This week, Franklin Central High School senior Paige Brown is one of 12 teen vocalists from New York to California, Illinois to Texas taking master classes and competing for scholarships and performance opportunities at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts. It's all part of the Great American Songbook Vocal Academy and Competition, an annual initiative headed up, appropriately, by that "Ambassador of the Great American Songbook," Michael Feinstein. The winner gets $3,000 and will have several performance opportunities throughout the year, including shows with Feinstein.
Brown almost didn't make it. During a phone interview she talked about "going cold into the competition" having learned about the deadline the day of. Not only did she have little time to prepare, but she had serious angst about foregoing a role in an upcoming community theatre musical because of a schedule conflict.
An eight-year veteran of high school and community theatre, big bands and school choirs, Brown approaches a vocal career with a clear-cut vision of what is required: "You have to take every opportunity to build on the training and experiences you already have."
And she's fully aware the Great American Songbook requires a different approach from other genres: "I have to use different parts of my body; different parts of my voice. I have to change the way I sing." Brown intends to parlay a finalist spot into a "huge learning experience. I never settle," she adds. "I never think one way is the only way."
That's where Sylvia McNair weighs in. One of a dozen presenters involved with the program, McNair brings the wherewithal of two Grammy Awards and a regional Emmy Award from a 30-year career spanning opera, oratorio, cabaret and musical, and her current tenure with the IU Jacobs School of Music.
"Michael [Feinstein] and I want to serve the music," McNair said during a phone interview. "We love, love, love this music and want to have it stay around. That young people are being drawn to it is one of the great joys of being a mentor."
"It's important for people to know what we mean by the Great American Songbook," is her emphatic instruction for a news story.
John Hughey, director of External Relations at the Center for the Performing Arts, offers an inclusive definition: "The term Great American Songbook refers to music that will last beyond the time that it was written. By that definition the Songbook is still being written. There are songwriters today who are writing music that will last — Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and more."
But Hughey notes that "for the vocal competition we require that students select material from the early 1900's through the 1960's," the traditional starting and ending points for the Great American Songbook.
Key to performing the Songbook, according to McNair, is "making the words meaningful, caring about the lyrics, celebrating the lyrics along with the music. Every 3-minute song is a dramatic story so we applaud a performer who shares a sense of poetry, storytelling, character and plot development along with great diction, pitch integrity and a voice we want to listen to."
These are the teachable aspects the young singers are working on with the help of mentors. But McNair does acknowledge the importance of the "x-factor, the unidentifiable quality that electrifies the audience is what a singer has or doesn't have."
Each of the top winners in previous years of the competition, all of whom have gone on to build a career, had that x-factor, effectively connecting with the material and effectively communicating with the audience. For McNair, "Authenticity with technique is what "makes us love Frank, Ella, Luciana [Souza] long after they're gone."