Forty high school aged singers, from all over the country, are attending the Songbook Academy on the campus of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. The weeklong program is sponsored by Great American Songbook Foundation, which was founded in 2007 by five-time GRAMMY nominee Michael Feinstein. Its mission is to preserve and promote the uniquely American music from the Great American Songbook. The purpose of the Academy is to provide opportunities for participants to work with music industry professionals and educators from highly touted college arts programs.
Joining Feinstein as mentors for this year’s program are GRAMMY winners Janis Siegel (The Manhattan Transfer
) and Sylvia McNair, Tony nominee Jerrod Spector (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
) and television writer and producer, Marc Cherry, creator of the ABC comedy-drama series Desperate Housewives
and the Lifetime comedy-drama series Devious Maids
On Wednesday, a master class conducted by Feinstein and Cherry for ten of the 40 participants (called All Stars) was held onstage at The Palladium. Afterwards, NUVO sat down with Feinstein for a brief chat about his beloved Songbook Academy, now in its seventh year.
NUVO: How does this year’s crop of All Stars measure up to last year’s?
It’s always amazing to see the scope of musical knowledge and ability that these young souls exhibit and share in this experience. There is a lot of talent, a lot of different kinds of voices and a lot of interesting repertoire material choices. They are very worldly for being innocent in some ways but musically they have such deep connection and passion. It’s fun and challenging to do everything that we can — the mentors and judges — to bring out what we see. Some of them are more able to do that than others. Some of them transform very quickly. Some will go and take a day, then they transform. Everybody has their process. Then there are the nerves that are involved in this kind of experience. They’ll get onstage and they have to deal with nerves which are part of performing.
NUVO: Do you sense that a lot of them have old souls?
The short answer is yes. To elaborate, especially with music and the connection to this particular music, there is some kind of karmic connection or psychic spiritual connection. Being a person who absolutely accepts reincarnation as a part of the natural order of the universe, I see them in that context.
NUVO: Do you look forward to this week each year?
I do. I look forward to it because it’s exciting. It’s a challenge and it is a responsibility to handle everybody with great care because the ages of these participants are a period in their lives when much is changing. There is the sprouting of their maturity and puberty. All sorts of things are happening in the body and the mind, and developmentally in their souls and beings. I can see the kids who are extremely hard on themselves and the ones who are going through this or that. I don’t always know what it is but I feel some are facing issues and so I try so fervently to communicate in a way that will nurture and not ever bring anybody down.
NUVO: Do you see your younger self in these kids?
Yes. Absolutely. This music at that age was such an important part of my life and was the blooming of so much was yet to come. The music was supremely important, especially in high school when I spent more time listening to music and immersed in my personal world than my social life, which wasn’t much and which didn’t care about that. I see that in these kids. I enjoyed seeing how they connected the first day they were together. They immediately started hanging out and having fun. That doesn’t always happen. Each year, the groups are different. With these young people it happened more quickly and they jumped right in.
NUVO: What is your primary goal working with the kids?
To have them take away a life affirming experience that will help them to feel better and to feel good about themselves. To discover the joy and the possibilities in music, whether it is professional or personal, or however music serves in their future life. To show what it brings to their lives. What it brings to people who listen to it. The potential. And it is metaphor for life. Having breakthroughs on stage, letting go of fear, being able to open up to express a feeling from a lyric. All of those things open us up. Make us vulnerable and make us more connected to ourselves.
The Songbook Academy Finals take place at The Palladium, Saturday, July 23, at 7:00 p.m. All 40 Songbook Academy finalists will perform onstage with Michael Feinstein, and the top ten participants will perform two pieces each as they compete for the title of Songbook Youth Ambassador. For tickets visit www.TheCenterPresents.org.