September 30th, 2017

“Cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far to stand in the light and be seen as we are”. That’s a lyric from a song I heard on last season’s So You Think You Can Dance and the performance blew me away. I found myself humming that one line and singing that one line over and over to myself for weeks and months following the episode that the dance aired. I think those words summed up a sentiment I had felt for a while and was just TRULY coming to terms with. On this last day of September, I have to say I’m pretty happy with the me that I am which is not always easy.

I did this thing where I worked really hard at a goal. I planned for months for this goal. I put myself on the line and made sacrifices and put in my due diligence for this goal. The goal was heading to Italy (my first time in Europe) to perform the biggest role of my short performing career with the COSI opera festival as Suor Angelica. The trip was June-July 2017 and I had been planing and fundraising since October of 2016. I wanted it BAD. I wanted to have this amazing experience and also prove to myself and others I as Zoe was worthy of the honor to lead a company. Two days before opening night I had surgery on my snapped fibula after taking those “break a leg” wishes a little too literally. Its taken me 3 months to process everything and get back to the blog. A couple months removed I’ve realized a few things.

  1. when you ask God for a sign BE READY FOR IT: I asked God a while back for a sign that me staying close to home post undergrad was the right thing to do. I had been asked by many why I chose not to move to New York or Cincinnati or LA or Boston or other places where major conservatories are. I knew the second I had my first lesson with my now teacher who works at Mason a stones throw away from my house, that it wouldn’t get much better than her but I still felt a bit of doubt as to how others would see my decision. God said K WELL NOW YOU HAVE A BROKEN LEG AND HAVE TO STAY HOME BUT THATS OKAY BECAUSE YOU WERE ALREADY PLANNING ON GOING HOME LOVE YA TALK TO YOU SOON.
  2. its okay not to be okay(another song lyric): I’m.not.perfect. (say it again) I AM NOT PERFECT!!! This was something I had to remind myself to genuinely feel when I was in school. I’m what they call a calm perfectionist. Not anal, just calmly crazy and control freakish. I realized the thing I had been trying to control and micro manage and keep at a socially perceived as near perfect thing (not superficially…God knows Make up and looking like a Barbie are not my thing…I’m talking adulting perfect) was ME. I slipped, broke my leg,saw my big opera moment float away, sat in a hospital bed alone crying and was forced to deal with the me that I was working with then, a VERY imperfect person. By the time I got home from Italy I realized the imperfections make me me.
  3. God has a way of slowing you down: I have found a form of peace I had yet to tap into prior to my injury. I learned how to just BE. I am an extreme introvert (fellow INFJ disguised as an extroverted people person’s please stand uuup) so I have always liked my alone time but really being faced with me myself and I was very eye opening, not always pleasant and so fulfilling. I move physically slower and mentally slower and more methodically now instead of filling space for the sake of Keeping up with the made up Joneses.

I’m heading into the 10th month of 2017. I will be celebrating my 23rd birthday in less than 3 weeks. I’m quickly on the mend with my leg. I have (finally) forgiven myself for many things but the most recent being that I am not perfect and I slipped and I had an accident and I fell and was injured and that’s okay. I’m mentally ready to tackle my health and fitness again and am excited to get back into Yoga, ballet class and tap class when the new year starts and I’m cleared to get back into activities that make me physically stronger and enrich me emotionally. I am on track to pay off all my student loans and be completely debt free by Christmas 2019 (budgeting and discipline!!!). Finally ready to





SHED THE  LIGHT ON MY TRUE SELF and to be seen as I am

July 8th, 2017

“To thine own self be true.” William Shakespeare

It’s a funny thing as a performer, finding the truth out about yourself through other characters. Week 3 of COSI is ending. One more week left in this process and it’s been extremely challenging, thought provoking, spiritual and therapeutic. Suor Angelica, a nun who secretly has a child before being sent to the convent who eventually takes her own life (spoiler alert) to be with her dead son because she simply can’t take the thought of living without him. Zoe-Elizabeth Renelda McCray, a girl floating around life trying to live with a bit of purpose and searching for the beauty in the darkest moments in life. Puccini did me a huge solid by writing a character that I’ve been exploring emotionally and vocally for the past year. Being in Italy starring in an opera is the LAST thing 13 or 14 year old Zoe thought she would be doing. Let’s visit that girl.

