Students make their voices heard in Showcase

Madison Russell performs during the Spring Songwriters Showcase on Monday evening at Canyon 49 Grill.

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

One after another, they marched up to the stage and owned it. Strong voices. Even stronger messages.

Yes, the Worship Arts program at Grand Canyon University continues to come of age. The Spring Songwriters Showcase, which featured 12 songs written and performed by GCU students Monday night, was another testimony to that. (Here's a slideshow.)

Philip Carr teaches some of the classes the students are in and gives 17 of them voice lessons in his studio.

Philip Carr has seen it all since the program’s inception in 2015. He is in his 11th year of teaching at GCU and usually handles five or six classes a semester.

He also gives 17 students voice lessons in his studio. He knows many of them, and many of them know him, as evidenced by the way they invariably waved hello as they walked past his table.

So when Carr says the program has grown “exponentially,” you listen. That’s not to take anything away from the students who have come before this group – there already have been many strong performers among the graduates. It’s just that there are even more of them every year.

“The older our program is, the more credibility we have,” he said. “Not only has the talent level gone up, but also the GPA has gone up. We’re attracting an even higher grade of academic excellence.

“I believe we’ve matured not only artistically but academically, as well.”

That maturity could be seen in the performances of the veterans during a balmy evening on the Canyon 49 Grill’s patio.

Nicole Jasperse, Madison Russell, Amanda Riffe and Trina Beecher continue to be regulars. But even more inspiring was the work of several newcomers, including one who changed her major to worship arts at the start of the academic year and still can’t believe she’s actually writing and recording songs … and got to perform one of them Monday.

Abby Sorensen (left) never could have imagined writing worship music when she joined the program last fall.

“It’s weird now singing in Showcase and looking back at September. I did not think I would even have written a song, and now I’ve released one, which is so cool,” said Abby Sorensen, who performed her “Morning by Morning.”

“And I think it’s so cool that GCU allows people to have the opportunity to experiment and find their passion.”

That’s where Carr and other instructors come in. The Showcase is the best of the program’s best, chosen by the program’s directors to be shared with the largely student audience and considered for the annual Canyon Worship album. But confidence and collaboration are key.

“A lot of them are scared to create,” he said. “The tendency for artists is to want to produce a perfect product, but you don’t produce perfect products the first time out. It’s just accepting the fact that this is a learning process and there are steppingstones to being a good songwriter.

“Some of them are. Madison is a good songwriter. Nicole Jasperse is a good songwriter. Colter Bonaroti is a very gifted instrumentalist. But they didn’t start out there. These kinds of experiences really challenge their skills to step up and to network with each other.

Emma Johnson (center) got the inspiration for her song when she was laying down to sleep.

“You know, back in the day, songwriters were singular. And, in fact, you not only were a good songwriter, you were a good lyricist. Now we’ve got teams going. Rarely do you find a great songwriter who flies solo.”

That tracks with Sorensen’s experience, but she first had to learn to trust her own instincts.

“I’ve always had a passion for music, but I was scared to pursue it at first,” she said. “I was nervous about songwriting. I just hadn’t sat down and tried it. But after someone showed me an original song, I was inspired and said, ‘I’m going to give it a shot.’

“Someone told me their song just felt like a gift. That’s totally how I felt with this one. I didn’t feel like I was writing it. It just flowed out.”

Emma Johnson’s flow for “God We Can Trust” came in the middle of the night.

“As a family, we’d been going through some trials. I was listening to some worship songs and finishing devotions for the night, and when I laid down to go to bed, God gave some words and melody,” she said. “It all just came together. This is the second time it’s happened.

“I just think the Lord gives us testimonies. Even when we’re going through trials, He wants to remind who He is. Even when things are hard, He’s still good.”

Karis Andres, who had never been to the Showcase before, applauds her fellow artists.

Karis Andres hadn’t even been to the Showcase before her “Come to Me, Child” was chosen. She had just finished her EP and, on a lark, decided to submit her two favorite songs

“I thought, ‘Why not? Give it a shot,’” she said.

Then she delighted in watching her peers perform as much as she treasured singing for them. It’s the same feeling she gets when she spends most of her days and evenings hanging out in the GCU Recording Studio.

You can be sure she’ll be back for the next Showcase, even if her submissions aren’t chosen.

“It’s great to see all my friends here,” she said. “I know so many of these people. Of course I’ll be coming and supporting them.”

One of the highlights of the night was Olivia Lazzarini’s booming rendition of her song, “Surrendering.” Her vocal energy while playing the keyboard was noteworthy, but Carr wasn’t surprised.

“She’s got a great, big heart for the Lord. Just a wonderful spirit,” he said.

Olivia Lazzarini's song grew out of her concern for someone battling leukemia.

Lazzarini’s song popped into her head when Assistant Professor Dr. Mark Huggins asked students in his class to come up with a phrase for a song. She gravitated to a prayer of surrender because someone close to her had recently been diagnosed with leukemia.

“From that, it’s just been a beautiful way for me to process that – the diagnosis and all the things that come with that. The unknown, the future, and just the questions that arise,” she said. “I wanted to write it vaguely because I wanted other people to listen and have it apply to their situation, too.”

That thoughtful approach is typical of what happens daily as songs are born in and around the Recording Studio. It’s contagious, as Sorensen has learned from her zero-to-60-mph experience.

“Now I can’t stop writing things,” she said. “That’s what’s so fun. You find a new passion for something – that’s me, anyway – and you get a little obsessed with it.”

It’s an obsession that often grows from God’s intercession when times are tough. Carr sees that all the time, too.

“Every one of them has a story, but every one of them is a survivor,” he said. “They’re really inspiring to work with, not only from an artistic level, but just watching them grow as people. It’s neat to see them rise above their circumstances to make their mark in worship ministry.”

The strong voices and messages just keep coming to the stage, then march into church communities across the country. The program has come of age, and watching it never gets old.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].



Nicole Jasperse: "My Every Minute"

Madison Russell: "All I Need"

Emma Johnson: "God We Can Trust"

Matthew Grewe: "Look to the Other Side"

Amanda Riffe: "Behold"

Abby Sorensen: "Morning by Morning"

Nicky Casarella: "Follow You Home"

Trina Beecher: "Home"

Karis Andres: "Come to Me, Child"

Olivia Lazzarini: "Surrendering"

Nicole Jasperse: "Worthy Always"

Madison Russell: "Be with You (Psalm 27)"


Related content:

GCU Today: Songwriters Showcase returns with range of voices

GCU Today: Newcomers bring diversity to Songwriters Showcase

GCU Today: What's new? The talent at Songwriters Showcase


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