IT’S THE LAST WEEK OF APRIL, a few days before the Septien Entertainment Group’s 2006 Master Artist Showcase, and the master artists are definitely getting tense. Emily Holt, a twelve-year-old pop singer with blue eyes normally seen in Siberian huskies, walks into the Septien studios in the North Dallas suburb of Addison and announces that she’s changing her name to Emi Holt because she thinks the judges at the showcase will find her real first name “like, really boring.” Reed-thin Kimberly Kottwitz, a twelve-year-old who specializes in Broadway show tunes, walks in and declares that she’s worried she’s not going to get over her cold in time to perform. “Someone told me that I should take steroids,” she says. “Or, you know, something like that.”

Deidre Thornell, a fourteen-year-old country music singer with bountiful Reba McEntire—like red hair arrives to make sure her pitch is perfect on a song she’ll be performing called “Good Girl.” “If I miss those notes in the chorus, I will have a complete breakdown,” she says to no one in particular, just as Carley Smith, a sixteen-year-old Debbie Harry look-alike who sings pop-rock herself, shows up with her blond hair perfectly disheveled and her blue eyes haloed by luminous blue eye shadow. She is distressed. She missed her previous week’s singing lesson because her car wasn’t working. “I feel really irresponsible right now,” she says. “Well, on the other hand, that’s what artists are supposed to be. Isn’t that right?”

Then, into the studio comes Annie Dingwall, an impossibly long-legged fifteen-year-old pop singer. Her task for the day is to work on “Survive,” a song she’s written about a young woman haunted by the end of a relationship.

How do I surviiiiive?” Annie wails, standing in a little glass-walled recording booth, her mouth pressed against the microphone.

Linda Septien, the founder and chief executive of the Septien Entertainment Group, leans back in her chair on the other side of the glass wall.

“Annie,” she says, “you still need to give the line more emotion. A lot of emotion. Tell me, what’s your song really about?”

“It’s about a guy and a girl, and the guy was cheating on her, and the girl still wants him even though she knows she shouldn’t stay with him, but she still wants him.”

“Wow,” Septien says. “Where did you get that idea? From something that happened to you?”

“Well, actually, from a movie. I haven’t exactly been through a breakup yet.” Annie pauses and sheepishly adds, “I haven’t even been on a real date.”

Soon, Annie is out of the recording booth, only to be replaced by some of the other master artists: Jason Moody, a college freshman who plans to perform a soulful Paul Simon—ish ballad at the showcase about a girl obsessed with herself; Hunter Pecunia, an easygoing eleven-year-old from Highland Village who sings and acts (she’s a regular on Barney & Friends, which is filmed in the Dallas area); and Maddie Smith (no relation to Carley), a ten-year-old rock singer from McKinney who throws around her strawberry-blond hair just like Janis Joplin once did. Maddie tells Septien that she plans to play her own full-size electric guitar during her performance at the showcase, where she’s going to sing a song she’s written about girls playing spin the bottle.

“I bet your guitar weighs twenty pounds,” Septien says to her 64-pound student. “Are you sure you can hold it through the whole song?”

“I’ve got to,” Maddie replies, giving her teacher a determined stare. “It’s the showcase. Everyone will be there. I’ve got to show them what I can do.”

EVERY SPRING, THE MASTER ARTIST SHOWCASE receives absolutely no attention in the daily papers or on local TV stations. Most people in Dallas have no idea it exists. For that matter, they’ve never heard of the Septien Entertainment Group. Why should they have? The entire company occupies just 3,700 square feet of storefront retail space in a quiet Addison neighborhood made up of apartments and other small businesses, including a nail salon and a day care center for dogs. There is no sign out front that explains what Septien does. Because the front plate-glass windows are tinted black, it’s impossible to see what’s happening inside.

