The sounds of the Golden Age of American music are unmistakable.

Trumpet, trombone and saxophone announced a hot swing number or a sultry love song. The thump of drums and the purr of strings made for a rich and velvety sound.

But it was the voices — Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole — that have made the Great American Songbook so beloved.

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“It’s some of the most genuine music that’s out there, and it was an era of greatness in music,” said Wilson Smith, a Center Grove High School senior.

The music of the early 20th century is known as the Great American Songbook. This summer, Smith and fellow Center Grove student Haley Burgh, along with some of the most talented teens in the country, will embrace the catalog through a prestigious vocal music program.

They are finalists for the Songbook Academy, a vocal competition celebrating the jazz, pop and standards of that time period. Both students will spend a week working with top vocal coaches, led by five-time Grammy Award nominee Michael Feinstein. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will give Smith and Baugh a springboard to what they hope will be a career in the performing arts.

“Of all of the things out there, there’s nothing that really has an effect on people like music does. The ability to create something that’s your own and then perform it for an audience, there’s no better feeling in the world,” Smith said. “That’s what music can do to people.”

The Songbook Academy is a program of the Great American Songbook Foundation, a Carmel-based organization intent on maintaining the legacy and celebrating the timeless songs of pop, jazz, Broadway and Hollywood.

Feinstein formed the foundation in 2007 to preserve the “Great American Songbook,” the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century.

The academy is a program of the overall foundation aimed at teaching young performers these timeless songs. An intensive week-long program, it will immerse participants in music ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s. Workshops and master classes with Feinstein and other music industry professionals will help mold the finalists and help them carry on the tradition of the Great American Songbook.

That’s a mission that fits in with the interests and talents of both Burgh and Smith.

Vocal music has been a central part of Burgh’s life for as long as she can remember. The 17-year-old was always singing and performing as a child, and in middle school she joined the yearly musicals Center Grove put on.

A four-year member of varsity choir and show choir at Center Grove High School, she has also branched out into community theater, taking part in productions at Footlite Musicals and Buck Creek Players in Indianapolis.

“I’ve been trying to do as much as I can, because I love it,” Burgh said. “Being able to send a message to the audience and move them is something amazing that nothing else can do.”

Smith’s route to the stage took a different tack. Though the 17-year-old was involved in choir as a middle school student, he was more interested in sports growing up. Not until his freshman year at Center Grove High School, when he was chosen for CG Singers, the varsity chamber choir, did his interest in performing solidify.

“Once I made that, I realized that was what I was best at. I decided that music was more what I was passionate about,” he said.

As they enter their senior year, Smith and Burgh are the company managers for the CG Singers. They have been active throughout the high school careers in musicals and plays, such as 2016 shows “Guys and Dolls” and “The Mousetrap.”

“They’re obviously two of our top performers. They have been since their freshmen year; this isn’t a new development, they came in with a lot of talent,” said Jennifer Dice, director of the Center Grove High School choral music department. “They’ve been featured soloists in pretty much every production we’ve done here, so they know their way around the stage.”

Their extensive background in vocal music led them to the Songbook Academy. At the urging of their vocal coaches, they submitted applications and audition video singing songs from the early 20th century.

“I actually didn’t know what it was, but always liked the music from that period. Especially when I started getting into older movies — I loved the music in those movies,” Burgh said. “I’d bring up Spotify playlists of music from the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s. I became so obsessed with it. I would say I was born in the wrong era.”

Their performances were judged by a panel of music educators and industry professionals, and both found out they had been accepted. From July 16 to 22, they’ll live with the other finalists on the Butler University campus while working with professionals and develop their talents.

The finale of the program is a singing competition, held on July 22 in the 1,600-seat Palladium Concert Hall in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. The winner will be named the Songbook youth ambassador, a title that comes with opportunities to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Forty finalists have been chosen for the Songbook Academy. Singers will come from 18 different states, including California, New York and Texas. Smith and Burgh are two of 10 participants picked from Indiana.

They have been working extensively with their individual voice teachers to hone their music and get ready for the competition.

With their senior year approaching, both students are thinking about the future in the performing arts. Smith would like to study vocal performance in college, and to be involved in some kind of music production behind the scenes.

Burgh also plans to major in vocal performance with a focus on classical music.

Regardless of the results of the competition, being chosen for a program is a big break for them, Burgh said.

“What I have heard from everybody I know that’s in it, no matter what the outcome is, it’s amazing to be able to work with people who are so talented in the industry,” Burgh said. “I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to take part in something like this.”

The Smith File

Wilson Smith

Age: 17

Home: Center Grove area

School: Senior at Center Grove High School

Parents: Todd and Rebekah Smith

The Burgh File

Haley Burgh

Age: 17

Home: Center Grove area

School: Senior at Center Grove High School

Parents: Kristina and Daniel Leiter

If you go

Songbook Academy Finals

What: A vocal competition between 40 of the most talented high school students from around the country, focusing on the pop, jazz and Broadway standards from the early 20th century

When: 7 p.m. July 22

Where: The Center for the Performing Arts, 355 City Center Drive, Carmel

Tickets: $25 to $50; $15 for student admission


Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.