Juanita Betz Peterson attended a William E. Schmidt Youth Vocal Competition at the University of Kentucky a few years ago and noticed that very few blacks were competing. She also visited the Governor's Scholars Program and saw only one or two black students in the vocal division.
Knowing that the black community is rich in vocal talent, Peterson wanted to steer more black youth to the classical genre, where Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Paul Robeson and William Warfield enjoyed great success.
Peterson and her late husband, Roy P. Peterson, former secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Education, Arts, and Humanities, and a founder of the Governor's Scholars Program before his death in 1998, were longtime arts enthusiasts.
When he died, she founded the Dr. Roy P. and Juanita Betz Peterson Arts and Education Fund Inc., which has awarded scholarships to students in the Black Achievers program.
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Three years ago, after Peterson decided to encourage more students to embrace classical music, she and the fund's board held a competition and awarded scholarships to those winners as well.
The Peterson Vocal Competition, is in its third year and will be held Saturday at Central Christian Church, 205 East Short Street. The judged choral competition of college and university students from the Central Kentucky area is free and open to the public.
Peterson said 18 undergraduate vocal students from Kentucky State University, the University of Louisville and UK will vie for scholarship ranging between $500 and $1,000 for the top three. Contestants who finish in fourth through 10th place also will receive monetary awards.
On Sunday, the winners will perform at the fund's Musical Heritage Celebration, which is a scholarship fund-raiser.
Noted accompanist and retired UK vocal coach Cliff Jackson will be the pianist. The audience will select a favorite vocalist from the top five who also will receive a monetary award.
"We are a not-for-profit organization whose focus is to identify the talented students and award them," Peterson said. "These young people who are participating in the vocal competition love to perform, and they are grateful for the opportunity to showcase their talents."
Last year's winner, baritone Reginald Smith Jr., was to perform at this year's heritage celebration, but he'll will be competing at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Central Region Auditions on Nov. 4 in Evanston, Ill.
That demonstrates just how strong the contestants are. Even though the fund can't afford to give thousands and thousands of dollars, Peterson said, "We are getting a good reputation in the community. They are learning how to compete against the best and to improve."
And with that reputation, Peterson hopes that people with children in tow in hopes of inspiring young people to broaden their views of music.
"I was exposed to the arts, particularly music and visual arts, as a young child at a segregated school in Louisiana," she said. "I have no idea how those teachers exposed us to those activities that I attended.
Peterson's goal "is to encourage vocal teachers, coaches, parents, neighbors and friends of all ages to come and bring children with them," she said. "They may not like it, but bring them, expose them and allow them to listen.
"They will see young people who look like them."