Sitting in the audience of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, a ten–year–old Grace Gramins (W ‘26) listened, transfixed, as the lead actress sang and played on the piano, each chord melting into the next. Afterwards, Grace went home and experimented with chords on the piano until they sounded right, determined to recreate that captivating music for herself.
Even at a young age, Grace was familiar with music performance and composition. She started playing violin at age four and had written a few classical pieces. Her experience figuring out chord structures by ear kickstarted a new love that would shape her journey as a musician, collaborator, and student: a love not just for songwriting, but also for all the creative risk–taking it entails.
Fast–forward several years, and Grace is sitting outside the Fisher Fine Arts Library on a windy Sunday afternoon. She’s in the final stretch of her freshman year at Penn, and a week ago she declared a minor in Jazz and Popular Music. The minor is a major reason why she applied to Penn in the first place. It’s tailored to students interested in contemporary music and offers courses on everything from electronic music–making to jazz history. In the fall, Grace took a course where she learned to create music based on digital audio presets, her own instruments, and the sounds of nature.
“I love the minor,” she says. “When I learned about the popular music and jazz studies program here at Penn, I was like wow, this sounds like it’s very much up my alley.”
The minor is just one of many ways that Grace has pushed herself to keep evolving as an artist. Her musical influences since Carole King have been diverse, from Alicia Keys to Daniel Caesar to Broadway musicals. For Grace, the change that comes from being exposed to more genres is a natural part of growing up. She describes her current songwriting style as a blend of indie pop and R&B. “I’m really enjoying where I am with the writing,” she says.
In November, Grace released the original single “Feel It in the Air” on Spotify. The clean vocals, graceful instrumentals, and ethereal cover photo all signal professionalism and a mastery of the ins and outs of music production. But Grace emphasizes that there was a steep learning curve to reach that point. She began her first release with zero recording or producing experience.
“It always felt like such a far away thing, so unattainable,” she says.
It wasn’t until the pandemic that Grace had the time and space to teach herself those skills. With money saved up from babysitting, Grace bought a microphone, audio interface, and digital workstation. She watched YouTube videos to learn what each button meant and how to make synths and beats. The process fascinated her, and she spent over 40 hours in her bedroom working on her first original song, “One More Time.”
“Can’t believe i put music out but here we are,” reads her social media post from the release date in October 2020.
Grace is quick to credit all the mentors, friends, and fellow songwriters who helped her develop her songs. She cares deeply about the collaborative aspect of songwriting, and for high schoolers, there is perhaps no better place to be inspired by other artists than National YoungArts Week.
Grace lights up as soon as I mention the program. “YoungArts was one of the most influential weeks of my life,” she says.
She applied to the competition her sophomore and junior year of high school. But it wasn’t until senior year that she received the call—she was a YoungArts Finalist for Songwriting, and she would be joining selected artists from all over the country in January for a week of virtual workshops and collaborations.
“My mom [and I] were, like, screaming, we were so excited,” Grace recalls.
Grace’s cohort of vocalists worked with Chris Sampson, the head of the Popular Music program at the USC Thornton School of Music, to explore their individual styles and learn from each other. The young songwriters shared songs no one else had heard before and spoke with professionals in the performing industry.
“It was really validating, as a high school artist, to hear the stories of so many people who had made it in the industry,” Grace reflects. “You just have to persevere and be intentional with your art and what you create.”
After YoungArts, Grace faced the question of how to transition from a high school to college artist. She immediately joined creative spaces on campus: the a cappella group Counterparts, the Mask & Wig band, and Penn Records, a group that organizes concerts to showcase student talent.
“I’m really grateful for all the infrastructure for musicians and creators at this school,” Grace says. “There are so many incredible groups on campus that really prioritize creation.”
As a Wharton student, Grace has also been able to combine her passions for entrepreneurship and songwriting. She is working on a virtual platform that will connect musicians with other musicians, stemming from Grace’s own experience learning from other artists.
“In my journey so far, I’ve always wanted to meet more musicians like myself, or collaborators that are very different from myself, so I can really push my creative boundaries,” she says. She hopes her startup will help others do the same.
And of course, she is still composing.
“I’m really trying to be intentional about creating time and space to do it alongside classes,” Grace says. “Because it brings me so much joy.”
Grace’s music often reflects her own feelings about life and change. As high school finished, she wrote about endings and an uncertain future. When she arrived at Penn, her focus shifted to new beginnings. “My life at that point was completely fresh,” she says. “I was discovering so many things about myself and my passions.”
Being surrounded by such diverse students and hearing their life story has also enriched Grace’s music. “I feel like I can draw inspiration from anywhere, which I love,” she says.
Recently, Grace was working on homework while sitting in her dorm room (“Never a good combination,” she notes) and heard a melody in her head. She hums a bit of it to demonstrate and describes how she builds the “vibe,” or emotional tone, of a song based on an initial melody.
Sometimes inspiration comes at random moments like that, and Grace feels the need to rush to a guitar or piano to compose. Yet there are also times when the melody, lyrics, or vibe don’t come easily. Grace still believes in constantly challenging herself to write songs, even if they’re not her favorite.
“The more songs you write, the better great songs you’ll have,” she says. “I really adopted that mentality to push myself to be creative.”
Grace has no plans to stop pushing herself as an artist. For one thing, she’s learning how to play the drums, adding another instrument to her already impressive repertoire of piano, guitar, violin, electric bass, and ukulele. For another, she hopes to release more songs in June and July. This summer, she will be interning in New York City, where she is excited to immerse herself in the city’s dynamic live music scene and play gigs as much as possible. She loves the feeling of standing in front of an audience and sharing her identity as a writer, musician, and most importantly, as a person.
“You might not know a single person in that room,” she says. “But you’ll definitely connect with at least one.”