Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 8

Brianna Knight

Photo credit: Tyrell Hylton

Let me tell you some things about this graduate from 2016. I’ve known about her inordinate talent for many years. Now, the world is starting to learn.

With more talent in her pinky finger than most of us will have in a lifetime, she was always a powerhouse songstress, channeling the likes of Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan and Toni Braxton. Back in her high school days, we all agreed there was nothing she couldn’t sing. Of course, I took full advantage of that talent, casting her in powerhouse roles like Vanessa in “In The Heights,” Anita in “West Side Story,” and the title role in “AIDA.” When I say she could melt the paint off of the walls in a power ballad, I’m not kidding.

After high school, she went to SUNY New Paltz and graduated with an education degree, but that wasn’t scratching the itch that her passion for music was creating. She had too many ideas rolling around in her head and she needed to get them out. So, she started to write, record and produce her own music in her bedroom studio. She released her songs one by one on her social media, on streaming services and started attracting a fan base.

In just a few years, she has evolved into a gifted and prolific composer with a growing list of music releases in the R&B/Soul genre. Her most recent releases are “So Deep” (now with well over 1.3M streams) and “Bad Decisions” (just dropped in April, which I bought on iTunes).

Now, if you search her name on iTunes, there are ten singles you can purchase today. Someday soon, when the name Brianna Knight is on everyone’s lips, I’ll be saying I knew her when

One of her many talents is jingle writing. After being referred by a friend, Brianna is now known as the “Chime Girl” with the blue guitar in a national commercial spot. Five spots, to be specific.

One more notable mention: In December, she was invited to perform at the Women’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in Washington, DC. The lifetime and legacy achievement honorees, Dee Dee Sharp & Cynthia Biggs, recognized her immediately as the Chime Girl and called her a “real musician.” In short, Brianna is on an upward trajectory towards making her dreams come true. More importantly, ever the educator, she is pursuing her goal of paving the way for young black girls to follow their dreams.

Back in high school

Brianna described her adolescent self as motivated, a multitasker and unsure about herself. She comes from a family of “planners and doers.” Back then, I was trying to figure out who I was in addition to those things I was good at, and in addition to those things that people told me I was or who I was going to be. Her pursuit of that elementary education degree was only part of who she was. Somewhere down the line, she realized that the louder, more passionate part of her kept shifting her attention; there was something else she was meant to do. Thankfully, she listened to the universe calling her to her intended path. She now knows who she is and what she needs to be.

Before she arrived on that path, she had a lot of things to figure out. One of the great challenges she faced in the studio was learning choreography. Every time you had me in a major role, you’d have me dancing. And I used to be so mad! You know I have two left feet! We had a good laugh there. I remember her struggle and I needed her to believe in herself – every part of herself – in those roles. I knew that dance was not in her comfort zone and I knew the struggle was real for her, but my job was to make her believe so that everyone else would do the same. So, I didn’t give her a choice and capitalized on her motivation, work ethic, and passion for performing to fill in the blanks. Often, teaching is more about persuading kids into believing that they can do something they are absolutely convinced they cannot do, and we have to do it in real time.

Luckily, I had some incredible dance captains (for example, Emily from episode 2 and Denishah from episode 4) who were there to help me out. I gave them the directive to help make Brianna look and feel like a dancer, and Brianna leaned on them heavily throughout the process.

Being in the studio and having to trust my body – that was the first step in me figuring out something I was sure about. First off, being a teenager, you don’t know what’s going on every day; hormones, every day you’re learning something new. So, at least within trying to dance and trying to explore something that I wasn’t normally good at, it wasn’t something that I practiced, it made me truly have to figure out how much do I know about me, and then testing my limits.

Another lesson she learned in that process was how to trust people other than herself. This is one of the hardest things for naturally guarded adolescents to do. One story she related, which I remember like it was yesterday, was when we started staging the scene in “West Side Story” where Anita enters Doc’s store and all of the Jets are there. This was a difficult moment for her; even though all of the actors were the sweetest, most supportive young men, the scenario that she had to conjure in her mind was very triggering. I knew that this had to be addressed before we could proceed, and she recalled our conversation about it:

You looked at me and said ‘we can make this where you still have power. You don’t have to be powerless. You’re going to look like it, but you’re not. Everything that we do is in your hands.’ It was the first time when I felt like wow, I’m actually in control of something. Life doesn’t always have to feel like you’re doing Russian Roulette with something. You can actually be in control of how this scene is going to work. That was so empowering.

That conversation happened because I saw her starting to struggle emotionally when we started setting that scene. Something in her eyes told me that she was not going to be okay moving forward unless she believed she was in control and safe. Every step of the way, we did a check-in to make sure she still felt that way, even if it was emotionally difficult. Of course, the guys were fantastic too; they helped her make specific plans for the choreography and made sure that she knew she was always okay. The end result was a performance that was powerful, riveting, and emotionally safe. I get chills whenever I think about how the process got us to that end.

Something educators must always remember, particularly arts educators who work with adolescents, is that we must work under the assumption that there is a high likelihood that they have experienced some sort of trauma in their young lives. Whether it is Big T Trauma or little t trauma, (here’s a great article that explains both), we often don’t see the effects or symptoms of them until they experience some event that triggers them. Our job is to always be on the lookout and help kids understand that they are safe in our classroom, they are supported, and anything we do is with love and empowerment.

How has Brianna changed?

