Hoosier STAR is a singing competition for the community

“It’s truly a magical evening”

Photo Credit: Provided

Hoosier STAR is a singing competition for the community

Written by: Kathryn MacNeil
September 4, 2018


Stars—we wish upon them, dance with them, reach for them, and, here in Northwest Indiana, we even discover them.

Hoosier STAR, an annual singing competition where the vocalists are accompanied by the LaPorte County Symphony Orchestra, is more than a fundraiser; it’s a highly anticipated night of musical magic, now in its 13th year, bringing ten talented artists together to entertain—and earn the votes of—a spellbound audience and three celebrity judges. The judges’ votes count for 25 percent, and the rest of the vote goes to everyone else in attendance at the event. The contest, which awards a cash prize to winners, will be held this year on September 8 at the LaPorte Civic Auditorium.

A STAR IS BORN
Sheryl Edwards, founder of Hoosier STAR, was a board member for the LCSO in 2006, and came up with the concept of the competition. “They needed fundraisers, and American Idol was popular at the time,” she says. “I came up with the idea because I’m a vocalist myself, and I thought how cool it would be for the symphony to have a similar competition for vocalists.”

It was clear from the beginning that the event was something very special. “It was a lot of work, but so amazing, and it was a hit right off,” Edwards says. “I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the country, where you pair an orchestra with a singer in whatever type of music the vocalist likes. We’ve been welcoming of any style—we’ve had classical, pop, blues, jazz and country.”

IF YOU BUILD IT…
Edwards, who is going to be a celebrity judge this year, guided the popular event for ten years, after which time she handed the reins over to current Hoosier STAR chairperson Cherri Blair-Drayton, who has seen the quality of talent continue to explode. “It is truly a statewide program that also extends into Southwest Michigan, so we have had people audition from all over, which makes it difficult to choose,” Blair-Drayton says.

For the 2018 competition, Blair-Drayton says that judges heard more than 100 auditions last March, from which they chose ten finalists—five in the adult division and five in the youth division—representing a variety of genres. “This year we have opera, rock, show tunes and even a duet,” she says, “and they all get to sing with the full orchestra. Who gets to do that in a lifetime? It’s very exciting for them; they just come alive on the stage.”

That variety creates a unique electricity. “Each year there’s a difference in music and styles, but what’s really different are the people and their life stories,” Blair-Drayton says. “They sing their stories when they’re on stage, and it’s powerful.”

RISING STARS
Jarynn Sampson of South Bend was a 15-year-old winner of Hoosier STAR’s youth division in 2017. “I sang ‘Rise Up’ by Andra Day,” she says. “It was amazing singing with a full orchestra behind me. I won the youth division as well as the Joe Mellen Rising STAR Award and a week at a songwriting camp from guest judge Jennie Lee Riddle.”

Photo Credit: Brad M. Wolf
Jarynn Sampson
Photo Credit: Brad M. Wolf
Jarynn Sampson

IF YOU BUILD IT…
Edwards, who is going to be a celebrity judge this year, guided the popular event for ten years, after which time she handed the reins over to current Hoosier STAR chairperson Cherri Blair-Drayton, who has seen the quality of talent continue to explode. “It is truly a statewide program that also extends into Southwest Michigan, so we have had people audition from all over, which makes it difficult to choose,” Blair-Drayton says.

For the 2018 competition, Blair-Drayton says that judges heard more than 100 auditions last March, from which they chose ten finalists—five in the adult division and five in the youth division—representing a variety of genres. “This year we have opera, rock, show tunes and even a duet,” she says, “and they all get to sing with the full orchestra. Who gets to do that in a lifetime? It’s very exciting for them; they just come alive on the stage.”

That variety creates a unique electricity. “Each year there’s a difference in music and styles, but what’s really different are the people and their life stories,” Blair-Drayton says. “They sing their stories when they’re on stage, and it’s powerful.”

RISING STARS
Jarynn Sampson of South Bend was a 15-year-old winner of Hoosier STAR’s youth division in 2017. “I sang ‘Rise Up’ by Andra Day,” she says. “It was amazing singing with a full orchestra behind me. I won the youth division as well as the Joe Mellen Rising STAR Award and a week at a songwriting camp from guest judge Jennie Lee Riddle.”

She looks back on the competition with gratitude. “Hoosier STAR was such an amazing opportunity,” she says. “The love and support I received from everyone on staff, the other contestants, and even everyone in the audience is something I will have with me forever. It was an incredible experience.”

