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By Erin Zanders

Vocal performance minors Lucy Kimbell and Cole Nash take on a regional singing competition typically populated by music majors and place in the top three. Kimbell made it all the way to nationals in June.

Two music minors finished first and third in the regional collegiate vocal auditions held by the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) in March. Lucy Kimbell placed first in the second-year collegiate women classical category and Cole Nash placed third in the third-year collegiate men classical category. Kimbell then advanced to compete in the national competition in June, finishing in the top 14 singers in the country in her category.

“I’m pretty sure we haven’t sent anybody to NATS from NC State in quite some time, and I’d be willing to bet the better part of a decade almost,” said applied voice lecturer DeMar Neal, who teaches Kimbell and Nash. “So to have two students from a music minor program competing against students that are music majors at other schools...and for them to have placed as well as they did, I think that’s a pretty big achievement and that’s something to definitely be proud of.”

NATS is a national organization that promotes lifelong healthy singing at all ages and levels from children through adults. There are regional and state district organizations which operate annual student audition weekends. Students aren’t auditioning in the sense of competing for a role in a show; rather, they’re competing for rankings and recognition and the chance to compete on the national level.

“We call them auditions but they are simultaneously educational and enrichment experiences for students, giving them an audition experience,” said Neal, who serves on the board for the North Carolina chapter of NATS. “But there is a competitive element. Most people elect to compete. That experience is a little more reflective of what happens in the professional world.”

At the state-level auditions in February, Kimbell and Nash each placed third in their respective categories, qualifying them to compete in the regional auditions. Through that process, they received feedback they could apply to their preparations for regionals.

“It’s somewhat statistically unlikely that a biochem major from NC State made it as far as I did. It makes me feel proud of myself and proud of the work that we’re doing here.”

“I’d say [I did prepare differently] because I knew what to expect at regionals and I knew how to prep leading up to regionals better,” said Nash. “Because I think overall regionals went better for me than states did, which is good. I had more time to prepare the music because I had a month period between each one.”

Nash, who plans to pursue a Masters in Vocal Performance and ultimately a career as an opera singer, compared the process to his looming graduate school auditions. “You have a time, you walk into a room, you sing and you leave. And you don’t know how it went, you only know how it felt for you.”

Students are divided into rooms where they audition in front of a group of judges. They’re given a time limit and must choose pieces that highlight their abilities, in addition to requirements such as choosing pieces in different languages.

“Depending on where they are in their development, depending on what they can do with their instrument, we pick the repertoire to maximize their current strengths, because we know they’re going into an audition and you really want the piece to be strong back to front, top to bottom,” said Neal.

Lucy Kimbell (main photo) and Cole Nash (above) perform in their applied recitals in October 2019. Both placed in the top three at the regional NATS auditions in March, with Kimbell going on to compete at nationals in June. 
Photos by Erin Zanders

The competition itself is brief, followed by a period of waiting for results. At regionals, Kimbell sang last in her group and then left to get lunch. “Dr. Neal texted me like, ‘Hey, are you still around? You won.’ I was cackling for five minutes because I was like ‘How? How did this happen? I have no idea.’ It’s crazy because pretty much all the people that go are music majors, so for me and Cole to do so well, we were really happy with the result.” The first and third place finishes at regionals were enough for both Kimbell and Nash to advance. Next they submitted video auditions to be considered for the national competition. To Kimbell’s surprise, she was selected.

“It’s somewhat statistically unlikely that a biochem major from NC State made it as far as I did,” said Kimbell. “It makes me feel proud of myself and proud of the work that we’re doing here. Because even though I’m presenting myself and what I do, I feel like it’s also a reflection of the rest of the department because the rest of the department also does amazing things.”

Nationals were held at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, spread over a few days in June. Kimbell flew in on a Wednesday, rehearsed with her pianist on Thursday and performed for the judges on Friday. She said the process was consistent at each level of the NATS auditions, so she knew what to expect going into it. The only real surprise came when she found out she was competing against the reigning Miss Georgia.

“She had the pianist before I did and her mom was out in the hall and she was like, ‘So we’re getting ready for Miss America,’” said Kimbell, “and I was like oh, so that’s what I’m up against right now.”

She was able to keep her nerves under control by not putting pressure on herself to win and choosing to enjoy the process and learn from the judges’ feedback.

“It was like an out of body experience but I was really grateful that I was able to compete at such a high caliber,” said Kimbell. “I always like getting feedback from as many people as possible so it was nice to have three more people to tell me what they thought about how I sound.” Kimbell does not know how she placed at Nationals since they only assign places to the top three finishers, but she’s satisfied knowing she’s in the top 14 singers in the country in her category. After her experience and feedback at NATS, she too decided to work toward admission into a graduate level opera program.

“[As a student] it’s so easy to get caught up in your local environment,” said Neal. “You sort of set yourself against everyone else that is here currently. It was really rewarding for me to see the validation that [Lucy and Cole] got from competing with other students that are Bachelor of Music students that want to go and do this professionally. For them to have achieved what they’ve achieved and to see the reward that they got from that was really validating for both me and for them.” ♪