The obvious answer might be her career path, but Brianna looks at herself as an educator at heart. That part of her has not changed; then and now, her modus operandi is about passing resources and references to other people. The importance of the process of learning new information and skills is ingrained in her, whether she follows the educator path in a classroom or in her daily interactions with others. The difference now is her past perception of the binary nature of adolescence versus the adult understanding that you can be more than one thing.

Teenagers tend to look at life as an exercise in black and white choices and actions. As they move away from high school and into a wider sphere of influence, they quickly learn that there are more possibilities and more access to them than they once realized. Of course, with more possibilities comes more confusion, but people like Brianna who have a wide variety of interests and talents understand that they can use all of their gifts to achieve a global purpose. That’s where the commitment to doing the work and allowing the process to happen comes in.

Another shift is how, coming from a family of planners, she has relaxed the intensity of her planning everything out to the letter. You could plan all you want; some things, they throw you (out of) left field and you just have to wing it. She now appreciates that process of learning, rolling with the punches, and not being so product-focused. Give yourself the grace, the patience, the time and the space; in high school, you feel like you have to be so perfect, and when you’re in college and an adult, you’re like, ‘everybody is just winging it.’ Some people just made it look like they weren’t, but everybody is winging it.

100% truth.

The concept of “organized chaos” came up a lot in our conversation as well. The phrase sounds like a disaster on the verge of happening, but Brianna had some wisdom to share:

Sometimes chaos can be kind of fun because you’re learning while you’re in the middle of the chaos. Everything that you learn – from a book, [things] that you’ve heard, that you’ve processed, you’re actually getting to apply it in the storm and I feel like that is the best test of character and it truly shows our growth as an individual.

This philosophy has informed her belief in herself, in her ability to persist through challenge and come out fine on the other end. Those tests, in part, came from working through the challenges put forth in high school, like learning how to dance like Anita in “West Side Story.” Those kinds of experiences taught her that, using her internal and external resources, she can do things that seem impossible.

The creative process

I love it when I get to talk to other creative people who understand that the process of making artistic things is not linear. There’s a freedom that happens when you embrace organized chaos while you are conceiving or executing a project, and trusting yourself is a requirement of that effort.

As a creative, nothing is permanent. Anybody that puts out a piece of art can literally give you critiques about what they could have done better. But at that point, sometimes you just have to let it go, release it, and just let it be what it’s going to be.

It took me many years to accept this as part of the process: do the work, make your edits, then let it be what it is. There is always another project, another task that will take up space in your creative consciousness; you must close out one so you can create another. The point of being a creative spirit is to enjoy that process and take up space while you’re at it (I think she learned that from Denishah).

Don’t worry if other people get the spotlight, because if you’re taking up the right amount of space, everybody gets a chance to shine. Don’t dim your light – if everybody is ready to go, I promise you they’re gonna hop on the train and be right there with you, ’cause that’s where they’re supposed to be. Take up the space.

This is a fact – when one person shines, that light illuminates the abilities of others. When handled well, it can lead to an infectious swell of people’s belief in themselves. I’ve seen it happen in so many shows. Energy bleeds out from person to person – when it is the right energy that promotes the well-being of the whole production process, everyone benefits. Kids should be encouraged to bring their best selves, to shine, to take up their space in the moments they can – that’s what makes the magic happen on stage.

What does Brianna grapple with now?

When you have the mind of a creative, it’s so easy to spread your attention too thin because you have so many ideas swirling around that you want to materialize into something artistic and inspiring. This is her daily challenge:

What’s one thing you’re going to focus on? When you bring a lot to the table, when you’re interested in a lot of things, how do you focus on ‘one at a time’? Making sure that I’m staying true to what I need in the moment and giving it focus.

Again, she speaks the truth. When you have so many varied interests that you want to pursue, how to you decide where to put your energies so the ones you love the most can develop fully?

There’s also the noise from the outside that vies for her attention. When you are creating for an audience, it’s not hard to get caught up in what they have to say about your work, especially if it is critical. After all, you want more people to absorb your content and you are your own worst critic. How do you balance how you create with what an audience wants to consume? Somehow, her adult philosophy always comes around full circle: What do you need? I guarantee you what you need, somebody else needs. Indulging in something for yourself, you don’t have to be a martyr for everybody else. She acknowledges and validates her creative calling, which gives her the mental space to listen to what her mind and body needs: free flow is a great way of analyzing who you are every day. 100% free flow is mindfulness.

Of course, there has to be balance in the force, especially when it comes to music creation. The organized chaos comes back into play, at the intersection of free flow and well-planned, structural development; every day is about managing the shift between the two. The creative itch that she gets can only get scratched when she is doggedly working on figuring out how the music in her head will come to life. Sometimes, an idea will come to her when she’s cooking and she’ll have to turn off the burner and turn on her focus to that thread of musical thought. It’s the same thread that I get when the light bulb flashes on in the middle of rehearsal and you have to stop everything to make something of it. In that moment, your eyes open wide, you take a deep breath, and you scramble to create what you hope will be a slice of genius. It’s the most authentic moment of an inspired brain, one that we have to honor and often give deference to.

Sage advice from Brianna

What more wisdom can this superstar offer to kids who stand where she stood in the rehearsal studio?

Trust your gut. Think for yourself, not anybody else. What do you need (not what do you want) and take it one day, one moment at a time. Slow is the way to go – take your time. Everything will be there.

Yes it will, Bri. Yes, it will.

Watch the full interview here!

Follow Brianna on Instagram and TikTok @poetdreaming where she shares her gifts, her inspiration, her knowledge, and her self-affirming, positive messages to her growing fan base. You can also learn more about her, listen to her music and book her for performance or lessons at her website: briannaknight.net.

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