The First Person Ever to Believe in My Voice
“The greatest good you can do for another is
not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.”
— Benjamin Disraeli
In a recent interview, I was asked about how growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin has influenced my music background.
The first person who came to mind was Mr. Ed Wells.
Or Mr. Wells, as we called him.
He was a special guest at me and my sister’s college graduation party in December 2007. And he and his wife, Lois, had picked out beautiful pink scarves, each wrapped in a box, for us. That was the last time I saw him.
Mr. Wells had known our family and many other Hmong families since 1995, when he started the first and only Hmong children’s choir in the Chippewa Valley, and possibly the entire state of Wisconsin.
I was a fifth grader then, heavily influenced by my peers. Many were Hmong, and like wildfire, word got around about a new community choir just for Hmong kids. I didn't think much about it, but everyone was talking about it, so I joined. All my six siblings and I joined.
The choir was called "New Generation," and Mr. Wells was the director.
At 67 years old, Mr. Wells kept up very well with us kids, some as young as 5 years old. He dedicated his weeknights to mentor and direct us as a choir inside the rooms of churches, elementary schools, and community buildings, wherever we could get a space to rehearse. He asked for and arranged songs that we knew, including Hmong songs like “Hmoob Lub Neej” by Hmong American singer, Cua Yaj. And after many positive accomplishments, he celebrated with us by taking us on our very first trip to Wisconsin Dells, the “Waterpark Capital of the World.”
But Mr. Wells was much, much more to me.
He was the first individual who recognized my voice. That I had a voice - a voice that needed to be heard.
Sitting in the back row, I can remember clearly being given a solo in front of the choir. I was never jumping for joy, but I never rejected Mr. Wells' decision. I was shy and felt unworthy to accept such joy so openly.
There were many peers, some even older than me, who I believed were just as able or more capable to take on a solo. But when Mr. Wells would offer me a spot, I never disagreed. I loved singing too much.
I remember riding in a yellow bus and traveling as a choir across Wisconsin to perform in front of many non-Hmong communities. From high schools in the country to senior communities, I remember it all so well.
On one of these singing performances, I had a solo for “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas, a top song and movie of that time.
As I stepped out of the choir, away from Mr. Wells’ view, to perform my solo, I could only see the faces of the white women in front of me.
"The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends..".
I immediately felt vulnerable and afraid. So much so that I completely forgot the next lyrics. But there was no time to waste.
Quickly losing eye contact and staring into the back window, I made up lyrics. My eyes returned to the audience. No one had flinched. No one had noticed my massive error.
Whew. Close call.
Where did that come from? The idea to make up my own lyrics on the spot, as a young kid, in front of an audience?
As I moved back to my spot in the choir, knowing I had messed up, I nervously looked at Mr. Wells, joining the choir in harmony.
He looked at me and with a warm smile, he lightly nodded.
I may have saved myself and the choir from public embarrassment, but Mr. Wells saved me from self-dejection.
He singlehandedly influenced me as a singer and as a new generation of Hmong singers.
He gave me opportunities I would have never received had I not join his choir. I wouldn’t have agreed to create a music duo with my sister after the choir dismembered. I wouldn't have had the courage and confidence to compete across the Minnesota-Wisconsin stateline in dozens of vocal contests and where many of the instrumentals I chose to compete with were arranged by him.
And I would have never, ever known that I could sing. Really sing.
As a young child, Mr. Wells saw my potential and believed in me more than I believed in myself. He gave me my foundation to music, and literally, helped me find my voice. He singlehandedly influenced me as a singer and as a new generation of Hmong singers.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Mr. Wells. Your legacy will forever live on. May you rest in peace.
Until we meet again...
Special Note: To former New Generation choir members, you'll find Mr. Wells' obituary here.