When 13-year-old Ellicott City resident Rya Holzman entered the Columbia Association's Hear My Voice Teen Idol Competition in September, she didn't expect to win.
"I'm really happy, and I never expected this to happen," said a beaming Holzman, an eighth-grader at Mount View Middle School, after the finals on Sunday at the downtown Columbia lakefront.
In its 11th year, Hear My Voice, which is put on by CA's Youth and Teen Center at the Barn, showcases talented singers ages 11-18 from throughout Howard County in an American Idol style competition.
After five total auditions starting in September, 10 finalists remained. On Sunday, each of the finalists sang one song.
Holzman, who earned a trip to the semifinals in 2011 as an 11-year-old, said she thought she had a good chance to return to that level this year, but that a win was far from planned.
Perhaps her low expectations, and relative young age to the other competitors, made her song selection, "I Dreamed a Dream," from the musical Les Miserables, fitting.
"I chose it because I've always loved Les Miserables, and I just feel it's a great song for singing and performing," said Holzman, who earned a $500 gift card for winning.
Since falling short in 2011, Holzman said she's been working at improving her singing and confidence.
"I wanted to make sure I practiced my song a lot and performed it really well so it would touch the people's hearts," Holzman said. "I want to be a performer some day, either in musicals or in plays. I really like being on the stage and performing because it is really fun."
Hear My Voice Judge Shelley Wilson said Holzman's practice habits will put her on the path to success.
"Practice, practice," said Wilson when asked about what advice she would give the day's competitors in the future.
"You have to keep practicing, and don't stop."
Wilson, a Columbia native and CA employee, has judged the competition three times and said she has recorded songs with local gospel artists.
Wilson said she judges the contestants based on stage presence, technical precision and passion.
"You can see the passion in people's eyes, face and in their movements. That's the main thing I'm looking for," she said.
Wilson said Holzman has that quality.
"She was singing a somber song, but you can feel she had a passion for that song. She had a powerful voice, in a small package, but she had a big voice," she said.
And while only Holzman and this year's People's Choice Award winner Ava Shapiro, who was selected by a vote of the audience, were individually recognized, they weren't the only winners.
"It gives them exposure, it gives them an opportunity to practice in front of a live audience and be critiqued," said Safire Windley, event coordinator and teen center employee. "It empowers them."
The event is also a community service initative. This year, the finalists were required to build donation boxes to be put at the 10 village enters for the center's fifth annual clothing drive.
In addition, the event has an annual theme, which promotes youth empowerment. This year's theme was bullying. Windley said each participant was educated on County Executive Ken Ulman's anti-bullying campaign that features a technology-driven reporting tool to allow parents and children to file anonymous incident reports.
Windley said the theme ties in nicely with the what the teen center is all about.
"This is the platform if you want your voice to be heard," Windley said of the center. "You are not going to be turned away or shunned. We want to hear from you, the Youth and Teen Center is that platform."