The American Traditions Vocal Competition (ATC) is one the country’s most diverse singing events that solely celebrates the American songbook.

Into its 26th season, the ATC will showcase 28 contestants competing for the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals as well as $35,000 in cash prizes. Among the contestants are international competitors from France, Canada and Russia, former American Idol contestants, U.S. Army Chorus members, high-school choir teachers, jazz singers and Broadway stars.

 

Each will have a chance to sing for the panel of three judges that includes award-winning jazz musician Melba Joyce, Savannah Voice Festival in-resident composer Michael Ching, and Tony Award-winning Broadway performer Phillip Boykin, who was also an ATC Gold Medalist.

The ATC was designed to celebrate and preserve American music. All of the contestants must draw from music composed in-country during the three rounds of heated competition. They allow contestants to draw from the genres of opera, musical theater, Hollywood, jazz, folk, country, pop/rock singer-songwriters, art songs, gospel blues, religious music, cabaret, popular music of the 1950s through the 1980s, and, of course, songs of Johnny Mercer.

“I would say it’s probably the only competition of its kind in the world,” ATC Gold Medalist and Artistic Director Mikki Sodergren said. “There are competitions that ask singers to sing in different styles, but none to the extent that we do, and none strictly focused on American music.

“It’s interesting for the competitors because they’re singing so many different styles of music, but it’s also interesting for the audience who’s sitting there all day listening to several rounds of competition. It doesn’t get so boring because they’re not listening to the same five songs over and over again. They’re hearing completely different songs.”

Success of it all

For those who compete and win, or at least place, the competition also acts as a launching platform for their singing careers. After Sodergren won in 2014, she was set up for a successful career. Now, along with running the competition, she sings professionally year-round. She’ll head out on a three-week European tour of a Handle opera after this year’s ATC is over.

“When I won, one of the judges helped me get set up with a manager in New York,” Sodergren explained. “That helped me get my feet wet in the world of music. It also gave me the confidence to try different music styles, and now that is my calling card, why I get hired, is because I can do different styles of music.”

The experience for the singers is also a chance to learn something new and stretch themselves musically. Joyce, who’s judging her first singing competition, said she has some tricks of the trade she’ll be sharing with contestants.

“How to breath,” Joyce said. “If they can do that, they can just about do anything. My father was a singer, a jazz singer. He was with the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra for a while. He sang with a lot of people. His voice teacher gave him a hint, a method to keep your breath together, and I am going to pass that along. It’s a simple thing, but I want them to have it. They can do anything if they can do this. I am ready to give them everything I got. Whatever I can pass along, I am going to do that. I look forward to it.”

 

Judges' Concert first up

The 2019 ATC begins at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at Skidaway Island United Methodist Church with the Judges’ Concert. Joyce will be sharing a special song written by a Savannah native.

“I am going to do something unusual,” Joyce said. “There’s a lady in Savannah (Helen Gross) who wrote the words to a song by Joe Henderson called 'Recorda me' ('Remember Me'). It’s a wonderful song. She’s going to be coming over there when I sing it.”

The following two days at 4 p.m. Feb. 19 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20, the 28 quarterfinalists will perform three songs at Skidaway Island UMC. The 12 quarterfinalists will perform three songs at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m Feb. 21, also at Skidaway Island UMC. The finalists will perform for top honors at 8 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Trustees Theater.

There are number of additional awards, with each of the 28 contestants receiving some level of cash prize. The winner takes home the ATC Gold Medal Award and $12,000, plus a paid solo performance with the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra.

“One thing I really look forward to is that I don’t have to compete against these people,” Sodergren said. “Because they’re amazing. I have to prevent myself from fan-girling over them! [laughs]

“I get to develop friendships with them and get to know them as people and artists and cheer them on. It’s kind of fun to create an environment that everyone feels comfortable to show things that maybe aren’t their strength. If you're singing nine different styles of music, I guarantee you that not all nine different styles are your strength.”