Positive attitude keeps singer in the game

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Kyle Kuhns kicked off his musical training here in the choir room at McNary High School. (KEIZERTIMES/Jason Cox)

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

A few months ago, Kyle Kuhns got to meet some of music’s top stars.

As soon as you hear the names Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith fame), Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson you know this was no ordinary meet-and-greet.

Kuhns, a 2011 graduate of McNary High School, was one step away from going to Los Angeles as an American Idol contestant. He had outshined nearly 7,000 other Hollywood hopefuls, and was on his third audition when he sang before the Idol judges you’re used to seeing on TV. He’d spent time telling his life story to a camera for the FOX show’s producers.

But it wasn’t to be. They kindly told him, not this time. Tyler suggested he join a band and get more experience.

“After Idol, part of me had shut down that and said that’s not really an option for me,” said Kuhns, 18. “It’s going to be rough for me to make it to try to make it in a cut-throat place like Hollywood.”

It almost goes without saying that the glitz, glamour and traffic of Los Angeles is a far cry from his background, growing up here with a Keizer cop for a father and a mother in the financial services industry. His talent has been obvious from an early age: He was one of 10 freshmen chosen to be part of McNary High School’s concert choir and spent three years in the Highlanders Jazz and Highlanders Classics choirs.

You could call him the consummate choir boy. He was its president, after all. Not bad considering some 500 kids sing for director Jim Taylor’s various groups.

“I think having his direction really, really helped me, especially in the small jazz ensemble,” Kuhns said. “We had the freedom to do whatever music was in at the time – pop music and things like that – he allowed us to learn recording and engineering.”

His talent and training landed him a music scholarship at Willamette University, where he’s a freshman studying music performance. Just before the semester started, he and a few thousand would-be Idols went to Portland’s Rose Garden arena, singing over one another in small booths on the arena floor, hoping to get a chance.

Kyle was one of 200 or so that made it through to the second auditions in September of last year. He could sense this time was a little different.

“They’ve picked the good [singers] already,” Kuhns said. “It’s really about what they want and who has good stories that can boost ratings, which makes complete sense.”

Well, mostly good singers anyway.

“During the second round I got to sit next to someone who was very aware that she was not good, but was playing up every aspect of her weirdness and her voice,” Kuhns said. “She was trying to get on TV because she had been an Idol fanatic for quite a while.”

Day 3 was in October. Before that, the most famous people he’d met were stars on the Disney Channel. He walked into the audition room “all smiles” and told them about growing up as a policeman’s son in a sleepy Oregon suburb.

He sang “Sunday Morning,” the Maroon 5 hit that had taken him this far.

You know by now how this particular chapter ends. Kuhns was a little bummed, but didn’t take it too personally.

“They had nothing bad to say about my voice … they were very nice and I have nothing against them,’ Kuhns said. “I just don’t think I was what they were looking for this year.”

He walked away impressed with the level of detail and the long hours producers and singers alike put in to the process. But he wasn’t necessarily ready to do it again until a family friend posted a link to a Fox 12 contest. A few winners would have their airfare paid to San Francisco, the nearest site for X Factor tryouts.

A little gun shy from his Idol experience but realizing he had nothing to lose, he made a video in his kitchen at 1 in the morning. He was one of the lucky winners who got free airfare to the auditions. His grandfather helped him with the other costs.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to go [but] it still is my dream, and I don’t know why I told myself it wasn’t,” Kuhns said.

A few details aside, the formats were almost exactly the same. He also stuck with Maroon 5.

“It had worked for me so well on American Idol and this kinda confirmed this was a good song for me to audition with,” Kuhns said. “A lot of people have one song they audition with.”

The trip to San Francisco was last month. He made it to the second day, where he again learned that his nice, stable background with supportive parents in a fairly ordinary American town could be a liability.

“You have to have a story as well,” Kuhns said. “Sadly, I think that’s one of my biggest downfalls in these competitions. I’m a good kid and I haven’t had a rough life.”

Scotty McCreery, last year’s American Idol winner and country crooner who released his first album last year, has a similarly bucolic background – one that gives Kuhns hope he can seek a similar path.

He walked in confident, looking into the camera lenses and the producers eyes. But if you ever go yourself, don’t expect to see much from the staff.

“They’re kinda giving you a poker face – even when you get to the celebrity judges,” Kuhns said. “They don’t want you to know if they think you’re good or not.”

At least for this season, Kuhns’ X Factor journey ended there. But he’s undeterred. Just recently he was asked by producers of Portland Teen Idol to be a featured performer. And he took Tyler’s advice and joined an a cappella group at Willamette.

He sees himself as musically versatile, and can pull off any pop song despite rather eclectic personal taste, as a fan of artists like Bon Iver and James Blake. Ultimately he sees himself going into contemporary Christian music.

“I’m definitely going to keep pursuing opportunities like this when they come my way, and maybe even harder than I have been,” Kuhns said.

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