For those familiar with the local stage scene, the last name of Estep is associated with theater. Emily Estep’s parents, Shannah and Eric, are prominent acting veterans. Emily, who will be a senior at University High School in the fall, is following in the family performing tradition.
She scored an honor that can be claimed by only 39 other singers nationwide: getting picked for the Great American Songbook Academy held in Carmel, Ind. She’s there this week to learn from founder Michael Feinstein and a team of mentors that includes jazz and Broadway stars. On Thursday, the 40 singers will begin a competitive process that will result in the selection Saturday of the Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador Award, held at the 1,600-seat Palladium Concert Hall at the Center for the Performing Arts.
We caught up with Emily, 16, who just finished a run with StageWorks Fresno’s “Tommy,” via email to talk about the experience.
Q: Did you have to audition for this honor?
A: Yes, the audition consisted of submitting two songs from the Great American Songbook via a private YouTube channel. I was originally selected as an alternate but received an email shortly after saying there was a spot open for me if I wanted it. I was beyond ecstatic!
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with Michael Feinstein and the Great American Songbook, fill us in.
A: Michael Feinstein is an incredible singer and pianist. He founded the Great American Songbook Foundation in 2008 in an effort to educate young vocal performers about the classic music from the 1920s to the 1950s. The Songbook encompasses songs, sometimes known as standards, from Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Irving Berlin. My two songs are by George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart.
Q: As you answer these questions, it’s Monday evening. Tell us about your first day at the academy.
A: Well my first day has been pretty eventful! I met Janis Siegel of Manhattan Transfer. She gave us a lecture on the history of jazz singing. It was fascinating. I spent most of the day working with the mentors and bonding with the other kids. It’s been super fun and I can’t wait for the next few days when I get to work with Michael and Jarrod Spector (“Jersey Boys”).
Q: Were you nervous when you arrived?
A: Oh, I was incredibly nervous! These kids are CRAZY talented and it was intimidating at first. I just have to keep telling myself that I’m here to learn, and you don’t learn from something that isn’t a challenge.
Q: Is the focus of the academy strictly singing? Or does it cover acting as well?
A: The general focus is the vocal part but performance is not effective if you can’t tell the story of the song, so there is attention given to acting.
Q: Tell us a little about your own vocal and theater training.
A: I’ve been doing theater around Fresno since I was a little kid. I fell in love with it the minute I first stepped foot on the Veterans Memorial Auditorium stage when I was 7 years old doing “Aladdin” with Children’s Musical Theaterworks. I have always been involved in choir at school and I started taking voice lessons when I was 13 years old. I recently began studying with my mom’s high-school/college friend Enrique Toral, who teaches at San Diego State, as well as privately in Los Angeles and New York. We work via Skype and in person when he’s in Fresno.
Q: Set the scene for us in terms of Thursday night.
A: Thursday is the student showcase where all 40 of us will perform our solos for the panel of judges who will decide the top 10 to compete for the Youth Ambassador Award on Saturday night. Saturday night the chosen 10 will sing their solos and the rest of us get to sing in the group numbers for a sold-out crowd of 1,000 at the Palladium in Carmel. That night will be much more formal with the kids wearing prom dresses and tuxedos. They will name the Great American Songbook Ambassador as well as other awards and scholarships.
Q: Any funny stories to share from your time there so far?
A: Nothing too funny yet, except for the fact that the toilet in my dorm room has been flushing non-stop since I got here on Saturday! It makes it a little hard for my roommate and I to sleep.
Q: What are your mom and grandma (Linda Estep) doing while you’re doing academy stuff?
A: They are doing the typical touristy stuff. They have been to Carmel and checked out the Palladium. They also had to come to the university where we are staying to bring me some things I forgot. They are planning to visit downtown Indianapolis and maybe take a road trip to Chicago.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: Just a reminder to anyone who has ever been scared to chase their dreams: You never know what could happen, so put your faith in yourself, take a risk and do what you love!