The semi-finals of the Hear My Voice Columbia Teen Idol Competition at the Slayton House in Columbia, MD on Thursday, September 29, 2016. (Video by Jen Rynda/ Baltimore Sun Media Group)
All destined singers must find their voice, says 14-year-old Taylor James. Columbia Association's Hear My Voice Columbia Teen Idol Competition, which has its final competition Sunday, Oct. 9 at 3 p.m. at the downtown Columbia lakefront, provides the opportunity to do just that.
A first-time teen idol contestant, James said she began singing lessons when she was 5 after following her mother's footsteps in the arts. Although she has participated in talent competitions before, this year's teen idol show will mark James' debut in an all-singing showcase.
Other finalists include Kamya Carter, 14, Andrew Vesey, 15, and Ava Shapiro, 15, all of Columbia; Morgan Donohoe, 15, of Fulton; Brooke Naidu, 14, of West Friendship; Jayla Waters, 17, of Ellicott City; Siju Oshin, 17, of Laurel; Elyse Johnson, 14, of Marriottsville; and Grace Smith, 14, of North Laurel.
Following an audition process and semi-finals last month, the competition will feature the top 10 contestants as they perform a song of their choice, from music genres such as rock, show tunes, R&B and rap. Columbia Association's Middle School and Teen Advisory Committees as well as Lord & Taylor sponsor the Columbia Teen Idol competition.
"For as long as I can remember, I've been singing," said James, a Columbia resident. "When I'm singing on a stage [and] once I've gone through all the preparation, I forget about everything I've done to prepare. I'm just in the moment and it makes me feel alive."
James said she selected songs that best fit her voice. In her audition, she sang "This Is What You Came For," by Calvin Harris and Rihanna, and performed Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" in the semi-finals.
In the final competition, James will be traveling back to 1965 with Nina Simone's "Feeling Good."
"I definitely love Nina Simone. I've looked up to her music and love the feeling that she puts into it," she said. "I also chose this song because it is a very, very difficult song. It's a song that my mom has been working on with me for a while. I feel like it will show the judges my skills and talent."
Rene Buckmon, Columbia Association's manager of youth and teen programs, said this year's 14th competition began with 23 people in the audition process and a selection of 19 semi-finalists by the Teen Advisory Committee.
This year, the final competition will become one step closer to its American Idol-based counterpart, providing each contestant with one-on-one time with a professional singer days before the show.
"We're going to have selection song review where one of the judges will spend some time with each finalist to help them have better stage presence as well as how to get the best out of their song," Buckmon said. "When you watch them in the semi-finals, somebody might forget words to the song or their voice might have been pitchy, but when they come and nail that song, they're just so excited."
Song is a highlight of the event, Buckmon said, but teens also participate in a community toiletries drive throughout the competition process, while also educating themselves on addiction through the Shatter the Stigma organization. This creates a sense of community among the participants as well as a foundation of empowerment.
North Laurel's Smith is returning to the stage for her third year in the teen idol competition. She has written her own song for her final performance, titled "Twisted." Smith has been broadening her vocal skills in theater over the last eight years, learning to play the guitar from her father as well as write her own music.
"I've always been a huge fan of Taylor Swift," Smith said. "Her writing at a young age made me feel like I should try writing and I liked it."
The Atholton High School ninth-grader said "Twisted" tells a personal story involving her cousin, who lived with them at one time, and when he made a poor decision. The song was written in one afternoon.
"I was just writing, trying to understand why he did what he did," Smith said. "Writing it out helped cope with what happened."
Smith's mother, Kime Smith, said the competition really brings families and friends together and allows participants to share their passions for song with the community. Unlike other competitions or performances that have strict guidelines, Columbia Association's teen idol competition lets singers open up, she said.
"As a parent, it's a little bit more exciting than most of the other times she gets to perform because this is truly from her heart," Kime Smith said. "When she's in a show, it's from her heart, but it's not inspired from beginning to end. I really appreciate all the time, effort and energy that's put into the whole competition."
Both James and Smith said they're optimistic for the final competition and are happy to be surrounded by others their age who share the same passion.
"I'm just excited that I can sing top songs or regular songs that fit my voice well," James said.
Buckmon said the first-place winner will receive $300, the second-place will receive $100 and the third-place winner will receive $50. The audience will also select their favorite performer, who will receive the People's Choice Award.