In respect to the amount of time and effort put into it, the Sing from the Heart contest has been like a summer job for some of the contestants and an interesting job at that.
Contestants have given up their Saturday freedom for the majority of the summer to spend sometimes nerve-wracking afternoons performing at the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. The rest of the week is spent choosing and rehearsing songs, making wardrobe, hair and make-up decisions, working on movements and expressions and in general polishing their performances, just for the unguaranteed chance to do it all again next week.
"These people have sacrificed their weekends. They practice all week long then they have to be here each weekend," said Karen Cowan, emcee and promoter of the contest.
The contest differs from a job in that contestants aren't required to do it and generally have had a much better time with it than they would slinging fries at a fast-food joint or gutting fish at a cannery. Contest founder Sue Gill said the contestants' spirit was displayed during the Soldotna's Progress Days Parade, when the Sing from the Heart float took first place.
"They've had a wonderful time," she said. "That's what won us fist place was their enthusiasm. They were just doing their thing and everybody was dancing and singing."
The contest is down to its last performance this weekend. From the original 10 finalists Will Cook, Kay Lytle, Diana Manuel, Lori Mason, Melissa Smith, Mechelle Stelljes, Melodie Symington, JT Thompson and Rachel Uponen (one contestant withdrew) only Lytle and Smith are left. They will compete at 1 p.m. Saturday and the winner will be announced at 3 p.m. Tuesday during a ceremony in the mall.
At 15, Lytle is one of the youngest finalists. She was born in Juneau but has spent nearly her entire life in Kasilof. She has been home schooled but this year will attend Skyview High School.
Lytle has sung in churches, performed the national anthem a few times at Progress Days parades and been in Kenai Performers' musicals. She also was involved in Young Continentals, a missionary group that takes kids across the U.S. to sing.
Her favorite types of music are classical and show tunes, especially by Charlotte Church and Barbara Streisand.
"Me and my mom are really into plays and music and I love to perform (Streisand's songs), she just has such a classical voice that is so cool."
At the Aug. 7 competition, one of Lytle's songs was Streisand's "The Way We Were," which showed off how rich and controlled her voice can be.
"You've got a wonderful, powerful voice. I can just imagine what the years have in store for you," said Cathie-Lee Painter, one of the judges.
Judges' suggestions for things Lytle could improve on were the clarity of her words and looking like she was having more fun when singing. Lytle said she's surprised she has made it as far as she has and credits the judge's comments with helping her improve and make it to the final round.
"It's been very supportive," she said. "It's given me a lot of information on how to improve on my performing and how to entertain more when I sing. I think I have improved majorly."
Lytle isn't old enough to try out for "American Idol" this year, so if she wins the Sing from the Heart contest she'll choose the trip for two to Hawaii instead of the money to go to the Anchorage Idol tryouts. She does hope to try out for "American Idol" when she's old enough, however, and someday wants to be a professional singer, perhaps on Broadway.
The Sing from the Heart contest is giving her a chance to work toward that goal, she said, and interact with people who share similar interests.
"I get to meet the people that can perform like I can and I don't feel like I'm the only person," she said. "It's like, 'Wow, there's more people like me.' It's great to see so much talent."
Melissa Smith of Soldotna, the other final contestant, said she has liked the opportunity to perform for the sometimes standing-room-only crowds.
"I love the audiences, they're so much fun," Smith said. "Having the opportunity to sing every week somewhere other than my job is really fun."
Smith, 19, was born and raised in Soldotna, graduated from Skyview High School in 2003 and has been singing since age 2 and performing since she was 5, she said. Throughout her school career she was involved in things like swing choir, concert choir, All-State and All-Northwest honor choirs. She also was in Young Continentals. She works at Virtual Powers Network, a local Internet company, and performs at Sockeye's Restaurant at Kenai Landing two days a week this summer and at Kaladi Brother's about once a month during the winter.
She enjoys country and easy listening music in the vein of Sarah McLaughlin, which has been the types of songs she's chosen to perform for Sing from the Heart.
On Aug. 7, "Independence Day," "No Place That Far" and "Power of your Love" were her song choices. In the judge's comments, she got praise for her crisp, clear voice.
"You have a strong, powerful voice and I can see you in Nashville one day," said judge Don Weller.
She was advised to choose songs that better show off her vocal range and to make better eye contact with the crowd.
Smith said one of the difficulties of the contest has been choosing and preparing new songs each week (contestants must have their songs memorized and may not repeat them). Another tough part has been watching talented people get cut each week. In all, the experience has been a lot of fun, Smith said.
"I always want to have music be a part of my life, whether as a performing artist, choir teacher or singing to my kids or whatever it is," she said.
The third-place winner in Sing from the Heart was Lori Mason, who lives between Kenai and Soldotna and works as a personal care attendant for Frontier Training. At 47, Mason provided a contrast in experience to Lytle and Smith. She's been a drummer and keyboardist in various bands, did public relations for a band her husband was in and has been a karaoke DJ in the area.
She entered the contest at the urging of her sister and husband and because of her passion for singing.
"I love it. It's an escape for me as far as the stress of everyday life. It brings me happiness and it's great for my lungs," Mason said, explaining that she suffered from breathing problems for many years.
Mason's performances were often the more elaborate out of the last three finalists', involving lively costumes and dancing. Mason is a big fan of classic rock, counting the Beatles as one of her musical inspirations. On Aug. 7, her performance of "Hang on Sloopy," had the audience clapping along with her music.
"Lori, you have rhythm I mean rhythm!" judge Cathie-Lee Painter told her. "I think even your feet sing."
Trudy Petersen, another judge, joked that she and other older people in crowd enjoyed Mason's choice of music.
"You're always having fun and that's what it's all about," Petersen said. "If you're having fun, we're having fun."
Putting on an entertaining performance is what Mason said she strives for.
"I love people to have fun," she said. "I try not to be boring. I don't want people to say, 'Oh my God, I want this song to be over.'"
At Saturday's contest, Mason will perform "Rocking in the USA" as a tribute to her son, Joshua, who was deployed by the Army to Fallujah in Iraq
Mason said being in the contest with "kids" like Lytle and Smith helped assuage her empty nest syndrome. It also gave her a chance to remember what it was like being their age.
"I hadn't been in a parade since I was 16," she said, referring to the Sing from the Heart Progress Days float. "That was way cool. It gave me a lot of energy. I felt like a kid again. I loved it from the bottom of my heart."
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