Welcome to Ep.1 one of our new series "Then & Now: Student Stories." Today we're talking with SoundLife student and singer/songwriter Natalie Bernstein. Natalie has been taking lessons, playing in bands, and performing on stage since she was eight. She is one of SoundLife's very first students, and her progression and ultimate transformation into the artist and songwriter she is today is the kind of story that inspires students and teachers equally. Now, at 15 years old, Natalie has come into her own. She has blossomed as a guitarist, songwriter, singer, and storyteller.
For those students who struggle with seeing the results of their hard work, Natalie stands as testament to what is possible with tenacity, trust, and a great work ethic. On the other side of the struggle is a place where music is infinitely fun and empowering. To see that confidence in action, watch her performances from our most recent concert here.
Watch our interview as Natalie shares the empowering role that music has played in her life over the years and the experiences that helped her find and develop her creative voice.
Read the transcript...
Chris Vazquez: Alright, today we are here with Natalie Bernstein. We're kicking off a brand new series called "Then and Now." Natalie has been a student with SoundLife for eight years. She started, before the company even started, with me in 2013. We started SoundLife in 2014, and she is very much a part of what inspired us to put this entire operation together and has been through so many different parts of our program and has grown so much, we thought she would be a perfect person to start this series out. So, Natalie, would you please introduce yourself and talk a little bit about how you got into music?
Natalie Bernstein: Hi, I'm Natalie. I am 15 years old. I've been doing SoundLife since I was seven years old, so I've been doing it for more than half of my life. I started... at Marlborough Summer School, doing lessons with Chris, and then had a great time. I was doing some One Direction, the usual seven-year-old stuff. So I continued from there, taking lessons with Chris and then got my whole family involved. My brother and my sister were all doing lessons, and I remember during our lessons, I would be singing along with the One Direction, and so Chris one time was like, "Hey, do you wanna maybe try singing with the guitar?" And so I then did singing and guitar as a little combination. And since then, I've done a lot more. I've worked with my siblings, done duets, I've been in a band, and now I am doing more solo work and incorporating songwriting, which is sort of the new, exciting thing that I'm up to right now.
C: Yes, so you have done every different type of performance, and obviously, we're a performance-oriented program. So talk about what it was like when you were seven, eight years old and you had your very first performance.
N: Oh my God, okay. I was so, so nervous. Yeah, these things have— I've definitely grown a lot more used to them, and so they've gotten— I've actually gotten to the point where I'm able to enjoy these performances. But I remember in the beginning, this was the first performance experience I've ever had, and so I was super, super nervous going into it, and as I've done— I've done many performances now, as many as SoundLife has done as a company, and so honestly, this has allowed me to get... Start enjoying my performances. And now I do theater. I do the SoundLife performances. I've grown to the point where I'm able to enjoy the performances. I enjoy having the audience. They're just so much fun to have with it, and so I do thank SoundLife for that, for letting me have fun on the stage.
C: Yeah, absolutely. And that's the goal. And so, from that first performance up until most recently, you participated in our live video recording where you're performing your own original music live on stage. What does that trajectory look like from the very beginning and to now? What have you learned about performing, and what has made it more fun?
N: Honestly, you just know it — and Chris still has to remind me of this today — but knowing that these performances, they're live. They don't have to be perfect. You're not trying to aim for perfect. You're just showing your body of work. Like art is just— with my songwriting, I'm just capturing these moments and putting them in a fun way and packaging them. So I enjoy showing these moments to other people. And so it's not supposed to be perfect. I think letting go of the need for these performances to be perfect. It is a huge thing that's helped me, so I just— I'm like, I don't need to be perfect, I'm just showing this work that I'm super proud of, and... It helped me a lot with— because in the beginning, there's definitely this like, I need to be perfect, I need to show these songs exactly how I want them to be. And now I'm just like, "Have a good time." Let the audience enjoy it, and let yourself enjoy it, of course.
C: Yeah. Absolutely. And now, one thing is that your work ethic is exceptional. How much of that work ethic has helped you get to a place where you can have fun like you're saying. How much of it is experience versus knowing how to prepare for you? So that you can have fun.
N: Working at it is a huge thing. I've gotten— I'm not at the part where I'm like, "Practice for 10 minutes every day. Like do this, do this." And you know when you're younger, I needed to have that. I needed to have my father, my nanny, telling me, you know, practice right now so that you can get used to it because, you know, you sorta need that extra motivation since you're like, "Why am I practicing?" And I think as I've grown older, I've been able to attach from meaning... At this point, I'm back there [in] the guest room... for hours everyday. I just got in summer vacation, and it's what I've been doing the entire day. A huge part of it's just getting to a place where I enjoy the work. So it's not that I need to have such an amazing work ethic. It's more that I want to be putting my time into this.
C: I'm so glad you said that. Because when we're learning anything, whether we're singing or playing an instrument, there's like this hump we have to get over. Or, in the beginning, there are fun aspects to it, but overall it's work because you haven't gotten to that point in your technical ability, to be free with it.
