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A few years ago, then 17-year-old Emma Jean Branch stared at her piano and the crumpled sheet music at its feet, and wiped away what she hoped would be the last of her tears. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she could hear the Buffalo Bills quartet harmonizing about farewells in The Music Man. It was one of her favorite musicals, one she performed in as a kid, and the memory drifted in like a faint echo.

Running her fingers across the lonely keys, she took a breath and began her most important goodbye to date.

There were other echoes in the room: the rambunctious stage productions, the tap-dancing and jazz hands, the warm insulation of playing a character for a crowd of cheering parents. By the time she wrote her first song, Lake Mary's Branch teetered on the cusp between typical hormonal drama and total breakdown. Although she grew up on the local stage performing alongside Mandy Moore at the Civic Theatre of Central Florida, Branch never found her personal comfort zone.

"I was always really reserved," says Branch, now 21, tightly coiling her willowy frame on a metal chair. Whether it's the suddenly cool fall air or not, her hands tremble subtly. Once her nerves calm, she carries herself with a light-humored luminosity, even when the topic is grim. "My mom told me when I was really little I wouldn't smile for anyone. I was afraid to play with other kids. Eventually, it exploded."

By her sophomore year, Branch found it difficult to get out of bed. "I didn't get to do the state `thespian` competition, which was another blow," says Branch. "I was just burying myself in the ground."

Branch's freefall continued. "All the rejection from theater, all the rejected auditions … I loved `theater` so much. It hurt. I gave up on a lot of things. I had some problems, to be honest, with cutting myself. I started doing drugs."

She fell in love with an addict, a painful time that she recalls with a hint of wistfulness; the relationship would lead her headfirst into what Branch feels she was always meant to do: music.

After months of aborted attempts to write, Branch told herself that nobody would ever hear the songs anyway. She could feel the remnants of a joyful life become ever more distant and made one last grab at them. Within five minutes, she penned "Best Kept Secret," a fair farewell to her tortured partner.

"Try your best to keep your bottles empty/and your lies a little more discreet," she sings on top of an ironically jaunty, major-chord confessional. Although she grew up in musicals, her gentle vocals were now as nakedly honest as her lyrics. "It is time to walk away/and live my life," she concludes with a resounding keyboard thump on the song.

"`Writing music` made me feel like a better person," says an increasingly lively Branch. "I realized, ‘What am I doing?' I couldn't do it anymore. I gave it up. I just realized, `music` is like redemption. Redemption in the sense of going back to who you were. Going back to the times where you were truly yourself and who you're supposed to be."

Walking down Orange Avenue, the bells of a nearby church chime directly at Branch and render the subject of her redemption's benefactor unavoidable. She's refreshingly candid and easy-mannered, however, when it comes to her beliefs, and her deeds since the darker days speak loudly.

In January, Branch spent time working at a Ukrainian orphanage as part of Casselberry-based Music Mission Kiev, a classical music and Bible program in coordination with the Ukrainian capital.

"It was really hard to see what `the orphans` had gone through," says Branch. "It was inspiring to see these kids who still had the ability to give love to everyone else, even though it seemed like love had been completely taken away from them. `The living conditions were` pretty disturbing. They had one bathroom for 150 kids and no heat."

In addition to Kiev, she also volunteered to help the impoverished in Peru and says that her return to Central Florida, and the mall job repairing high-priced watches and clocks that followed, was a major adjustment.

"I'm pretty spoiled," she laughingly acknowledges. "To watch customers come in and complain about their diamond watches started to make me bitter."

Although her training makes her able to negotiate large audiences expertly, her nerves still creep up on her.

"It's the worst when I'm playing at a coffee shop and everyone's talking amongst themselves," says Branch. "I can see people's eyes. I can just feel them `and` what they're thinking. I never felt like I'd be playing in front of people, it just kind of happened that way."

She points to this year's Florida Music Festival as a particularly disastrous case of stage fright. Working with a new band, she coasted through her favorite original song, "Permanent Marks," a somber ode to her troubled past. Afterward, however, she felt the bottom drop out.

"It was horrible! When I finished playing `the other songs`, I was like, ‘I don't know how I'm going to get through this,' because my body was just falling apart. I have to get over `the stage fright`, and I've been putting myself in situations `to` face the fear."

A few months later, she enrolled in a public speaking class at Seminole Community College and has since discovered a newfound confidence. She says this week's ELLA Music Fest is the embodiment of the kind of support system she longed for.

"`Orlando's female artists` have a lot to say," she says. "I think that I've really found the people that are just like, ‘Be yourself and do what you love.'"

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