The last two weeks have been so full of exciting events that there has been no time to blog about them. In fact, if life continues at this pace, I’ll have to rethink trying to keep up! Anyway, recent happenings are too important and amazing to skip over, so I’ll start with the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative High School Competition…
Two weeks ago today, Tuesday, June 12th, I headed to the University of Indianapolis for the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative High School Competition Finals. (How’s that for a mouthful!) I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that we were going to work with some amazing performers, further explore the Great American Songbook, and have our final performance at the Palladium in Carmel, IN.
Upon arriving and checking in, I met my roommate for the week, Nick Ziobro. We hit it off immediately, having so much in common, from a love of good music to a passion for Pixar. There wasn’t much time to sit around and chat at that point, since we started rehearsals immediately after dinner. We had to prepare the group numbers that we were to sing with Michael Feinstein and Sandi Patty. It was immediately obvious that the 10 finalists from across the country were all incredibly talented and I had an amazing week in store.
The next morning, we started early with all kinds of fantastic workshops- Vocal Health with Dr. Huntley, Basics of Vocal Performance with Dr. Hacker. After lunch, we finally got to meet Michael Feinstein. He was absolutely awesome! He taught the masterclass along with Sylvia McNair, who, though I know from IU, hadn’t heard me sing since I was a boy soprano! The two of them were incredible to watch working with the other kids. I was toward the end of the line up, and finally the person before of me was singing, when… FIRE ALARM! Fortunately, it was a false alarm and soon we were back in and it was my turn to sing “Orange Colored Sky”. I was so thrilled to sing for them, and the feedback was incredibly helpful. Honestly, if I had gone to a workshop and experienced just that one masterclass, it would have been a priceless experience! But wait… there was sooo much more…
That night we had a reception at the Chairman of the Board’s house, where Jim Caruso hosted a special version of his “Cast Party” and all the finalists and judges sang. Unbelievably awe-inspiring! Like something out of a dream, we sat around while people like Jim Caruso, La Tanya Hall, Sylvia McNair, and Michael Feinstein got up and sang. These judges are not only incredible teachers and performers, but people, too. What a night! Definitely one I’ll fondly remember the rest of my life!
Thursday morning came early, and it was another jam-packed day of experiences, any one of which would have been fantastic on its own. We got to work with La Tanya Hall and Jim Caruso. I was thrilled beyond words to work on “Nearness of You” with La Tanya, particularly as her recording of the song was a major inspiration when I chose to sing it in the finals. Both of them really drilled us on stage presence, coaching me to keep “Nearness” simple and honest, and really helping me break out and let loose in “Orange Colored Sky”
The afternoon masterclass was again led by Michael, who was joined by Sandi Patty. This time, I was one of the first to sing. It was another class full of great advice and teaching. Also, it is worth mentioning that Michael is so funny. He could easily have a standup routine, as he is so smart and quick witted. Even just casual conversation with him is entertaining! After the masterclass, we rehearsed our group number with Sandi, and WOW!
Then after dinner we headed over to the Palladium, and I got my first look at the beautiful hall where we were to perform the next night. Really? Could life get any better than this? The answer was obviously ‘yes’, because then Friday happened…
Friday was all about preparing for the sold out performance that night. The event was a competition, but even throughout the week it was never really the focus. We were too busy learning, having fun and soaking up everything possible. It honestly felt like I was part of an incredible family who were making music and celebrating the journey we had been on together for the past four days. I will never forget and walking out on stage for the first time. It was a dream come true. We were treated with performances by the judges, joining in on the group numbers with Michael and Sandi. I truly loved every second of being on the stage. Finally, the performing was done and the judges left to deliberate. Of course my hope was to be one of the winners, but as I sat there and reflected over what I had experienced during the process, I already knew that no matter what, this was a life-changing experience. There were ten talented kids on stage, all who could easily take the top prizes. Then the judges came out. It was time. Third place went to Tori Anna from CA. I was thrilled for her. Second place went to… Tony Ponella? I couldn’t believe my name had been called. Next thing I knew, I was getting hugs from the judges, handed flowers and was standing beside Tori. Finally, to be joined by First place winner, Nick Ziobro- who had become such a good friend, was the icing on the cake. The competition was over, and the party began. It was such a joyous celebration. My family was there supporting me, including my grandparents from Kansas, as well as my voice teacher, Dr. Horne, and his wife. I felt at home, part of a bigger family--loved, appreciated, supported, and as if this was just the beginning of something amazing.