But among top record executives, music producers, and talent scouts in Los Angeles and New York, the Septien Entertainment Group is known, in the words of one veteran of the business, as a “star factory.” It’s the place where Jessica Simpson and her sister, Ashlee, learned to sing when they were still the unknown adolescent daughters of a Baptist youth minister in Richardson. The pop singer Ryan Cabrera trained at Septien, as did American Idol semifinalist Kristin Holt, American Idol finalist Celena Rae, and Jolie Holliday, a pretty young country music singer who recently signed a development deal with a producer who’s worked on two Dixie Chicks albums.

At the moment, there are at least a dozen other Septien singers who are not well-known but have development deals of their own with other producers, managers, or record labels. Brittany “Jer-Z” Holmes, a teenager from Frisco who learned to sing R&B at the Septien studios, is in Orlando, working to get signed by a label. Shannan Blystone, a sultry nineteen-year-old from Plano who sings Alanis Morissette—like tunes, has just signed with an L.A. producer and is now traveling the country, playing in small concert venues with a band specially put together for her. Four Septien grads have just moved to L.A. to begin their careers at the request of other producers.  

And there are definitely more to come. Every year, in spare practice rooms, more than two hundred children and teenagers take lessons two or three times a week to learn “commercial voice style,” “instrumental performance,” “songwriting,” “stage presentation,” “dance movements for songs,” or “the use of the microphone to enhance the voice.” They spend more hours in a recording studio, where they record one song after another, all of them professionally produced with a band and backup singers. And then they put together CDs of their best songs, which they send off (along with head shots and short bios) to music industry insiders in hopes of being discovered.

“It isn’t exactly like I planned on any of this happening,” says Septien, a congenial 52-year-old blonde who easily looks a decade younger. “I’m an opera singer by training. When I began teaching voice lessons back in the eighties, there were just a couple of younger kids coming to see me, and they were asking for pure classical training, which is all I knew how to teach. I don’t think the idea of becoming pop stars ever occurred to them—or to me, either.”

As she tells me this, executives from ABC are settling into one of the larger practice rooms so they can listen to some of her students audition for a new TV show that would compete with American Idol. Meanwhile, Septien’s assistant is on the phone with a representative of Dallas-based Radio Disney; the national pop music radio network wants to know who will be performing at the Master Artist Showcase. Only minutes earlier, a music producer in Los Angeles, Michael O’Connor, had called to ask the very same question.

Septien sighs, then breaks into a soft chuckle. “I guess you could say that the landscape has sort of changed.”

INDEED IT HAS. More than ever, inside the headquarters of major labels in New York and L.A., the hunt is on for the next young singing sensation who’ll sell millions upon millions of CDs. Independent producers and talent scouts are also in the hunt, hoping they can get a superbly talented teenager under contract before anyone else does. At TV networks like the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, executives are looking for the right look and voice that will captivate the 25 million tweens (kids between the ages of eight and thirteen) who faithfully tune in. Those networks love to feature new acts—most recently the Po-Go’s (an all-girl band much like the Go-Go’s), Aly & AJ (two rock-singing sisters), the Blisters (tween boy rockers), and Devo 2.0 (a tween incarnation of the eighties new-wave band Devo)—and are constantly producing half-hour sitcoms about kids who sing. On Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous, for instance, Emma Roberts (Julia’s niece) sings songs about being unpopular. The Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana is a new show about a fourteen-year-old girl who happens to be a worldwide singing sensation but uses a stage name and a wig to keep her real identity secret. This year, the Disney Channel also released a made-for-TV movie, High School Musical, about two teenagers who fall in love while singing karaoke, that could turn out to be the most popular Disney musical ever; 34 million viewers reportedly watched various showings between January and April.

“You simply wouldn’t believe how many reps from major labels are out there, scouring the country, looking for the next big thing,” says L.A. producer O’Connor. “And for those of us in the game, it goes without saying that you better know what’s happening at Linda Septien’s studio down in Texas.”