Carl Sandburg Middle School. 7th grade Zoe looks up and realizes she’s been surrounded by a whole bunch of people that look nothing like her. 13 year old Zoe realizes she’s one of the only if not the only black face she sees in her classes. She realizes she’s suddenly a foot taller than most of her friends. When she heads to gym class, she realizes all the other girls can loan each other clothes to borrow and she can’t because she’s roughly 10 clothing sizes bigger than most of her friends. Zoe realizes she is not the conventionally pretty girl that gets all the attention of boys and girls alike. Zoe talks to her mom about looking and feeling different than everyone she’s around and 2007 Desire McCray assures her that she was created in God’s image and what makes her different from those around her is what makes her special and that she NEVER needs to feel compelled to fit a certain mold of beauty. Zoe decides then and there to accept who she is and has ever since. NOWHERE in the waking-up-every-morning-grateful -and-happy-to-just-be-you was there a need and desire to be a professional performer. That came much later.

Flashforward to years later, senior in high school Zoe knows she SHOULD go into medicine, that it would make her family happy and would meet the standards put on her by her community waiting and anticipating a young educated black female to rise to heights those before her never could. The love for music (choir….our fam couldn’t afford private lessons growing up) and musicals stayed with me like a stomach virus. Every time I thought about going to Virginia Tech, my parents Alma Mater, to be a doctor something felt wrong. Thank God I followed that feeling in the pit of my stomach and my family nurtured that feeling, reluctantly at first (exact quote from Thanksgiving 2011 when I announced to my family I wanted to be a music major instead of pre med ”Honey, that’s not a real major. You have to rise to your full potential and get a real job”) and are now my HUGEST supporters and the reason I keep going, and frankly have made it here, sitting in my Air BNB in Italy writing this very blog post. 5 years of undergrad. 5 years of not knowing what the hell I was doing and second guessing why I chose this path and feeling that feeling in the pit of my stomach reminding me I’m not me without music. 22 years of learning to accept, appreciate, love and showcase all 6 foot 2 of me. Learning to know my worth. Learning and deciding to bet on myself every time. Trying day by day to not sell myself short because the “who would want to pay money to see YOU” talk in my head has all but ceased. Striving to find the true Zoe and showing that bomb ass chick to the world. Suor Angelica, COSI Summer 2017 in Sulmona, Italy is the vehicle to that right now and I’m embracing every moment of it.

May 14th, 2017

It’s been one full week since I’ve come home from JMU. One full week since being back in Alexandria. One full week since starting the next chapter in my life. One week since I’ve been done with undergrad life. May 7th, 2017 not only did I leave my two wonderful roommates and my roommate’s cat Sagwa, who became my roommate (slept in my bed with me almost every night…could not be more different of a situation than I thought I’d be in even a year ago) and said goodbye to my church in Harrisonburg and my home for 5 years, I also started my job in Old Towne. I came home after a 14 hour day (church 9am- noon, a 3 hour drive to work, teaching 330-10) to the sweetest smile and biggest hug from none other than my Mama, Desire Sarah McCray.

I’ve always been thankful for my Mother but have come to appreciate her and all she has been through to raise her three kids more and more since attending JMU. There’s a picture that hangs on the board of our laundry room of my Mom in a graduation gown, my dad holding my sister in one arm and holding my right hand with the other and my Mom holding my brother’s hand with her free hand. I pass that photo almost everyday and everyday it puts a fire in my belly and a smile in my heart. Mom wasn’t in the house alot when I was in elementary school or middle school. At the time, it wasn’t something that bothered me or upset me. Only now after going through 5 long years of college can I appreciate that Mama was working as an educator and going to night classes with three kids. Not once, NOT ONCE did I ever feel a void of love from my busy Mom. Not ONCE did i feel I wasn’t a priority in my Mom’s life. After my mom stopped teaching in the ACPS school system, she was around more, conveniently right when I left for JMU. Jordan would call me telling me how Mom woke her up every morning for school, dropped her off, made her lunch…all things I didn’t get in school because mom was usually off to work when I was up for school.  Even still, I’ve always only felt unconditional love.

