In the Loop
Student Stories : Nov 10, 2021

Jazz student duo wins prestigious DownBeat award


UF alumna Giselle Felice San Filippo and current graduate student Erik Abernathy are recipients of the 44th Annual DownBeat Student Music Awards. 

Established in 1976, the DownBeat Student Music Awards are considered the most prestigious awards in jazz education. 

In their undergraduate studies at UF, San Filippo and Abernathy pursued minors in jazz studies at the UF School of Music. San Filippo graduated from the Warrington College of Business with her Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration and Master of Science in Entrepreneurship, and Abernathy received his Bachelor of Science in Engineering before enrolling in the jazz studies master’s program at UF. 

The duo learned about the DownBeat Student Music Awards in Fall 2020. Submissions were due at the end of the calendar year, so after completing final exams, they began recording their award submissions during the winter break. Amidst family visits and the occasional meowing cat, they set up a studio in San Filippo’s childhood closet, titling this series of songs the Closet Series

In the Closet Series, they recorded 11 songs that were submitted across a multitude of DownBeat categories, ultimately winning in the Latin Group, Graduate College, Outstanding Performance category with three songs: “So Nice (Summer Samba),” “Aguas de Marco,” and their original song, “Your Shore.” 

Winning a Downbeat Award serves as a huge achievement in their young and growing music careers, and the duo hopes to submit more recordings to DownBeat while Abernathy finishes his Master in Music degree. 

San Filippo and Abernathy’s paths to pursuing a music career stemmed from early childhood experiences that were later expanded and refined during their studies at UF. 

Abernathy started playing guitar when he was seven. 

“Music has always been a part of my life,” Abernathy said. “My brother plays saxophone, and we play together from time-to-time.” 

He credits friends and UF professors for learning about jazz and Brazilian music.

“I first learned about Brazilian music at a young age from a childhood friend and then more formally from former UF guitar professor, Ulisses Rocha. He was my teacher for a few years and taught me about classical guitar, Brazilian music, and Brazilian guitar. We’re also really rooted in jazz, as well as other things, and Professor Scott Wilson was a big proponent in my jazz studies and becoming more fluent in jazz.” 

Abernathy also has a background in electrical engineering, and his award-winning undergraduate senior design project was a blend of his interests in engineering and music.

“I created an analog to MIDI converter for electric guitars, and so all that means is that you plug in an electric guitar to this box and then it converts it to MIDI,” he said. “It writes a MIDI file and then you can put it into a digital audio workstation or a synthesizer and make cool sounds with the guitar.”

He uses the same electrical engineering language to work on the audio engineering aspect of recording in the studio and continues to learn from other musicians about production. 

San Filippo grew up directly in the music industry.

“My mom worked for the Orlando Opera when I was growing up,” she said. “I also had the opportunity from there to become a kid singer for the TV show ‘Barney and Friends.’” 

San Filippo continued to sing and played percussion in middle and high school. 

“During high school, I worked on my first singer/songwriter album, A Passing By, and that was definitely my passion project,” she said. 

At UF she studied voice under Professor Ronald Burrichter and she pursued degrees in business and entrepreneurship, knowing those skills would be transferable in any field.

“The summer before my junior year of college, I interned at the State Department in their music diplomacy division,” she said. “I saw musicians doing such meaningful work and cultural exchanges in other countries, and I was thinking, ‘I want to be that artist.’ That experience was a really big turning point for me.”

Both San Filippo and Abernathy played in the UF Jazz Band throughout their undergraduate studies, and it was during their second and third years that they began performing as a duo, beginning to learn and understand each other's individual styles to produce a unique and cohesive sound. 

“I have my artistic identity and he has his,” San Filippo said, “and it's been really cool to see both of our musical identities come together to create our duo’s music.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic hampering many musicians throughout the world, San Filippo and Abernathy experienced a few positives from having time away from in-person performances. They presented a handful of digital performances, enabling them to reach new audiences.

As they continue to perform live shows around North Central Florida, San Filippo and Abernathy plan to expand into music publishing and music festival circuits. 

You can learn more about their duo and listen to them at