Before the first pitch of any Massachusetts softball home game, senior Whitney Williams gets what has become a rare opportunity to showcase her singing ability to the crowd of UMass fans.
Williams, a shortstop for the Minutewomen, originally wanted to pursue a music degree, but had to switch majors because the demands of playing in recital always conflicted with her softball schedule. But over the course of her softball career with UMass, Williams stayed interested in singing professionally.
She says her grandma, Donna Williams, who is a piano player, was her biggest influence in her decision to continue with singing.
“Growing up in church, she was always the one who took me to church and Sunday school,” the younger Williams said. “Her pushing me to be involved has really helped me out and inspired me.”
Donna Williams, who never had any formal music education herself, says most of her family is musical. Her cousins can play multiple instruments by ear with no music in front of them, and she encouraged her grandchildren to get involved in music at an early age.
She says Whitney always had the most interest in singing of any of her grandchildren, and because she was involved in church, Whitney had her first opportunity to perform there.
“When I was little, I’d always sing in church, and ever since I was four or five [years old], I’d do little solos at church, and ever since then, I just kept singing places,” Whitney said.
She gained confidence on stage by having her parents take her to places to sing while practicing every day. She says she knew she had musical talent when people who knew her kept asking her to sing in public for them.
Donna used her leadership in the church to get Whitney involved in plays, where she would get the lead role.
Although she had little doubt of her granddaughter’s singing ability, Donna said the first time she knew the younger Williams could perform was in sixth grade, when she was doing solos in chorus and had the lead part in a school musical.
“I remember her teacher saying that she had a perfect pitched voice, so I just always encouraged her,” said Donna.
Whitney prefers to sing country music, which she attributes to her background, coming from a farm in Kingsley, Pa., and growing up a Martina McBride fan.
Like her grandma, she never had a voice coach, even in her four years at UMass, but hopes to find one after graduation.
The first time Williams sung the national anthem was in fifth grade, when she was the only female playing baseball out of more than 200 teams in a tournament, with the best teams getting to play at Little Majors in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Her team didn’t make it, but she got a chance to sing the national anthem in front of a crowd. When she entered high school, she sang before every sporting event and also joined honors chorus.
Williams eventually made other musically talented friends, who influenced her to pick up the acoustic guitar, but never took guitar lessons because she found it easy to figure out chords for the different songs she wanted to play.
“It was a good learning experience,” she said of her decision to pick up guitar.
Throughout Williams’ music career, she tried to pick up the piano, but her grandma never followed through with teaching her.
“More than once, she asked me if I could teach her how to play piano, but I didn’t feel qualified to do that, because I’ve never been a music teacher,” Donna Williams explained.
Whitney never had much of a problem balancing softball and music in high school, but that all changed upon graduation.
When she got to UMass, she couldn’t perform as much as she wanted because of her softball schedule, but that didn’t stop her from singing.
“I knew I would want to keep pursuing [a singing career], so I asked if I could sing the national anthem for all of our home games and [UMass coach Elaine Sortino] said that was fine,” Williams said.
In addition to singing for softball games, she also has experience singing for basketball, football and soccer. When her grandmother is available, she makes sure to watch Whitney sing the national anthem – and play softball.
The elder Williams believes that because of how talented Whitney is naturally, music school would have advanced her granddaughter’s singing career and made her better prepared to be a professional singer. However, she knows that being on an athletic scholarship was going to require some sacrifices.
“She probably would be even further if she could go into the music school while she was in college,” Donna Williams speculated.
Although Whitney doesn’t have time to perform like she did growing up, the shortstop continues to practice every time she has a free moment, and sings for any audience willing to listen. Most of the time, her audience is her teammates, who, she says, are very receptive of her singing talent.
“They love when I sing, and they always request songs, like on Facebook, they’ll ask me to leave a video for them on their wall of me singing their favorite song,” Whitney explained.
She also plays guitar three or four times a week, although there are times when she knows she isn’t practicing enough.
“You have to have callous tips on your fingers to play the guitar, and I know I’m not practicing enough when my calluses all peel off and then I go and try to play again and my fingers are blistered because I haven’t played in a while,” Williams said.
She gets some experience playing for her teammates during the regular season at times by hosting them at her apartment before games. However, she doesn’t see herself going into guitar after finishing school until she feels she can handle singing and playing guitar at the same time.
When she graduates, she plans on hiring a vocal coach and looking for a recording studio.
She says she is done playing softball after this year, not only because she wants to focus on music, but also because of her physical condition. She has been playing all of senior year with a torn rotator cuff, and doesn’t see herself tolerating the pain past this season.
Williams hopes to try out for “American Idol” sometime soon, and will stick with singing country music no matter where she ends up.
Donna Williams says that no matter where or what her granddaughter does with her musical career, she will be there for her.
“I’ll support her and hope that she can pursue the music end of it,” Williams said. “That’s what her dream is, and I’ll wish her well. I’ll be very proud for whatever her accomplishments are.”
Adam Miller can be reached at email@example.com.