When listening to “By My Side,” it’s hard to say which is more impressive: The fact that a sixth-grader wrote the lyrics, or that a high schooler is delivering them with such emotion. Clayton resident Bella Kalei Ibur, a Webster Groves sophomore, is responsible for both.
The song (see accompanying video) recently took home third prize in the high school division of the Creating Original Music Competition, a statewide contest sponsored by the University of Missouri. The win earned Bella $500 and the chance to perform at Mizzou’s Whitmore Recital Hall April 23.
Music is medicine for Ibur, who performs as Bella Kalei.
In fact, the night Ibur crafted the melody for “By My Side”—which she had written in sixth grade—the young performer was sick and couldn’t sleep.
“Music is really good therapy, and it’s very comforting like when you have a bad day,” Ibur said. “When you put your negative energy into a kind of art, it makes it better, in my opinion.”
Maybe Ibur’s ability to craft music beyond her years shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, before the age of 1, Ibur was already humming tunes. By the one-year mark, she was singing full songs.
“I swear she was in pitch,” said Ibur’s dad, Ted, who teaches English at Steger Sixth Grade Center. Ibur's family lives in Clayton, but Ibur is able to go to because of her father's teaching position. “The reality is she was performing for friends and family before the time she was not even walking, and she never stopped.”
Ibur attributes a great deal of her musical aptitude to her father, who performed for years as a drummer in rock bands.
“He taught me so much about music,” Ibur said. “I really don’t think I’d be this far into music without him.” When Ibur was in preschool, Ted quizzed her when songs came on the radio. He asked her to name the performer and the album on which the song appeared.
She went on to play in talent shows and school choir performances. “I guess I love being on stage and making people happy,” Ibur said. “Especially kids.”
Just as Ted inspired his daughter, Ibur inspired her younger sister Lily, 12. Lily also entered the Creating Original Music Competition and won third prize in the middle school division.
Like Ibur, it’s clear that music comes second nature for Lily. “I kind of just wanted to write a song, so I sort of just did,” she said. “I wrote the lyrics first and came up with the melody later and then came up with the bridge later with my guitar teacher.”
She gives credit to her big sister for inspiring her to pick up guitar.
“I probably started playing guitar because of my sister,” Lily said. “She’s sort of my inspiration for that and actually singing too.”
Although the win in the high school division of the music competition is impressive, Ibur has her eyes set on a bigger prize: a recording contract.
Ibur has 40 original songs under her belt and soon will start culling the compositions down into a demo CD, which her manager, Robbyn Ragland, will pitch to studios.
Ragland, a family friend, saw Ibur perform in a middle school talent show.
“I was literally blown away,” she said. “I thought I was going to a middle school talent show, but Bella was absolutely stellar. I was happy to see the talent in this little girl.”
Later, when it became clear that Ibur was ready to take her music to the next level, Ragland became a natural choice to manage the young performer given her close relationship with the Iburs.
“It didn’t really take a lot of convincing for me,” Ragland said. “She’s a great writer with a unique sensibility.”
Now, Ibur is ready to go big and soon.
“I just want to see what happens, and I’m determined to work my butt off to get there, and I’ll do whatever it takes,” Ibur said. “But whatever happens, happens for a reason … and I think all you can do is really put yourself out there.”