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Idol Worship in NOVA

Singing competition highlights local talent, unites NVCC commuter campuses.

With finals for Northern Virginia Community College's NOVA Idol singing competition a little more than a week away, Brenda Lewis-Holmes and a small contingency of colleagues stood at the base of the Schlesinger Center's empty stage. Timing was the focus of their conversation.

With stage lighting, band rehearsals and set construction still on the list of "to-do's," Lewis-Holmes is relying on a combined effort from the college's six campuses to ensure this showcase of NVCC vocal talent is a seamless production.

"I enjoy it," said Lewis-Holmes, who admitted she was trying to stay calm leading up to the April 6 event. "To me, it's a way for someone to live out their dream who wouldn't have a chance. It's a place where we can really come together."

AN ANNUAL EVENT that attracted more than 300 students to auditions held in January, NOVA Idol began as a class project that Lewis-Holmes designed in 2004. While some students walked away from the project that year with an "A," the event now rewards a top prize of $2,500.

"It began in my Acting I class," said Lewis-Holmes, who teaches at NVCC's Alexandria Campus. "Students were just goofing off and having fun. It dawned on me that people might like this."

As it turned out, she was right: Once held in the cafeteria at the Alexandria campus, the Schelsinger Center will host this year's contest — and for the first time, NOVA Idol will feature a live backing band, local jazz outfit Double Digit. The event will also feature celebrity judges like Fox 5 News weatherman Tony Perkins and Charles Suitt, executive vice president of the New York-based Skeleton Key Entertainment. There will also be a performance by Travis Tucker, a 2004 "American Idol" finalist.

Already setting her sights on next year, Lewis-Holmes is hoping to use this program as an outreach to inform high-school students about the college.

"I really see NOVA Idol as a signature activity that people can look forward to each year," she said. "I love our students and they deserve the notoriety. I think we have some pretty good talent. It's been the best talent so far. I just hope they don't freeze up on stage."

Herb Smith, one of seven judges for the contest and the Jazz program instructor at the NVCC Annandale campus, has not only watched the contest grow in size but he believes it's helped create a unified identity for the six commuter campuses spread throughout Northern Virginia.

"We wanted to put on an activity that all of the students within each campus could participate in," he said. "To be able to develop a sense of school spirit and have a college activity — it's been real enthusiastic. We don't have a sorority or fraternity but we have this. If you participate in it you come to know the whole school."

TANIKA MCLUNE, a Fairfax resident and student at the Manassas campus, is a self-described karaoke fanatic — at least enough to travel to a Karaoke bar in Maryland on regular occasion. Despite the practice, McLune is a bit nervous about singing in a competition for the first time.

Should she win, McLune already has a good idea for how to use the award money.

"I'm moving into an apartment in a month so I will need to furnish it," she said. "I've been singing for a long time but never do competitions. It's hard when you're being judged."

Leah Carr, a music major at the Loudoun campus, is trained as a classical singer, focusing mainly on opera, but feels a bit out of her element with pop music — and she's recently been battling a cold.

Like McLune, Carr shares a similar motivation for entering the contest.

"Honestly, it was the money," she said. "I'm paying my way through school and I saw the prize money. The worst that can happen is that they say no and I move on."

And while "no" is often delivered via Simon Cowell's sharp tongue in Fox's "American Idol," Elysabeth Muscat-Catbas, chair of the voice department at Baltimore's Peabody Preparatory and judge for NOVA Idol, isn't looking to dish out insults.

"I don't want to have any bodyguards," joked Muscat-Catbas. "I'll probably be more like Paula — supportive."

According to Muscat-Catbas, dancing, costumes and a comfortable stage presence are important in scoring the overall performance, but at its core NOVA Idol is a singing competition.

"First thing I would look for is a good, healthy singing technique and their ability to communicate," she said. "Usually you can tell just after a few seconds of hearing them."

ON FRIDAY, APRIL 6 the combined efforts of NVCC campuses will come to fruition as both the semi-finals and finals will be held at the Schlesinger Center on NVCC's Alexandria campus. Both Lewis-Holmes and Smith enjoy each year the level of vocal talent found within the student population, but they are quick to highlight that within NOVA Idol talent lies both on and off the stage. Set designs were created by a group of students from the Loudoun Campus, student photographers were hired from each campus to capture the event, some learned the public relations business by promoting the event and others are writing articles for their local campus.

According to Smith, by taking the class project out of the classroom, more opportunities to teach and showcase student-body talent was created.

"For myself, this is something extra," said Smith. "Through this we are teaching a few things. You're not just sitting in the classroom teaching a student. If you put on a production, that's a special thing. And along the way, you run into the energy and enthusiasm of different campuses."