The American Traditions Vocal Competition (ATC) was established 27 years ago to explore and celebrate the wonderfully diverse styles of classic American music. During its annual competition, singers select a repertoire of nine songs from a list of sixteen American music genres to be performed and judged. Cash prizes of over $35,000 are awarded, plus paid performances with Savannah Philharmonic and other music organizations. The ATC also provides community outreach initiatives to inspire a greater appreciation for traditional American music and keener awareness of the fact that the heart of our nation’s beauty and strength lies in our rich diversity. In 2019, an exciting, educational outreach program the Junior ATC–was launched and is available to all high school students in Savannah and surrounding communities.
“The Junior ATC’s principal focus is to teach confidence in solo singing opportunities,” says ATC Artistic Director, Mikki Sodergren. “What comes along with this experience are a myriad of other factors. Preparing for the Junior ATC is essentially an independent project – students are picking music, learning new styles of music, experimenting, flexing their creativity muscles, sharpening their critical thinking and getting the chance to receive invaluable feedback to help them become better performers and singers. We want to give student vocalists a platform to explore their interest in singing, to encourage them to try different ideas, and to uplift and validate their love of music. Through written feedback, coaching, performances, and getting to know and perform alongside their peers, our hope is that the students grow and develop their interests through this experience, and continue to follow their creative pursuits, wherever they lead!”
The winner of the inaugural Junior ATC was Quiana Morris–an amazing young vocalist who certainly exemplified, if not exceeded, Sodergren’s expectations for this fantastic, new program. A junior at Savannah Arts Academy, Quiana dreamed of having a career in music, but was unsure how to turn her dream into reality. In October, her chorus teacher told the class about the Junior ATC, and encouraged them to audition. “I’d never tried out for a singing competition like that before, and really didn’t know what I was getting into,” Quiana explained. “For the audition, we were asked to prepare three songs from the selection of seven genres on the Junior ATC list, and no genre could be repeated. I prepared a Musical Theatre song called I Know Where I’ve Been, a Spiritual called Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and Skylark, a song by Johnny Mercer. I’d heard of Johnny Mercer, but was more familiar with classical music. The Junior ATC compelled an interest in standards that later moved more towards jazz, which I found I really love.”
To her great surprise and joy, Quiana was chosen as one of the eight Junior ATC finalists! In preparation for the final round, she was given several coaching sessions with professional vocalists, Mikki Sodergren and Dr. Allen Henderson, and began to develop a better understanding of both the audition process, as well as what it means to vocally express a story.
“I was not one to show my emotions. Before, I could have sung a song about winning $1000 with a straight face!” Quiana said. “They helped me understand how much expressing the story through the music, connecting the piece with the lyrics and showing it through different dynamics vocally, greatly enhances your performance and connects you with the audience. It helps them understand what the songwriter intended, or what you want to portray. I’m still learning, but that was the greatest lesson I could have asked for; it’s the key to performing!”
Bonded by their shared talents and supportive experiences throughout the month-long process, Quiana said the eight finalists quietly cheered each other on from the wings as each performed the final round, then waited anxiously as the judges chose the winners. “Hearing them announce my name for 1st place, hearing the audience cheer, seeing my family smile was one of the best, most rewarding parts!”
Cash prizes for the Junior ATC total $1,500 and include performance opportunities in Savannah and elsewhere. “Another really cool prize was having studio time with SCADD student music engineers,” said Quiana. “Studio singing is way different from performing live. That was definitely my favorite part, and will help me in the future!” Additional prizes are in the works to provide more performance opportunities and build even stronger performance confidence for future Junior ATC winners.
Quiana was invited to sing at what she calls the “adult” 2020 ATC, where she gave another stunning performance, this time singing an Irving Berlin song called All of Me. It was there that she met ATC semi-finalist and winner of both the Ben Tucker Jazz and Johnny Mercer awards, Melinda Rose Rodriguez. Melinda, who had also performed on the TV show The Voice, recognized Quiana’s passion for jazz and told her about another opportunity for young singers—the Songbook Academy. The prestigious, intensive summer program is run and organized by the famous jazz singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, who brings music industry pros, award winning singers and performers, and educators from the top University music and theatre programs in the country to work with the students. Having attended the academy as a teenager, Melinda strongly encouraged Quiana to apply and her ATC mentor, Mikki Sodergren, agreed. With no time to record something new before the deadline, Quiana submitted the video of her final Junior ATC performance, and was thrilled to learn she’d been selected as one of forty high school students invited to the program!
Because of the COVID-19 health crisis, the Songbook Academy classes, workshops, lessons and Final Showcase shifted online— none of which dampened Quiana’s enthusiasm one bit when describing what she’d gleaned from the week-long program in July. “I’m so grateful for Songbook Academy! My voice has developed so much and I understand it better. Going from my lower range and extending to my higher range, I learned the key is subtlety. Singing from the standards is one of the best things you can do because it teaches you the foundations of music and helps you learn how to analyze text. It’s all about how you perform it!”
Quiana encourages all high school students who love to sing to try out for this year’s Junior ATC. “Even if you don’t think you’re the best singer, or haven’t had that much experience, give it a try–it’s just you and your voice! It not only allows for killer prizes, but it showcases your talents in the most supportive way and you’ll grow and blossom as a performer. It’s such a great thing for a teenager to experience!”
What a momentous year it’s been for Quiana Morris—and, soon she’ll begin her senior year at SAA. Thanks to all she garnered through her Junior ATC and Songbook Academy experiences, this beautiful, vibrant young woman with a dynamite singing voice now has a stronger performance confidence to help make her dreams a reality and follow them wherever they may lead!
Applications for the 2020 Junior ATC are available on www.americantraditionscompetition.com.