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Music alumna Nicole Neely finds her place on the stage

Nicole Neely holding a violin.

For as long as she can remember, Nicole Neely has had a passion for music. That passion has led her to working with some of the biggest names in music — like Lauryn Hill, with whom she recently toured.

But it hasn’t been a straight line between loving music and becoming a touring musician. Neely, a violinist, composer and arranger who earned her bachelor’s degree in music education at the University of South Carolina in 2005, began her career as a music teacher in the Midlands. She also did freelance work writing arrangements. Then, in 2013, her mother had a stroke and needed around the clock care.  As it turned out, it was this family challenge that pushed Neely into a music industry career.

“Life got pretty difficult around that time, and it wasn’t planned at all,” Neely says. “People think that I left teaching because I wanted to — and that wasn’t the case. I left because I had to. I couldn’t sign my contract because my mother needed full around the clock care from me as the caregiver.”

In a way, it was a full-circle moment. Neely, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Columbia, didn’t intend to be an educator when she transferred to USC from the College of Charleston. She started off as a performance major but, on the recommendation of a professor, changed to education. She grew to love teaching, and though she did not stay on the performance track, she played in the USC Symphony and the South Carolina Philharmonic.

Her experience as an educator has helped her, she says, because the skills she used in the classroom also apply in the music industry.

“I work with groups now and I joke that the adults I work with are like big kids. It’s like a classroom,” she says. “It’s the same type of organization, planning, communication skills and even writing.” As an example, she mentions working with music scores, something she did as a teacher and also does as a professional musician and arranger.

"I think sometimes it’s easy to hide behind celebrities, associations and appearances, but it’s different to step out with your own work. Because it’s just you — baring your soul. And you go through imposter syndrome. Is it good enough? Will people like it?"

Nicole Neely

Neely’s formal training has been a key to her success both in and outside of the classroom. Her father played organ and piano by ear in the church, but he insisted that his own kids learn to read music. She hasn’t left teaching entirely, either. High school teachers have reached out to her and asked her to write for their students. It’s rewarding, she says, to work with students from a composer’s standpoint and help them sound their best.

“It’s always rewarding to go back because I kind of think, ‘Have I lost it? Can I still get in there and be a teacher or have that educational mindset?’ And I do. I just can’t lose it,” she says. “Because when I’m producing strings, working with players and doing studio sessions that teacher in me takes over. You have to instruct and produce them with whatever it is that you’re writing or that they’re tracking.”

Aside from performing, arranging and composing for other artists, Neely also hopes to release her own music this year. She is also planning a series of shows in New York featuring all black female performers. She wants to create more opportunities for black women to be heard, she says.

Working with Lauryn Hill since 2018 has helped Neely realize how important it is to eventually release her own music. “She is very specific about what she wants, you know? So why can’t I be specific about what I want?” Neely says. “The best way to do that is through my own music.”

Though she’s been playing music for nearly her whole life, she is still discovering her voice as an artist.

For Neely, music is a lifelong passion — whether it shows itself through teaching, performing or writing. Where it takes her next remains to be seen, but she is ready to continue the journey.

“Music is in my blood,” she says. “Not very many people can pursue a passion, a talent and a calling all in one career.”