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Hear Shirley

What: Mikayla Shirley performs with Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz youth band at Central Pa. Jazz Festival Picnic

When: 3 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 30

Where: Indian Echo Caverns, 368 Middletown Road, Hummelstown

Cost: $15 for adults, $10 for members, $5 for students, free for children under 12

More information: Visit friendsofjazz.org .

Listen to Mikayla on YouTube.

Sitting in a Starbucks after her bass lesson, a curly blond-haired teenager tapped her foot and bobbed her head to music only she could hear.

She appeared to be in another world, blocking out the pop music emanating from the coffee shop speakers and instead focusing on the rhythms of the late jazz singer Etta James.

"I always have music playing in my head," said Mikayla Shirley, 14 of Newberry Township. "Three different songs I can't shut it off."

But one of the songs going through her head that day was not like the others. It was one of her own, one she'd written in the sixth grade.

The song evokes unhappy memories.

"All my friends, they left me," the songs goes. "Black and blue. They threw me away."

Shirley said she was bullied in school, and writing songs like this was her only escape.

"It was really rough in middle school," she said. "There were little cliques where they had people who would spy on me and pretend to be my friend."

Those friends soon started sitting at a different lunch table and throwing her food away, saying she didn't need any more food because she was "too big," Shirley said.

They threw erasers at her, told her she had mental problems and made fun of her clothes and taste in music, she said.

"They just wanted me out of there because I didn't fit in. I was one of the biggest kids in my school. Everybody (else) was really healthy and fit."

Shirley said she tried to change her style.

"I tried to fit in and be like them, but I was like, 'this isn't me,'" she said. "So I got more focused on music. This is what I want to do. This is what I want to be when I grow up, to put my heart and soul into this (and) share my story."

Now, Shirley, who will start her first year at Capital Area School for the Arts in Harrisburg this month, is a jazz singer with the Central Pa. Friends of Jazz youth band. She takes voice, piano and bass lessons once a week, writes her own jazz and blues music, performs at open mic nights and does other local gigs as often as she can.

"I'm practicing music all hours that I'm not sleeping," she said. "I even think about music in my sleep."

Shirley's first gig was at age 10 at Penn State Harrisburg campus for a youth art and music showcase. Since then, she's performed at the Capitol twice and opened for Nat King Cole's brother Freddy Cole at The Ware Center at Millersville University. She's currently auditioning for the prestigious Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz International Vocals Competition. The competition, which is open to jazz vocalists under the age of 30, comes with a $25,000 first-place prize.

But Shirley doesn't sing her originals for those performances. She saves those for the more intimate open mic settings, surrounded by family and friends.

Shirley began writing songs when she was only 5 years old, reciting the lyrics for her mom to write down.

"I took different songs and mashed them up," she said. "Whatever was going through my little head."

That eventually led to writing chord progressions, and soon enough, she had 20 notebooks filled with songs — most of them about personal experiences and growing up, she said. Her songs usually start out sounding happy but often end with a sad, melodic tone.

"For me, if I didn't have music, my quality of life would be really crappy," she said. "I feel that music is a big part of expressing your emotions and getting through changes in life."

She hopes her story will encourage others who've been bullied to keep going.

"When I was little, I used to think all these years in school, if you didn't have any friends you weren't going to do anything in life, like that was all you had," she said. "It's just a small part of your life If you find something else you love to do, don't give it up because of what other people say."

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