By Sam McDonald

Ava Stevenson, a 21-year-old rising senior at Old Dominion University, has climbed to the highest ranks of a national singing competition, played the lead in a college production of the musical “Cinderella” and won over her music professors with a rare mix of talent, versatility and work ethic.

Originally, though, she envisioned a life of crunching numbers — with just a little singing on the side.

A Chesapeake resident, Stevenson arrived at ODU with plans to pursue finance and business analytics as a double major. Music would be her minor.

After about a year and a half, she left the spreadsheets behind and followed her heart to the University’s Diehn School of Music.

“I’m so much happier,” she said. “I’m enjoying school so much more. I love being here.”

She’s also excelled.

This summer, Stevenson’s musical theater chops powered a remarkable run in the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) National Singing Auditions competition. Blazing her way through early rounds, she became one of three vocalists who competed in the national finals for the “Upper Musical Theatre Treble Voice” category.

“She’s the kind of student you might hope you’d have — and every once in a while, you actually do.” - John Toomey, who leads ODU’s jazz program

She traveled with her parents to San Diego State University, where the contest’s finals were held in conjunction with the NATS 2023 Workshop.

“Ava came in third in the country!” teacher Brian Nedvin announced after her July 7 performance. “I’m so incredibly proud of her! I have been working with her since she was in high school, so I’ve really seen her grow and mature and gain confidence over the years.”

Of course, Stevenson had set her sights winning the competition. She acknowledges that her third-place finish was disappointing. She figures an uncharacteristic case of nerves might have affected her performance. 

A woman sings into a microphone while standing on a football field.

Ava Stevenson sings at an ODU football game. Photo courtesy of Ava Stevenson.

But with time, she’s been able to step back and fully appreciate the scale of what she accomplished.

“The takeaway is I was third in the nation,” she said. “They said over 13,000 people competed in the first round, in all the categories.

“Also, I learned what I can do next time. I’m already looking at other songs to perform and other competitions. I don’t think I’ll ever stop competing or auditioning.”

Nedvin, meanwhile, hasn’t detected disappointment from his long-time pupil, whom he taught through private lessons even before she came to ODU. “I did point out to her that the other two singers were a year ahead of her and from larger programs than ours,” he said.

He credits Stevenson’s growth as a musician to her eagerness to try new things while remaining true to herself. As a vocal performance major, she concentrates on singing classical music.

“She throws herself into that genre as well as following her heart, which is in musical theater as well as jazz,” Nedvid said. “My hope for Ava, as for all of my students, is for her to be happy and pursue her dreams. I have so completely enjoyed working with Ava and look forward to an amazing final year.”

Professor John Toomey, who leads ODU’s jazz program, praised Stevenson’s musicianship, dedication and versatility.

“She’s really flexible in style, very eclectic,” he said. “At our last Jazz Choir concert, she even sang a scat solo and did great at that.” Add in a humble, friendly personality and you have something special, Toomey said.

“She’s the kind of student you might hope you’d have — and every once in a while, you actually do.”

Stevenson dreams of a Broadway career, but her plan is pragmatic.

Partly for financial reasons, ODU was the only school she considered attending. She’s been able to live at home and commute to classes. She’s also gotten scholarships and financial support through the music school.

She’s on track to graduate debt-free. For the moment, she expects to live and work in Hampton Roads after graduation.

“My plan is to teach music, teach voice lessons and perform on the side,” she said. “I may start my own group.”

She already performs locally with the Doorway Singers, an a cappella act. She’s recently entertained in area retirement homes with her father, also a musician.

Stevenson describes her experience at ODU as fun and rewarding.

“The best part is the teachers,” she said. “If you show that you’re a good student and work hard and you’re serious, they will help you in so many ways.

“They will always be there for you. They all want you to succeed, and that’s more than I could ask for.”