About Riley & Where is she now?

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Among the many inspiring stories that are a part of What Music Means to Me, Riley’s is perhaps one of the most uplifting. With startling courage, Riley writes about her struggle with anorexia nervosa, how it chose her at the early age of seven, how she “kept so many secrets and told so many lies.” Those who are afflicted with an eating disorder know that the process of healing is long and filled with a labyrinth of stumbles and setbacks. Even when a person  grasps intellectually that they are really not how they see themselves, the disfigured feelings that contradict all logic can seem insurmountable.

Despite the years of self-doubt and self-destruction, music became Riley’s diary. It became the place where she could sort out the confusion that tormented her. “When I play, I can identify my feelings on the piano,“ she said. “When I play the piano, all my feelings disappear and Riley shines through.” Through music, the connection she made to herself was as real as the negative feelings that consumed her. Music has the power to heal and, in this case, helped Riley find her true self and discover her true potential.

Meeting Riley

When we first met, Riley was 17 and a junior at the famed Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. As part of the recruitment process, I spoke to Riley’s piano class and explained to them that part of the What Music Means to Me Project included writing a statement about how music had changed their lives. Afterwards, Riley walked toward me and without introducing herself, simply said, “You’ll have my statement by the end of the day.” She turned around, walked away, and I watched her blend into the river of students walking to their next class, wondering if she would deliver on her declaration.

Toward the end of the day, weary and hoarse from repeating my speech too many times, Riley spotted me in the hallway as I waited for the next class to begin. She handed me her neatly folded statement. I took it from her, impressed that she had actually written it, and like a refrain she turned around and walked away.

Defining Moment

I looked back down and opened the piece of paper that was handed to me, and in my mind’s ear I began to hear the words she had written. Within a few seconds I knew that I could not finish. Riley had given me something that deserved a reading without the distractions and chatter swirling around me. I folded the paper back and stood there in the hall, the only person not moving, thinking about the few unexpected words I had read.

It was later on, when all was quiet again, that I read all of what Riley had written. I was dumbfounded. She had managed to tell her story with an unapologetic directness, the way a piercing glance can cut to the very heart of you. It was moving, but most of all, it was brave. I found myself reading it again and again. Before leaving the school, I saw Riley once more and thanked her for being so forthright. This time, instead of walking away, she came alive and smiled. We talked about what she had written and then we said goodbye.

Riley’s statement was the beginning of a remarkable collection of stories that came from the students at the Booker T. Washington High School. I have often wondered why Riley and her story resonated so strongly with me and with those who have read it. I realized that her story must have been told in some form by young girls all across the country a thousand times before. As personal and honest as it was, it was also universal and relatable. Her story demonstrated how music’s healing power is very real.

Where is she now…

Riley is attending college and studying interior design, but her real passion is musical theatre. Since she was 10 years old, Riley has been in a number of musicals including Godspell, Footloose, Oklahoma, Cats (twice) and others.  This past summer she played the delicious role of Mrs. Lovett in a production of Sweeney Todd by the KD Studio Theatre Imagination Players. She learnedthe role in only two weeks and performed for sold-out audiences.

After her experience in Sweeney Todd, several agents were interested in representing Riley. Her real hopes of a career in musical theatre were once again ignited and she is now taking the current semester to explore what opportunities lie before her. She is continuing her education locally and taking musical theatre classes.

She describes her change of heart in this way: “I wanted to go to college to find a career, because I knew the chance of making it in music is very slim and difficult. I really enjoy interior design, but my passion is in the theatre. So now, I want to take time to see if I can make it in musical theatre. I love everything about musicals, especially the songs; some of them are pure genius. Through song you can express yourself more than you can by just saying words. I also feel like the best songs in musicals can only be communicated in song – not said.”

Riley loves getting into the role of her characters and learning what it’s like to be them, and she relishes the prospect of being able to perform her dream roles. Mrs. Lovitt was one of them, but her favorite and ultimate role is Jo, from Little Women. “Jo is so ambitious and creative and imaginative, and not scared to follow her dream of writing,” she said. When asked if the character, Jo, inspires her, she says, “I have never played a character that I couldn’t relate to in some way.”

In the coming months, Riley is looking forward to auditioning for roles in Rent, Crucible, and You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. This spring she will also travel to New York and participate in the Straw Hat Auditions which are general auditions with agents and directors gathered from all over the country looking for new talent.

Music as Healing

For many, high school is a time we wish we could have skipped. After her high school graduation, Riley cut off her long, rapturous red hair and dyed it blond; for her, college represented a fresh start. In college, Riley found a focus to her life and a new beginning. Looking back on those difficult years in high school has made her appreciate who she is now. “I didn’t have the typical high school experience. I went back and forth between two schools because it was hard for me to make friends. I tried to fit in, but I was always different.”

While studying interior design in college, Riley’s connection with music never left her. Often she would sneak into the music building practice rooms so that she could play the piano and return to the place where she could sort her feelings. “I know that my eating disorder will never be completely gone. But I can pretty much say that I’m living without it now. When I went to college things changed. My life became more organized and put together when I left home. I realized that I didn’t want to be the way I was for the rest of my life. I started reading the Bible more, which is something I never thought I would do, and God helped me.  I don’t regret those years in high school because they have made me who I am, and I’m really happy with who I am today.”


© Richard Rejino


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