Written by Alexa Chalnick
As a young singer-songwriter and vocal major at Ithaca College, I began posting videos to the juggernaut social media app back in 2019 after a vocal injury limited how much I could sing. Despite this major setback, I still found ways to make use of the mandatory practice room time for music majors at Ithaca: I began writing original material and recording myself messing around on the piano. Eventually, I got the idea to start posting them… and that spark lit an incredible flame.
One of my first posts to go viral was an original work I wrote about being in love with my dorm’s R.A. (residential assistant).
Having access to Ithaca’s entire music library, I began expanding my content by picking out popular musical theater numbers, making videos of myself playing them and then asking the performers of TikTok to use the app’s “duet” feature to duet me. The response was incredible—my page exploded as musical theater lovers from around the globe began dueting with me, including many of the original cast members from shows such as Dear Evan Hansen, Waitress and Heathers.
Eventually, one of my followers posted a duet with newly-written lyrics in place of the original lyrics from the show. It was so creative that it inspired me to post a duet video similar to ‘Mad Libs,’ where I write half of a song and encourage others to fill in the blanks. This very first “Songwriting Challenge” spread like wildfire across TikTok as singers, writers, comedians and actors all shared their interpretation.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and I was forced to move back home to attend school remotely, the trend continued to spread. I continued posting content and, after getting 3,000 duets in July of 2020, my songwriting challenge, the “Take Down Edition,” got national television recognition when Right This Minute ran a story on it.
That caught the attention of Dan Povenmire, the co-creator of Phineas and Ferb, who duetted as Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz. He told his followers that he absolutely loved my challenges, saying that “they are an excellent way for young songwriters to develop their skills.”
As my audience grew, I continued to create more and more challenges, each with a new theme and musical style. I began adding props, lighting and, instead of only piano and an iPhone, used studio equipment to enhance my ability. I gets the ideas for my challenges rather randomly, pulling inspiration from… well, anywhere! At first they were mainly moods such as the ‘Spooky Edition’ or the ‘Comedic Edition.’ But now they’re everything from action-adventures to doctor appointments, therapy visits and even trying to figure out who the ‘imposter’ is Among Us.
All of this success was a little surreal, but just this past January, things kicked into high gear. To my surprise, when I posted the “Secret Edition” of my challenge, none other than Grammy-winner Lil Nas X duetted it. Pretending to be in on “the secret,” Nas rapped his own lyrics while acting and playing his role.
The shock factor was insane. Not only does Lil Nas X know who I am now, but his 9million followers began flocking to my channel to watch and be a part of all the other challenges!”
My story is a testament to the power of TikTok’s duet feature. Once people duet with one of my challenges, their entire audience is introduced to myself and my corner of the site. So when someone as big as Lil Nas X duets, it causes my channel to explode.
Now, in March, I have almost 1 million followers and my songwriting challenges get anywhere from 1 to 5 million views, with up to 11 thousand duets on each video. Thanks to this success, I’m now the Head of Composition and Music Director for The Averno Universe and will be premiering my first musical with them in summer 2021.
When I’m not writing songs or creating content, I teach songwriting, voice and piano. I also founded “Sing For Alexa Saturday,” a free Zoom musical theater Masterclass where three singers—chosen through TikTok, of course—get the chance to perform and gain feedback from me as well as a “Guest Broadway Star,” (many of whom I became good friends with through TikTok). I’ve also been virtually visiting many schools to speak about songwriting and my rise to TikTok fame. I owe so much of my success to TikTok. I can only hope to continue to be an asset to those wishing to learn and expand their creativity.