Alabama’s Jalen Kirkman wins national “Finding the Voices of Tomorrow” competition

Kirkman, 20, a UAB junior from Florence, Alabama, studying musical theater, was awarded the Chip Hand Prize for Vocal Excellence in the NextGen National contest presented by the American Pops Orchestra.

original 79FF3087 0D78 4DFE 872F EB1A6854EFDFUniversity of Alabama at Birmingham junior Jalen Kirkman has been named the top vocalist from across the country in a national competition for young voices singing classic music.

Kirkman, 20, won the “NextGen National: Finding the Voices of Tomorrow” contest presented by the American Pops Orchestra on Sunday, Feb. 11, at Lincoln Center. Kirkman was the first-place male winner and was awarded the Chip Hand Prize for Vocal Excellence, which carries a $10,000 award and performance opportunities with the American Pops Orchestra.

Kirkman, from Florence, Alabama, is pursuing his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in musical theater from the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Theatre.

The competition’s final 10 vocalists were chosen from 240 student submissions in 112 colleges. The 10 finalists received an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City and attended master classes and events and worked with professional artists, then performed at Lincoln Center for the final competition. Kirkman performed “Night Song” from “Golden Boy,” a Sammy Davis Jr. musical, and “Fascinating Rhythm” by Ella Fitzgerald. Four judges, along with the audience, voted for the winners.

“We got to do a master class with Broadway legend Baayork Lee who was in the original cast of ‘A Chorus Line,’” Kirkman said. “We also got to meet Broadway legend Kelli O’ Hara after seeing her in the new Broadway show ‘Days of Wine and Roses.’” 

Jalen StreamKirkman’s parents, Tera and Eric Kirkman, and his brother, Justin Kirkman, went with him to New York, along with current UAB students Kiersten David and Mac Baxter and Bri Hernandez, a 2022 UAB Musical Theatre BFA graduate. 

He auditioned for NextGen last year and was not selected for the Top 30. After seeing a message in his junk mail, he decided “on a whim” to audition this year and is “forever grateful” he took that chance and auditioned again, he wrote in a social media post. 

Competitors participate in NextGen free of charge but are required to use older music from before the 1970s. That perfectly suits Kirkman’s tastes and his repertoire, and he applied to the competition with “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a jazz classic sung first by Nancy Wilson and recently by Samara Joy. Kirkman was inspired by Joy’s arrangement of the timeless tune. 

“One of the big things I set for myself and would love to do in this competition is singing jazz throughout because it is something that I have always loved to do,” Kirkman said after being selected as a semifinalist. “I don’t really get to sing jazz often just being in musical theater. If I can get as far as I can doing that, it would be awesome.”

Kirkman is in the UAB Honors College on a Personalized Path. He studies with Head of Musical Theatre Valerie Accetta, faculty in the college’s Department of Music, and Department of Theatre professors Dennis McLernon and Jack Cannon, as well as Roy Lightner, who is artistic director at Red Mountain Theatre and with whom Kirkman also trained in dance. Kirkman performs professionally with Red Mountain Theatre, most recently in “The Color Purple,” though other actors stepped in when he was called to compete. He also performs in the Department of Theatre’s student tour group, a company of students who annually travel to schools and community venues to present shows. 


“NextGen National: Finding the Voices of Tomorrow” is a vocal competition created by the American Pops Orchestra to give collegiate vocalists the opportunity to learn from industry professionals while competing for a chance to win scholarship money and paid performance opportunities with APO. This year marks its seventh year, and with more auditions this year than ever before, according to APO.