Shortly before winter break, Lawrence University junior Michael Zhang told a friend that his dream was to meet and sing with his idol, Ed Sheeran. Little did he know he’d get his chance a few weeks later.
On Dec. 9, Zhang found himself in the front row at a Sheeran concert in New York, singing along to Thinking Out Loud, a Grammy-winning hit song from the pop vocalist. After the first chorus, Sheeran noticed Zhang’s voice and paused his performance to pull Zhang on stage to do a duet on the rest of the song.
“That moment is thoroughly in my mind forever; I can tell the story like a million times,” Zhang said.
In an instant, Zhang’s Sheeran moment went viral on social media. And nearly three months later, he’s still finding it hard to believe.
While Zhang’s singing talents got him called to the stage, he is not a music major at Lawrence. He is majoring in economics, with a concentration in innovation and entrepreneurship, and is pursuing a minor in film studies.
Born in Shanghai, China, he moved to New York in 2015. He was drawn to Lawrence through the Posse Foundation, a scholarship program that pairs academically promising students with universities across the country. He also was intrigued by the availability of music opportunities at Lawrence for students who aren’t necessarily studying in the Conservatory of Music.
Music has always been a passionate hobby, Zhang said, and he wanted the chance to continue to experiment with music even while studying economics.
“I knew that I might not be a Conservatory student, but I heard that you could have a lot of opportunities with music even if you weren’t in the Con,” he said.
That has proven to be true. Zhang has taken voice lessons in the Conservatory, sang with the Viking Chorale, and is the secretary of Sol Studios, a student organization that provides a space for Lawrentians to explore their musical creativity. He also helped organize and performed in Cabaret last year, an annual international variety show featuring music, dance, and fashion from around the world.
“I feel like at Lawrence, everyone has some connection with music; it’s just the manner and the amount,” said Zhang.
A moment to remember
No part of the Sheeran experience was planned, Zhang said. He was back home in New York when the concert was announced. It was a smaller, more intimate show, held at the 1,200-capacity Irving Plaza on a Thursday night.
Zhang scrambled to find tickets. Despite having a flight back to Appleton 10 hours after the scheduled concert, he was determined to go. Then on the day of the concert, he arrived two hours early and ran to the front of the stage.
During the set, Zhang was singing along to each song, but when Sheeran started to perform Thinking Out Loud, Zhang decided to flex his vocal skills and harmonize in the background.
Sheeran kept strumming his guitar, but stopped and asked the crowd who was singing the high “ooo’s.” Then when Zhang got his attention, Sheeran told him to come on stage and sing with him.
“It was an unreal moment,” Zhang said. “I was so nervous and so excited, so I kind of forgot the second verse for a second. Then he just gave me the mic and then I started singing the song.”
Zhang has performed many times and said he was more than comfortable with the large audience. The nervousness came from being so close to his idol and living out his dream of singing a duet with Sheeran, he said.
“[Sheeran] joined in with the harmony and I sang the main melody. I felt a little awkward because I should have let him sing because it’s his concert, but I was too excited so I just kept singing.”
After the song ended, Sheeran gave Zhang a hug and complimented him on his vocal skills. Zhang was also able to keep Sheeran’s butterfly guitar pick as a souvenir.
Coming down from the stage, Zhang said he felt like a celebrity. Everyone had taken pictures and videos and people were asking for his name.
A YouTuber who posts footage on the East-West Sounds channel was in the audience that night and had recorded the whole experience. He came up to Zhang asking for permission to post the video on his channel. The video now has close to 163,000 views and was shared by Billboard News.
Zhang has admired Sheeran for many years, even learning how to play guitar because of him. The first songs he learned to play were by Sheeran.
“I really loved the folk, the acoustic style, and got addicted to it,” Zhang said.
Class Year: 2023
Hometown: New York City
Activities: SOL Studio