Arts, Music, On Campus, Arts Features

Chris Cheeseman, Pops on the Heights, and the Possible Dream

The applause comes to a close and silence overtakes the crowd. He knows what’s coming next.

“Alright, you’re up.”

The stage manager shuffles Chris Cheeseman, CSOM ’20, into position.

“This is it,” he thinks, stepping forward just offstage.

His heart races a moment, nervous like never before. Opposite the curtain await 6,000 people. That’s at least two times bigger than his biggest crowd. And he won’t be passing through on stage for a theatrical stint like he is used to doing. Cheeseman will be the center of attention—all alone—for a whole song. He has a piece to sing all his own at the 25th annual Pops on the Heights Scholarship Gala. Cheeseman has prepared for months and knows he is ready. But his pestilent nerves linger on. He thinks of the sage advice his voice coach gave him when staring down an great challenge: If you’re not nervous, you’re not ready.

“Center yourself,” he thinks.

Then he hears his name introduced.

“Woah,” he says to himself. “This is about to be so cool.”

Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Orchestra welcome him on stage. He can’t believe it, walking to his position. Light hits his face center stage. He can barely make out the faces of those in the first row of tables. But everywhere else in Conte Forum, the pulsing wristbands give a holy aura to the concourse shrouded in darkness. This is big. The nerves swell to a level he has never felt before. Will he be able to do it? Will the strenuous hours of work bear a fruitful performance? He can feel his heartbeat quicken. But, just like that, the nervousness dissipates. As the harp sounds make their way to his ears, Cheeseman finds peace.

When describing that night, part of Cheeseman goes back to the moment. That sensation of nerves, hopes, and dreams flush over his face. He knows how much of a big deal it was. Last week he was just another musically gifted Boston College student. Now he has graduated in a sense, though he is only a sophomore. Not many people get to sing with the world’s most famous pops orchestra. Many celebrities never share that stage, let alone an undergrad from suburban New Jersey.

Cheeseman picked “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha for his song at the Pops because it reflected everything he was feeling after receiving this opportunity. Moreover, that song represents something everyone at BC can appreciate because of its content about the downtrodden Don Quixote.

The song was important to Cheeseman because it was, as he described, such a relatable song to many of aspects of life. It’s about someone achieving a dream that a lot of people keep telling him is impossible.

“We are all here at this school trying to further our lives and reach the unreachable star,” he said. “If there is one song that you got to sing on that stage, it has got to be that song.”

For Cheeseman, the notion of impossibility is an important one. Through a series of unlucky coincidences, he thought his chances of winning the performance spot were slim to none. Cheeseman placed third in this year’s Sing it to the Heights competition singing a melange of “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith and “Cold Water” by Justin Bieber. This allowed him to skip the first round of auditions and go straight to the final callback for the Pops performance auditions.

But come that day, Cheeseman grew ill. To make matters worse, a friend who was supposed to play the piano accompaniment to his song, “Feed My Lambs” by John Angotti, didn’t show up. With little time and with all the other call backs ready around him, Cheeseman saw a dream slip away. Now desperate, he tried to piece it together without him. Though he had played some piano before, this was certainly a challenge.

“I had to figure out the piano on my own,” he said. “I did not practice for it. I thought I ruined it.”

But the unreachable star turned out to be a lot closer than Cheeseman thought. Sickness did not stop him, neither did the hastily thrown together piano. Cheeseman was ecstatic upon winning the spot, immediately calling his mother, grandmother, and friends, telling them to clear their calendars for Sept. 29.

Everything else seemed to happen so fast. Over the summer, Cheeseman worked extensively with vocal coach Dan Thaler, brought up from New York City by BC to help Cheeseman prepare in New Jersey. Well into the first weeks of class, the pair Skyped to maintain the practice routine. All the vocal exercises, diaphragm relaxation, and range work helped Cheeseman prepare physically for the big night, but nothing could quite prepare him for the mental side he would experience in Conte.

He steps off stage after a thunderous applause. The first thought that crosses his mind is one of disbelief: “I can’t believe I did that.”

It’s hard to peg the CSOM sophomore as the singing type. He is a member of The Bostonians a cappella group on campus. But Cheeseman is practical, understanding that singing for him is really a side passion, as he looks to the business school as a great way to pursue his interests in finance. But it is in a sense practicality through which he discovered his love for singing in the first place.

As a young kid, Cheeseman frequently lost his voice. He had a problem projecting sound, leading him to overexert it. Luckily, his mother was a speech therapist. In an effort to further help him find and tame his voice, she got him enrolled in voice lessons.

“Any time he was in a social setting he would lose it,” his mother, Linda, explained.

Her profession allowed her to see the problem—he had bilateral vocal cord nodules, benign white masses that formed from excessive stress on the cords. She began to help him using techniques that helped him control his breathing and projection, even employing techniques used on patients with ALS.

With the help of his mother, Cheeseman did find his voice and kept it, but he also found something else among all the scales, projecting, and hums—a passion for singing. Now the challenge became where he was going to project this newfound talent.

In the fourth grade at his K-12 school at St. Joseph’s Regional High School, was putting on a performance of High School Musical and Cheeseman wanted in. His mother, knowing his tendencies, feared the outcome.

“I told him, ‘You don’t sing you don’t even have a voice,’” she said. But Cheeseman was unfettered.

He got some sheet music, went in, and was a part of the show. But fate was not kind to this determined middle schooler. During his first show ever he again lost his voice. One of the onlookers of this sad sight was Raymond McLeod, a Broadway performer best known for his portrayal of Simon Stride in Jekyll & Hyde, was running voice workshops at St. Joe’s and saw that Cheeseman could really benefit. And so Cheeseman enrolled.

