Cafeteria or Carnegie:
By Kathryn Schiliro I Photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Ask Lydia Cuyler how to get to Carnegie Hall, or at least to the Morgan County Middle School cafeteria stage.
"I practiced the lyrics, I stayed after school and practiced, I practiced in front of the mirror," Cuyler said. "I got on people's NERVES practicing."
But her practice paid off. Last Tuesday night, Cuyler was chosen from six other students as the overall winner of Morgan County Idol.
"When I got up there, I was real scared," Cuyler said. "When I heard myself singing, I thought, 'Wow! That's a grown woman singing.'"
She chose "Yesterday" by Mary Mary to perform in the competition. "It's a church song," Cuyler, who has been singing in church since she was 5 years old, said. "I'm better at songs I sing at church than regular music."
Cuyler's biggest challenge, she said, was stage presence. She practiced in anticipation of that, too. "I sang in front of my mom who acted like a judge," Cuyler said. "She told me what I do and don't need to do."
When she found out she was the next Morgan County Idol, however, stage presence went out the window.
"I didn't stop hollering," Cuyler said. "I jumped up and down and ran across the stage."
And Cuyler doesn't think her career as a singer will end on the cafeteria stage.
"When I turn 18, I want to go to Atlanta and audition for 'American Idol,'" Cuyler said. "For my career, I want to be a culinary artist. My second choice is [that] I want to sing and record my songs."
Coleman Mitchem, the top seventh grade performer, went a, well, different route with his song selection.
He chose Weird Al Yankovic's "Eat It" – a parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" – "because it's funny and I can show off my Michael Jackson dance," Mitchem said. "'Eat It' is funny, and not many people know it. Plus we sang it at lunch, when people were eating food."
Mitchem spent his practice time on his performance, even though he already knew how to Moonwalk.
"I watched live videos of Michael Jackson. I'd already seen most of them," Mitchem said. "I already knew how to Moonwalk. I practiced in the basement a lot."
His favorite moment? "When I did the air guitar," Mitchem said.
Coming to the competition with some experience (chorus performances and plays), Mitchem has plans to try and win the overall competition next year.
Until then, Mitchem said, "I would like to thank my Aunt Molly for getting my lyrics and for burning all of my CDs I needed to practice."
MaCayla Cook brought more than just her voice to the competition. She brought her hands.
In a performance of Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," Cook played her own accompaniment on a piano.
Asked why she chose the Midler song, Cook said, "I've been playing it for a long time and I thought my voice sounded stronger [on the song.]"
No stranger to playing her own accompaniment – she plays and sings at her church regularly – Cook practiced in front of her mom and grandparents to get their perspective on her performance. She spent most of her practice time working on her stage presence.
"I was just kind of trying to think in my mind, 'No one's going to tell you you're horrible,'" Cook said.
Quite the contrary. Cook was named top sixth grade performer, and she has plans to continue in the Morgan County Idol competition.
"My goal for middle school is to win or [at least] to keep on doing it," Cook said.
When she gets older, Cook hopes to be a music – both vocal and piano – teacher.
In its second year, Morgan County Idol functions as the Morgan County Middle School Chorus' annual fund-raiser.
A majority student-led event, Tuesday's Idol performance raised over $1,000 for the program, money that will go towards the purchase of uniforms and the cost of a November field trip to perform in downtown Atlanta to chorus students who couldn't otherwise afford these costs.
Chorus teacher Laura Foster attributes the money raised to the increase in interest Morgan County Idol has seen over last year.
"More students auditioned, and there was serious consideration [given to those who auditioned] by students at lunch. It was not just a popularity contest," Foster said.
The event began in August with a preliminary competition. This year, 32 students came out for the open audition, where they were required to sing the first verse and chorus of their favorite song.
Last Tuesday night marked the finale (hosted by last year's winner, eighth grader Alex Malone, as well as sixth grader Tyler Benford), and the remaining students – Cuyler, Mitchem and Cook along with Hattie Ivy, sixth grade; A'Maury Rakestraw, eighth grade; Kilee Norman, seventh grade; and Ryan Pagett, sixth grade – performed.
"They were all three, four and five votes away from each other," Foster said. "I'm glad I didn't have to vote because they are all so talented in so many different ways."
Foster would like to thank this year's Morgan County Idol sponsors: Scott Foster State Farm, Banks Farm, Michael McSherry, The Spa, Antique Sweets, Michell McCullough, Joel Gregory, ChopHouse, Krystal, Sister Sister Beauty Salon, Gigi's Salon and Day Spa, Madison Downtown Business Council, Youngblood Motors, Long Shadow Golf Club, Auto Zone in Conyers, Warehouse Maintenance Incorporated, O'Reilly Auto Parts, Zaxby's and Scoops.