The fourth annual Ahwatukee Foothills Prep Idol kicked off Thursday with what is expected to be the most talented pool of performers.

More than 40 students from kindergarten through ninth grade auditioned for a Golden Ticket and the ability to move on in the competition. Each student sang a cappella or sang and played an instrument to the song of their choice.

Leading up to the finals on May 18, the students will attend weekly training sessions with AF Prep music director Chris Steward. He also has the unenviable task of cutting the field in half before the finals.

"I will be working with them and helping them each week," he said. "But I am also going to be looking at who's serious about it and who's not."

The students will be broken up into two divisions, kindergarten through fourth grade, and fifth grade through ninth grade. Steward expects to cut the field down to 10 finalists in the first division and 12 in the second.

"I do a lot of encouraging, and I take gentle care when telling a student they won't make it to the next round," he said. "But that's life. There are going to be ups and downs, and it's not a bad thing to be exposed to it early on."

Two previous winners of the older division, Ariana Archer, who won in 2009, and Da'Janea Holmes, who won in 2010, will be competing against each other for the first time. Archer did not participate in 2009 because she wanted to give someone else a chance to win.

With younger kids, teasing and jealousy can be a problem, but Steward said he takes a no-nonsense approach.

"If I see anybody teasing they are automatically off the show," he said. "I tell them we need to treat each other with respect and that we are not all on the same level."

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