Neuqua grad gets 'rush of emotion' accompanying Lizzo on Grammy stage

  • As Lizzo takes the stage during the opening of the Grammy Award show, Neuqua Valley High School graduate Kelsee Vandervall, in the bottom row on the right, plays cello as part of her orchestra.

    As Lizzo takes the stage during the opening of the Grammy Award show, Neuqua Valley High School graduate Kelsee Vandervall, in the bottom row on the right, plays cello as part of her orchestra. Courtesy of Kelsee Vandervall

  • Kelsee Vandervall, left, played cello along with Jocelyn Butler-Shoulders during Lizzo's opening performance at this year's Grammy Award show in Los Angeles. Vandervall is a 2009 graduate of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville now living in Chicago and working as a freelance cellist.

    Kelsee Vandervall, left, played cello along with Jocelyn Butler-Shoulders during Lizzo's opening performance at this year's Grammy Award show in Los Angeles. Vandervall is a 2009 graduate of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville now living in Chicago and working as a freelance cellist. Courtesy of Kelsee Vandervall

  • A 23-piece orchestra of black women, including 2009 Neuqua Valley High School graduate Kelsee Vandervall, performed behind Lizzo as she opened the Grammy Awards show Sunday in Los Angeles.

    A 23-piece orchestra of black women, including 2009 Neuqua Valley High School graduate Kelsee Vandervall, performed behind Lizzo as she opened the Grammy Awards show Sunday in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Kelsee Vandervall

 
 
Updated 1/30/2020 12:15 PM

"The biggest rush of emotion that I've felt" came Sunday on stage at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles for freelance cellist Kelsee Vandervall, a Neuqua Valley High School graduate.

Vandervall, 28, said she loves performing because it allows her to connect with the energy of the audience.

 

And in her career so far, she said, there has been no greater aura than the vibe she felt at the opening of the annual awards show when she performed as part of a 23-member orchestra of black women behind the popular singer-rapper and flutist Lizzo.

"That energy at the start of the Grammys -- that's definitely something you can't replicate anywhere else," she said.

Vandervall became part of Lizzo's orchestra not by a formal audition but by word-of-mouth within the music community. That's how she often gets assignments as a freelancer.

She said she'd played some Lizzo songs before at weddings and even yoga studio gigs, but she knew only the hits ("Truth Hurts," "Juice," "Good as Hell") before the Grammy performance.

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So after scoring the gig in early January, Vandervall said, she booked a flight, rented a cello and made plans to stay for a week with a musician friend in Los Angeles who was also part of the Lizzo orchestra. Nervous about renting an instrument for the first time instead of playing her own, Vandervall said, she approached the rehearsals with enthusiasm to learn her part.

She said the scene showed the creative process in action, as some sections of the music were revised and reissued during rehearsals with Lizzo and her team. Memorizing her part wasn't just about the notes on the page, but also about synchronized bow movements and head bobs that allowed the orchestra to move as one.

"That was my first time being part of a production with dancers and that sort of choreography and just seeing all of it come together with music," Vandervall said.

Two full-day rehearsals and two run-throughs on the Staples Center stage later, the group was ready to go. Along with the dancers and other orchestra members, Vandervall performed during Lizzo's onstage renditions of "Cuz I Love You" and "Truth Hurts," even standing behind her large, stringed instrument at one point when Lizzo was playing a flute solo.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Vandervall, a 2009 graduate of Neuqua Valley who started playing cello in fifth grade, said she's been a longtime viewer of the Grammy broadcast each year.

"To be sitting on the stage this time, it's a completely different perspective," she said.

It was a bit anticlimactic, too, she said, because after performing at the beginning of the ceremony and taking some photos backstage, she headed back to her friend's house and watched the second half of the Grammys on TV.

Back at home in the Naperville area, Vandervall's teachers like Lori Lauff, who taught her at Scullen Middle School during her earliest years as a cellist, were watching the show, too. Lauff said she later showed a picture from the performance to her current students at Gregory Middle School as an inspiration to pursue dreams.

"It doesn't matter where you start from. What matters is what you do with it," Lauff said. "If you're passionate about it, you can do amazing things."

Vandervall, Lauff told her students, wasn't some 3-year-old prodigy when she started playing cello -- just a talented hard worker who made the most of her opportunities. She attended a high school that has won Grammy Awards for its music program seven times, in a district where the three high schools have combined to win a total of 16 Grammys.

"She literally just got a great music education here in District 204," Lauff said.

She later went on to get a bachelor's degree in music from Columbia College in Chicago with a concentration in contemporary, urban and popular music, as well as a dual master's degree from the University of Michigan in cello performance and chamber music.

So what was one of Lizzo's accompanying musicians like as a middle schooler in the mid-2000s?

"Polite. Kind. Respectful," her teacher said, "And hardworking. She was one of those kids who just always set a wonderful example for the peers around her."

The Lizzo performance itself now will serve as an example for Vandervall and as a reminder of the energy that music is all about.

"The feeling," she said, "I think that will always stick with me -- the feeling of the performance."

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