American Idle

Wow – we’re coming up to the 14th season of a show that was thought by many to be a joke. Every year the audience gets bigger and every year more and more line up to audition. We are a nation of singers hungry to be discovered. Unfortunately, at the rate of one winner per year, it will take a millennium to give all who lust for the spotlight their due. Luckily, you don’t have to rely on contests to create some momentum towards your dream. There’s a prevailing thought that in order to have a career in show biz someone needs to discover you. The truth is you simply need to discover yourself, and then get off your duff.

Every summer, American Idol holds open auditions in many cities across the country. The announcement attracted thousands seeking a quick blast to stardom, but only a few from each location advance to some face-time with the three famous judges. Right off the bat many talented singers are eliminated because they weren’t willing to campout over night. Well, that certainly confirms the saying, “If you snooze you loose.” While I’ve heard plenty of great stories from those who made new friends during their vigils, I know the elimination process also crushed a lot of dreams. Many felt they missed out on an opportunity of a lifetime because they either didn’t make the cut or didn’t get a chance. The truth is no career was ever built on a single event. In show biz, a missed opportunity is nothing more than spilled milk.

A better name for a show based on overnight success would be, “American Folklore.” The premise plays right into our couch-potato mentality that if something doesn’t happen immediately it wasn’t meant to be. Often the time we spend wondering if something is worth the effort is longer than it would take to try. Consider this, little Britney Spears dragged her mother up and down the east coast for years to participate in talent shows and attend auditions. The hours the two of them spent just waiting for another sixty second shot was the equivalent of a full time job. In the end it wasn’t her singing or dancing ability that led to her fairytale success. It was her drive and one very understanding mother!

Now there’s no need to hang up your microphone if you’ve never been referred to as a fireball. Remember there’s also a fairytale where the turtle wins. It doesn’t matter how fast or what direction you move – just that you’re in motion. What keeps most singers frozen at the starting line of a career is a heart pounding, cottonmouth reaction to the word “audition.” Unfortunately, there is no way around this. If you have a desire to participate in the entertainment business in any way, you’re going to have to subject yourself to some scrutiny. The good news is that the chances of singing before the dreaded Simon are extremely slim.

Overcoming audition anxiety requires practice. Even extreme cases, like when the butterflies feel more like Piranhas in your stomach, can be calmed by preparation. To take away the stalling power of negative emotions, it’s best to approach an audition on a purely physical level. Think of the song as nothing more than an obstacle course. The vowels and consonants represent a series of lefts and rights to be negotiated over the hills and valleys of a melody.   The more you reinforce the moves, the less likely you are to panic. When it’s your turn to sing, your song should be as familiar as the path from your bed to the bathroom.

The best way to break a song down into its physical elements is to separate the lyrics from the melody. Memorize the lyrics as a poem and hum the song as a melody without words. While learning the melody, address any sticking points that may occur. If there’s a pitch you keep screwing up, practice it separately. Sing it on different vowel sounds. Sing it loud. Sing it soft. Invent exercises around the problem until it’s not a problem. Resist the temptation of camouflaging difficult notes by pretending they’re emotional moments. It’s important to be able to sing a song void of any feelings before you stylize. Even if you’re good at fooling people with vocal smoke and mirrors, you can’t fool yourself.

In the pressure of an audition, that little voice inside your head will remind you of every flaw you didn’t deal with when preparing. Things can unravel if you then assume the judges hear that same little voice in their heads. It’s easy to project your worst fears onto the blank faces of those listening. Insecurity can make you think they’re keeping a tally of every little mistake. Of course there’s no way to know what people are thinking until they speak up. The point is to keep practicing until your body sings on autopilot. That way, your internal critic can’t shoot you down before the judges weigh in.

