INSIDE The Story, The Musical:
An Interview with Vocalist, Erika Cockerham
By Laura Fleetwood
This weekend marks the third annual performance of The Story, The Musical at Messiah Lutheran Church. This powerful event tells the story of the Bible through music, video, and narration. It is intensely moving and makes God’s story of creation and redemption deeply personal. We are thrilled to offer it again this year as a gift to our community, praying that it will draw people closer to Jesus, or perhaps introduce someone to Him for the first time.
In 2014 and 2015 we frequently heard the following question in the moments and days after the performances of The Story, The Musical…
“Who is the young lady with the powerhouse voice that sang the solo in the song, Alive? I don’t recognize her.”
Her name is Erika Cockerham, and I have the honor of telling you her story.
Erika began our interview the way she typically introduces herself, as the oldest of 7 children, blessed with amazing parents. She exuded joy and energy as she spoke, so I was surprised when the 31-year-old lost no time sharing the heart of her struggle – clinical depression.
As a self-described emotional, expressive, deeply-feeling person, Erika has battled the dark demon of depression since age 12. Most often in the form of sobbing spells that last for days, weeks, and even months at a time. In the midst of these downward spirals, her coping mechanism is sleep. Praying that God would take her from this life, she has spent weeks in bed. In fact, for most of her 31 years, she felt anything but alive.
As a survivor of abuse in her teens, some of Erika’s relationships (especially with men) have also been a source of struggle and pain. But through it all, Erika felt an early call to perform and sing. After college, she made the bold move to New York City to pursue this calling. Time after time, audition after audition, she heard the dead silence of the phone and the word “no.” At rock bottom, in March 2010, she made one final audition for Spamalot The Musical. She did not receive a callback and found herself surviving only through the charity of a local church. She knew it was time to go home. Her parents bought her a plane ticket back to St. Louis, and her dreams of a professional singing career were crushed.
But something happened the first day she was home. She actually got out of bed in the morning. It sounds simple, but it was something extraordinary in her depressive state. Even as the answer to Erika’s dreams appeared to be “not now,” God slowly began teaching her how to trust Him and be at peace, even in the darkness. She remembers crying out to Him with her conflicted feelings during this time, “I don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t even trust you right now, but I trust you!”
Erika did not work for 6 months after her return to St. Louis. However, she did see a doctor and finally answered her mother’s long prayer to take medication for her depression. When she was ready to work again, she taught voice and piano at the local Mozingo Music. The next few years were marked by difficult relationships and still no progress in her performance career. But in the midst of this season of waiting, God connected her to several amazing people. One of them was Messiah member, Kaki Lang. Erika became Kaki’s private piano teacher, and a true friendship developed. Erika began attending the Women’s Bible Study that Kaki leads on Tuesday mornings at Messiah, and in the spring of 2014, Kaki asked Erika if she would be part of the choir for the The Story, The Musical.
At this point, Erika had decided to stop pursuing a career in performance. Too many doors had been closed. In fact, in 15 years of chasing this dream, she had not been granted a single paid opportunity to perform. Not one. Kaki asked her to simply look at the score for The Story to see what she thought. Then Kaki asked one more question.
“You know the song towards the end? Alive? Messiah needs a soloist for that song. Do you think you could do it?”
The song was not the style that Erika typically performed, but she learned it and attended the first group rehearsal at Messiah in 2014. She stayed afterward to sing the solo for Director, Beth Schult. Immediately following the song, Beth took her to the altar and prayed over her. Through that moment and the music of The Story, The Musical God began a new season of faith and trust for Erika. Her prayers changed. She asked God to help her get out of the way. To use her voice to bring people closer to Him. It was no longer about Erika and what she could do, it was about God and what He WOULD do.
In 2015, when Erika was part of The Story, The Musical for the second time, she sang the words to Alive and truly meant them. She had stopped wishing for God to take her from this world. She felt ALIVE and was ready to share her hope and faith. This, in itself, was a miracle. But God was only just getting started with miracles for Erika.
Last year she auditioned for the Young Artist position with the St. Louis Women’s HOPE Chorale. Although she was sick and did not have her full voice, she was offered the position and also second soprano section leader. Three weeks before turning 31, she had her first paid position as a professional performer. The chorale director, Leanne Magnuson Latuda has become a significant mentor in Erika’s life and has given her confidence to not give up on God’s plans.
Remember how I said God was only just getting started?
In November, Erika, encouraged by Leanne and her vocal coach, auditioned for the St. Louis Gateway Opera. Once again, her prayer was not for success, but that God would deliver the voice, touch the lives of the people in the room, help her have fun, and have peace no matter the outcome. Three weeks after her audition, she received the news that she would play the lead role of Harriet in The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret. The opera recently ran from March 18-20, 2016 in St. Louis. Erika had over 60 close supporters in the audience to witness her operatic debut.
It keeps getting better. Erika’s word for 2016 is FEARLESS. For years, she wanted to enter the Lotte Lenya Competition, a unique international theater singing contest that emphasizes wide-ranging repertoire and the acting of songs and arias within a dramatic context. Erika knew this competition would showcase her talents, but FEAR always prevented her from applying. Due to her age, 2016 was the final year she was eligible. After a series of miracles only from the hand of God, Erika auditioned earlier this year with stillness in her soul. She is now one of only 15 performers who have advanced to the finals. I do not think it is a coincidence that the competition, judged by an all-star panel, takes place on April 16, just one week after the 2016 performances of The Story, The Musical at Messiah. To give you a sense of the caliber of this competition, past winners are making careers playing leading and featured roles in major theatres and opera houses around the globe, even being featured by Oprah Winfrey.
In just one year, Erika’s life has changed dramatically. God has delivered her from doubt, self-hatred, depression and a spirit of fear and timidity. Her dreams are coming true in ways she never could have imagined. Most of all, her faith and trust in Jesus has never been stronger.
I urge you to attend The Story, The Musical at Messiah this weekend (5pm on Saturday, April 9 or 9:30 & 11am on Sunday, April 10). Not only will you hear The Greatest Story Ever Told, but you will see a choir of people, each with a story behind their amazing voice. And you will see a beautiful, young woman named Erika singing the powerful words ALIVE. And you will know she means every single word.
Article written by Laura Fleetwood. Laura is Messiah’s Director of Communications and author of SeekingTheStill.com. In this space, she writes about women’s faith topics and finding moments of divine amidst the chaos of life.