He kept going on with the lessons and other performances, continuing to shape his voice, delving into this new outlet for song in musical theatre.

But with this additional elements and practice came additional challenges, namely getting passed up or passed over for parts that he desired. Thankfully for Cheeseman, at around this same time in middle school, he met musical director and another longtime mentor Ed Ginter. Ginter was integral in instilling a sense of strength in Cheeseman when not getting a desired part or outcome. When coping with losing a part, Ginter made it clear, that was just one person’s opinion.

“He always urged me to push through because there are so many opportunities,” Cheeseman said.

And the opportunities did come later at St. Joe’s. This time, he turned his voice, not out across a stage, but to the sky. Cheeseman had sung at mass since middle school and was a member of his high school choir. But one day, Ginter informed him of the need for a new church cantor, and he jumped at the chance. The choir helped Cheeseman effectively blend and mesh his voice well with others, but a solo cantor gig would give him more time to shape his own unique sound.

After landing the gig, he put many of the most religiously devote to shame as he performed at up to six Masses every weekend, something he still does when he is home for the summer.

“Sometimes when I miss Mass on campus I make up for it throughout the whole summer,” he said.

He performed at many weddings and funerals, which gave Cheeseman an edge in the performance realm as he felt the stakes were higher. With the higher stakes came higher pressure. He certainly did not want to disrespect the dead, but he feared the wrath of the living.

“There is nothing more nerve wracking than singing at a wedding that’s being recorded,” he said. “Because if you mess up the wife is going to be on you. She is going to call you, she won’t give you a paycheck.”

He was able to quell unruly nerves and find a way to center himself when it really mattered. Moreover, he was getting paid to do something he loved as a freshman in high school. He could not ask for a better deal.

In a sense, without his foundation in choir music and cantoring, Cheeseman may never have got the Pops performance to start with. His audition song, “Feed My Lambs” by John Angotti, the one he thought he bombed, was one of his favorite choir pieces.

Cheeseman considers “Feed My Lambs” one of his foundation songs and frequently goes back to it. But it surely became influential when he performed it for a spring concert one year in high school. Ginter told Cheeseman that he would have to perform the song a second time at the end of the show. Returning to the stage confused, he performed it a second time. Harkening back to the idea of impossibility, Ginter then enters the stage to welcome none other than Angotti himself. Angotti, impressed with Cheeseman’s rendition, invited the high schooler to perform the song with him at one of his concerts that weekend.

Sometimes the unreachable star reaches you first. Similar to the Pops audition, small, seemingly inconsequential performances can lead to bigger, almost unimaginable results.

“I did not think I would ever be able to hold my own with an orchestra like this, to stand in front of a crowd like this,” Cheeseman said.

There are a lot of reasons to take the stage—some might say one is for recognition of talent. Cheeseman even before his performance, however, was getting a great deal of it. There was his face. Mark Crowley, a professor in the BC accounting department, had put his photo and biography next on the back of the note packet for that week. That’s a lot. But recognition is recognition.

“People have nightmares about this where teachers single them out,” he said. “If I was a freshman I would have crumbled on the inside. I thought it was hilarious. It was funny, it was a great thing, but it’s nice to get recognized for music here.”

But recognition is not the thing that fuels Cheeseman the most. He wants to give back. But he doesn’t have to look far to get inspired. His grandmother has always pushed his goals and given when others needed help.

“When my family couldn’t afford certain programs she would support us financially,” he said.

Within Cheeseman’s nuclear family, his grandmother also gives to numerous charities for cancer and Type I diabetes, which afflicts his two uncles.

“We always say, she will never have a penny in her bank account by the time she dies because she will give it all away,” Cheeseman added.

During his trials with losing his voice, she was there for him, and helped work through the emotional trauma of losing a key part of himself. Moreover, she has never missed a show and is certainly his biggest fan.

Because of her giving nature, the principle of giving is something Cheeseman tries to emulate to the best of his abilities, especially in his music that he holds dear. This is also why there was so much thought put into picking “The Impossible Dream,” as he hoped to give and convey a cherished message to as many people possible.

“I want to reflect that. I don’t have the money to give yet. I don’t have everything. I don’t have time because I am a college student,” he said. “But I do have music.”

And, with respect to his grandmother, he is already trying to pay it back. During this last spring, his grandmother had a surgery on her back and was stuck at home. Being cooped up in a house on a spring day was not acceptable for Cheeseman. He wanted to cheer her up, but was unsure just how. But then again, he did have music.

In a beautiful display of love Cheeseman rallied his fellow Bostonian members and went to her home and sang—just for her. Something that touched her heart dearly and gave her a reason to smile. Her grandson got college students up bright and early to sing for her.

“I don’t think anyone realized the magnitude of it,” Linda said. “I didn’t realize it because, he played it off like it was no big deal. He has always been very casual.”

And Cheeseman does give off the vibe of being casual. When speaking about achieving and making progress, the emphasis was never put on a single moment, though some were big and others were wildly influential. The process and progression were more important. He has natural talent, but everything that he has achieved he has had to work hard for. Nothing has ever been easy for him. But it seems nothing will stop him.

For the time being, he goes about his day. Though in his next class he might not be on the back of a note packet, and in the coming weekend he may be found watching a game in the periphery of Conte rather than in the center of it before 6,000 people, but that would be enough for him.

In the future, Cheeseman hopes to find a career that marries his two passions for business and music. Such a career would bring the security that he strives for, but also joy and fulfillment. Such aspirations may seem like a longshot for some, but for Cheeseman every dream seems like a possible dream, when tackled with equal parts dedication and passion.

Featured Image By Keith Carroll / Heights Staff

October 11, 2017