Last month, University of Oregon graduate student Rachel Schwartzman won first place at a statewide karaoke competition in Salem, Oregon. On Nov. 15, she will fly to Las Vegas to compete in the 2018 Karaoke World Tour Championships.
“It sounds so funny when you say it out loud,” Schwartzman said.
Before moving to Eugene a year ago, she had never considered competitive karaoke. During her years as an undergrad, she had always found a creative outlet through dance and a cappella groups, but after graduation, her opportunities became more limited.
“When I got here, karaoke was kind of my option,” Schwartzman said. She began to frequent various karaoke spots on the weekends, eventually finding a community of karaoke regulars. “I got to know the scene really well, and I probably took it more seriously than most people,” she said.
Initially, karaoke was just a way to express herself and push herself out of her comfort zone. But when the competition came around, she decided to give it a shot.
Schwartzman moved on to the state championship after winning a local event in Eugene. As part of a subsequent first place win in Salem, she received free vocal lessons to help prepare her for the upcoming performance in Las Vegas. Organizers of the competition will also be paying for Schwartzman’s airfare and hotel expenses.
“It’s Vegas, so by default that gives it an air of competitiveness, performance and glam,” Schwartzman said. Having never competed at this level before, she is unsure of what to expect.
Singing ability, of course, is a necessary factor. But the criteria of a karaoke championship differ slightly from the average singing contest. Judges will be scoring based on outfits, emotional connectivity and stage presence. The song choice itself is also very significant.
“When I met with the vocal coach, songs that I thought I would be able to sing just ended up not being competitive enough,” Schwartzman said. “That’s one of the things that was stressing me out: trying to find songs that have a competitive edge.”
For her performance in Vegas, Schwartzman is preparing songs by Sam Smith, Chris Stapleton, X Ambassadors and Gnarls Barkley — all carefully selected for a competitive environment. “The general strategy is showing range,” she said.
In more casual karaoke situations, Schwartzman loves to sing Motown; she considers “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” her personal anthem and also enjoys singing anything by The Temptations. She hopes to channel some of that soulful energy into her performance.
But Schwartzman is also trying to stay realistic about her chances. “It would be cool to win, but just not knowing anything about the competition, it would be really hard to anticipate that,” she said. She expects over a hundred people will be present to compete at the event.
According to Schwartzman, there is a “spectrum of dedication” that exists among the contestants. “The people that do karaoke are generally not trying to become the next Mariah Carey,” she says; however, some participants do craft elaborate performances with props, or compete to get their foot in the door for a future career in the music industry.
Schwartzman’s main goals for life lie outside of karaoke. Her graduate work is in special education with a focus on museum programming for people with disabilities. She is also getting a certificate for non-profit management.
But she says karaoke remains a very worthwhile hobby. Both her parents and one of her friends are travelling to support her in Las Vegas. “Everyone is really excited,” she said.
“When you are passionate about something, even if it’s just a hobby, it feels good to be rewarded or just to be acknowledged,” Schwartzman said.