James Neary of LaPorte, the winner of the adult division in 2016, performed rock classic “Somebody to Love” by Queen at the competition. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” he says. “That very first time, hearing all the other instruments filling out the entirety of the sonic spectrum—there’s a full choir behind you, there are lovely harmonies everywhere—being at the front of all that is truly indescribable, this musical force that is happening. I’m overwhelmed by how moving it was. It felt like an eternity, and it was just bliss the entire time.”

Although Neary had been seriously pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter since 2011, he says his win in 2016 gave him “a renewed vigor.” He admits, “I didn’t feel like there was anything else I could do on my own to push further and make more strides toward musical success. Then when Hoosier STAR came along, it was total invigoration. It was an injection of musical confidence that came at just the right time.”

Neary currently performs and records with his band James Neary and the Bevy Blue. (Listen on Spotify, or find information on upcoming shows and CDs at jamesnearyandthebevyblue.com.)

LaPorte native Nanda Danitschek is not only a former winner of Hoosier STAR, but she also currently serves as executive director for the LCSO. Danitschek took second place in 2006, but won the competition in 2010, singing “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. She also has the unique honor of winning 2015’s “Hoosier STAR of Stars,” in which the nine past adult winners competed to celebrate the event’s tenth anniversary.

Photo Credit: Brad M. Wolf
James Neary
Photo Credit: Brad M. Wolf
James Neary

James Neary of LaPorte, the winner of the adult division in 2016, performed rock classic “Somebody to Love” by Queen at the competition. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” he says. “That very first time, hearing all the other instruments filling out the entirety of the sonic spectrum—there’s a full choir behind you, there are lovely harmonies everywhere—being at the front of all that is truly indescribable, this musical force that is happening. I’m overwhelmed by how moving it was. It felt like an eternity, and it was just bliss the entire time.”

Although Neary had been seriously pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter since 2011, he says his win in 2016 gave him “a renewed vigor.” He admits, “I didn’t feel like there was anything else I could do on my own to push further and make more strides toward musical success. Then when Hoosier STAR came along, it was total invigoration. It was an injection of musical confidence that came at just the right time.”

Neary currently performs and records with his band James Neary and the Bevy Blue. (Listen on Spotify, or find information on upcoming shows and CDs at jamesnearyandthebevyblue.com.)

LaPorte native Nanda Danitschek is not only a former winner of Hoosier STAR, but she also currently serves as executive director for the LCSO. Danitschek took second place in 2006, but won the competition in 2010, singing “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. She also has the unique honor of winning 2015’s “Hoosier STAR of Stars,” in which the nine past adult winners competed to celebrate the event’s tenth anniversary.

Danitschek, like the other finalists, acknowledges the incredible legacy of the competition. “Hoosier STAR has been a huge stepping stone in my career and in the community,” she says. “There are many other past contestants—and not just winners—who have also been catapulted after appearing on the Hoosier STAR stage. It is not just a vocal competition; it is an unforgettable experience.”

‘A MAGICAL EVENING’
The experience also promises to be unforgettable for the audience. In addition to the performances, the event features gourmet food and beverage vendors. “Food anchors an event,” says Blair-Drayton. “We’ve got such great local chefs, so I really like to tap into that resource.”

And once the music starts, attendees have a singular investment in the outcome. “The audience at the Civic buzzes,” Edwards says. “They know they’re part of the decision-making process, and it’s something they’re proud to be connected to.”

“I don’t know anything else that quite compares to Hoosier STAR in terms of bringing a community together for a cause,” Neary adds. “It’s truly a magical evening.”

“There is no feeling of pretense or segregation,” Danitschek says. “This kind of event, one that empowers broadly defined diversity, is what helps communities to heal and to become healthier. We see it each year, and I hope that Hoosier STAR continues to be a model for events in the future.”

Photo Credit: Brad M. Wolf
Nanda Danitschek
Photo Credit: Brad M. Wolf
Nanda Danitschek

‘A MAGICAL EVENING’
The experience also promises to be unforgettable for the audience. In addition to the performances, the event features gourmet food and beverage vendors. “Food anchors an event,” says Blair-Drayton. “We’ve got such great local chefs, so I really like to tap into that resource.”

And once the music starts, attendees have a singular investment in the outcome. “The audience at the Civic buzzes,” Edwards says. “They know they’re part of the decision-making process, and it’s something they’re proud to be connected to.”

“I don’t know anything else that quite compares to Hoosier STAR in terms of bringing a community together for a cause,” Neary adds. “It’s truly a magical evening.”

“There is no feeling of pretense or segregation,” Danitschek says. “This kind of event, one that empowers broadly defined diversity, is what helps communities to heal and to become healthier. We see it each year, and I hope that Hoosier STAR continues to be a model for events in the future.”