“There’s really no other place I know in the country that’s like it,” says songwriter Trina Harmon, who has written and produced songs for Hilary Duff, Jesse McCartney, Nick Lachey, and Jessica Simpson. “You can find plenty of places that offer vocal coaching. But what Linda has done is create a full-fledged school that can turn a kid with raw musical talent into a genuine commercial artist.”

Becoming that commercial artist is not exactly an inexpensive extracurricular activity. Group lessons at the Septien studios cost $368 for a four-week class. If you want private lessons, you first have to pay a $100 fee to audition; if you’re good enough to be accepted, you can pay $75 to $95 an hour to work with one of the staff teachers or a fee of $250 to be evaluated by Septien herself and then, on the off chance she selects you, $200 an hour to study with her. A kid who is talented enough to be picked for the master artists program—a nine-month course involving more-intensive lessons and the chance to perform in the spring showcase before music industry insiders—must pay between $700 and $1,000 a month, not including the cost of making a demo CD, which can run from $500 to $3,000 a song. All in all, a parent can easily lay out upward of $10,000 for those nine months, the equivalent of a year’s tuition at a good public university.

And those kids who are lucky enough to get that education are guaranteed absolutely nothing. “I always tell all of my students that no matter how great they are, they still might be completely passed over,” Septien says. “Actually, that there’s a really good chance that they will be passed over. There are so many thousands of kids out there with great voices and great dreams, all of them working hard to make it. When a Disney vice president called and asked me to send him three or four candidates to try out for the new Hannah Montana role, there were already at least a thousand girls who had been asked to audition. A thousand!”

Yet no matter what she says, all her kids, and all their parents, just look at her and shrug. “This is my dream,” says Carley Smith, the sixteen-year-old rocker. “I know my friends think I’m a little twisted. But I just say, ‘Hey, at least I have a dream!’ And what if something amazing does happen? What if I get a big break? Isn’t it worth it? Just to have that one chance?”

Almost all of this year’s master artists began to work for that one chance before age six. “We actually realized something was different when our daughter was only two,” says Melissa Pecunia, Hunter’s mother. “She’d sing in her car seat whenever we drove anywhere. A neighbor was listening to her one day and said, ‘She’s got it.’ My husband and I said, ‘She’s got what?’”

“For our daughter, singing was her soccer,” says Kimberly Kottwitz’s mother, Susan. “It was the only thing she cared about. She turned a corner of the playroom into a studio. She asked us to put in an electronic keyboard, a stand-up microphone, and a karaoke machine. My husband and I would sit in another room and just look at one another while she practiced. I’m serious. Kimberly practiced so much that she wore out three karaoke machines.”

Another one of the master artists, Paige Velasquez, a startlingly beautiful thirteen-year-old from Odessa, memorized all the songs from the Fame sound track when she was only four. After listening to her sing, her grandfather Spud, a three-hundred-pound oil-field worker who sings cowboy music and plays the harmonica, sat down with Paige’s parents—his daughter, Cristina, a part-time baton-twirling teacher, and his son-in-law, Mark, the head of the meat department at an H-E-B—and said, “Your little girl is going to become famous.”

“We said, ‘Well, um, okay,’” recalls Cristina. “So we entered her in an Easter Seals telethon that was televised on stations in West Texas. She wore this little frilly dress and sang ‘Let Me Entertain You.’ Everyone went a little crazy. My husband and I looked at one another and said, ‘Now what do we do?’”

What they did was start driving Paige to Addison—more than six hundred miles round-trip—to take lessons at the Septien studios. “When my mom asked me if I was willing to do it,” Paige told me, “I said, ‘Uh, Mom, no problem. This is, you know, going to be my life.’”

