Kadima music teacher does her homework en route to songwriting career

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Having just finished a sprightly cover of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” the street performer acknowledges the applause from six or seven people who have lingered in this makeshift plaza at Universal CityWalk. Across the way, CityWalk’s rock ’n’ roll Santa Claus stands applauding from his oversize sled, an electric guitar at his side. The singer notices and throws St. Nick a shout-out.

“And thank you, Santa,” says the Jewish singer from West Hills, 24-year-old Shani Shousterman. “I saw you rocking out with me. We might do a duet later.”

It’s a slow Monday evening, the third night of Chanukah and still more than two weeks before Christmas. The temperature at CityWalk is in the mid-50s, and foot traffic is light, a far cry from the often sardine-can capacity of a weekend. With her Casio upright keyboard and her Taylor acoustic guitar, Shousterman is in her usual post in the shadow of a giant neon-lit burger in front of Johnny Rockets. Every hour or so — usually during one of Shousterman’s set breaks — a large red dragon atop the restaurant Infusion belches out a piercingly loud puff of smoke.

During 20-minute intervals, soapy “snowflakes” waft down through the plaza. Shousterman covers her head with a hood and tries not to swallow any of the stuff.

This ain’t Madison Square Garden. Or even Hotel Café. Not yet.

Shousterman — on stage she is Shani (pronounced “Shuh-NEE”) — is 30 minutes into her four-hour set, and her open guitar case has filled up with a flurry of ones and fives. With a voice that is low and husky, in the vein of Norah Jones or Sara Bareilles, Shousterman mixes covers with original numbers from both her about-to-be released album and her EP “Warm Rain.” Passers-by stop, listen and, at the singer’s repeated urging, take a postcard or occasionally sign her mailing list, which entitles them to a free song download. CityWalk does not pay its street performers, and every dollar she earns in tips will go directly into her first CD, “Merry Go Round,” which was released in December.

She’s not complaining. As part of the regular rotation of 10 street performers at CityWalk, Shousterman can fit her four-hour sets around her day job as a music teacher at Kadima Day School in West Hills. More important, because she’s part of their family, CityWalk gave her the big stage for her CD release party.

That big stage, under the giant guitar of the Hard Rock Cafe, has seen performances by such hit makers as Colbie Caillat and Carly Rae Jepsen. Even the street performers get noticed, according to Kevin Lindsey, entertainment coordinator for CityWalk special events. Recently, 19-year-old Megan Arial had an enthusiastic guest join in her cover of Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” In addition to leaving a $20 tip, the listener bought Arial’s CD and gave her an enthusiastic rave on her blog. The guest: former teen queen Deborah Gibson.

“You never know who’s coming up here,” Lindsey says. “Shani is one of our top performers. She’s fabulous.”

But Shousterman is not waiting around to be discovered.

Between two tours, a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, numerous submissions to song competitions, live performances and on-line videos — all while holding down a day job — Shousterman may well be “on her way” to musical success, but she knows she won’t get there without working very hard for it. Her first CD, which she estimates cost $11,000 to produce, took her two years and was funded through the Kickstarter campaign and through her live engagements.

“You have to play the part of the artist and the musician and the business person and the fundraising person and the promoting person,” she said. “You have to wear so many hats.

“I am a patient person,” she added, “but there are days when I think, ‘Oh, I wish that this would happen sooner.’ ”

If there was ever a time when Shousterman was not fated for a life of making music, nobody remembers it. Her parents, Yuval and Sheryl, recall 2-year-old Shani — the younger of two girls in her family — actually making decent-sounding notes come out of a toy Casio and gravitating toward anything musical while still a toddler.

“We kind of left her alone, and her interest just formed organically,” said Sheryl, who taught Hebrew school. “We all appreciate music very much, but nothing on the level of Shani.”

Classical piano lessons started at age 7, and Shousterman joined the jazz band at Calabasas High School because the school didn’t have a classical program. She quickly fell in love with the improvisation and riffs of jazz and began to toy with the idea of learning to write her own songs.

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