By Joel Hall
Growing up in Frankfurt, Ky., Kemba Cofield, of Ellenwood, had few venues to showcase her vocal talent outside of church.
At the end of March, she will have the opportunity to shine on an international stage and the chance to take away $10,000 in prize winnings.
Earlier this month, Cofield was selected as one of 33 quarterfinalists in the 15th Annual American Traditions Competition (ATC), one of the many events in conjunction with the Savannah Music Festival, which will take place from March 20 to April 5.
Cofield, who has worked in metro Atlanta for the last seven years as a chorus teacher for DeKalb and Fulton County schools, said she was "ecstatic" when she received an e-mail on Jan. 14, letting her know that she had been selected as a quarterfinalist.
"Even though I teach music ... I have never felt like I have arrived," said Cofield. "I've spent many thousands of dollars to promote myself, but a lot times ... you have to have a catalyst to move you to the next level."
Cofield said the ATC was the catalyst that she had been searching for.
The ATC is a celebration of the American musical from the early songs of 19th century composer Stephen Foster, the Broadway music of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, to the modern vernacular of blues and jazz. Past competitions have included entrants from Canada, Switzerland, Brazil, Japan, and the United Kingdom, singing a variety of music from Broadway show tunes to jazz, blues, and gospel.
Gene Pinion, program manager of the Savannah Music Festival, said the competition has been a springboard for several artists notable in their own right.
Sharon Clark, the 2007 winner, went on to win the 2007 Billie Holiday Vocal Competition in Baltimore, record a CD, and perform on a musical tour in Russia. Vale Rideout, the 2006 winner, became a well-known tenor, performing with operas throughout the United States and Europe.
One of the most notable past ATC winners is Robert Sims. Taking away the first place prize in 1999, Sims went on to become one of America's preeminent opera performers, specializing in Negro spirituals.
"We have a wonderful heritage of great songs in America, and we really love inviting great singers here to sing them," said Pinion. "In our small way, we are trying to give these singers a career boost."
The gold medalist, silver medalist, and bronze medalist will win $10,000, $5,000, and $2,500, respectively. There will also be two runner-up prizes of $1,000 each.
This year, the 33 quarterfinalists were selected out of 92 entries from the U.S. and Canada. The quarter-final and semi-final rounds will take place at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah March 26-28, and the final round of competition will be held on Saturday, March 29 at First African Baptist Church, the oldest African-American church in North America.
Cofield, who has a bachelor's degree in music education from Kentucky State University and a master's in vocal performance from Northern Illinois University, said she is taking private lessons in order to better prepare.
"This is just a great competition," said Cofield. "For that kind of money, I am pulling out all the stops."
For more information, go to www.savannahmusicfestival.org.