Ayla Iliff talks to a classmate at Sequim High School’s graduation ceremony on June 8. Sequim Gazette photo by Michael Dashiell
Sometimes the truth is hard; sometimes it’s liberating. By almost all definitions, recent Sequim High School graduate Ayla Iliff has had a hard life. Her father, who’d been ill most of her childhood, died when she was a sophomore and family circumstances forced her into living on her own and supporting herself when she was 17.
Trying to keep body and soul together while dealing with undiagnosed major depression and wavering self-esteem, Iliff saw her formerly good grades plummet and she dropped out of high school, failing to graduate with her class a year ago.
“It was put food on the table or get good grades,” Iliff said. “Also, I’ve always dealt with self-liking/self-hating issues and I was so overwhelmed with supporting myself and losing my dad, I had a hard time believing in myself.”
However, one bright light in her life was her passion for singing. As tight as money was, though, on her own initiative Iliff found Olympic Music School in Sequim and was recommended to Nancy Beier, a professional opera singer with a 30-plus year career as a dramatic soprano in Europe.
“I could tell she had a really pretty voice but she had been singing alto and she is not an alto. She was terrified of singing the high notes and was hesitant and negative (about her abilities),” Beier said in her matter-of-fact way.
“I could hear she had a real voice, but her body language said she was so folded into herself as if she were trying to curl into a ball and disappear. I told Ayla, ‘You can carry around your baggage or make your life what you want it to be because you’re young, smart, talented, beautiful and healthy.’ She looked at me like a deer in the headlights. Nobody had ever told her that before and her turnaround was almost stunning!”
When someone from the Port Angeles Light Opera Association called to ask Beier if she had a soprano to recommend for its summer 2011 production of “Pirates of Penzance,” she told Iliff to audition.
“Ayla told me she came really close to not going — but they cast her in the lead role and she was a huge success,” Beier said. As with the PALOA audition, Beier as believer told Iliff she could — make that should — make an audition tape for Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, one of the top visual arts and performing arts colleges in the nation. Iliff returned to SHS last fall and got her grades up enough to graduate on June 8. On June 11 she found out she’d not only met but exceeded Cornish’s grade-point average requirements. From the Sequim community and Cornish, she’s received $11,000 in scholarship funds.
Linda Grubb is the chairman of the scholarship committee for the Peninsula Singers and said she was “blown away by her life and her accomplishments” when she read Iliff’s application. The group awarded her two $500 scholarships: the Dewey Ehling Vocal Music Scholarship and the Denise Graham Memorial Scholarship. Grubb, herself a classically trained vocalist and professional voice teacher, now with Olympic Music School, added, “I heard her sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and even though she was sick, she blew the top off of it.”
Iliff especially wanted to thank Grubb for forming a “fan club” of about 25 area residents. The fan club, Grubb said, are “like a bunch of moms” willing to support and encourage her, as well as raise some funds for necessities such as a performance gown. Contact Grubb at 683-6315 for more information. “Ayla is extremely worthy and I like the hometown support thing a lot as she goes forth.”
“I am really excited to go to Cornish and absolutely thrilled,” the now 19-year-old Iliff said with her voice full of life. “I screamed like a little cheerleader! I’m looking forward to the next four years and getting my bachelor’s in vocal performing/opera. I don’t want to be famous but I do want to get paid for doing what I love, singing and performing. I would love to go to Europe and get a contract for opera. I want to say thanks to everybody in town supporting me and I hope they are proud of me.”
Through her 40 years of teaching voice, Beier has seen dozens and dozens of students come and go. What about this girl drew her to become much more than a mentor?
“I was a poor kid, too, and if people hadn’t pushed me and helped me … something in her struck a chord because she could have been me 60 years ago,” Beier said. “I’m very proud of her.”
The admiration is mutual.
“Nancy probably saved my life with her emotional support,” said Iliff. “The only way I can pay her back is to pay it forward.”