By Judy Wakefield
---- — When three of Hollywood’s top recording stars talk to you about your voice strengths and weaknesses, you are very grateful for the meeting and take lots of notes.
At least that’s what Andover’s Casey McQuillen did last week.
While the 21-year-old singer-songwriter may have seen her “American Idol” hopes fade after being cut from this season’s reality show competition on Feb. 12, she is feeling buoyed by the opportunity and exposure she gained as a contestant — however short-lived.
McQuillen said she learned a lot from the feedback she received from the “Idol” judges — Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and especially Harry Connick Jr. — after she failed to proceed to the next round in the competition.
Before she left the stage, McQuillen said she had a chance to talk to the judges, with Connick providing the best takeaway.
“He told me to attack my music career with vigor ... to put out CDs and to keep singing with my Berklee connections,” said McQuillen, a 2011 Phillips Academy graduate who grew up in town and is now pursuing her education at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“He is so nice, was so supportive and although my singing may not be enough to be the next (”American Idol” megastar) Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson, he talked to me about Berklee and getting a music education.”
McQuillen, who made it to the Hollywood round of the competition and was among the final 75 still standing before being sent home, was not alone in getting eliminated from the show last week. She said female singers were hit hardest by the show’s ax.
“You couldn’t tell on what aired, but 15 girls and just three guys were cut. ... The show needs guys,” she said.
While disappointed, McQuillen stayed positive. “It’s been a crazy ride! I told the judges that #AmericanIdol was just a stop for me, not the whole journey, and they agreed,” she immediately posted on Facebook. “The judges were incredibly supportive and complimentary and I left Hollywood feeling better about my career than ever before.”
One of her first stops was her hometown of Andover. She returned to town last Friday to make a special guest appearance at Andover Youth Services’ annual Valentine’s Dance.
McQuillen — who has participated in and been a big supporter of her town’s youth services program — played an acoustic set at the Feb. 14 fundraiser for the town’s seventh- and eighth-graders at Old Town Hall on Main Street.
A packed house welcomed McQuillen, who was touched by the turnout and said she almost cried when the crowd held up a banner at the end of her performance that read, “Thank You Casey.”
It wasn’t the first time McQuillen has performed for an AYS benefit.
Growing up in Andover, the rising musician was frequently involved in youth services programming. In fact, she used to attend the Valentine’s Dance as a kid.
In recent years, she’s taken to giving back to the organization. Last year, she took the stage to perform during the group’s annual telethon.
“Just the first time I met her, she was a bright light,” AYS Director Bill Fahey said. “We’re talking about a young person here who has all the gifts, but on top of that, is a really awesome human being.”
Earlier in the day Feb. 14, before heading to Andover, McQuillen was at Melrose Middle School talking to 900 students about bullying, a good work ethic and confidence.
She said she plans to keep up a connection with teens as it’s an audience she enjoys working with.
“I plan to use the attention from `Idol’ and talk to teens about those issues,” she said. “I want to help them.”
Staff writer Dustin Luca contributed to this report.