AN OUTSIDER WHO first comes to the Septien studios might find the passion of the master artists a bit baffling. Sitting in the lobby, waiting for their lessons, the kids fervently discuss such subjects as their ability to scat (taking one syllable of a lyric and stretching it over several notes) and their use of their “belts” (particular vocal techniques that help project the voice). They talk about the pros and cons of wearing clothes from the hip, youth-oriented clothier Urban Outfitters (“They’re so cool, but then again, everyone is going there now,” says Carley). They warn one another about the dangers at the Six Flags Hurricane Harbor water park in Arlington (the chlorine in the water, they believe, could damage their voices). And they endlessly debate the appeal of famous singers. “Britney Spears is just too poppish for me,” says Maddie Smith, the ten-year-old electric guitarist. “And when I see Hilary Duff, I say, ‘Big whoop.’” Maddie runs her fingers through her hair. “I like edge. Edge is the future.”

Septien says she implores her students, regardless of how young they are, to find their own musical niche. “The minute I met Maddie, I knew she was born to rock. And when I first listened to Hunter Pecunia, I thought, ‘This darling little girl has pop star written all over her.’ I wouldn’t last ten minutes in this industry if I tried to make everyone look and sing the very same way.”

Raised in Louisiana—her mother played the keyboards and the accordion, and her older sister was a concert pianist—Septien graduated with a music degree from Southwestern Louisiana University (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), did indeed work as an opera singer, and, in 1979, married her college boyfriend, Rafael Septien, who was then the kicker for the Dallas Cowboys. She continued to perform sporadically—she sang at Dallas charity luncheons, with the Santa Fe Opera, and at Dallas Summer Musicals—and she went to Nashville to record a contemporary Christian album. “The producers just looked at me and said, ‘Nice voice, but you suck as a singer. You have absolutely no feel for this kind of music.’ I said, ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting.’ I decided to learn what this business was all about.”

Septien studied the performances of various pop singers and took voluminous notes, which she kept in binders. But she never got her singing career off the ground, in large part because her personal life was falling apart. In 1986, soon after she gave birth to her first son, she split up with her husband, whom she says was pathologically unfaithful; the next year, Rafael was indicted on a charge of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Although he publicly claimed the episode was a misunderstanding (Linda also says the indictment “wasn’t fair”), he agreed in a plea bargain to a ten-year probated sentence, saying he did not want to go through the publicity of a trial, and he eventually moved to Mexico City, where he is now remarried and successfully working in the real estate and oil businesses.

After the divorce, Septien devoted herself to raising her son and teaching voice lessons in her home. Then, in the early nineties, after the success of young pop singers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, Septien began to hear from the parents of teenagers who also wanted to be stars. “It wasn’t like anyone knew anything about me,” she says. “The reason they called was because I was the only voice teacher in town who had taken out an ad in the Yellow Pages.”

One of those calls came from Joe Simpson, who said he had a very talented eleven-year-old daughter in need of advanced training. She had just gone to Florida to audition for the Mickey Mouse Club but had lost out to two other teenagers trying to break into the business: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Septien’s binders full of notes were about to come in handy. She began working with young Jessica Simpson on tightening her vibrato. She taught her to put more breath in her voice so her vocal tone was not so pinched. She gave her exercises to help expand her range so she didn’t sound too strained when she hit notes an octave above middle C. She also worked on her stage presence. “Jessica, believe it or not, was painfully, painfully shy,” Septien says.

In 1994 Septien decided for the first time to feature her best students in a showcase, and she begged local radio deejays and talent scouts to act as judges and vote for the best overall performer. When Jessica appeared in the show the next year, at the age of fourteen, she was hardly the star. The judges were far more taken with a twelve-year-old who sang country songs and another girl who sang show tunes. But Jessica kept coming back, week after week, and was an extremely hard worker, and by the 1997 show, the buzz had begun. “I listened to her and thought, ‘This is the best teenage voice I’ve ever heard,’” says Kidd Kraddick, the Dallas deejay whose morning show on KISS-FM is now syndicated in fifty markets around the country. “What I also realized was that Linda had a remarkable ability to get kids to sing in a way that could get them on the radio.”

