Pointe Singers veteran ranked internationally in competition


Emma Aboukasm '14 performing at the Cadieux Cafe outside of Grosse Pointe. Aboukasm hopes to continue to perform with vocals as a career.

By Alexis Motschall ’16│Business Manager

Pointe Singers veteran Emma Aboukasm ’14 is one of five finalists in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

Aboukasm found out about the competition held in New Jersey through her former jazz piano teacher, Scott Gwinnell, Aboukasm said in an email.

From there, Aboukasm entered an audition process consisting of sending in three high-quality recordings of herself singing with a rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums), she said.

“I had been going to the studio to record my first demo, ‘Rise to It’, of mostly jazz standards and some of my own compositions,” Aboukasm said. “So I decided to use those recordings.”

After sending in the recordings, Aboukasm was notified that she had made it to the final round, she said.

“I didn’t really expect to make it to the top five, as there were over 2,000 submissions by other professional singers, some with much more experience than myself.” Aboukasm said.

At 19 years old, Aboukasm is the youngest competitor, she said.

Being a finalist is scary.  However it’s also super gratifying,” Aboukasm said. “To know that the judges think I have a chance to win is an amazing accomplishment already.”

As a current sophomore at the University of Michigan, Aboukasm said the Jazz program has taught her a lot in a short period of time, as well as challenged her.

“Last year as a freshman, I struggled with playing with other musicians because I had never done it before on a regular basis,” Aboukasm said. “The jazz program at U of M doesn’t have very many vocalists–there are two of us, so I kind of had to invent my way of communicating as a singer to the other musicians.”

Seeing as there isn’t a “jazz voice” major, Aboukasm is studying for a Bachelor degree of Fine Arts (BFA) in Jazz performance, with her voice as her instrument, she said.

Aboukasm takes voice lessons through the classical department, and studies Jazz Theory and arranging with trombone professor Dennis Wilson, she said. Wilson played and arranged for the Count Basie Orchestra in the late 70’s.

“Being a Jazz major forced me to leave the stigmas I felt as a classical musician,” Aboukasm said. “It was scary at first, but now I’m comfortable improvising on the spot and doing gigs without rehearsing with bands.”

Aboukasm writes and arranges her own music on a regular basis, something she didn’t feel as comfortable doing in high school, she said.

“I perform regularly at the Cadieux Cafe, just outside of Grosse Pointe,” Aboukasm said. “I also perform in other venues such as Onyx club, a cool whiskey bar in Royal Oak, to Northern Lights, which is a staple in the downtown Detroit jazz scene.”

South choir gave her the confidence she needed in performing, because of the regular exposure to audiences, Aboukasm said.

“Not only can I perform with confidence, but I can also speak to people very easily and speak in front of crowds,” Aboukasm said, “which is something I have to do a lot during gigs.”

Band director of South and Pierce Middle School Christopher Takis said he is not surprised that Aboukasm is a finalist in the competition.

“The people who succeed are the ones who, in addition to being the most talented, are the ones who put in the work and network well, and Emma is very driven to be the best at what she does,” Takis said in an email. “The fact that she’s a finalist in the competition is a testament to her ability and work ethic.”

Aboukasm said for the future she just wants to sing, even if it means working another job on the side.

“My ideal career would to just play and write music as I please and let the joy of that carry me through whatever life throws at me,” Aboukasm said.

Choral director Christopher Pratt said he hopes Aboukasm is content with her future career.

“It’s what we (teachers) hope for our students – to find a job/career that they love so it’s not “work”, it is passion,” Pratt said. “I think jazz performance is Emma’s passion.  I know she will achieve whatever she sets her attention to.”

Aboukasm said anyone who wishes to pursue a career in music must have motivation and a desire to work hard.

“When something scares me or I can’t do it, I lean into it and work harder to figure it out. I think that is the secret to success in music,” Aboukasm said. “Finding your fears, exposing them, and conquering them so you improve. Accept that there is no destination with a career in music, and know that the work is never over.”

The winner of the competition gets to perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival, receives a sum of money and gets offered a record deal with Concord Records, Aboukasm said.

“Being a finalist could mean the launching of my professional legitimate jazz career, Aboukasm said. “It’s the difference between being a local artist, and being an international artist. It’s taking my life now and blowing it up to something I never thought it would be. I’m just trying to embrace the possibilities every day.”

The finalist who gets the most votes on facebook gains an extra judge’s vote in the competition, Aboukasm said. People can vote daily until Nov. 8.

To support Aboukasm in this competition, people can vote via the following link: http://woobox.com/pgcwex