Luckily, judges can’t read minds. All they can do is observe. It’s important to remember that they are under pressure too. Place yourself in their position. Would you want to hold the fate of another person in your hands? I’ve been a judge many times and still get sweaty palms when it’s decision time. What’s important to remember is that the judges are looking for a winner – not a loser. There are always factors which determine who gets the nod, especially when an audition is for a role in a play or to become a member of a band.   If you don’t fit what they’re looking for; you will be passed over no matter how well you sing. A simple logic would suggest, then, that you should only audition when the circumstances are right. In a perfect world maybe, but most of us don’t know what our true strengths are until challenged.

Placing yourself under the microscope of an audition or talent show is the best way to discover who you are as an artist. With this mindset, losing is just as valuable as winning. Both provide insight to strengths and weaknesses. Force yourself to audition as much as possible, even if you feel a situation isn’t right for you. This way you can practice auditioning as well as singing. Repetition is the key. Knowing you’re not in the running allows you to focus on your skills. So when the right situation comes along, you’ll be able to stay cool under pressure.

Listen carefully to any comments you may receive from a judge. They are the clues to your treasure hunt. Don’t become defensive. Even though it’s only one person’s opinion, it happens to be an influential opinion at that moment. Often, you will find that the comments that sting the most address issues you already knew were a problem. Use the hard lesson as a wake up call. Even someone else’s rejection can be a helpful. A big attraction of the show “American Idol” is watching the contestants handle the panel’s comments. Often, the comments revolve around singers not rising to their potential. Don’t let this happen to you. Practice, practice, practice.

If after your best efforts you are not chosen on any given day, take heart; you’re in very good company. Almost every current-day superstar has lost one or more competition along the way. Most of them describe the loss as a defining moment in their journey. It was the day they learned that success would not be handed to them. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they got busy. Take inspiration from their stories. Just as others have overcome the fear of auditioning, you too can transform from an idle American to an American Idol.

Are You Prepared for Success?

Classical Vs Pop Singing

I’m sure you’ve heard the line, “If you can sing classical, then you can sing anything.” Well, it’s simply not true. Have you ever heard Placido Domingo’s versions of popular hits? He’s got an incredible voice, but it’s not pop singing. Incidentally, the term pop refers to all popular modern music styles (rock, R&B, rap, country, folk, etc.) In the same way, I doubt Steven Tyler would ever make it past the first audition of a regional opera company if he were an unknown. The fundamentals are the same for all singers, just like basic physical training is necessary for all sports. From there, specialized muscle behaviors develop based on demand. What an opera singer requires from the voice is much different than a pop singer; to say that one is easier than the other is ridiculous. Yet, pop seems to retain a Rodney Dangerfield complex; it never gets any respect.

There was a time in history when opera was pop music. Before electricity, what defined you as a singer was the ability to fill a hall with sound. In order to project the voice, the resonating cavities within the body must be specifically aligned and the vocal folds need to be supported with a precise amount of air pressure. This is no easy task. A shirtless, tattooed, muscular hard-core singer doubled over in effort cannot match the volume produced by a concert tenor on top of his game. The only way to travel back in time and witness this kind of skill is to attend a performance of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The Met is the last great theater in this country which does not enhance performers with a sound system. The singers project naturally over a full orchestra, up to the fifth balcony, and never show a hint of muscle effort. Pretty amazing.

These days, what defines you as a pop singer is the ability to fill a hall with people. To do this, you must embody some element of modern culture. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sex symbol or a raging poet you’d better be comfortable with the image because it takes years of consistency to build an audience. This is no easy task, either. The schedule of any moderately successful pop singer would make a classical prima-donna wither. Singing night after night, even with the aid of a sound system, requires incredible strength and stamina. Spend a few weeks behind the scenes with any major touring act and you will witness non-stop promotional chores, as much as any presidential candidate, topped off by a demanding show each night. Pretty amazing.