N: No, I mean I would have to go... the lessons... we have this book that I had to go through, and I had to know all the notes on the strings, and I had to memorize all the chords, and there's a lot of that work, but now it's just... It's second nature to me, and so that's a huge, it's a huge help.
C: Now from my point of view as your teacher, I would say that that hump that you've now gotten over, came fairly recently. When would you say you started to feel that music was something you just did for fun and wasn't so much of something that was a responsibility?
N: Like we said, there's always been fun aspects to it. But, I've been super, super motivated since mainly honestly over 2021. I think that since, I would say, November of 2020. But really, since January, I have been working hours and hours every week. And it's, like, what I most look forward to. And now when I'm able to sit down and I go there, honestly, probably every night at this point and during the afternoons when I can when I'm able to put aside some time from my work. And it's often a little frustrating, because I'll be there for hours and I won't get a good song. And it's like, oh my God, I just, I want it. I want so bad. But when I finally get a good song, maybe once a week, once every other week, I'm like, "Oh my God, this is it. This is it." It's like the best moment. And so I do have to go back there for many hours, not having anything good coming out of it. But then I'll go there one day, and I'll get an amazing song, like, oh my god, those hours of just being here fiddling around with things, that was so worth it.
C: And over the years, you embrace different things that were uncomfortable for you obviously, at my request, but you put yourself in a situation to play music with individuals you'd never met, to play music on stage with teachers and with other kids your age and different ages, to play different styles of music. There were lots of things that were uncharted water for you, unexperienced things. How much of that helped you kind of find your own place?
N: Yeah, so I definitely think in the beginning, when I first started doing it, I think I started doing it as a duet with my sister. I used her sort of as a crutch, like, I wanna have someone else on stage because I didn't feel confident in myself doing it up there. But, when you start performing with people who are years older than you, when I was performing with high schoolers and I was in elementary school... that's a little different. That's super nerve wracking. Going through every rehearsal, I'd always be like, "Oh my God, they're so old." Like, "I'm super intimidated. I wanna be like them. But look at me. I'm just way too young." Yeah, it was definitely very nerve-wracking, having to do that. So it definitely got me out of my comfort zone.
But no, it definitely helped me just be comfortable with also trying new music. In the band that I ended up being in called Pepper and Salt, everyone has had sort of different interests in the music they wanted to be performing. And so I had to step out of my comfort zone in that and I was doing like, No Doubt... and I'm typically all, you know, pop-like. I would do One Direction and Taylor Swift. And so when I was doing these songs, I was like, "This is new for me. And this is a different type of song. And I have to appreciate for all of its different aspects."
C: That's fantastic and incredible insight. And so now, through all of that, you've got to a place where you've discovered that you're a writer, and your guitar is the accompaniment for your songs. And it's kind of the vehicle that help you bring these songs, these stories to life. I know you've had one very big influence in Taylor Swift, but what kind of helped turn that on and unlock those gates?
N: Honestly, just over being... There's so many things I couldn't, but some general things, just having, over the past year, over ninth grade, especially, I've gotten more in tune with my emotional state. And that sounds very deep and like hippie, I know... I do theater, and I've been getting really into that. I am studying biology, which I know sounds weird, but it helps me. I've gotten this huge interest in my body and all the different nerves and my feelings, and so it sounds very heavy. I know it sounds like all yoga teacher and everything. But just having this connection. And then, I have all these feelings and it's like, "What do I do with them? Great, I feel these things, what do I do?" And so having a way to channel them out there, to put them out there, get them into this body of work and be able to evoke those same feelings in other people, those same feelings of happiness... of all this excitement. I can share them with other people through this is bridge of a song. If that makes sense? To song bridges it.
C: Yeah, absolutely. And now over the years when you first started, you were very, very young — seven, eight years old. And then as we started to grow as a company, you started to meet more players that were older than you. How much of an influence were they on you trying to improve? How did they inspire you?
N: No, they completely, completely inspired me. I mean, just being able to see where I could go with this, that it wasn't just like, "I'm at my best spot right now. I know all the strings, I know all the notes, like I am done." But especially the whole performance aspect, because I'd always see them at these SoundLife shows. And I'd be like, "What the heck, like, this is insane. This is crazy." And I was like, "One day, if I can work to be that, I can work to do that." And so just knowing, and they always look so comfortable. And I don't know if they were faking that, but they always looked like they just, they were having a good time. And they...just had all this power.
C: I think that's the circle though. It's the amount of experience, and now, you're in a place where you're the mentor. Now you are at a place where you get that back. And so, I love the whole idea is the circle that we start out and we have mentors, we gain lots of experience. We try lots of different things. We see what sticks, what fits, what's inspiring us. We find our place in music, we develop the craft, and then we get to give it back. And so now that's part of this series of Then & Now. If you were looking back, what would you tell a student who's seven or eight years old, just starting our program or a program like ours — it doesn't have to be our program — to help them stay focused and get over that hump so that they can get to a place where they enjoy music?
