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!