Singers give their all in talent contest

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

The contest may be called "Sing from the Heart," but at times contestants' nerves made them more aware of their stomachs.

"The first song I get butterflies, the second song I get better," said Kay Lytle of Kasilof, one of the final two contestants.

"It's been a lot of fun," Lytle said. "A lot of experience has come out of this. I've learned how to not be nervous on stage and how to perform."

That was one of the purposes of the "American Idol"-esque singing competition held this summer in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna: to recognize local talent, whether it was raw or experienced, and help it shine.

"It has opened up such incredible avenues into the talent in this area," said Karen Cowan, the contest's promoter and emcee. "I mean I knew there was talent, but there is talent!"

Each Saturday since late June, aspiring area singers ages 13 and up have taken to the homemade stage at the Peninsula Center Mall to belt out show tunes, heart-wrenching ballads, pop music favorites, boot-tapping country tunes, rock classics and other songs for a growing crowd of friends and family members, music lovers and curious onlookers. Contestants have ranged from shrinking violet teens having to overcoming their jitters and self-conscious guys looking at their girlfriends for pointers to more seasoned, confident performers and even adults looking to have some fun and capitalize on their years of singing experience.


Melissa Smith, one of two final contestants in the Sing from the Heart contest, performs Aug. 7 at the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

But it hasn't been as predictable as one might think. Just because a singer has had confidence doesn't mean they've advanced in the competition sometimes raw talent and plain old hard work have come out ahead.

"We were a little afraid it would turn into a popularity contest, but that didn't happen at all," Cowan said.

The contest originally started as a promotion for the mall. Sue Gill opened Alaska Hairlines Salon in May and wanted a way to get people into hers and other mall businesses. She thought having some kind of musical performances on weekends would do the trick, but found it difficult to book professional acts so she went with the idea of a contest instead.

On June 25 and 26, 24 people ages 13 and up turned out to audition. From that group, 10 finalists were selected who went on to compete Saturdays through July and August. Though Sing from the Heart's age limit doesn't mirror the 16-28 age restriction of the popular "American Idol" TV show contest, the local event was designed to operate much like the TV one.

Cowan and Gill rounded up a pool of people with music backgrounds everything from being professional musicians to music teachers, directors and DJs to volunteer as "celebrity judges" at each week's competition.

Unlike "American Idol," however, no one on the three-person panels was allowed to behave like Idol judge Simon Cowell, who's brutally honest evaluations of contestants on the show often boarder on being emotionally scarring.


Third-place winner Lori Mason performs for judges (from left) Cathie-Lee Painter, Don Weller and Trudy Petersen and an audience at the Aug. 7 Sing from the Heart contest.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

"That's one of the things we stressed it had to be gentle correction," Gill said. "We didn't want any Simons."

In the early weeks of Sing from the Heart, contestants performed two karaoke songs of their choice. Later, as the number of contestants was whittled down, they also performed an a capella song. The judges give contestants points in several categories, including voice, projection, appearance, movement, personality, stage presence and uniqueness.

Each audience member is allowed to vote for one contestant each week with Cowan and Gill keeping a close watch to prevent ballot tampering.

The judge's scores count for 80 percent of the total and audience ballots are added to that to determine who advances each week.

At the end of each week's contest, judges tell contestants what they did well and not so well but even the criticism took the form of helpful advice.

"The judges have thoroughly enjoyed it," Cowan said. "The (contestants) look up to them ... it made it very professional."


Lori Mason sings "Stray Cat Strut" On Aug 7.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

The winner of the contest will receive either two round-trip tickets to Hawaii or a trip to Anchorage to attend the "American Idol" tryouts there Sept. 28. Cowan and Gill have solicited donations for the contests from mall vendors and other businesses around town. All the money raised will go to the winning contestant, they said, and added they still are taking donations.

Whatever is left from purchasing the Hawaii tickets will be given as spending money if the winner chooses that option, or else the winner will just get a check for the amount of all the money raised, which will be at least $2,000, they said.

Cowan and Gill had higher hopes for how many contestants, audience members and supporters they got for the first year of what they plan to make an annual event, but they're still happy with how the contest has gone, they said. As the weeks have gone by, word of the event has spread.

"Even to this very day people come up and say, 'Oh, how can I get in this?'" Gill said.

She said she's taking applications now for next summer's Sing from the Heart contest. She's also planning to hold talent contests in the winter, including singing contests for kids and adults, possibly a comedy contest and open microphone nights.

"So people will have a place to come in out of the weather and enjoy themselves," Gill said. "It's good, clean, fun entertainment."

Londa Mason of Sterling was at the Aug. 7 Sing from the Heart contest to see what it was all about, she said. Also, her son's girlfriend was one of the contestants.

"This is a great program for the community," she said. "If more people get involved in it, it could be a bigger thing."

Jean Anton of Arizona spent some of her summer in the central Kenai Peninsula and whiled away many Saturday afternoons watching the contest.

"These kids are so talented, all of them," she said.

Anton especially enjoyed hearing what the judges had to say to the performers.

"The judges have been so much help to them and (the contestants) have improved in so many different ways," she said. "I must say the judges have been really good in their comments and their praise."

Seeing the contestants be-come better performers has been a benefit of holding the contest for Cowan and Gill. What started as a mall promotion has turned into much more than that for the organizers, who say they have become close to all the performers to the point where they are thrilled for the ones who advance in the competition and dread having to make the calls to the ones who are cut.

"They're just happy to be a part of it. They're so excited," Gill said.

"I feel so good about this because we've seen how it helped. It really is singing from the heart."

The last Sing from the Heart competition will be at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Two contestants will give their final performances, and past contestants and some of the celebrity judges also will perform.

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