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A conversation with singer, pianist, icon Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein has homes in three American cities, Los Angeles, New York, and Carmel, Indiana.

It makes perfect sense that an iconic performer would have homes in America’s two largest cities, but at a glance, that third location might be surprising. Fact is, Feinstein spends a lot of time in Indiana. He is after all the founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation based in Carmel and creator of Feinstein’s in The Hotel Carmichael where top musicians regularly perform. Last week, Feinstein himself was serving in the venue that bears his name. His performances are part of a mission for Feinstein, protecting the music included in the Great American Songbook.

“One of my passions is trying to keep this music alive,” Feinstein said as he sat on the stage at Feinstein’s for an interview. “This music is what I call the great American songbook, mainly music written in the 20th century, but I believe it’s ever-evolving. If a song is collectively known in 25 years, it becomes part of the American Songbook, in that it still has emotions and feelings for succeeding generations.”

Feinstein oversees his High School Songbook Academy during his frequent visits to Carmel. During his July visit, he spent a lot of time working with high school students from across the nation who came to Carmel for creative inspiration at Feinstein’s Songbook Academy.

Any discussion about Michael Feinstein will ultimately turn to the longtime musical theater lyricist Ira Gershwin who teamed with his brother George to pen classics of American musical theater.

“Was he a mentor to you?” I asked Feinstein.

“He turned out to be a mentor,” Feinstein said sincerely. “I moved to Los Angeles when I was twenty years old from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Ira Gershwin was still alive. He was eighty years old when I met him.” Feinstein said seemingly pausing to remember the famed lyricist.

“So, I spent six years from the age of twenty to twenty-six working with Ira Gershwin.”

Gershwin eventually named Feinstein as his literary executor in his will and taught Feinstein much of what the multiple Grammy nominee knows about interpreting the music he performs.

Feinstein’s boyish charm and packed performance calendar belie the fact that he is nearly 66 years old. More than six decades ago, he unceremoniously dropped out of piano lessons.

“My parents took me for lessons and my teacher would play the exercise and then put the music on the piano,” he said with an understated smile. “So, I would just listen to her and then copy it. After about six weeks she put the music on the piano and said, ‘play this.’ I said, ‘I can’t.’ She said, ‘why not? You’ve been playing everything else.’ I said, ‘well you didn’t play it for me.’ She realized I was playing by ear. I had that talent from the beginning. My mother was waiting in the hall and she went up to my mother and said, ‘Mrs. Feinstein, do you realize that your son is playing by ear?’ As if it was the worst thing and she said, ‘yes I knew that, didn’t you?’ She said, ‘no.’ So I quit lessons and I essentially taught myself to play and I’ve been faking it ever since.”

Listen to Michael Feinstein play for even a moment, though, and it is quite apparent, that the man is not faking it.