High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

Velma soon married again, this time to Richard Koehndorf, a service man eight years her junior. Although Velma initially resisted his advances and the girls gave him a hard time, he persisted in his pursuit. He took Velma to Paris and proposed beneath the Eiffel Tower--which the girls agreed was so romantic--and Velma said yes.

While the family was living in England, Emily began to study music in earnest. An earlier attempt at piano lessons had been short-lived, but now she picked up the recorder and, when that became too easy, the flute. She had a good ear and learned to read music as easily as she had learned to read English.

Emily began to daydream about a future as a musician, perhaps with the woodwind section of a major symphony. She had the right idea but the wrong instrument.

In 1981 Velma and Richard were transferred to Blytheville Air Force Base in Gosnell, Arkansas, where a third sister, Sylvia, was born two years later. Richard was a good and decent man, and he treated Velma's girls as his own. He could be strict about such things as curfews, which Emily discovered when she reached high school, but she realized that was because he cared about her.

Emily was a perfectionist who pushed herself to get straight A's. Although outgoing and friendly, she had little patience with peers who failed to meet the same standards she set for herself. A lot of the popular girls in the school spent their time experimenting with drugs and sex; Emily dedicated herself to her studies and music.

After a falling-out with the band director, Emily joined the high school's tiny, twelve-member choir. She had never thought much about singing; when she sang hymns in church, she'd been told she had a nice voice, but she'd never really let it out.

She soon got her chance, at a concert for which the choir had been preparing when she joined. With her mother and Chris in the audience, Emily sang in public for the first time, quickly overwhelming the other singers with the power and beauty of her voice at full throttle. Chris was so impressed, she sat in the back of the auditorium weeping; next to her, Velma found herself flushing with pride and then with embarrassment when other parents came up to her after the concert to remark on Emily's talent.

When a friend complimented her, Emily joked that someday she was going to be a rock-and-roll star.

"Oh, no," the other girl replied. "I just know that someday, I'm gonna turn on the TV, and there you'll be, singin' opera."

Emily rolled her eyes. Opera? Who sang opera anymore? It wasn't even in English.

But soon Emily wasn't even singing with the choir. Velma's luck with men--all of it bad--held true when Richard was electrocuted in a freak accident at the base.

In 1985 Velma and her girls moved to Colorado. Velma wanted to be near Richard's parents, Jon and Mona, who lived in Aurora and couldn't have loved Emily and Chris any more than if they had been Richard's natural children.

Emily transferred to Rangeview High School. She felt lost at a school five times the size of the one she'd left back in Arkansas. She missed her friends. She missed her place as the star of the show.

On her first day, she was sitting in Spanish class, when the teacher asked if anyone knew a song in Spanish.

No one raised a hand. Suddenly, the words to "Cielito Lindo" came to Emily. Her voice had been a way of winning acceptance in Arkansas; perhaps it would do the same here.

She began to sing the little song whose tune most Americans recognize from the old "Frito Bandito" commercials.

When she stopped, everyone was looking at her like she was some ventriloquist's dummy. Where had that voice come from? At last the teacher cleared her throat and said, "I know that song, too. But I sure can't sing it like that."

The response gave Emily confidence enough to try out for the Rangeview choir, where the competition would be much more intimidating than it had been in Arkansas.

On the afternoon of the auditions, the choir director divided the students into quartets--bass, alto, tenor, soprano--and instructed them to prepare to sing "Come Follow Me."

Emily liked the song immediately. It reminded her of how lonely she felt transferring to a new school.

Everywhere I go, there's a voice I think I know.
It's calling, "Come follow me."

As she sang, Emily found herself fighting tears. She suddenly felt small and unwelcome, the way her father had made her feel. She sang louder, as though she could chase away loneliness with the power of her voice.

No one in the room, not even Emily, was prepared for what they heard. Her voice filled the auditorium and flew around the walls as if looking for a way out. When she finished, the other students and even the choir director applauded.

A few days later, a friend in the choir suggested that Emily see a voice teacher she'd been training with. The woman's name was Anne Van Etten.

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