn the song by listening to recorded performances and memorizing it phonetically, she said. Braun worked with her, “pretty much every day.”
And then, once they submitted the audition, Lee just had to wait a year to find out if she was accepted.
Not long after her performance in February, Lee will be graduating Libby and moving on to the next phase of her life. She isn’t sure yet what role music will play in her future.
She wants to join a choir in college, but her immediate focus will be an associate’s degree in science.
Braun said she will miss Lee when she graduates this spring.
“Sophie has been pure delight as a student,” she said. Braun has enjoyed watching her mature as a singer and a person, thrilling in the experience.
“Along with her singing abilities is her kindness and respect in how she treats those around her and her dependability and self-motivation to continue learning and growing,” Braun said.
Murray admits she may be prejudiced, but offered examples of why her pride in her granddaughter is more than just a family bond.
“She’s a member of honor society, she has been on the honor roll all through high school, she is an intern at the hospital, she is a teller at the bank, and then she carries a full load at school — that’s amazing,” Murray said. “That’s a lot of responsibility, and she does well.”
Once Lee has her associate’s, she sees several possibilities, from becoming a teacher to going into medicine or even working in a lab.
“I want to gain knowledge. I think that knowledge is very, very important. And experience, obviously.
I want to experience tons of things in my life,” she said.
But the Libby senior who auditioned with a prayer for pity and grace for the sinners of the world said that whatever she does, she wants it to be about more than herself.
“I also want to help people, whether that’s being a teacher and helping high schoolers, or being in the medical field and helping people who are injured, or even being a chemist and developing new drugs,” she said.