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'God Bless America' This Singer's Anthem
He sang the patriotic favorite a cappella, with recorded music, and finally, with a live musical accompaniment as he faced off against almost 150 other contestants during a local singing competition.
In the end, Heller emerged as co-winner of the "Lights of Liberty's Teen Idol Search for the Greatest God Bless America," part of the city's extensive celebrations in honor of July 4.
The contest, open to 13- to 17-year-olds, was judged by Peter Nero, conductor and artistic director of the Philly Pops; Mike Lemon, a casting director for M. Night Shyamalan films; and Bolden Abrams Jr., a songwriter and record producer who's worked with Dionne Warwick. It was held at the PECO Energy Liberty Center in Philadelphia.
When Heller reached the finals of the competition, he found himself singing in front of news cameras from the local ABC affiliate, as well as the judges.
"A lot of people saw me on the news," he noted. "People keep coming up to me saying that they saw me on TV."
After all the singing, Heller, of Newtown, wound up sharing the top spot with Keisha Elmore, of Philadelphia.
"I finally got some payoff from all the hard work and many auditions I had to go through," said Heller, who has sung in various choirs since childhood.
As a reward for winning the competition, Heller earned the coveted opportunity to belt out "God Bless America" onstage with none other than Peter Nero and the Philly Pops during the "Pops on Independence" concert July 3 at Independence Hall.
Rock to Opera
Heller's musical style has indeed matured with age. While he once performed in a rock band with some buddies, he now prefers singing tenor, listening to opera greats like Luciano Pavarotti and Jussi Bjorling.
"When I started getting into opera, I couldn't sing rock," he admitted. "My friends were angry and annoyed, but the more they heard me perform, the more they started to get an appreciation for it."
Heller also sang in musicals at Council Rock High School North, appearing shows such as The Gondoliers and Brigadoon. He newest celebrity has been accepted into the Juilliard School of Music's pre-college program, which he will begin this fall.
The teenager definitely sees making music in his future; he's even considered working as a cantor at some point in his life.
As he explained: "Chanting my Torah portion for my Bar Mitzvah gave me a little taste of it. It was a lot of fun."