Alumnae take on music ‘Empire’


Liza Micelli

Singer-songwriter Liza Micelli, a music alumna who plays piano has appeared on several episodes of “Empire” with twin sister Dina who plays the drums.


Three Columbia music alumnae were cast as background musicians for the locally filmed, Emmy-nominated TV show “Empire,” where they work side-by-side with many top music industry professionals.

Since being cast in “Empire,” Kelsee Vandervall, a 2013 music alumna, and twins Liza Micelli and Dina Micelli, also music alumnae, have made several appearances on the show.

“I never imagined this,” said Vandervall, who has played the cello in three episodes of the hit series starring elite actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. “Meeting other Columbia alumni on the set [is great]. It is a small world in Chicago.”

Vandervall recently received an email for a casting call from the musician contractor for “Empire” and applied right away. She said it was her first time appearing on a TV show.

“What I found most fascinating was the camera crew and seeing how they set up on location,” Vandervall said. “That has been something memorable—just watching it come together.”

Singer-songwriters Liza Micelli, who plays piano, and Dina Micelli, who plays drums, learned about the opportunity to be featured in “Empire” after Dina Micelli was tagged in a Facebook post about a drumming opportunity. She sent in her information, and Liza Micelli applied shortly after.

“We didn’t get cast together,” Liza Micelli said. “They didn’t even know we were sisters, let alone twins. It’s exciting because I always have someone that has my back.”

The two left Columbia in 2009 to focus on their music in Puerto Rico but returned to Chicago when their father was diagnosed with cancer. Dina Micelli said she was praying something would take her father’s mind off his sickness. A month later, they were both cast on “Empire.”

“Our father really got to see us starting off in [the industry],” Dina Micelli said. “So this was in the spirit of him.”

On “Empire,” Dina Micelli and Liza Micelli have worked with different artists such as Rita Ora, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson. They agreed the best part has been the opportunity to record live during the show, instead of playing over a pre-recorded track.

“[It] is every musician’s goal to be able to play live where you are actually being heard,” Dina Micelli said.

Liza Micelli said her experience at Columbia allowed her to collaborate with different departments and receive real-world experiences before graduating.

“[Columbia] was great because it was a community of people who were like us,” Liza Micelli said. “We got an insight into what film students do, what fashion students do and sound engineering. In the real world, that is what you are going to have to do.”

Dina Micelli said studying music allowed her to have an upper hand in the industry, adding that the ability to read music is a valuable skill.

“You can tell when people go to school for music and when people don’t,” she said.

Vandervall said Columbia gave her the opportunity to network with other musicians. She had a concentration in contemporary urban pop, which she said was “weird” for a cello player, but it allowed her to work with guitar players and also perform in blues and pop ensembles.

Vandervall, who currently freelances throughout the city, said she wants to continue working on her writing and producing skills so she could one day go on tour.

Dina Micelli and Liza Micelli will continue writing music and performing together and are producing for an artist in Puerto Rico. Liza Micelli said she wants to continue to work with others and create relationships within the industry as a songwriter by scoring films and writing music for TV shows like “Empire.” She said she just finished scoring her first independent film and will release a new project soon.

Dina Micelli said she wants to become her own recording artist, tour and write music for TV shows.

“In life you are going to get a lot of ‘no,’ and people are going to tell you that you are not what they are looking for,” Dina Micelli said. “It doesn’t mean that you are not good enough at what you do, it just means that it is not the right opportunity for you. The right opportunity will come—it just comes with time.”