Soon Jessica was on her way to New York (with Septien at her side) to perform for Tommy Mottola, then the head of Columbia Records, who was looking for a teenage star to compete with her old rivals, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Mottola signed her to a contract and released her debut album, Sweet Kisses, in 1999, at which point she referred to Septien in interviews as “my second mom.” The floodgates opened. “We suddenly had a waiting list of kids wanting to get in for lessons,” Septien says. What’s more, the students who were already with her wanted even more lessons, because they believed they were a step away from the kind of fame Jessica was experiencing.

But as almost all of them have learned, musical fame is impossible to predict. The twelve-year-old country singer who was the 1995 sensation has quit singing (Septien has no idea where she is today), and the girl who sang show tunes is now studying to be a doctor. One former Septien girl who was considered to be just as good as Jessica in the mid-nineties is now a topless dancer in Houston; a boy who received enormous attention at the showcases during that same period is now a Christian missionary in the Amazon.

“Waking up and singing is the easy part,” says 25-year-old Jolie Holliday, one of the stars of the 1998 showcase, who is still struggling to become an A-list country music singer (her greatest visibility comes by way of a Chevrolet promotion, when she performs with her band in the infield at some of the biggest events in motor sports, such as this year’s Indianapolis 500). “The reality is that unless you are very lucky, making a name for yourself requires enormous work and marketing. I’m on the road one hundred and fifty days a year. I can guarantee you that ninety-five percent of the kids who dream the big dreams over at the Septien studios have no idea what it takes.” But their chances are much greater, Jolie says, with Septien as their teacher. “Even today,” Jolie says, “whenever I feel like I’m in a singing rut, I go back and take a few lessons from her. She is a master of technique.”

When Septien teaches, she’s no diva. She loves to laugh with her young charges even as she fires out specific advice (“Put your tongue down on that note!” “Don’t hit every word so hard!” “Chew your scats!” “Add a couple of licks”—guttural sounds—“at the end of that line”), and she cheerfully teases them if they wobble a bit on their “money notes” (the big soaring notes that make audiences applaud) during a song. But she can be strict, especially with the older teenagers who are starting to hit the age where they’ve, as she puts it, “got to be ready to make their mark.” When one of her best students joined the high school cheerleading squad, for instance, Septien cut her from the master artists program, believing her cheering would hurt her singing voice. When another teenager did not lose weight, Septien cut her too. “I hated doing it,” she says, “but I couldn’t ignore what our program is all about, which is to create the next star. I’m sorry, but heavier girls are not going to get much of a chance with record labels.”

What’s more, Septien has begun to make all but the youngest of her master artists write and perform their own songs. “In this day and age, when American Idol is maybe the most popular TV show going, it’s the one guaranteed way of breaking out of the pack,” she says. “Otherwise, you will always be known as just another teenager singing someone else’s hit songs.”

Predictably, many of her master artists’ songs consist of three or four simple chords and a routine melody. But often, the lyrics are surprisingly insightful: little windows into the quirks, conflicts, and insistent longings of tweens and teens. In the week before the 2006 showcase, Carley Smith gives me a sneak preview of her new song, “Liar,” which is about a girl trying to find herself. When I compliment her on a couple of lines in the first verse—“I smile like I mean it, but I get sick inside my head/I hate the way life is, but I love the way I live”—Carley says, almost dismissively, “Oh, thanks. It’s about me, you know.”

Later, Paige from Odessa, who drove in with her mother and grandmother earlier that day, steps into the recording booth to work on her new song, “Listen to Me,” which she plans to debut at the showcase. “Listen to me right now, so I won’t have to scream and shout,” she sings. “I’m independent, strong, and free/I don’t need your permission or authority.”

Septien and I stare at each other. It’s an amazing show of adolescent defiance, complete with one slamming guitar riff after another and all of it created from scratch by . . . a seventh grader. “I know how much her parents have sacrificed to get her here, month after month for the last couple of years,” Septien tells me later. “I know what this has done to them financially. But this is what is so rewarding about this job. You can see Paige moving fast, her voice getting stronger and stronger. And now she’s writing these incredible songs from the heart. It’s a gift, a true gift. I simply can’t wait to see what happens to her next.”

