For many of us, our first day at a new school can be a nerve-racking experience. But what if your first day also included stepping onto the Ulumbarra Theatre stage to perform for almost 900 of your peers?

That’s the challenge Year 11 student, Nay Ye Thwey Aung, set for himself back in February this year; performing his original composition ‘Harry’s Styles’ at the first assembly of 2020, and receiving enthusiastic applause from the packed auditorium.

Music—primarily song-writing and performing—are not just a sideline for Nay. They are fundamental to his life and his plans for the future.

Last year, Nay released an original 16-track album onto every streaming service he could.

Three weeks later he took it down. The album had been spotted by the music arm of the huge Sony Corporation who had listened and recognised gold.

Sony contacted Nay and asked him if he wanted to work with them.

“They said they wanted to ‘preserve the opportunity to debut me as a proper artist’,” Nay explained. “So the plan is to get a whole team from producers to marketers and make it a proper project.”

Nay was understandably stoked about the opportunity, but he is also fortunate to have a family who keep his feet firmly on the ground and, while excited for him, reminded him of the importance of finishing school.

So, while Nay is presently working with Sony Australia on an EP (4 or 5 songs to be released when he completes Year 12) he’s also been pleased at how respectful the industry has been about his decision to complete his education.

“Just in case,” he says.

Born in Thailand in a small refugee camp near the Burmese border, Nay has no memory of his early years before he arrived in Australia as a two-year-old.

“Now that I’m studying English Language, I’ve learnt that around the age of two is when children are primed to pick up language, so I guess that’s why English came so easily for me.”

Australia has always felt like home to Nay, though he remains comfortably bilingual and proud of his Karen heritage. A big part of that revolves around food. He grew up eating mostly Karen food—which he loves—so his diet has been full of tasty, fresh and healthy food that leaves many of our Western offerings “bland” to his tastebuds.

While Australian food might be lacking, Australia’s relative open-mindedness impresses Nay.

He and his family moved to Bendigo in 2011 and linked in with the tiny Karen community formed by the few families who lived locally at that time.

“We felt welcomed with open arms when we arrived,” he remembers. “Now I also see how groups such as the LGBTI community are included in this society—something that some cultures still struggle to do.”

Nay took his first steps towards a musical career when he was in Grade 3 and began piano lessons.

“I didn’t really like it,” he explains. “I couldn’t connect with how the lessons were delivered and my teacher would get mad at me because I kept learning the pieces by ear.”

Ultimately Nay gave piano away and the keyboard sat gathering dust.

In Year 7, at Bendigo South East College, Nay picked up a guitar and made a conscious decision not to get formal lessons.

Instead he used online tutorials to guide him. This way, he felt he could learn at his own pace—only moving to the next step once he felt ready and keen to discover more.

“This flexibility made learning the guitar awesome,” Nay says.

As he moved through Years 7 to 10, as well as getting an education, he gained confidence, creative clarity and a deepening commitment to being a musician.

Nay’s music is predominantly R&B and soul, but he describes himself as a musical explorer and finds inspiration from many styles, such as funk, 50’s music, EDM (Electronic Dance Music) and hip-hop.

“It’s the blending of influences that makes you original” he says. “Most of my songs are about experiences many young people have. I guess I’m taking familiar experiences and highlighting them in ways that make them feel fresh and new.”

While Nay has been offered many gigs in Bendigo, he shies away from the constant requests to perform covers.

“All I want to do is my own material,” he says, “so I don’t really enjoy it.”

Without the high-end software of a professional recording studio, Nay can only develop his music projects to a certain level. But he’s happy working with what he has and enjoys the creative challenge of crafting his songs into a sound and style he’s happy with.

“When you work alone there is no judgement and you are free to take the sounds anywhere you want,” he explains.

Nay finds inspiration everywhere, though with the demands of VCE and the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hasn’t been writing as much lately.

His decision to stay at school made Nay think carefully about what he wanted out of VCE.

“Ultimately I was looking for an experience that would balance me out,” he says. “I wanted to study subjects that could lead me into another career if music didn’t work out—such as Legal Studies—but I also wanted a social life and, of course, an excellent music program.”

BSSC fit the criteria.

“I arrived here with some great friends and people I could hang out with and I made an effort to form good relationships with my teachers,” he says. “They’ve all been great. There is respect back and forth between teachers and students here.”

Nay is studying two music subjects—VET Music Industry Performance and Music Styles and Composition.

“The VET subject is my favourite,” he says. “The class is really enjoyable and Ash is such a great teacher.”

Nay has also taken on 3/4 Legal Studies and is finding Prue a fantastic teacher.

“She is so good to all her students, explains things very clearly and understands that we all learn differently,” Nay says. “She offers a range of resources to make sure we are all catered for.”

Nay is also studying General Maths and English Language. He appreciates the way Compass allows him to keep in contact with his teachers whenever he needs to, but is also enjoying the non-academic side of being a BSSC student.

“I really like the freedom to leave the campus and I love having Rosi Park just a few steps away,” he says. “I can take breaks when I need them—maybe even a quick nap in the park or a walk down the street to get snack.”

So what are Nay’s ‘hot study tips’?

“Motivation and efficiency,” he says. “You have to work out ways to keep yourself focused.”

Nay enjoys problem-solving, but admits he’s a huge procrastinator. He motivates himself by ‘sugar-coating’ the task he’s avoiding.

“I tell myself that it won’t take long, and I always find once I get started it’s so much easier to keep going,” he explains. “Efficiency is about prioritising and being aware of due dates for work. I think if you study every day you can also take time off every day. That works best for me.”

Sport, namely soccer with Golden City, is one of the rewards Nay gives himself for completing his homework.

“I don’t really love sport, but appreciate how important it is to keep fit,” he says. “I actually have to motivate myself to get active, and now with social distancing, I can’t play soccer so I go for a run, or walk, or shoot some hoops.”

Remote learning brought the motivation-challenge sharply into focus for Nay—the thought of failing a definite motivator for him.

“I’m not behind, but I really struggled with Music Style and Composition while learning remotely,” he says. “There’s lots of theory, so I found it difficult without a teacher right there in the room.”

As an introvert, Nay’s not missing people as much as he’s missing the ‘incidental’ learning that happens when another student asks a question that helps him understand something better.

Nay also has the temptation of wanting to immerse himself in his own music. Something he has to curb, “just a little”, for another 18 months.

So, is there anything Nay would love to go back and say to his 12-year-old self about?

“No, I don’t regret anything,” he says. “I like where I am now and wouldn’t be here if I changed anything. I hope my Grade 6 self has developed as a human and I guess I might even tell him not to try so hard.

“I would say, ‘Just soak up all the experiences and do your thing’.”