Before she was old enough to go to school, Melissa Ann was a performer.
More than two decades ago, before entertaining people at wineries, restaurants, and breweries, Melissa Wegfahrt (her stage name is Melissa Ann) was on vacation with her family in Ocean City, Maryland, when an afternoon summer thunderstorm chased them off the beach.
They found cover at a karaoke bar.
Melissa Ann, her older sister and their cousin — a trio of girls under 6 years old — found makeshift props, jumped on stage and grabbed the microphones.
“We started to belt out the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” soundtrack (from the Disney movie) and Mariah Carey songs,” Melissa Ann said with a laugh. “Because of that performance, it got a lot of people into the restaurant and I remember my mom told me the owner wanted to pay me, my sister and my cousin for bringing in all of these customers. My mom was like, ‘What, are you crazy, they’re only 4 to 5 years old!’
“We didn’t get paid, but it was really, really fun.”
Although the Delran native would go on to be involved in choir and in school musical theater departments, Melissa Ann didn’t truly embrace how much music meant to her until two years ago. Some of her friends involved in music knew she could sing and told her to pursue it. A year later, she was traveling to Tennessee and Virginia for shows and was invited to represent country-pop music in “The Voice” Open Mic Night at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall last August.
With few places to play this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gregory Wegfahrt, Melissa Ann’s father, had a suggestion: Host a home concert. Two Fridays ago, Melissa Ann held her third such show, inviting family, friends and neighbors to gather in the socially distant space of her driveway and front yard, or to watch through live streams on Facebook and Instagram.
She played an hour-long set, set up a virtual tip jar (@MelissaA-Music on Venmo) and raised $300 for first responders in Delran.
“I wanted to come up with a way to give back to this community,” said Melissa Ann, who will play another one this Friday. “I’ve lived here for 26 or 27 years, pretty much as long as I’ve been alive. And this place has done a lot for me; there are so many people that I owe that I never got an opportunity to say thank you to. So having that concert was my little thank you.”
While Melissa Ann has spent her weekends in the last two years launching her singing career, Melissa Wegfahrt is a schoolteacher. A graduate of Holy Cross Prep Academy, Melissa Ann is in her fifth year as a third grade teacher at St. Charles Borromeo in Cinnaminson, where she went to grade school.
Like every teacher, she’s missed the student-teacher connection in the last three months of remote learning, but hopes that, like last summer, she’ll see some of her students and their parents at one of her shows.
“A Cinnaminson Day last September, a bunch of them came out and sat up front,” she said. “I miss them. I miss them a lot.”
By seriously pursuing music as an adult, perhaps Melissa Ann is passing along a lesson to young people: If you love something, go for it. Part of her hesitation as a teenager and young adult was having stage fright and being shy.
“But luckily I have a lot of friends and family who are very encouraging, who pushed me out of my comfort zone,” she said, “and it worked out for the best.”
Until the pandemic ends, Melissa Ann will continue to host shows from her house as a way to give back. You can find her on Facebook at Melissa Ann Music, Instagram (@_melissaannmusic), and see her full summer schedule (pandemic permitting) at melissaannmusic.com.
“People want to come out and want to take a break, want to have fun, and want to be able to talk to their neighbors and friends while keeping social distancing in mind,” Melissa Ann said of her home concerts. “It makes me feel — it’s amazing how much music can do.
“They say all the time music heals and music inspires, and it truly does. I’ve been able to witness that. Knowing I get to put smiles on their faces makes me smile.”