Berklee Students Win Prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Contest
Luke Niccoli recalls his first day in Boston two years ago. A young man from the American West, Niccoli had gone east, looking to conquer personal frontiers.
As he looked at the cityscape from his hotel window, he felt big and invincible, as if, he says, “there were so many opportunities and dreams to go out and get in a big city.” Standing there, he got the idea for his song “Empires in the Sky.”
And, in a sense, he struck gold that day. In late September, the song beat out hundreds of others to win the 16th Annual John Lennon Scholarship, a songwriting contest for musicians aged 17 to 24.
Niccoli, a 20-year-old professional music major from Scottsdale, Arizona, is one of two Berklee students to place in the competition. The other, Tiffany Chan, a 19-year-old songwriting major from Hong Kong, tied for third place. Chan is also the first foreign student to ever win a prize in the competition.
Niccoli and Chan’s wins mark the third major competition Berklee musicians have dominated this year. Also in September, Berklee alumna and saxophonist Melissa Aldana took the top prize in this year’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition while Berklee alumnus Godwin Louis placed third, and in July Berklee student Leandro Pellegrino won the Montreux Jazz Festival Electric Guitar Competition.
The Lennon scholarship was started by Yoko Ono and the BMI Foundation in 1997, and has since awarded $340,000 to students at U.S. colleges and universities. Each year, the contest awards three prizes totaling $20,000, funded by Ono and Gibson Musical Instruments.
Niccoli and Chan, who both have scholarships through Berklee as well, say that the win helps them feel confident that they are on the right track.
“As a musician, it’s a constant grind, and it’s tiring, and you’re surrounded by so many good people all the time. So it’s like, ‘when is it going to pay off?’ or ‘am I doing things right?’—it’s a constant 'I’m never good enough,'" Niccoli says. “So it kind of feels good for like two seconds to (hear) ‘no, this is cool. We liked it.’ It felt really good. And it still feels really good.”
Chan’s winning song, “Lost and Found,” explores this theme. “I wrote this song because at the time I was a bit lost. I knew what I really wanted to do, but somehow I was just feeling lost,” she says. The song is about trusting your gut and persevering in spite of doubt. “Even though you are lost, when you think twice, this is what you want to do … you’ve just got to keep going and trust yourself.”
Although both musicians felt honored to win, Chan says she was surprised because English isn’t her first language. “I was just so shocked,” she says. “I think that for writing lyrics, maybe a local student would have been better because my English is not as good.” For her, the win means that people in the States appreciate her music and that maybe she can work with people in the U.S. after she returns to Hong Kong to look for a record deal and continue developing the production company she started last year.
Niccoli, a guitarist who writes pop and alternative rock music, says he plans to continue focusing on bettering his craft.
“I really just focus a lot more on lyrics lately. Making more powerful songs so that people can relate to them, because I feel like that’s what lasts. I just want to make music that lasts, no matter how long it takes to grow a fan base,” he says. “Just make something that’s true to myself and will mean something to someone out there.”