By age 17, Clifton Williams was comfortable in the spotlight. He had studied the piano for 10 years and become a musical fixture in his community. Throughout high school, he often won local competitions, and in 2009, he performed on National Public Radio’s “From the Top.”

But the first year he participated in the DC-CAPital Stars Talent Competition — a contest for vocalists, dancers and instrumentalists open to District public and public charter school students — he didn’t even place. The loss brought a determination to improve, to be strategic, to win. He competed again the next year and came in third.

Williams, now 20 and a double major in music education and contemporary writing and production at Berklee College of Music in Boston, said his experience speaks to the depth of Washington’s talent pool.

“It was a lesson in self-evaluation,” he said. “Call it my first ‘whoa, it’s not just about me’ moment. It was intimidating, but in a good way.”

The competition, in its fourth year, is sponsored by the D.C. College Access Program, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve college entry and retention rates for public and public charter high school students in the District. It begins in November with auditions. From there, the top 40 or so performances are posted on DC-CAP’s Web site for the public to vote on during January.

On Monday evening, this year’s top 10 finalists will perform at the Kennedy Center in a public event similar to “American Idol,” only instead of record deals, participants receive college scholarships. The audience and a panel of judges will select a grand prize winner who will receive a $10,000 scholarship. The second prize is $6,000, the third prize is $4,000, and the remaining seven students receive $2,000 each.

The judges include choreographer and actress Debbie Allen, go-go music pioneer Chuck Brown and Emmy-nominated music producer Rickey Minor.

Having such accomplished judges “reinforces the mission of the competition,” said DC-CAP chief executive Argelia Rodriguez, “which is to showcase the talent of D.C. students and encourage them to pursue their dreams.

“The public hears so many negative stories about how bad the schools are and the gangs . . . but there are tons of smart and talented kids who, when given the opportunity to excel, do,” Rodriguez said, “We want to show our community and our country what we’ve got.”

Williams, who grew up on Benning Road in Southeast and graduated valedictorian of his class at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2010, said music had a profound impact on his life, even as a child.

“The piano helped me stay out of trouble,” he said, “you know, like a positive distraction. I was always practicing. It’s all I was interested in.”

For Williams, the contest was a chance to see his hard work pay off and to learn about some of the challenges that professional musicians face.

“You don’t win every time, you don’t place every time, and you don’t always steal the show,” he said. “But you don’t quit.”