THE MASTER ARTISTS start arriving at Dallas’s Maximedia Recording Studios, the venue for this year’s showcase, a couple hours before the show is to begin. One of the earliest birds is Whitney Muns, an eighteen-year-old Plano native who is now a freshman at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, California, but regularly flies to Dallas to train with Septien. “At Pepperdine I’ve been sitting in my car in the parking lot outside of my dorm, practicing my songs,” says Whitney, who is the spitting image of Sandra Bullock. “Even when I was studying for my humanities final, I’d be humming my songs. I need to do really well. I know I’m one of the older ones here and that the time is coming for me to go out on my own.”

In the dressing room, many of the girls are checking one another out. Almost everyone is wearing, predictably, at least one item from Urban Outfitters. In a sudden moment of inspiration, Annie Dingwall, the dateless fifteen-year-old who wrote the song about surviving a relationship, has clipped pink extensions into her hair; her younger sister, Caroline, another of the master artists, has taken all her hair and put it into one giant ponytail. Anne DeFilippo, a junior at a Catholic high school in Dallas who sings jazzy Norah Jones—like tunes, asks everyone if her hair is “too poofed.”

“Oh, babe, no way,” says Carley Smith, who is dressed like a female version of Billy Idol, with rings on every finger, pants that barely get above her hips, a tiny T-shirt, and her blond hair shooting out like fireworks.

Surprisingly, for all her experience on Barney, Hunter Pecunia is getting nervous. She puts her hands in a bowl of ice—“my personal trick to keep from crying,” she says with a giggle, but tears fill her eyes anyway. Hunter’s mother, Melissa, standing a few feet away, is unfazed. “This is her first showcase, so who knows what’s going to happen? It’s not like she isn’t ready. She practices her singing for thirty minutes every morning, a few more times in the afternoon, and right before she goes to bed.”

Maddie Smith, meanwhile, is raring to go. She sings a couple of scales and straps on her guitar, at which point she immediately begins leaning to one side, her left shoulder sagging. “I’m only going to hold the guitar for half of my spin-the-bottle song,” she confides. “I think that will be enough to get my message across.”

The auditorium is packed with friends and family. The judges, who will pick the best overall performer, are on the front row: talent scouts, executives from Radio Disney, a rep from a record label, and, as always, deejay Kidd Kraddick, who says, “This is not only one of the best shows in town, it’s almost always far better than any showcase of new talent I’ve seen that is put on by a major record label.”

To get the crowd revved up, two handsome protégés of Septien’s in their early twenties who are not in the master artists program—her own son Remington and a former Guess model named Erik Neff—come out and play a few songs, followed by the winner of the best overall performer award from the 2005 showcase, a sixteen-year-old R&B singer named Alysha Deslorieux, who attends the city’s prestigious high school for the performing arts. (Septien is so convinced that Erik and Remington and Alysha are on their way to commercial success that she has agreed to back them financially for a couple of years in return for a cut of any future album deal.)

Then it’s time for the first master artist of 2006. Out walks Paige Velasquez, holding her own electric guitar. “I want everyone to know that girls can rock,” she says confidently into the microphone, before letting loose with “Listen to Me.” Backing her up is a professional band composed of other guitarists, a keyboardist, and a drummer. As Paige whips her hair from side to side, singing at the top of her lungs, middle-aged men in the audience lean back in their chairs, their mouths open. “Thank you!” Paige shouts when she is finished. “Let’s give it up for the band!”

Paige is followed by Emi Holt, whose rendition of Kelly Clarkson’s “Beautiful Disaster” is so dead-on that several people in the audience give her a standing ovation. Carley Smith—who is going by her middle name, Roxann, for the showcase because “it really sounds more artistic and more complicated, just like the real me”—gets a huge burst of applause when she sings “Liar.” Her stage presence is hypnotic; she moves around like a seductive spider, dipping her shoulders and throwing out her arms.

