Mahmoudian, who plays with the Columbia Orchestra, claims it was a dream to come to the United States. He is training at HCC's music department. "I practice every day for five to seven hours," he said, and adds that, "I am having fun."

"I started to perform in musical theater when I was in middle school," said Samantha McEwen with more than a hint of pride in competing. "I love to sing emotional songs and the best compliment is when someone comes up to me and tells me that my singing moved them," said the 29-year-old. The Columbia native admits she was shy when she first considered a showbiz career but overcame her stage fright by auditioning over and over.

"I think music touches us in a way that's difficult to explain. I can't imagine not having it," she said.

Tim McKay didn't grow up banging things around the house. "I was always the kid who was happiest outside playing baseball," said the percussionist, who lives and teaches in Howard County. "I didn't know I had a musical bone in my body until my teachers in high school started pushing me and telling me how good I was."

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As a percussionist he gets to experiment with sound, much like an artist works with colors. "I hope to paint a picture that's both musically stimulating as well as intellectually intriguing," he said.

"I'm generally a pretty even-keeled girl, but being on stage gives me the opportunity to be loud and I love it," said Alexandra Rodrick. She studied classical voice at HCC and participated in the college's Little Patuxent Opera Institute, performing the title role in "Dido and Aeneas." A winner in the Young Artist Competition, sponsored by the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the mezzo-soprano will be singing "Habanera" from Georges Bizet's "Carmen."

This may be the year of the bassoon, according to Eddie Sanders III, who said, "If you're a bassoonist, you are guaranteed a scholarship," then added, "If you're a good bassoonist."

Sanders grew up in a musical family; his uncle Charlie Hampton, a band leader in Washington during the '60s, encouraged him to become a jazz musician.

"Although I started out playing the clarinet in middle school, I sat next to a girl who played the bassoon...and that changed my life," he said.

In college he combined an engineering degree with music and continues the practice of recreating his instrument.

"It's not unusual to hear one is gifted in both engineering and music," he said. "It's the same side of the brain."