It was September 2005, and Tina Bernard was not pleased.
Although auditions had been held for Cardinal Singers — the elite members of Bernard’s Bridge City High School choir program — the previous school year, a coworker was insisting that she make an exception for a freshman who had just transferred into the district.
“The counselor called me and said, ‘Hey, you need to hear this girl sing,’” Bernard remembered. “I said, ‘I can hear her sing, but I can’t put her in Cardinal Singers.’
“He said, ‘You’re going to want to call the judges back.’”
Weary of arguing, Bernard begrudgingly agreed to hear the new student sing. Her faith was not strengthened when the girl requested a guitar for her audition.
“I just rolled my eyes,” Bernard said. “Everybody sings, and everybody plays guitar. It’s annoying to choir directors.”
Then, 14-year-old Kree Harrison started to sing.
“I was in tears by the third verse,” Bernard said. “She just has a God-given talent.”
Needless to say, Harrison passed the auditions. She was a member of Cardinal Singers for approximately two months before returning to Nashville, where she had moved from her native Woodville to pursue a music career. Currently Southeast Texas natives can keep up with Harrison on “American Idol,” where she was recently named a Top 10 finalist.
Harrison’s classmates bore no grudge against her for bypassing the initial auditions.
“Everybody really liked her, and they knew the talent whenever they heard her,” said Brittany Bellair, a 2007 BCHS graduate who was in varsity choir with Harrison. “She dominated in the choir class. I remember seeing that she was on Rosie O’Donnell, but I don’t remember that being a big deal to us at the time. Now, looking back, that’s huge.”
What Harrison lacked in ego, she made up for in talent, Bellair said — and it didn’t come as a shock to see her former classmate on the television screen.
“She’s very down to earth, very chill — she doesn’t make a big deal of herself,” said Bellair, who now lives in Dallas, where she works for Southwest Airlines. “It doesn’t surprise me that she’s on there, but I don’t think it’s really gone to Kree’s head.”
Although Harrison was more accustomed to singing on her own, Bernard said, it didn’t take much effort to integrate her into the chorus.
“There’s a big difference between solo singing and choir singing — a lot of correction has to happen,” Bernard said. “But she was very receptive and did what I asked her to do when she sang with a group, and then she did her own thing when she did her solos. Not many students can do that. I have students that come in who are just obnoxious — ‘Oh, here I am.’ She has never been like that. She’s very humble, very sweet.”
At age 10, Harrison was offered a contract with Disney’s Lyric Street records — which she turned down.
“They offered her a contract for Hannah Montana,” Bernard said. “But she did not want to take it, because she said those child stars are real popular and then they fade away. She didn’t feel like she fit into that role, because her music is so serious.”
Now 22, Harrison has suffered enough heartache to derail anyone twice her age. In 2001, her father was killed in a plane crash, causing her to halt her budding career and return home to Texas. Four years later, her mother was killed in a car accident.
But Harrison hasn’t let these setbacks stop her, so neither her former teacher nor her former classmate think the show’s other contestants will pose a problem.
“The only thing that scares me is that she doesn’t have as big of a personality as some of the other girls,” Bellair said. “She knows deep down inside that she has this amazing talent, so she doesn’t have to wear these skimpy little clothes to make people love her.”
Despite this, Bernard is confident in her former pupil.
“I won’t be surprised one bit if she wins it,” she said. “A lot of those people that you hear on those things, they’re not real experienced. They’ve karaoked — it’s not that difficult to pick up karaoke. But that’s not what she does. She’s the whole package — she writes, she plays guitar, she plays piano.”
In her 21 years as a music educator — the last 14 of which have been at BCHS — Harrison is the most dedicated student she has seen, Bernard said.
“I’ve had lots of students that I thought could have done what she’s doing, and none of them have actually followed through, because it’s not taken very seriously,” Bernard said. “But I think Kree knew from a very, very young age that she had a God-given talent, and she never attempted to do anything else. She’s put all of her heart and soul into it since she was a girl, and she just kept pushing forward until she was finally noticed. You can see when she sings, she’s feeling it. She’s not just up there singing words.”
Bernard is pulling for her former student, if only to see more estrogen on the show. A woman hasn’t claimed the “Idol” crown since Jordin Sparks in 2007.
“It’s time for a girl to win, and Kree is leaps and bounds above everybody else — and that’s in my professional opinion as well,” Bernard said.
Tune in to FOX at 7 p.m. tonight to watch Kree Harrison perform in the top 10 finals of “American Idol.” Tune in again Thursday at 7 p.m. for the results episode to see if Kree advances to the next round.
It was September 2005, and Tina Bernard was not pleased.
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