By Samantha Nelson - Chicago Tribune
Jerome Matthews Jr. had done some performances in high school, but his musical career really took off after his girlfriend signed him up for Chicago's annual Big Break vocal competition in 2013. He wound up winning the contest and its $10,000 prize.
"It seemed karaoke-ish at first," he said. "As time went on, it got a little more competitive and challenged me as an artist to do things I wouldn't do on my own and made it more fun. Right after the competition a lot of people were reaching out to me to perform with their bands. 'The Voice' reached out to me. A lot of things opened up for me. I've been able to support my family and myself just by singing. I'm working on an album and thanks to the competition I was able to get equipment to record it. This is all due to Big Break."
Now more aspiring singers will have an opportunity to challenge themselves by competing in the first Rosemont version of Big Break, which begins public performances at Joe's Live on Aug. 9. Audience members will vote on which contestants progress to the next round, although longtime Big Break judge and vocal coach Kelli Ann MacCord Lotrich said it's not "just a popularity contest."
"People will bring as many people as they can," she said. "In years past they've brought a busload of people but still haven't won. The audience really looks at who gave the best performance."
While Matthews won on his first try, some contestants enter year after year including last year's winner, who had been runner-up in the past two competitions.
"I don't think there was a happier moment of seeing someone win," MacCord Lotrich said. "Some people get in the competition and everything falls their way, but when you see someone who has had that disappointment and that frustration and they finally get it you just say 'Yes!'"
MacCord Lotrich and her fellow judges Mike and Joe band member Aaron Streich and Modern Day Romeos lead singer Jim Wojdyla give performers advice throughout the competition and coordinate challenges meant to show the full range of their talent like pairing musicians for duets or picking songs for the contestant to sing that might be outside their standard genres. MacCord Lotrich said winning takes "a lot of passion, a lot of heart and a lot of dedication."
"If you love to sing and you love to entertain and just love music, I think that shows through," she said.
Matthews advised this year's contestants to use social media to get people to come out to vote for them, but to also work to "connect to the audience so you can get votes from people who don't know you."
"Pick music that represents you, but you know the crowd will like," he said. "Each week you progress, step the game up. Pick stuff that feels good, that sounds good."
Matthews also credits his girlfriend turned manager Shayna Gallagher with helping him win.
"We would make lists of 30-40 songs for each week and we had criteria for if this is a good crowd thing or how this fits with my voice," he said. "I just stuck to the plan. You had to rearrange the plan when certain things didn't go right."
One of those times was when Matthews was asked to choose a song that represented his life and would get the crowd to connect with him on a deeper level. He picked B.o.B.'s song with Taylor Swift "Both of Us," which he said represented the need to be strong and lift up people in his life he developed growing up in foster care. He wound up crying on stage.
"I'm one of eight children and I felt like I always had to be the caregiver and be strong for my mom or my younger siblings when they were afraid of talking about their feelings," Matthews said. "My mom used to call me Dr. Jerome. It didn't hit me until that night. I won the crowd over, but vocally I wasn't there as well. I needed to learn how to be a good performer while still conveying emotion."
That wouldn't be the last time Matthews got emotional on stage. He said he "cried full out" when the judges told him he was not only a good performer, but someone who could some day tour the world.
"I got over that hump that it's OK to cry," he said.
Big Break vocal competition
Where: Joe's Live, 5441 Park Place, Rosemont
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays Aug. 9 to Sept. 13 and Sept. 27
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