What a Strong Foundation in Music Education Can Bring
A Discussion with One NAfME Member’s Award-Winning Music Student
By NAfME Member Sharon Pesenti
Andrew Feldman has quite an impressive list of musical theatre credits for a high school student entering his junior year.
With leads in twenty musical theatre shows in school, community, Lincoln Center, and young artists programs, such as the Broadway Workshop in NYC, it’s no surprise that Andrew was recently awarded the 2018 National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the “Jimmy Award” for theatre.
After winning the Roger Rees Award for best actor, based on his performance of Frank Abagnale Jr., the lead character in “Catch Me If You Can,” Andrew attended an intensive nine-day workshop at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, called “Jimmy’s Week.” Here, Andrew and 79 other high school performers prepared for their upcoming National High School Musical Theatre Awards audition.
After being Andrew’s vocal coach for the past seven years, I thought it would be inspiring to ask Andrew and his mom, Barbra Feldman, insightful questions regarding his valuable music education to share with my fellow NAfME members.
When was your very first experience with musical theatre?
The first Broadway show I ever saw was “Beauty and the Beast,” and I took a backstage tour because my friend’s cousin was playing Chip at the time. I thought this was the coolest thing ever. I’d also seen my sister in a number of musicals at her high school, which really shaped everything for me. The first show that I was in was “Annie.” I was Mr. Bundles when I was eight years old, and it was a kind of a moment of, “I didn’t know this was a thing that you could just go and do. I thought you had to be chosen by some higher power to do theatre.”
You are also an accomplished pianist, and you have composed music for local theatre. How old were you when you began your course of study?
I started taking piano lessons when I was four years old and began participating in piano NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) at age 7 or 8. Composing came naturally to me, as I became more proficient in playing.
“Composing came naturally to me, as I became more proficient in playing.”
Did your teacher also focus on music theory and keyboard harmony?
Yes, but much of that also came from my school. When I was in elementary school, we did a lot of work on song structure, which helped a lot. I believe it also came from the kind of music I was listening to as a kid, which was a lot of classic rock. Then, I learned guitar and drums, so it all sort of came together for me in terms of writing. Then I started listening to musical theatre, which really gave the base for my writing style.
NAfME is an organization for music education. How strongly do you feel that your music education in school and privately, helped to set a foundation for your accomplishments?
I feel that there are a lot of people I know in musical theatre who don’t really have any musical background. They can sing very well, but I feel that you can’t really push that to its greatest limits until you have a sense of the music as well, and you understand the relationship between singing and the accompaniment and music. This can only develop from a strong foundation of music education set in place by my teachers.
What advice do you have for have other high school students who want to pursue a career in musical theatre?
Trust your instincts, and learn as much as you can, but if you have a gut feeling that moving a certain way or going a certain route is right, then you should trust that and see where it takes you. If it’s bad, then someone will tell you that it’s bad, but you need to try different things in order to figure anything out in musical theatre. I always felt like there was so much more for me to learn until I went to the Jimmys and realized that what I needed to push me was an environment where I could just trust my gut in terms of what I was doing onstage, both vocally and acting-wise. You just have to trust your instincts.
You are highly motivated, and music is obviously an important part of your life. How much practice time do you devote to your craft?
I don’t really think of it like that. Sitting down at the piano is my fun. I sit down at the piano and pull out one of the books, like a “Dear Evan Hansen” or “Newsies” or other contemporary musical theatre, and I’ll sit and play or sort of improvise and write.
Barbra, when did you discover Andrew was musically gifted?
I think every mother thinks that their child is wonderful; and I think he’s entertaining and wonderful to listen to, but this was all. I don’t want to say it was a surprise, because I know that my son has talent and loves music. I think it’s just been a joy to listen to him and not really think of it in that way. I think when he was a very little boy and everyone said he had perfect pitch, I didn’t even know what that involved. He could just hear and listen and make music in a way that came naturally.
How did you encourage Andrew to pursue this talent?
I think that, originally, he actually started with violin, which didn’t happen for very long. His sister and cousin were amazing violinists. He was three years old, and all he wanted to do was play violin; but it was very difficult for a little boy to hold a violin. So, we switched to piano, and then he was always singing, so we decided to look for a private voice teacher. I wanted someone who was outstanding, professional, capable, and loving; who would take a child and teach him how to use his voice in a healthy way.
It was not for the purpose of creating magic. Andrew has always sung all the time, and it’s been concerning to me because I would hear him get vocally tired. Not intentionally, but he would sing in the shower, he would sing for four hours sitting at the piano, and I don’t think you can sing that much and not harm your health. That was my concern.
Then he began working with you and participating in NYSSMA. This gave him something to work towards. It was wonderful to be able to have a goal, because his singing isn’t goal-oriented. His singing is just coming from a deep love of music. Voice lessons and NYSSMA helped to create not only a goal, but pushed him out of his comfort zone, into areas that are not perhaps pop or musical theatre. I can give my son a lot of things. I can take him, I can schlep him, but I can’t teach him how to use his voice properly.
Thank you both for your time; and Andrew—best of luck in all your musical pursuits!
About the author:
NAfME member Sharon Pesenti is a public school Vocal/General Music teacher in New Hyde Park, New York. She is a NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) adjudicator for All-State Voice and Major Choral Ensembles. Sharon also coaches young singers for NYSSMA and college auditions.
Sharon Pesenti is a vocal/choral music teacher in Long Island, New York. She holds both bachelors and masters degrees from The University of Southern California. She also maintains a vocal studio and is the conductor of The United Choral Society.
Sharon also adjudicated for the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) competitions. In addition, she wrote a children’s book on vocal technique titled, Basic Elements of Vocal Artistry for Young Singers.
Sharon is extremely proud and truly happy that her vocal student, Andrew Feldman, has revived this high honor.
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