An opera singer’s objective is to become the voice of a composer; to allow Mozart, Debussy or Puccini to shine through. A pop singer’s objective is to become the voice of a generation, which often means he or she is the composer. Opera singers seek vocal purity. This specific goal often requires that they cheat the pronunciation of a word in favor of maintaining the right internal environment. For emotional impact, pop singer’s also alter the sounds of their words. I am always quick to defend this by pointing out that the Met offers small screens on the seat-backs which scroll the lyrics, even when the opera is in English. So, what’s the big deal if you can’t understand a few words in a rock or rap song? It is true that pop singing can be hard on the vocal folds. But it is a misconception that only pop singers blow out their voices. Imbalance will punish any singer, no matter what genre. To maintain your voice, it’s healthy to explore various singing styles just like athletes who cross-train. However, there is never a reason to apologize for being a pop singer. There is no such thing as second class art.

Common Singer Mistake

Complacency Kills The Chemistry

Imagine if John Legend became the new front man for Mötley Crüe or Miley Cyrus joined Mumford and Sons.   While these are clearly disastrous singer/group combinations, the not-so-obvious scenario may be the very band you’re rehearsing with tonight. Often, we singers become complacent in situations which do not highlight our assets. Either we don’t want to rock the boat or don’t think enough of our talent to search for something better. A common misconception is that if you’re good, you should be able to sing in any situation. The truth is that it takes the right circumstance, matching personality with genre and vocal quality with instrumentation, to make a so-so singer sound good or a good singer great. To find your perfect formula, all it takes is a little musical alchemy and a willingness to shake things up.

First bands are formed by friends. Your best bud picks up the guitar and knows a guy down the street who got a drum set for his birthday. So you dub yourself a singer and announce to the family that you’re arena bound (as soon as a bass player moves onto the block). If you’re extremely lucky, your new band will create a sound which complements all that is unique about your voice. U2 is a good example of this; they began as a bunch of neighborhood wanna-be’s who just happened to provide Bono with the perfect musical backdrop. I’m not suggesting he alone made them famous, simply that the band’s sound allowed him to shine — and no project is going anywhere unless the singer shines. Unfortunately, odds are that you and your neighbors are not the next U2, which means you need to venture beyond the familiar. It means leaving the convenience of rehearsing down the street and using the drummer’s van for gigs. It means being demonized by your friends for breaking up the band and branded an egomaniac for thinking that the music should revolve around you. Well, it should.

The only way to find your sound is to experiment. Do you feel more comfortable singing with acoustic or electric guitars? Does a piano complement your tone better than an organ? How about rapping over congas and cowbells instead of drum loops? These are questions that need to be answered before you consider who’s available to play with. There is no substitute for the lift provided when singer and band complement rather than compete. A student of mine in Los Angeles looked for an entire year before finding a cellist to join her band (she fell in love with the sound while recording). It would have taken twice that time to stir up the buzz she is now enjoying had she compromised. It is equally important that bands looking for vocalists wait for the singer rather than a singer. Simon Apple, a highly acclaimed band from Pennsylvania, has searched nationwide for months without success. With over 500 submissions so far, there have been plenty of good singers — just not the right singer (if you’re interested, they can contacted at Meanwhile, the drummer for Godsmack became so frustrated during their singer search that he took the position and found a new drummer instead. Their refusal to settle has obviously paid off.

Do not confuse this chemistry with a roommate search. This is the quest for an inspiring blend of sounds, something which propels you as a singer. If you happen upon some nice people along the way, consider it a bonus. I know a lot is written about the importance of surrounding yourself with good people, but I’ve never seen the evidence. Every legendary band has legendary internal rifts. If the music is good, or the money, people will always find a way to work things out. It’s also tough to leave when there’s a friend involved. My first band was formed just like the one I described above. One guy in particular had become my best friend. That was many years ago and we are still best friends (there was a few months of hurt feelings). We write, we jam, we’re just not in the same band anymore. If someone cannot support your need to find the best vocal environment, than he or she is not a friend. As a performer, you have the potential to take the audience anywhere you want. When the ingredients between you and the music are just right, your voice will be free to explore. Don’t let your soul be boxed in. Don’t let complacency kill the chemistry.

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