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‘It’s The Most Fun Playing For Other People’: Senior John Kailian Reflects On THON 2024 Performance

If you were at THON Weekend 2024, you might’ve caught covers of Zach Bryan and Noah Kahan that electrified the Bryce Jordan Center. Meet John Kailian: a supply chain management student and senior at Penn State from York, Pennsylvania, and the voice behind the covers that got students amped up in the early hours of Saturday afternoon.

Before his performance during THON Weekend 2024, Kailian was no stranger to THON and its mission to fight pediatric cancer. As a Pennsylvania native, he was very familiar with THON as he decided to attend Penn State.

“Just growing up in [Pennsylvania], in middle school and high school I took part in mini-THON and was on committees on whatnot… I always thought it was really just a beautiful cause.”

His involvement with THON as an undergraduate student has largely grown through his membership in Phi Gamma Nu, and many of its members pushed Kailian to put himself out there and perform on stage at THON 2024.

“There are a lot more people within PGN that have put their blood, sweat, and tears into THON. I’m more of a just — I pitch in wherever I can — I’ve done ribboning on the streets a handful of times. I always love doing that,” he said. “Especially just like the love and care that PGN puts into THON, it’s pretty infectious, and it’s hard to not rub off on you.”

Kailian’s first foray into music was inspired by his father who played guitar and exposed Kailian to the basics of music and got him started playing guitar.

“[Music is] just something I’ve always been around, like being in the basement with him he’s always shredding. Sometimes, annoyingly, we’ll be trying to watch a movie and he grabs his guitar and starts shredding, and I’m like ‘Come on, man.'”

Growing up in a household around music meant Kailian picked up playing on and off from when he was young and helped lay a foundation and appreciation for playing.

“I picked up playing on and off when I was 15, but I didn’t start singing until a little over a year ago. I always liked [singing], but I was too shy,” Kailian said. “Around my 21st birthday, I whipped out my guitar for my friends and sang a couple of songs and see how it goes… ever since then, I’ve been a lot more consistent with playing.”

As he got more consistent with the guitar and more accustomed to singing in front of an audience, Kailian dipped his toes in the water by performing gigs in his hometown to get more comfortable playing in front of an audience.

“Over the summer before the school year started, I played a couple of bars and restaurants in my hometown. Nothing crazy, it was more through a friend I knew who does gigs, and he let me go on for like 30-40 minutes before him,” he said. “Honestly, it’s the most fun playing for other people. I can’t help but grin ear to ear when I’m up there doing it.”

As for his experience performing at THON events, Kailian tested the waters with a performance at the THON Showcase in January with a “Hey Driver” cover by Zach Bryan.

“PGN’s THON’s team got on me and said, ‘Look, you need to audition for this. We got to get you up there. You need to do it. You need to do it.’ It wasn’t something on my radar, but they just kept pushing for me to do it, and I’m really glad that they did,” he said. “I definitely rely on support from friends and family to keep pushing me to try and keep going with it.”

At the time, the THON Showcase at Schwab Auditorium was the biggest audience Kailian had ever performed in front of, and as Kailian explained, it was a different experience to perform in front of a group where all of their focus was on your performance.

“Even at bars and restaurants over the summer, there’s friends and family that are tuning in to watch you and support you, but I kind of took comfort that, for a lot of these people, I’m just kind of like background noise that’s around,” he said. “Whereas like THON Showcase, it’s a bunch of people all coming together to see different talents… and they’re just kind of locked in on you. That was that that was really nerve-racking for me.”

Kailian also mentioned the Dunkin’ mascot and Katie Feeney as members of the judging panel didn’t help with nerves, either.

As for his choice to perform Zach Bryan as his first song before a larger audience, Kailian was largely inspired by his interest in the country, folk-style songs he listens to as the basis for his song choice.

“[Zach Bryan] and Tyler Childers are the two that I kind of got into singing because of them… I was wondering ‘Oh, are these songs tough to play,'” he said. “I was looking up chords and tabs, and it all looked like it was all stuff I could play. I was like, ‘Well, let me just try singing along for fun,’ and I didn’t think it sounded horrendous. I showed it to my friends, and they thought it was cool. It kind of went from there.”

With his audition at THON Showcase behind him, Kailian later got an email asking if he was interested in performing at THON Weekend 2024 and would have three months to prepare his act before he took to the Bryce Jordan Center stage.

“I was like it’s a no-brainer, of course,” he said about the decision to perform.

As for the experience on the THON stage, Kailian highlighted the support he received from PGN dancers and members in the stands to overcome his nerves of performing in front of such a large audience.

“Stepping up there…PGN’s THON dancers rushed to the front, and we were a little bit before [the performance]. One of the members of our THON family I got introduced to… I basically was telling them ‘Yeah, I’m kind of freaking out right now,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, dude, like calm down, calm down,’ and that was that was a huge help,” he said. “My roommate was also dancing — He and his girlfriend ran up, and they’re like, ‘Oh, dude, don’t worry,’ and that definitely helped bring me down to earth a little bit.”

“Getting up on stage, I got through my first songs okay, it felt good, and I played my second song and my voice cracked pretty egregiously like the very first note, and I was like ‘Oh brother,’ but then luckily I fell into a groove from there,” Kailian continued. “Then the nerves the nerves kind of went away and I really just got to thinking what a magical time it was.”

Kailian explained that, if it worked out in his schedule next year, he would definitely make time to return to THON and perform after graduation, too. As for what the future holds for the graduating senior and his career in the music industry, Kailian isn’t too set on exactly where he wants to go with music quite yet.

“Whenever friends and family ask me about it, I always tell them that I’m going to try to go for it. I don’t necessarily know what that looks like,” he said. “My plan is just to have a normal desk job deal and do music on the side, and if I’m lucky by the grace of god, something will happen. It’ll just be a side gig that I’m passionate about and, hopefully, something comes of it. If not, I’ll have fun doing it, you know?”

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About the Author

Luke Pieczynski

Luke is a sophomore accounting major hailing from Pittsburgh, PA, and is one of Onward State's social media editors. He can often be found in the Starbucks line waiting for a nitro cold brew, or listening to one of Dua Lipa's latest releases. He's a fiercely loyal Sheetz Freak and will not settle for another Pennsylvania gas station. Please send your best political thriller to him on Twitter @lukepie11 or to his email [email protected].

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