"I wasn't sure if I was going to make it through the first audition," said Kiessence Polk, smiling on a stage overlooking the downtown Columbia lakefront Sunday afternoon.
Polk, a 17-year-old senior at Long Reach High School, had just been named the winner of the Columbia Association's Hear My Voice Teen Idol competition, beating out nine other contestants.
In its 10th year, the competition pits talented singers ages 11-18 from throughout Howard County against one another in an American Idol style competition.
Thirty-three singers competed in auditions starting in September. Twenty-one advanced to the semifinals, which were held Oct. 5 at Slayton House.
On Oct. 14, before a large crowd and a panel of five judges, each of the 10 finalists sang one song.
Polk chose a soulful rendition of "Encourage Yourself" by gospel artist Donald Lawrence.
"I was nervous, at first, about singing a gospel song, but I'm more into gospel music, and it's one of my favorites," Polk said.
Although Polk, who started singing when she was 3, may have been initially nervous about her song selection, she wasn't anxious about performing on stage..
"I'm used to it," Polk said. "I knew the key was stage presence, so I wasn't nervous. I felt confident."
Polk said she was humbled by the experience, and hopes to continue performing in college as a member of Morgan State University's student choir.
In addition to naming Polk, the judges also named Millan Bhaat, 15, a junior at River Hill High School, as runner-up. The crowd selected Keaira Marnor, 17, a senior at Wilde Lake High School, as this year's People's Choice Award winner.
Both Polk and Bhatt received cash prizes and a three-month scholarship to School of Rock Columbia. As People's Choice Award winner, Marnor also was given three months of vocal lessons at School of Rock and a gift bag from Lord & Taylor.
Award-winning gospel singer Maurette Brown Clark, this year's celebrity judge, said events like Teen Idol fosters confidence in aspiring musicians at an impressionable age.
"It's incredibly important to get this kind of experience. Going through something like this is going to make you better," Clark said. "It all starts when you're a kid. That's when the seed of the dream is planted."'
Rene Buckmon, event coordinator and manager of the Youth and Teen Center at The Barn in the Oakland Mills Village Center, said the event was developed by the center's teen advisory committee as a way to increase awareness about the center.
The event has become a way for local teens to express themselves vocally and to spread awareness about important causes, Buckmon said.
Past student-selected themes have promoted healthy relationships and warned about the dangers of bullying. This year, student's chose the theme of total empowerment.
"It's an awesome project that the teens are involved with from start to finish," Buckmon said. "Whether they are planning the competition or singing up on stage, it allows them a chance to be a voice for their community."
Buckmon said the competition began as an informational fair inside the teen center and has since evolved to a lakefront spectacle due to increased participation and attendance. Although the event has changed, Buckmon said it has always provided teens an avenue to express their own voice.
"It's a great opportunity to showcase the talent in Columbia," Buckmon said. "And every year, no matter who comes out on top, they are all winners."