N: Oh my God, that's difficult. There's just so much that's gone into it, and I think just trusting, and as a cliche with trusting the process that it is, it's going to have its ups and downs. Some concerts I just really did not wanna go, I was like, "I'm not... I don't wanna go to this, it's super scary. I just don't wanna... " I was not in a place where I wanted to do it. And just also having someone to push you through those moments — whether that's your instructor, whether that's a parent or a sibling — having someone who's like, "Just do it, just go to the concert and give it your best because some of the best experiences can come from that." So I think you just really need to push yourself through those kinds of things. And then also — because I used to be super scared to share stuff with you — building a comfortable relationship with your instructor is super huge, just being able to put things out there and being like, "Hey, I created this and I know, I'm super scared to talk to you, but I'm just gonna show it to you anyway."
Because Chris has always been accepting of everything I've done, just being able to have that courage to share it, and even if it doesn't go anywhere, often, sometimes, it goes really far. And so I would just trust the process and be brave to show... to open up new vulnerable sides of yourself.
C: I think that's incredible advice. So now you are writing music like crazy, and from my perspective, having seen you just starting to play, starting to sing and then trying, let's say, a band or just singing or just playing guitar, different roles in the band and finding things that didn't necessarily feel like they were a fit for you, do you find that those experiences were worthwhile just so you knew what was and wasn't really for you?
N: Yeah, yeah, yeah, completely. Right now, I love the solo, the solo kind of work I'm doing right now, but beforehand, I was like, "I can't perform on stage by myself, I'm way too scared to do that." I probably wouldn't have been able to go on stage, but having my sister to do it with me, having the band then, I needed to have— I felt like I needed this ensemble, this community to do it, and now I have the courage to go.
C: And one of the things is that I'm very impressed with now is you are fully expressive, and over the years, having watched, gosh, eight or 10 showcases and many performances, there was always something between you and you being fully you, and there was like there was kind of a layer there that we needed to peel back. And now that is gone, and as a teacher, it's what you aim for; it's the goal. So I am very proud of you that you've continued to push to get to that place to enjoy this and to have fun doing it, and then to be able to do it with your own music, which takes an even higher level of courage. So now, let's jump to this moment and talk about, not just what you've been doing, but what you would like to do with all of the songs that you've created.
N: Oh my god, I don't— like, it's endless, isn't it? Right now, I honestly just— over the past couple of weeks, I've started showing these to my friends, which is... just a huge step just because they feel like they're such vulnerable songs. I feel like they're my moments, and then I'll have a friend be like, "Oh my God, Natalie, I love that the new song." They'll say the title... you know, something that's in my brain, it's just supposed to be in my brain. So I think sharing with more people is something that I'm working towards right now. And performing would be amazing. I have my first-ever live gig coming up soon, which is super, super exciting, and yeah, I don't know. Honestly I'm trusting the process, definitely, but also stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking leaps and yeah, just see... It's difficult because I would love to share this with more people. That's my goal, just in general, to have this out there.
C: Share your music with more people.
N: Yeah, I'd love to have it... My huge goal would be if I could play for a gig and have them know my lyrics, that would be insane. They know my moment, and they've been able to... I've successfully been able to evoke the same emotions, the same thoughts in them, that would be... That would be crazy. That would be amazing.
C: That will happen. I feel very confident of that.
N: Thank you.
C: Now, how many songs have you counted, have you written in the last year?
N: Oh God, that's... Oh my God. So I've had them all in my notes document called. It's a folder called "music staff," and I have 164 documents in there. Most of them are from since January, and some of them are full songs, some of them are verse one through chorus one. But at this point, I would say I make a solid like 15, 20 a week, I don't know, maybe more than that. I'm definitely kicking up the pace. It's not slowing down anytime soon, so yeah. And I'm also trying different types of songs. I'm creating a mad song right now, which is the first time I ever done that, so I wanna branch out and make different stuff.
C: You mean an angry... like a mad, as in, angry song?
N: Like a little angsty almost, yeah. It's called "Paint You Dead." It's super angsty. Yeah, so I'm trying to develop different parts of myself.
C: I love that. I can't wait to hear that song.
N: Thank you.
C: Alright, well, thank you, Natalie, so much for sharing your experiences. The idea is that this inspires younger students to just know what is possible, where they can go and where music can take them, and I think you're a wonderful example of that, and I'm so proud of how far you've come.
Hey there! I'm Chris Vazquez, Program Director and Co-Founder of SoundLife. I've committed my life to sharing the joy of music through performance and education. As the curator of and lead contributor to this blog, I take great care to share inspiring, helpful, and eye-opening stories. It is my hope that each article helps both music students and parents of music students all over the world. As a veteran professional musician with over 15 years of touring experience and 20 years of teaching experience, I can say without doubt that dreams do come true, anything is possible, and music education is a life-altering gift.