Saturday morning dawned, and my mom came to check me out of the dorm. Living so close, we headed home to Bloomington for the day. That evening, I put my tux back on and headed back to the Palladium, this time as a spectator. Another incredible night unfolded- tapping duo The Manzari Brothers, Lari White, Andrea McArdle, Clay Aiken, Barry Manilow, Michael Feinstein, and my friend Nick Ziobro graced the stage. At dinner, I got to meet Clay Aiken, who told me, “There’s nothing wrong with second place. I’ve done it twice. Just keep working hard and everything will work out.” I totally agree. The night culminated with the after party, when Michael Feinstein called Nick, Tori and myself out of the audience and had each of us sing with him at the piano. I’m still not down off cloud nine after that! At the risk of sounding corny, I feel like we were all winners, and a part of something so special that there just aren’t words to describe it.
It really is impossible to write down everything that happened. I’ve just tried to hit some of the highlights. What a week! I will cherish this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you to everyone involved with this phenomenal event!
After a whirlwind weekend-- working and assisting for 5 performances of One Step Above's productions "Cinderella Kids" and "Alice in Wonderland Jr.", then staying up to the wee hours watching the recorded Tony Awards, today is all about getting ready for the amazing week ahead. I've practiced, listened, done laundry, checked my lists, practiced and listened some more.
In preparation, I was looking through all the information and remembered that Jim Caruso (one of the judges) was on an episode of Michael Feinstein's PBS program. Fortunately, I have them all saved at home on the DVR, so was able to go back and watch that part again. In that same episode, I noticed a trumpet player at Sophia’s who looked familiar. I double checked the credits, and sure enough, it was my dad’s cousin Michael Ponella! I’ll definitely have to ask him about that the next time I see him!
Also, my dad told me that a colleague from IU Jacobs School of Music (another trumpet player) came by today and mentioned that he will be playing for the Gala/After Party Saturday night at the Palladium. The winner of the competition will be performing, and all the finalists and families will be attending. Just another example of what a small world it is!
Tonight, I'll enjoy spending time with my family, then tomorrow I have a quick rehearsal before hitting the road. I can't wait! Hopefully I'll have time to blog, or at least tweet (@tonyponella), throughout the week. I know that it will fly by, and I'll want to look back and be able to remember all the details of what promises to be an amazing experience!
Watch for my next post from Indianapolis!
I'm counting the days until I get to head to Boot Camp--Michael Feinstein High School Competition Finals Boot Camp, that is. Looking through the list of masterclass and other experiences in store for us next week is unbelievably exciting! We will be working with Michael Feinstein, Sylvia McNair, Sandy Patti, La Tanya Hall and Jim Caruso, as well as performing with most of them Friday night at the final performance!
I'm in the process of checking off my to-do list: Picked my music (stuck with "Orange Colored Sky" and added Indiana composer Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You"), transposed the music, emailed it for the accompanist, got a new tux, practice, practice, listen, practice, practice. Tomorrow I'll be doing an interview with the Herald-Times Newspaper, so got a haircut today. Meanwhile, I'm assisting with One Step Above's productions of "Alice in Wonderland Jr." and "Disney's Cinderella Kids" which go up this week, meaning all day rehearsals.
So much to think about! I want to get all my ducks in a row so that I can head to Indy next week and just soak up everything- enjoy, learn and create. I want time to speed up to get to Tuesday, then go in slow motion throughout the week. 5 days and counting...
We were cleaning out the basement this weekend, when… jackpot! I found some old Great American Songbook sheet music, photos and records. As I was looking through everything, it really got me thinking about the connection I have with this music.
My dad’s father, born and raised in The Bronx, loved Vic Damone. Evidence of this is in the collection of his records passed down. In fact, just recently my dad said that growing up, he didn’t even realize “On the Street Where You Live” was from a show. He thought it was just another “old crooner’s song”.
Mom’s side is just as connected with this type of music, beginning with my grandpa. He has been teaching my sisters and me Jazz History this year via Skype, since he’s in Kansas and we’re in Indiana. In one of our sessions this spring, he mentioned playing with Ella Fitzgerald, and how those charts were the best he ever played. WHAT?! Even my mom didn’t know about that, though she remembers watching him perform with Andy Williams, among others.
My parents are both musicians and have performed music of the Great American Songbook. My mom played cello with Barry Manilow in upstate New York during his tour following the release of “Singing with the Big Bands”. I got some weird looks when I would ask my friends, “So, what’s your favorite Barry Manilow song?” It didn’t phase me when they had never heard of him- I just played the CD, expecting them to love it as much as I did. Not everyone did, but that’s OK.
As with all other good music, Great American Songbook music can span generations and create experiences and memories that entertain and inspire.