My Mom got the whole loving your children more than anything in this world and reminding them they can be anything they put their mind to from HER Mom. IN elementary school I vividly remember having an assignment where we had to write a report about our role models. Most people’s role models were football players, singers, authors and actors. Mine was Renelda Brown, my grandmother. You will NOT find a stronger more tender loving woman than my Grandma, all wrapped up in her teeny tiny 5 foot 2 frame.  Because Mama was always working and Dad usually was, Grandma was ALWAYS my chaperone on field trips. Grandma was the most popular chaperone(if I remember correctly), always bringing candy for everyone and exuding a maternal calming energy to small hyper active children that always were calm around her. True story: on a 3rd grade field trip my Grandma was my chaperone. It was a Thursday. I bawled my eyes out when she drove off home to Arlington and told my teacher through a broken voice and dramatic sobs ” -I-I-I I- MISS MY GRAAANMAAAAAAA. A”. I was confronted by my teacher who called my Grandmother in a panic. My teacher came back and said ” Zoe, I just talked to your Grandmother. She just informed me you will be seeing her tomorrow for church choir practice…then again Saturday for a church event….then again Sunday for church….So sweetheart, why are you crying like you wont ever see her again?” I replied  ” because I love my Grandma more than anything and when I’m not with her I miss her”. That was 15 years ago. Not a damn thing has changed.

My Dad’s mother, Grandma McCray, spent her last few years int he throws of Alzheimer’s. Grandma McCray lived farther away from us and I didn’t see her nearly as much as I saw and still see my maternal Grandmother. I do have a memory of visiting my Grandma after she didn’t really remember us anymore (which I know took an emotional toll on my Dad) where she called me into her room, thinking I was her nurse, and asked me to brush her hair. It was one of the best times I ever spent with my Grandma. After her passing, I decided to start going by my full name, Zoe-Elizabeth, after my grandma Mary-Elizabeth.

Mary-Elizabeth McCray: A strong woman who raised 12 kids in a 3 bedroom house. Renelda Brown: A model citizen who gives all of her self to her kids, grandkids, great grandkids, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, husband and the God she has always served. Desire Sarah McCray: a woman with more college degrees than children who has nurtured and loved hundreds of elementary school students before having 3 kids of her own. A woman who navigates gracefully through my brother’s mental illness, my sister’s aspirations and crazy schedule and my crazy goal of becoming a full time performer. Like Kendrick said, I’ve got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA. Thank you Moms. Happy Mother’s Day




April 26, 2017

A blog was the last thing I thought I would start. I don’t fancy myself much of a writer and have never been an avid reader because of my right eye that likes to lazily wander after about 10 sustained minutes of looking at something. But here I am, nearing the end of my time here at JMU starting a blog and readying myself for the new and exciting things in life.

Tomorrow , Thursday April 27th, 2017 will be the last time I step foot in a class at JMU. 5 years since being that nervous excited 17 year old freshman who knew a whole bunch and who also didnt know anything. 5 years later I can definitively say I am a changed human being after my time at Madison. Starting as a nursing major, then music education major and finally settling on a degree in vocal performance was quite the journey. I thought I started too late as a classical singer, as I really never took private lessons until I started with the best (and to be fair only) teacher I’ve ever had, school dad Kevin McMillan. Now I don’t say school dad lightly. In our family, a highly matriarchal family with fewer men and fewer strong men than strong women in the family, it takes alot for me to become very close and trust a male authority figure who then becomes someone so close to me as KMAC as he is affectionately known, has become. I wouldn’t be pursuing a career in music without him, and frankly, I might not even be in school if it weren’t for him.

