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This June, sophomore Yunge Xiao sat down in her bedroom in front of her Casio keyboard and propped up a camera to record. She was nervous, so it took her several takes to play and sing her original song, “Mi Amore,” all the way through. She had written the love song throughout early 2021 by using the voice notes app on her phone.
A friend from an internship at Pittsburghers for Public Transit had encouraged her to submit the song to local radio station WYEP’s Singer-Songwriter Competition. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to put herself out there, but decided she’d try. She didn’t think much would come of it.
“I’m not one to really do this stuff,” Xiao said, “but I was interested in the feedback they could provide.” If she won, she would get a professionally produced track from a local studio, $500, a free photoshoot, mentoring and performance opportunities. Several rounds of judging throughout August and September stood in her way.
“The whole competition felt unreal,” she said, “even throughout all the rounds, I was just in disbelief.”
For round three, she played a more solemn song, “California Girl,” in front of a painting reminiscent of Hokusai’s “Great Wave.”
I left my song in an unresolved refrain
I played it silently in a key beyond my range
Bouncing high, falling low, it’s so strange
I hope you’re well, California girl
But I’d be lying if I told anyone that my mind wasn’t drifting to you
Xiao found out that she won the competition in an incredibly mundane setting: “I was at the gym,” she said. During a rest break, she checked her phone and saw the email. “My jaw was on the ground. I left the gym immediately. I didn’t know what to do with myself.” After the initial shock, Xiao was finally able to react. “I think I just started crying,” she said. “I felt really overwhelmed with joy.”
Xiao is not a music major or even pursuing a minor in music. When she came to Pitt, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study but eventually landed on majoring in statistics and minoring in sociology, both in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. She intends to pursue a career in public health.
“I’m thinking of something along the lines of epidemiology or biostatistics. I’ve always been interested in women’s health as well,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she’s done with music, though. She hopes to put an entire album on Spotify one day.
“Music will be in my life forever,” she said. “I love it, I’ll always pursue music as a hobby. This [competition] is one of the first things I’ve ever done that I can take a lot of agency for. I felt so beyond lucky, I put a lot of heart into music composition,” she said.
Xiao has not yet started the recording process, but she said she is both excited and nervous about the opportunity.
“The most I’ve ever done with music is have a friend edit some audio,” she said with a laugh. “I have no idea how I’ll sound produced by a professional.”
— Kendal Johnson, photo by Mike Drazdzinski