What does it feel like for a singer to step onto the stage to perform in Carnegie Hall? Two young cousins from Sandy Springs set foot in the historic New York City venue for the first time to do just that in mid-December.

Phoebe Rose Claeys, 8, and Sarah Serena Thompson, 12, were winners in the 2019 American Protégé International Vocal Competition. Winners in the competition won the honor of performing at Carnegie Hall.

Sarah Serena Thompson sings “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady” at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 15. (American Protege International Vocal Competition/Carnegie Hall)

Claeys admitted to being a little frightened at first as she looked out at all the people in the iconic recital hall. “But once I started singing, I was into the music. It was fun,” she said. She followed advice from the girls’ longtime instructor Adriana van Rensburg not to get distracted by the three crystal chandeliers. “She knows I like sparkly things,” added Claeys.

Thompson said she was pretty calm. “The emcee gave me good advice. ‘You’ve already won. Just have fun and enjoy singing in this beautiful hall,’ he said.”

The performances were held in Weill Recital Hall, one of three performance spaces in the 128-year-old Carnegie Hall, a world-renowned classic music venue.

Claeys, who performed on Dec. 14, chose “Matchmaker” from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The following day, Thompson took the stage to perform “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.”

Van Rensburg accompanied both of them on the piano.

The cousins had in the audience a proud contingent of family members from Atlanta supporting them and cheering them on.

“With a full schedule of lessons and performances, driving has always been a family affair,” said Caroline Claeys Thompson, Serena’s mother. “We are lucky to have so much support.” She and her husband Mark share transportation duties with the cousins’ grandparents, Suzanne and Robert Claeys and Mark Thompson’s mother, Carole Parks. All were in New York, along with Alice Sue Claeys, Phoebe Roses’s mother, for the big event.

Phoebe Rose Claeys sings “Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” accompanied by her instructor, Adriana van Rensburg, at Carnegie Hall Dec. 14. (American Protege International Vocal Competition/Carnegie Hall)

It was the cousins’ first time entering the singing competition, which is open to solo vocalists and vocal groups of all ages, nationalities and countries.
Claeys captured first place in the Young Singers group, ages 5-10, and Thompson took second place in the Junior level, ages 11-14.

Singers from 14 countries applied for this year’s competition: the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Georgia, China, India, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Australia, according to the competition’s website. Taped auditions for the competition were held in June.

She taught music for 26 years in Atlanta public schools working with elementary, middle, high school and college-level students, and she also served as an adjunct professor of music at Georgia State University. She teaches in her studio in Smyrna and privately in clients’ homes.

The journey to Carnegie Hall began some years ago when the girls were not yet in grade school or even kindergarten. Claeys started taking piano lessons when she was 2 years old and voice the following year. Thompson began her studies in piano and voice at age 4. They both currently study classical and Broadway voice, piano and music theory with Van Rensburg weekly. More recently, both young sopranos have taken an interest in opera singing. The girls also take ballet lessons.

Over the course of the years, they have sung in a number of competitions in Atlanta and elsewhere. It is an experience that Van Rensburg said is important in learning discipline, focus and how to perform artistically.

“There is so much involved in teaching youngsters,” said Van Rensburg. “Even if they have good motor skills, they do not have the emotional maturity to understand the nuances and the artistry required…. Part of my work is to inspire them not only to play well, but to see what music can be.”

–Judith Schonbak