By Tonya Burton
A few things are clear after viewing Great American Songbook master classes before the big awards show. Michael Feinstein’s passion for the music of the Great American Songbook is infectious. It extends to the students he instructs and attracts extraordinary musical guest coaches and judges to the competition.
If you missed the free-to-the-public master classes, you missed a rare treat to watch master musicians at work. Cheryl Bentyne, well known as the soprano voice of The Manhattan Transfer, approached coaching with a meticulous aggressiveness. Bentyne instructed Maddie Baillio, “Everybody in the world knows “Misty”. Go into any bar and you’ll hear somebody ask for “Misty”. You’ve got to make it your own. Maybe … almost whisper it. Make it intimate.” To Baillio’s credit, she made the song her own. Along with a second song, “Murder, He Says”, two days later, she won audience approval and first place in the Great American Songbook High School Competition. The prize brought Baillio $3,000 and a chance to perform at least once with Michael Feinstein.
Judge and coach, Marc Cherry, a well-known TV writer and producer, helped the competitors bring performance savvy to the stage. Cherry is known for writing and/or producing mega TV hits “Designing Women,” “Golden Girls,” and “Desperate Housewives.” To Merissa Beddows who sang the classic song “At Last,” Cherry instructed, “Let your hands match your emotion.” Feinstein continued the instruction, “Do something that’s not Etta James.”
Michael Feinstein brought attention to important nuances of musicality and physicality in the students’ performances. “Make it a little more organic,” he instructed Milla Guerra, a student with strong theatrical training. To Grayson Samuels, Feinstein noted, “when you’re pointing in the air (finding notes with his fingers), it means you’re not paying attention to the lyrics.” On awards night, Samuels won the Songbook Celebration award, worth $1,000.
Sylvia McNair, a two-time Grammy Award winner and regional Emmy Award winner, was also a judge. High School competitors not previously named were: Nia Savoy from Shreveport Louisiana, who won the Songbook Inspiration Award, worth $1,000; Jacob Stuckert from Grove City, Ohio; Nick Drivas from Palmetto, Florida; Paige Brown from Indianapolis; Claire Dickson from Medford, Massachusetts; Jordan Plutzer from Mountain View, California; Molly Hernandez from Glen Ellyn, Illinois; and Christina Euphrat from San Anselmo, California.
The annual competition is sponsored by the Great American Songbook Foundation, the only U.S. competition dedicated solely to music from Broadway, Hollywood musicals and the Tin Pan Alley era of the early to mid-twentieth century.