Get thee behind me, Simon: Judging for the Pops

When I received a phone call from the Boston Pops to serve as a judge for their "American Idol" style competition, my first reaction was, "You must be kidding!" Surely this cattle-call audition - a first for the renowned orchestra's annual Fourth of July concert - would be interminable and the performances, in the words of Simon Cowell, "ghastly."

Little did I know how enjoyable and inspirational an experience it would be.

Having spent many hours during the past 25 years hearing auditions, I fully expected to be tortured by many no- talent individuals struggling through familiar melodies better suited to their showers.

Certainly many people would show up for this competition, where the winner, an unknown talent, would perform a solo with the prestigious Pops before a half-million people at the Hatch Shell - plus a national TV audience of millions. But just who would they be? When I arrived for my judging duty, I saw a line of 200 people standing in the rain in front of Symphony Hall, waiting for their chance to become stars.

The pressure was palpable. Those who auditioned were assigned to one of seven "judging stations," each manned by two judges, where they would have two to three minutes to bare their souls to perfect strangers in the presence of numerous media outlets from New England Cable News to The New York Times.

My colleagues and I were carefully briefed by Pops staff: "We are in search of only potential national and international talent." "You should exercise an extremely high standard that will advance a maximum of two or three contestants to the next round." The participants would need to win us over completely, from the opening greetings to the final note.

As the first of 53 singers stood in front of me, I thought, "This will be a very long morning." These were not professional singers but lawyers, shoe salesmen, waitresses, real estate agents, and high school students. The next three hours would prove to be extraordinary.

As in life, the first impression cannot be underestimated. All of the singers proudly announced their names as well as what they would be singing. We judges then asked them to look into the video camera and begin. (We had to document all the performances for review.) The product was not always of a very high quality, but the commitment and enthusiasm demonstrated was uniform.

My fears of a morning listening to out-of-tune crooners were quickly replaced by the sheer enjoyment of hearing and meeting these brave souls. These singers didn't fit any stereotype. Rather, they looked like America. The singers we heard at our station represented many ages and ethnicities, all drawn together by a love of singing and a want for fame. This was a cruel format for judging talent, appearance, energy, and ability to connect with an audience; and yet most would excel.

At least four 18-year-old women sang that day, all with a great deal of poise and polish. A 50-something woman greeted us with a twinkle in her eye that captivated us throughout her high-energy rendition of a Reba McEntire song. She was one of three singers we would advance to the next round. Joining her were a young man who performed a song from "Jekyll and Hyde" and a Boston University student singing a German song by Lehar. We were genuinely moved by all three.

That morning we heard singers who had traveled from as far away as New York, many with voice degrees from illustrious conservatories of music, and yet we chose not to advance them. It seems as though this format of evaluation was a great equalizer, in which the total package was more important than sheer vocal prowess.

Many people asked me ahead of time if I would play the role of Simon, cutting people off and peppering them with not-so-veiled insults. In truth, I could not do this even if I had wanted to. My respect for all of the participants was enormous. On this day when 350 individuals bared their souls, only a handful would emerge with another shot at stardom. And yet, in my mind, they were all winners. (For the winning performer, see story.)

In an age of cynicism, commercialism, and cultural dumbing-down, this had been a reality check. As I walked through downtown Boston afterward, I realized that the winner could be anyone that I would encounter on the street, in the subway, in a store or a restaurant. There is a lot of unrecognized talent lurking out there. All we have to do is take the time to look - and give it the opportunity to be heard.

Jeffrey Rink is music director of Chorus pro Musica and of the Newton Symphony Orchestra.

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