by Jim Boyle
The winner of the first Elk River Sings contest at Elk RiverFest on July 30 was Kim Thompson, who sang “No One Else on Earth” by Wynonna Judd.
She will have an opportunity to compete for $5,000 and a recording session with a producer at the ninth annual Minnesota Sings Oct. 1-2 event in New Ulm.
All singers in the Elk River Sings competition were over 21. There were three contestants in all. Mary Pearson sang “Our God Is An Awesome God,” and Nicole O’Neil sang “A Broken Wing” by Martina McBride.
Thompson was thrilled to win, and after winning she told the audience she tried to advance to the Minnesota Sings contest twice before, including once when the contest was conducted virtually.
“I’m excited to make it,” she told the crowd on Main Street in downtown Elk River. “Being a singer is a dream of mine. I have a physical disability and it’s hard for me to do a lot of things, but music has always helped me through my life pretty much. It’s pretty much who I am.”
Kelly Heinonen and Tanner Tweet, choir teachers in the Elk River Area School District, were the judges for Elk River Sings. Heinonen teaches at VandenBerge Middle School and Elk River High School while Tweet teaches at Salk Middle School
Tweet congratulated everyone and noted it “takes a lot of guts to get up here” on stage.
“All three did a phenomenal job, but it really came down to stage presence,” Heinonen said. “(It came down to) who owned the stage and sold it to the audience and had the audience engaged.”
Minnesota Sings started nearly a decade ago
Minnesota Sings is a competition between cities throughout Minnesota designed for amateur singers. Vocalists compete for the honor of representing their city and for the opportunity to win prizes. There are two divisions: 13-to-20-year-olds and 21 and older.
Elk River chose just to participate in the 21 and older division and to pair it with the ticketed adult-only Elk RiverFest nighttime event. People also had the chance to line the sidewalk to listen and watch the singing contest as well as the Chris Kroeze concert that followed.
For contests like Elk River Sings and Minnesota Sings, vocalists have to sing to a backing track that cannot exceed five minutes. The song has to be memorized and the words need to be family-friendly. Contestants can sing any type of music.
“At Minnesota Sings we hear everything from Broadway to Rock N’ Roll, Country, Country Rock, Jazz, Swing, Blues, Contemporary Christian, Arias from Operas and much more,” according to Chuck Spavin, the lead volunteer behind the statewide program. He helped start Hastings Sings, which was part of Hastings’ River Town Days. After four successful years, Spavin and other volunteers went statewide with a Minnesota Sings.
Judges for the statewide contest have to be from out of state. Spavin said they are listening for intonation, pitch, dynamics, phrasing, breath control, mic control and whether a person connects with the audience. “You can have a trained voice but for whatever reason that person doesn’t connect with the audience,” Spavin said.
Elk RiverFest organizers foresee doing the contest again.
“We were pleased with the first Elk River Sings competition,” said James Kuklock, the manager of Westbound Liquor. “We had some very strong performances, and the sound was fantastic.”
Kuklock said city officials have not had a follow-up meeting yet to discuss possible changes to Elk RiverFest. One idea is already circulating the municipal liquor stores.
“We do see some promotional opportunities available at the liquor stores to attract more singers, and I anticipate we will do so,” Kuklock said.
Untapped talent abounds in Minnesota
Spavin is a financial adviser by day who studied at the University of Minnesota where he graduated with a teaching degree. His major was music. He went on to perform for 16 years, and then, “as they say, I went on to get a real job.”
He still remains passionate about music, and participates in Make Music Day, which is celebrated on June 21 across 120 countries and more than 1,000 cities to date.
“It’s the celebration of the art of making music,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an amateur, professional, 5 years old, 50 years old or 95 years old. Just get out there and make music.”
What Hastings Sings taught him is that there is a lot of untapped talent in Hastings and across the state.
“People are just looking for an opportunity to be on a big stage,” he said. There’s so many talented people that don’t get the opportunity to show what they’re capable of doing.”
Two Minnesota Sings winners have gone on to perform in American Idol. One is Aliya Mukamuri, an actress, known for Sold Out (2021) and American Idol (2002). The other is Lauren Senden.