This week on campus, anticipation is running high for Friday’s final round of Dartmouth Idol 2015. Now in its eighth year, the event allows students to compete for a $500 prize and the opportunity to produce a two-song demo with Walt Cunningham, Dartmouth Idol’s founder and music director. Beyond the prizes, it’s a unique way for students to experience the hidden talents of their classmates. These singers are no amateurs - several finalists from previous years have gone on to use their vocal skills beyond the Green.
Michael Odokara-Okigbo ’12 may be the alumnus whose life was most dramatically changed by Dartmouth Idol. When he entered Dartmouth as a freshman he was thinking of going into realty investment banking, but his goals took an unexpected turn when he won Idol in 2009. Odokara-Okigbo, who now goes by the stage name Michael O., explains “it was the first music competition I ever entered, and it set me on the path to becoming a professional musician.” He went on to lead the Dartmouth Aires to a second-place finish on NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” is now working on his debut album, and even has a small role in the upcoming film Pitch Perfect 2. Without Dartmouth Idol, Odokara-Okigbo says, none of this would have been possible. “I’ve found what I wanted to do, and Dartmouth was a huge catalyst for that.”
Kaitlyn Sheehan ’09 is a familiar name to this year’s Idol contestants – a Tuck student, she is one of the judges for this year’s competition, and competed in both 2008 and 2009. While her career goals lie in the financial world, she remains devoted to music. She’s performed with Walt Cunningham in a wide variety of contexts since Idol, and has sung the national anthem for the New York Mets, New York Red Bulls, and NASCAR. Fellow alumni may recognize Sheehan’s voice from the “Winter Wonderland” holiday greeting sent to alumni in 2012, or from her recent performances with the Tuck ’16 Band. Of the songs that she performed in competition, Sheehan says, “If I Ain’t Got You” remains a favorite – she sang it to her husband at their 2013 wedding.
Nathan Graves ’13 was involved with Dartmouth Idol starting his freshman year, and won the competition as a senior. According to Graves, the best part of the Idol experience was not winning, but “having the chance to work closely with different musicians, singers, performers, and an incredible production staff…I’ve become a performer who loves to interact with everyone on and off stage”. Over his four years participating in Idol, he sang with vocalists from the classes of 2008 to 2018, and he began arranging background vocals in his sophomore year. Since graduation, Graves has worked for the Hopkins Center and has remained involved in coaching Idol contestants, which he describes as “a great transition to start my professional career in the arts.” Outside of Dartmouth, Graves performs with the vocal trio “Ensti,” which sings “neosoul pop music with a contemporary gospel infusion.”
As this year’s finalists prepare to take the stage, previous contestants are eager to offer advice. “Trust your gut, sing with your heart, and make sure you do your demos if you win!” urges Odokara-Okigbo. Graves advises contestants to “ remember why you do what you do, for the simple fact that you love to sing. Outside of all the long rehearsals, big notes, intricate rhythms, you’re on stage because it’s what you love to do.” Sheehan’s advice is similar: “Sing your hearts out! Enjoy the moment! It took a lot to get to the finals, so be proud of what you've accomplished so far, and know that even if you don't "win,” you have a long performing career ahead of you.” For these alumni, that statement has certainly proven to be true.