Then Maddie Smith comes out with her guitar, which she does indeed hold through only half of her spin-the-bottle song, handing it to a stagehand just as she gets to the lines:

All my girlies, let’s go party
Meet me there and don’t be tardy
I just want to get this started
Guess what, ladies, there’ll be boys there
Do that makeup and do your hair
We’ll play spin the bottle all night long.

The crowd roars. “Thank you so much,” Maddie says before walking off. “Everyone at Septien calls me the Little Bohemian, and I guess I am!”

On and on they come. The fourteen-year-old country music singer Deidre Thornell is pitch-perfect on her songs, and Kimberly Kottwitz, who has gotten over her cold, does a dance act with two sinewy male backup dancers as she sings “Princess in Pink,” about a girl who wants to be a famous singer (“All she wants is to sing/Dreams of the fun that fame would bring/She’s the princess in pink!”). Instead of going with “Survive,” Annie Dingwall performs another of her compositions, “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do,” about teen empowerment, and the Catholic high school girl, Anne DeFilippo, who also has changed her name for the showcase—she is going by Shardon—sings a rather shocking song about the ways that poetry is like good sex.

Finally, pint-size Hunter Pecunia comes out onstage, her brown hair falling in her eyes. She is dressed simply, wearing blue jean shorts that come down to her knees, a brown shirt from Target, a cream-colored jacket, and brown wedges that she got at Limited Too. If there are still tears in her eyes, no one can see them. She flashes a slightly embarrassed grin at the audience and grabs the microphone, which is as big as her head.

“Okay, well, here goes,” she says, and she begins to sing “Impossible,” a song made famous by Christina Aguilera. It’s a very demanding piece of music, requiring enormous range and constant scatting. There’s no way to hide a missed note in the song: One little wobble and everyone knows you are off. Hunter bends her knees, throws back her head, lifts the mike to her mouth, and begins wailing, belting out a series of notes that are more than an octave above middle C. The notes seem to hang in the air.

Kidd Kraddick grabs his evaluation form. “Stop the contest,” he writes. “Game over.” He turns to the person next to him and asks, “Is this really an eleven-year-old girl we’re listening to?”

When Hunter finishes singing, there is no question that she will be named the best overall performer by the judges. Septien gets onstage and says, “Aretha Franklin, move over.” People in the audience—even the other master artists—try to get close to her after the showcase is over. Some want to have their photos taken with her so they can say they were at the 2006 showcase when Hunter Pecunia sang “Impossible.”

“Hunter, you’re a star!” one of her friends cries out.

“Actually, I’d just like to go get something to eat,” she says, holding her wedges in her hand. “My feet hurt. And I’m ready for a good night’s sleep.” She smiles at everyone, then heads out the door with her family.

WITHIN A WEEK, the phones are ringing. The L.A. producer Michael O’Connor is calling to ask about Hunter. Word also gets to Septien that executives at the Disney Channel are interested in meeting Hunter. (In fact, in late May Hunter flew out to Los Angeles to audition for a TV pilot.) “Here we go,” Septien says with a chuckle. “Everyone is about to want a piece of the little star.”

But what will really happen to Hunter? Is stardom truly around the corner? A decade from now, when she is 21 years old, will all of America know her name?

“It’s the great mystery,” Septien tells me as we sit in her office. “Will Hunter be the star? Will it be Paige? Will it be Carley or Maddie or Annie or Deidre or someone else? Or will it be none of them? Will they all move on to other things? Will the moment they had at the showcase be the big shining moment of their singing careers?” She sighs. “In this business, you just don’t know.”

There’s a knock at the door, and standing in the doorway is a gorgeous teenager in a short skirt, her long hair cascading down her back. She is one of the eight new master artists for the autumn 2006 class.

“Good Lord,” Septien says.

“Linda, I was hoping I could get a chance to ask you something,” the girl says.

“Well, you just sit right down.”

Septien starts smiling. Then she starts chuckling.