There’s a little thing called burn out and exhaustion. Sounds pretty bad or dire right? Well I’m pretty sure I “functioned” for the first 4 years of my undergrad morning noon and night in a state of exhaustion everyday. University Women’s Chorus, TCC, Chorale, Madison Singers and eventually section leader of said ensemble, my first musical at JMU (spelling bee forever), 19-22 credits each semester, music directing theater shows, opera galas, opera ensemble and finally my first role with JMU opera theater as Lady Ella with my dear friend Elizabeth, opera guild exec, trying to sleep and eat and talk and breathe, choral director of St Stephens and a little thing called JMU Note-Oriety that I started leading at only 18 years old. All of that came second to my vocal studies which culminated with winning second place at the NATS national competition in Chicago 2016 with my Mother Desire McCray accompanying me on the 16 hour bus ride there and back and mouthing YOU SHOULD HAVE WON FIRST for all to see when it was announced.

But NATS was a pivotal time for me in my development not only as a singer but a young girl having courage to try to do what she loves. Ever since I’ve been so excited for my soprano journey. This 5th year at JMU has been so enriching for my soul. I was a part time student, I wasnt in ANY of the things I had done the last 8 semesters. I was just being Zoe, which I almost didnt know how to do, I had never had a semester where I was getting home when the sun was still out before this year. I had never taken a class at Urec until this year because my evenings weren’t booked in either the music building or forbes until anywhere from 730-11 every night. I have had so much more time to focus on my relationship with God and being reminded by his undying love for me has been one of the best gifts of this 5th year.

Tomorrow is my last day of class. Next Thursday is my last final of my undergraduate time here. Friday and Saturday of next week is graduation for the Class of 2017. Though I still identify deeply with the class of 2016, I was ready to join the class of 2017. It wasn’t to be. There is one single requirement keeping me from finishing officially, walking at graduation and receiving my Bachelors and that is (drum roll please) piano. PIANO. AKS, I’m coming for you and I will come out on top. With the support of my family, professor McMillan and the JMU School of Music, I will be studying piano and voice through George Mason University which I am SO excited for. Private piano lessons will be what will get me across the finish line at NEXT year;s graduation. On paper, I will be finishing my undergraduate studies 6 years after starting as there is a pride thing there that MADE me feel embarrassed by that fact. I now see that’s the way God intended for me to do it all. I am learning everyday the importance of Patience acceptance and forgiveness through this process. I am also earning that your self worth has jack shit to do with your credentials on paper. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive family who are behind me a hundred percent and will be throwing me the biggest “you’ve been done being a student for a year but now youre officially a graduate” grad party spring 2018.

So thats it. May 5th 2017 I’ll be singing the National Anthem at the JMU Honors College medallion ceremony. May 6th 2017 will be spent cheering my friends on that are walking in graduation and taking in the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley for one more day. May 7th marks my last Sundae at St Stephens as their Choral director and my very first day at my big girl job at Opal Music Studio in Old Towne Alexandria VA, 10 minutes from my house. Thinking since this is the year if acceptance and trying new things I’ll get on a bike for the first time since middle school and might even start riding my bike to work. June- July 2017 will be spent making beautiful music at the COSI summer opera program in Sulmona, Italy. August will be spent getting back to my job at Opal, starting my voice lessons with the AMAZING Patricia Miller who I cant even begin to explain her majesticness( is that a word? idk its my damn blog right) and continuing my piano lessons. September will also start my time as a substitute for FCPS schools, ideally as a choir (or theater) sub!!! FCPS teachers: hit me UP! I’ll be working at Opal Sundays and Mondays and will have my private piano and voice lessons Thursdays and Saturdays. Tuesdays Wednesdays and Fridays will be my sub days which I am also excited for.

I’ve got a plan for the upcoming year that involves some really fun stuff like a few more recitals, a few voice competitions I’ll be submitting for and a fun project I hope to finish with the Blue Sprocket recording studio in Harrisonburg. I’ll be milling around the DC area doing a whole bunch of fun stuff. Harrisonburg peeps: I will be traveling to the burg a few times for my piano tests and working with Blue Sprocket but in general I will no longer be a resident of JMU. JMU Graduating class of 2018: hello, I’m Zoe. I’m now one of you and I cannot wait 🙂 Here’s to the 2017 2018 school year as a JMU/GMU Duke Dog Patriot