The American Idol and Broadway star, the school district’s Artist-In-Residence, preached confidence and a willingness to fail to ultimately achieve success.
From the outset of a more than two-hour coaching session with Quakertown Community School District students and parents, Justin Guarini put everyone at ease. Headlined as an Audition Secrets Masterclass, the star of Broadway shows and American Idol let everyone know that he sat where they’re sitting and their dreams can be fulfilled.
“I’ve done what you’ve done and lived what you lived,” he said. “I’ve been where it is you want to be. It takes a lot of hard work but if I can do it you can do it.”
His message hit home with Quakertown’s young people. Karinna Richardson, a senior who performs with the Varsity Singers and in school plays, said “It’s very relieving to know that I can be more confident in my own abilities. He made it in acting and you can see he’s a real person. Where else would I ever hear these things from someone of his background or have the opportunity to meet him?”
Mr. Guarini was brought to the district by the Quakertown Community Education Foundation’s biennial Artist-In-Residence program. Dr. Erin Oleksa-Carter, a QCEF board member and QCSD’s Supervisor of Middle Level Teaching and Learning, huddled with several teachers to discuss the program. Erin Camburn, the high school’s choral director, suggested Mr. Guarini.
On January 30, his interactive Audition Secrets was a huge success as he shared the highlights and lowlights of a career that took off in the first season of American Idol in 2002 when he reached the finals with Kelly Clarkson. Mr. Guarini, 44, has been the lovable “Lil’ Sweet” in Dr. Pepper commercials since 2015 and performed in seven Broadway productions. On February 1 he will be giving pointers to 10 students selected by teachers.
As he spoke and gracefully maneuvered the stage in the Quakertown Performing Arts Center, Mr. Guarini used photos, videos and his magical singing voice to teach, encourage and motivate his attentive audience.
“(Being here tonight) is one more step in a long road of steps to your success,” he said. “I’m taking you by your hand … watch that pothole. Everything you want is waiting for you on the other side of willingness to fail.”
“It felt real, and I was very excited to hear what he had to say,” said Zach Polek, a junior who finished first in auditions as both a singer and instrumentalist or the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District 11 chorus, band, and orchestra. “I have to be confident. It’s okay to be me where I’m at.”
Mr. Guarini enjoyed the back-and-forth with audience members and they savored his feedback. He opened up about his failures, including getting words wrong Idol’s Big Band Night when singing Route 66. “I just kept going,” he said.
A low point came one night alone in a hotel room in Los Angeles, watching Saturday Night Live when Tina Fey on Weekend Update announced Mr. Guarini had been dropped from his recording contract. It’s how he learned about it.
Mrs. Camburn referenced that type of “authenticity. To hear him describe the incredible highs and crushing lows was so inspiring and a great message for our students.”
Stephanie Zajkowski, QCEF’s board president, said he “spoke to them in a way they can relate. ‘You need to go for it.’ ”
In addition to the audition tips he shared, Mr. Guarini’s advice is something that will inspire students with just about any challenge they face or career they seek. “There’s something you have to give,” he said. “You’re not just an instrument in a line of people. You all have value.”
He also said something many parents were happy to hear. “Create another stream of income for yourself,” Mr. Guarini said, holding up a cell phone. “With this, anyone can do it.”
Dr. Oleksa said “His messages are important no matter what you do. The goal of the Artist-In-Residence program is to touch on a variety of career pathways. We think hearing what our students did from a star performer will go a long way.”
Mrs. Zajkowski of the QCEF said “the things he said are going to stick with our kids forever. It’s not just about auditioning. His words work for whatever path they choose.”
For his part, Mr. Guarini is hoping “the underlying lessons and principles I teach will be part of my legacy. My hope is that I teach people how to avoid the mistakes I made so they can get down the road to success faster than I did.”