By Betty Ding
Second year UC Santa Barbara music student, Vincent Gao steps forward on stage and waves his arms, facing the crowd as he sings the Chinese song “Confession Balloon” into a microphone alongside his partner Max Wong.
“Everyone, can you please take out your phones,” Gao calls into the audience. One by one, with arms raised and with loud cheers, audience members illuminate the Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall with a sea of bright cell phone lights, in a waving motion.
This was the first round of the Super Nova 2017 Finale in late fall, hosted by the Chinese Student and Scholar Association for Chinese international students. Excitement filled the venue as 300 Chinese international students filled the seats of the concert hall that evening in to enjoy music far away from home.
Gao, a sophomore in Music Studies with a Western Art emphasis, is an international student from Shenzhen, in Guangdong province in China. After successfully passing the preliminary round and making the top eight for the Super Nova finale, he ended up in second place after singing three Chinese songs: “Confession Balloon” with Max Wong, “Small Town Girl,” and “She Said.”
Gao started classical piano at the young age of 7 years old, “Music was always around in my life,” Gao said. “It’s my passion.” Deep down, he knew he wanted to play contemporary music and learn about piano improvisation.
“Somewhere around middle school, my dad helped me find a keyboard player in a band in Shenzhen, who taught me about chord progressions used in pop music,” Gao recalled. “Since then, I became intrigued by piano accompaniment, singing and songwriting.”
At only 19 years old, Gao has an impressive resume. He won his high school singing competition with the song, “She Said,” the same song he performed for the Super Nova 2017 Finale. He also has experience in arranging music, producing and writing music for independent films. Last spring, he won fourth place in the USC Chinese Student Association singing competition.
Gao came to study music in the United States because he believes the music industry here is more developed and advanced than China’s.
“For instance, much of the hip-hop music in China tends to focus on talking about cars, money, or drinking,” Gao said. “While here in the United States, mainstream hip hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar uses music to discuss racial issues and promote racial equality.”
Gao began preparing and practicing weeks before the preliminary audition. However, he didn’t expect his voice to become progressively more hoarse as he became very sick the week of the competition.
The morning of the show day, Gao was couldn’t stop coughing. “I woke up with my voice completely sore and scratchy. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hoarse in my life. I kept coughing.” Gao said. “But, I still wanted to put on the best performance I could because I really valued the opportunity to sing on stage.”
As a result, for the final song “She Said” which was performed on piano, Gao had to transpose the song to a more comfortable range, in a B flat key signature.
“It happened in a blur. I was struggling to breathe between each phrase, trying to hold back my cough,” he said. “I just did the best I could and freestyled the piano accompaniment because I was playing in a key signature I’ve never played before.”
The musician’s years of hard work playing piano and studying music paid off. Despite being sick, Gao persevered and won second place in the Super Nova Finale.
First place winner Jessica Pan was complimentary. “Vincent has amazing musicianship, he’s not only good at singing but he is also very skilled in playing piano,” she said. “We both treated the first round like a performance, not a competition.”
Max Wong, who sang with Gao for the first battle round also praised his efforts. “It was a great experience meeting him through this singing competition because we got along really well. He is a great vocalist.”
In the future, Gao hopes to sing, produce and write more Mandarin pop music. “Mandarin pop isn’t confined within one genre,” Gao explained. “Although I listen to a lot of music with R&B elements, I aspire to create and perform music that resonates with the audience, whatever genre it may be.”
Betty Ding is a third year Film and Media studies student at UC Santa Barbara.