The Great American Songbook era generally - with a few exceptions - is considered to run from the 1920s to the 1950s. Do the math, and that era ended eight decades ago as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis (doing his take on Little Richard and Chuck Berry) replaced Sinatra and company as the country's popular music. So how can all those old songs appeal to someone who wasn't born until the 21st century?
“My solo song for the week is called “How Deep Is The Ocean” by Irving Berlin,” said Emma Hornbecker, a senior at Lebanon High School. “I love the song. I love the lyrics and it's really just about loving someone so fully and so wholeheartedly.”
Hornbecker is one of 40 teenage singers from Indiana and 15 other states who are part of The Songbook Academy in Carmel this week. Entertainer and musical archivist Michael Feinstein, founder of The Great American Songbook Foundation, has hosted the Academy every summer - except for a pandemic break - for 14 years. “Definitely, this is one of my favorite weeks of the year, because it's so filled with inspiration and excitement and young energy and gives me the feeling of a continuum for this music which is very important to me and to many other people.”
At the Songbook Academy, Feinstein invites other pros - voice coaches and singers, including Broadway stars - to work with the young performers. It's an intensive but fun week of master classes, coaching sessions, and performances on the stage of The Palladium. “I have learned so far how to be vulnerable and how to let my emotions take me through the song and I'm ready this week to be open and prepared to do anything that they ask,” said Ava Lee, a participant at the Academy and a rising senior at Avon High School.
The week included a public master class, where some of the young singers were critiqued on stage by Feinstein and Tony Award-winner Ali Stroker. One of the singers Ali worked with was Vivienne Smith, recent graduate of Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis who is on their way to Howard University in Washington D.C. this fall. Vivienne told me the Songbook Academy has taught them that regardless of the age of the song, “communicating the meaning of the song rather than just performing it and putting on a show, and I think that teaches us to emotionally connect to what we're singing better.”
The Songbook Academy wraps up with a final concert Saturday night at The Palladium. And though people flocked from across the country to be part of this, Michael Feinstein says none of this happens without the folks at home. “We were given a kickstart by coming to Carmel and having the resources of the city that embraces the arts so deeply at a time when they are not embraced in other places. That's because a lot of people here recognize that the embracing of the arts is a gateway to many other important and essential life skills. But the short answer is that we wouldn't be where we are without the city of Carmel.”
Information on The Songbook Academy and the Great American Songbook Foundation can be found at TheSongbook.org.