By Gianluca D’Elia
Singer and Great American Songbook interpreter Michael Feinstein is so passionate about the Songbook “he could tell you the color of George Gershwin’s pajamas when he was writing ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’” according to sophomore musical theater major Nick Ziobro.
Musical theater students filled the Bart Luedeke Center (BLC) Theater to learn new techniques from Feinstein at a masterclass on April 18.
Feinstein spent four years touring the U.S. with Ziobro, who won Feinstein’s 2012 Great American Songbook contest and became a Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador while he was in high school.
After performing together in Chicago, Ziobro asked Feinstein to teach a masterclass at Rider. Since several fine and performing arts students use selections from the Great American Songbook for their repertoires, Ziobro wanted to give them an opportunity to learn about Feinstein’s interpretation of the canonical songs, some of which are almost 100 years old.
“[Feinstein] is an amazing performer, and he’s one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met,” Ziobro said. “I’m so excited he could come to Rider.”
Before Feinstein started the master class, Ziobro began the night with a performance of “This Guy’s In Love With You,” a popular 20th century jazz standard.
Feinstein told the audience of performing arts students that he started playing the piano by ear at 5 years old. By the time he was 15, he started playing professionally. Exposed to the Great Amer- ican Songbook at an early age, Feinstein was fascinated by the collection of jazz standards and popular music of the early 20th century, but did not learn the meaning of the lyrics until he was older.
Feinstein developed a passion for sharing the music he grew up listening to, even though it was “already old when I was a kid.” To him, the songs were any- thing but outdated, and he found himself amazed by the fact that he could relate to songs that were written before he was born in a contemporary fashion.
“This is how music survives,” he said.
“I realized from a young age that music has an extraordinary ability to heal and transform,” Feinstein said. “One of the things the arts does is make every- body’s lives better. Whether you make art your profes- sion or not, it has a very holy place in the world.”
Now, Feinstein is well known for his interpretations of the Great American Songbook, and used his expertise to help seven student performers improve their own skills, offering valuable critiques while using humor to
make them feel comfortable as they performed classic jazz standards in front of their peers.
According to Feinstein, even the slightest difference in the way a line is phrased can make a difference to the meaning of a song.
As an example, Feinstein used Rosemary Clooney’s performance of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” a 1940s song about a woman who falls in love with a younger man who takes advantage of her. One line says, “Men are not a new sensation; I’ve done pretty well, I think.” When Clooney performed the song, she took a brief pause before singing, “I think,” add not only more humor to the song, but more insight into her character.
For his lessons on interpretation, Feinstein invited student performers on stage for 10-minute sessions. Volunteers included senior Popular Music Culture major Eddie Brandt and senior Musical Theater majors Lilli Babb, Samantha Funk, Kyle Geraghty, Danielle Pierce, Samantha Prentice and Rosie Webber.
Feinstein encouraged the performers to put emo- tion into their songs by asking questions such as, “Who do you imagine singing this song for?” and
“What made you choose this song?” He offered advice and told the students they could use different “tricks” to add variety to a song, such as slowing down or changing the key.
In each performance, he asked students to repeat certain lines of the song with different phrasing to evoke certain emotions from the audience — whether it was the melancholy of Webber’s performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You
Very Well (Except Sometimes)” or Babb’s humorous performance of “I Said No,” a euphemistic song by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser about a woman’s refusal to buy a magazine subscription from a persistent salesman.
“This music still has emotions, values, and a con- nection people relate to,” Feinstein said. “The thing that makes these songs interesting is the bedrock of a perfect combination of lyrics, music and harmony. It was always the mission of the songwriter to find a fresh way of expressing oft-expressed emotions.
“Songs live on and on because they all speak to us personally — all of us have the opportunity to com- municate in a way that will make someone’s life better through art.”