Troubadour Teacher

Education major Troy Cornes puts his talent to the test.

Troy Cornes
photo by Scott Beseler

by J. Atley Smedley
Contributor, NKU Magazine

He takes a deep breath and steps forward, one foot then the other, to assume his place in the spotlight. Glancing down at the ground, to that notorious “X”—solid red and outlined in white—he thinks that, by the end of the day, thousands of dreams will face potential death in this exact spot. Adrenaline surges through his body as he positions calloused fingers on the fretboard and drops his right hand across the strings, letting the opening chord ring out. Remembering the years of practice leading up to this moment, he inhales and sings the first line.

I was a boat stuck in a bottle.

Troy Cornes, a senior education major in Northern Kentucky University’s College of Education and Human Services, has had plenty experience in front of crowds­––he’s a regular MC at Norse basketball games­, after all. But this was different. This moment—an audition to appear on NBC’s nationally syndicated “America’s Got Talent”—was the first step in a long-held dream to bring the world joy through his singing.

“This performance was beyond nerve-wracking,” said Troy. “But when I walked onto the stage, I knew that singing and being myself made me happy, so I just had fun with it.”

Though he’d sung for many years, starting by covering Ed Sheeran songs because of the “easy chords,” Troy’s first public performance was only a few years ago, at the age of 15, when his pastor asked him to sing at a Christmastime church service. With no previous experience singing for others, the event was one of the most terrifying things he’d ever done, but Troy knew it was his time and place to shine. He was ready to raise his voice and sing.

Troy Cornes performs in the NKU Student Union.

In the ensuing years, Troy continued to work on his performance skills, even winning the NKU student talent show in the spring of 2017. With a growing collection of cover songs in his repertoire, Troy’s confidence built steadily, but he still froze when he saw that “America’s Got Talent” would be auditioning hopefuls in Cincinnati.

“I was talking to my parents, and they asked if I was going to do it,” he said. When they asked him “why not?” he didn’t have an answer—if anyone could try out, why shouldn’t he?—so Troy clicked on the Facebook ad and proceeded to sign up.

“I told all my people, and they were really excited,” he says. “But I think my parents were the most excited.”

As time passed, Troy’s anxiety over the tryout date grew by the day. Finally, after four months, the November day arrived and, before he knew it, he was standing in downtown’s Duke Energy Center, guitar in hand and chosen song—“Yours,” by Russell Dickerson—running through his mind.

“It was a cool environment,” Troy said. “Seeing all the talent—you take people who don’t even know each other and bring them together with music. That’s awesome.” He understood all that talent was intimidating but reassured himself he was “good enough to be here.”

Troy was able to officially register two hours after first arriving, then was ushered into another waiting room, where fellow performers patiently waited. When his time to step before the judges arrived, he did so with support from family and his fraternity brothers.

This wasn’t a live recording, but it was there anyway—that infamous red “X” that marks a performer’s place during network broadcasts. Standing on it, all Troy could hear was the sound of computer keys clicking as the producer—who never once looked up at contestants—took extensive notes.

“There was one judge with a British accent,” said Troy. “She just stood there looking tough. I thought each performer was going to be picked individually and audition, then maybe talk to the producer for a little bit about why they’re here. But that didn’t happen.”

Troy poured himself into his song and walked away feeling it was the performance of a lifetime. He could only hope the judge did too. Months later, he’s still waiting for the results but looks back calmly on the experience, humbled for the opportunity to perform in that staging area.

“Performing on that level was an absolute blessing. Anyone can do it, but it was a huge step for me personally,” said Troy. “To think that I could potentially be on national television singing is absolutely surreal.”

If he advances in “America’s Got Talent,” would Troy abandon his seat in the classroom for big-stage success? Not likely, he says. He has every plan to complete a degree in secondary education, because that’s what will allow him to help students do what they love (his real dream).

But Troy does think an appearance on network TV could help him become the hip teacher. More than that, though, he hopes that seeing their teacher perform on live television might ignite something special within his future students.

Who knows, he may even get a cool lesson plan out of the experience.