A jewel in the crown of the arts world in Central Indiana, if not the entire country, is The Great American Songbook Foundation, with headquarters at the Palladium at The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. Founded by renowned performer Michael Feinstein in 2007, the foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the music of the Great American Songbook. Its premier program, The Songbook Academy®, is a national summer music intensive for young singers who have an interest in the Great RenéeAmerican Songbook. Students from all over the country, who love the music of classic Broadway shows, jazz, and popular music, have the life-changing opportunity to work with music industry pros, award-winning singers and performers, and educators from the country’s top university music and theatre programs. After evaluation, approximately 40 students are invited to attend a seven-day program of The Songbook Academy held annually in July.
I have had the distinct pleasure of covering the Academy each year since it was founded in 2009. One of my favorite pastimes is attending public programs at The Palladium, which include master classes, showcases and finals, as well as interviewing finalists and celebrity mentors, including Laura Osnes, Sandi Patty, Marc Cherry, Sylvia McNair, Jane Monheit and others.
Another benefit of covering the academy over the years has been the professional relationship I have enjoyed with Chris Lewis, the dynamic executive director of the foundation, who oversees its celebrated program and always goes out of his way to assist me and other members of the media. Lewis assumed his present role in 2017 after serving five years as director of programs. He oversees all the organization’s activities, including management of the Songbook Archives & Library, Songbook Exhibit Gallery, Songbook Hall of Fame and all educational and outreach programming.
An accomplished musician with professional vocal experience, Lewis holds a master’s degree in education from Mercy College and has worked as a history teacher and special education liaison for the New York City Department of Education.
With all the cancellations and postponements of performing arts events and programs, I wondered how The Songbook Academy, with its extensive organizing and planning, has been affected by the pandemic, so I reached out to Lewis by email to provide an update on the summer intensive and his perspective on the crisis. Lewis and his wife Kelli are quarantined with their children, Chason, 10, and Sophie, 13, at their home in Carmel. Below is my communication with Lewis.
How has the pandemic affected the Songbook Foundation?
Like everyone, The Songbook Foundation had to suspend our public programs and close our exhibit spaces. We’d just opened our newest gallery exhibit. For the first time ever, all five of our traveling exhibits were scheduled for exhibitions across the state. We had to suspend our in-person music program for seniors and people living with Alzheimer’s, as well as all in-person educational events and research requests.
While our public spaces are closed, the day-to-day work of the foundation continues. This crisis has forced us all to find new and creative ways to share our work and mission. We are developing more digital content that has allowed us to open the Songbook Archives and programs to the public in a way we haven’t in the past.
We realize the impact and recovery from this crisis will last for some time. The Songbook Foundation continues to work with our peer arts organizations and museums to plan for what the new normal may be going forward.
How about The Songbook Academy?
As of right now, plans for The Songbook Academy in July continue as scheduled. As the prevalence and impact of COVID-19 continues to evolve, we are monitoring and responding to the public health situation. We are continuing to assess our ability to safely support the 40 finalists, guest-teaching team, and visitors who will travel to Indiana to participate in a week of master classes, performances, and workshops. We know it is a dynamic situation, and we may need to adjust as conditions evolve over the coming weeks. In order to be well prepared to deliver an impactful artistic experience for our finalists, no matter how the current public health emergency unfolds, we have actively been exploring both in-person and virtual options to carry out the full 2020 Songbook Academy program.
What are you hearing from students?
The impact from COVID-19 hit right in the middle of The Songbook Academy audition and application period. Students across the country were dealing with school closures and remote learning. We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of their interest and plans for summer arts programs, like The Songbook Academy. What we learned is that students are longing for creative outlets and are even more focused on pursuing their passions. We revised our audition process and suspended deadlines to allow students the time to apply to the program—and they did. We continue to be inspired by the resilience and passion of these young artists.
What about alumni?
Our Songbook Academy alums are amazing. They become like family over the course of the program and beyond. This has never been more evident than now. They have begun to have weekly ZOOM parties to connect. The foundation staff, academy team, and even Michael Feinstein have joined in for these weekly sessions. The alumni are eager to share their talents and are looking for ways to contribute to the recovery from this crisis.
How has the pandemic affected your fundraising efforts?
It’s too soon to tell what fundraising will look like in the coming months after the devastating effects of this health and financial crisis. Like everyone during this time, our immediate focus has been on the health and well-being of our team and working to ensure the work of the organization can continue.
We had a special event scheduled this month in New York City, which was postponed indefinitely. Grant funding is a significant source of revenue for the foundation. We’ve had one funder suspend its grant program for the time being. We are working on contingency plans and scenarios should other grants be in jeopardy.
Are you operating from home?
I have been working from home since the governor’s shelter-in-place guidelines were issued. The Songbook Foundation team has made the transition to working remotely and we are adjusting to this new normal. Much of our work can happen from anywhere. However, working from home has its challenges.
How are you and your family spending time in quarantine?
Life in quarantine is an adventure! We have two children. Adjusting to e-learning has been a challenge, but all are surviving, so far. Keeping them from going stir crazy is the real issue. They are old enough to understand why we are on lockdown, but that doesn’t make it any easier to be apart from friends and family.
We established a routine and daily schedule for schooling and work. We try to take some time each day for family time. This has involved a lot of driveway basketball, themed dinners, and movie nights.
What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is not yet knowing the severity of the impact of this crisis. How many more people will die? Will someone close to me suffer? So many have lost their jobs. Many businesses will not recover.
What do you miss the most?
I miss people! I miss singing around the piano with our Perfect Harmony community. I miss having people in our exhibit gallery and in the archives. I miss our dedicated volunteers and docents. I miss walking down the hall to chat with a colleague instead of by video conference.
What is your greatest yearning during this time?
I yearn for the time we are beyond this crisis and get back to life in whatever our new normal will be.
What is the pandemic teaching you?
Personally, I have learned the importance of not putting things off. My wife and I recently had a ZOOM reunion with old friends we haven’t spoken to in years. We all wondered why we waited so long to reconnect. It occurred to me we’ve had the time all along. We get so busy in our routines (or ruts) and put off so many things until we magically have time. Well, it turns out we have the time.
Is there a silver lining to the pandemic?
I think this crisis has helped us find new ways to connect with each other. It has been amazing to see the creativity in how people have responded to life in quarantine. Times of crisis and tragedy have a way of bringing us all together. My hope is we carry this forward beyond the pandemic.
What do you think the future holds post pandemic?
The only thing we know for sure is that life will not go back to how it was before the pandemic. Technology is playing a more important role in our lives and the work of our organizations than ever before. This will not change. Although I believe it will take time, I do believe we will gather together again to enjoy music and art.
Do you have a message for fellow artists?
My message to fellow artists is to remain hopeful and keep the faith. Music and the arts have always played an important role in our society, especially in times of crisis. It’s no different now. We are surviving life in lockdown thanks to the musicians, artists, performers, and others who are sharing their talents with the world. I believe we may be on the verge of a new Golden Age of creativity.
Do you have a personal message to the public?
This is a difficult time for our country. We will get through this. I encourage everyone to continue to listen to the experts and do what we must to contain the virus and begin to recover from its impact. We will be together again soon!
For information about The Great American Songbook Foundation and Songbook Academy and ways to engage with the Songbook go to thesongbook.org.
Songbook Academy® Finals, July28, 2019,