Brigham Young University sophomore Bronte Bringhurst started taking voice lessons when she was 12 years old. "I had just seen 'Phantom of the Opera' at the time, at the Capitol Theatre" in Salt Lake City, Bringhurst said. Like a lot of girls who see "Phantom," Bringhurst could picture herself someday performing the role of Christine Daae.
She hasn't made it back to the Capitol Theatre yet, but Bringhurst will be at the UCCU Center in Orem on Friday to compete in the UCCU Top Talent Singing Competition. The contest, sponsored by Priddis Music in Lindon and hosted by the UCCU Family Festival, will reward the winner with a Priddis Music recording contract.
Priddis Music founder Rick Priddis has seen a lot of aspiring singers over the years. Priddis Music sponsors a national karaoke competition, Talent Quest, held each year in Laughlin, Nev., and Priddis has been involved in numerous other contests. Vocal competitions attract singers of all different ability levels, he said.
For the Top Talent contest, Priddis is using the magic formula for weeding out the least-committed participants: It's not free to enter. There's a $35 registration fee. A couple of years ago, Priddis said, his company put on a singing competition for Provo's First Night New Year's Celebration. "It was basically anybody who walked by could try out," Priddis said.
People who can actually carry a tune do participate in free contests, he said, but lots of people who might not otherwise put themselves forward join in as well. "I've found that when you charge a bit to get into a competition, the quality is a little bit better," Priddis said.
The Top Talent contest also will divide contestants (organizers are expecting somewhere between 200 and 300 participants) into four age groups, with separate competitions for vocalists age 10 and younger, ages 11 through 14, ages 15 through 17, and age 18 and older. In addition to the grand-prize winner, there will be first- and second-place winners from each age group. (Those winners will receive movie and theater tickets, as well as studio time at Priddis Music's Castle recording studio in Lindon.)
Some of the people who toss their wireless mics into the Top Talent ring will be serious about winning, or at least about showing improvement. Sarah Holmes, a student at LDS Business College who lives in Salt Lake City and works at a Kneaders Bakery & Café store, said that she tries to get better every time she competes.
Holmes, 19, said that she does have music in her family tree — her father plays both the drums and the violin and attended school at Juilliard on scholarship — but that she didn't grow up with it. "I was horrible at singing up until about my sophomore year in high school," she said.
She got bit by the singing bug after watching Murray resident David Archuleta compete on "American Idol" and threw herself into singing with a will. "I just really went at it; I practiced for at least four hours a day," Holmes said. Eventually, she even got in as a student with Dean Kaelin, the voice coach who trained Archuleta.
Singing came a bit more naturally to Bringhurst, 20, who lives in Provo and is studying public relations at BYU. Bringhurst had been taking piano lessons for years before starting to sing, and quickly got involved in high school musical theater productions. As a high school senior, she sang the role of Lily in a production of "The Secret Garden."
The last couple of years, Bringhurst said, she's concentrated on jazz singing, following in the footsteps of performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Natalie Cole. "I've always loved jazz," Bringhurst said, "but singing it is more of a new development." For the opening round of the Top Talent competition, she's planning to sing Natalie Cole's "Love."
For Holmes, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé are big idols. "I really look up to their style of music and their licks and riffs," she said. For her Top Talent opener, Holmes will sing "Survivor" by Destiny's Child (the trio that was essentially the pre-Beyoncé incarnation of Beyoncé).
Don't be shy
The Top Talent competition isn't going to place contestants in an empty room with a handful of judges. Utah Community Credit Union marketing director Brad Norton said that participants are a big part of the UCCU Family Fest entertainment. Each singer will be on a stage, with a live video feed of their performance projected onto a screen measuring 20 feet by 20 feet.
"No matter where people are at the festival," Norton said, "they'll be able to watch the performances."
Being seen by many is a sensation that the eventual winner will need to become accustomed to. In addition to receiving a Priddis Music recording contract (the winner will be the featured artist on an upcoming Priddis album) a $1,000 gift card redeemable at Mountain Rock Music in Springville, and movie and theater tickets, the winner will embark on a 12-month stint as the UCCU Performing Artist of the Year, appearing at various UCCU functions and working on promotional campaigns.
For contestants who may be suffering from an attack of nerves, Priddis Music will present a pre-contest seminar to offer advice to contestants about how to present themselves. Priddis said that performers often struggle to maintain their stage presence once the music starts.
"There can be a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights thing," he said. "If there's an interlude or instrumental solo, sometimes people don't know what to do and just sort of stand there."
Holmes said that she tries to sing without thinking about what she's doing. And she's actually relieved that there will be a lot of people watching. "It's a lot easier to sing for a big group than for just three judges, or just for my family," she said.
Priddis said it's important to remember that the audience is on your side. "The audience is there to have fun," he said. "They want to have the performers do well."
For Bringhurst, fun is what it's all about. "I'm sure that for those who are freaking out about winning, it's a little more stressful," she said. "I'm just doing it because I love to sing, and this sounds like a lot of fun."