3 Lessons from American Idol – Top 8 Female Semifinalists

In last night’s episode of American Idol, I saw a few themes that you can apply to your musical performance.  At one point in the evening, Kara DioGuardi talked about how there were two kinds of contestants:

  1. Contestants who really know themselves as artists
  2. Contestants who DON’T yet know who they are as artists

I would say there’s also a third kind of contestant – ones who have an idealized picture of the kind of artist they want to be, but that isn’t really the best expression of their true talent.  Lil Rounds was that kind of contestant.  She has an awesome blues/jazz vocal, but wanted to be a Diva a la Whitney.  Her vocal instrument just wasn’t suited to that kind of music. Her performance suffered from that and I believe that’s why she was eliminated so early.

Kara is dead on – some of the contestants have a really solid handle on who they are as musicians and performers, as artists.  And some of them are struggling to find that identity.  But what Katie Stevens really showed was that she has an idea of who she wants to be, but she hasn’t yet discovered:

  1. Whether her idea/ideal of herself as an artist is suited to her unique voice
  2. How to bring that concept of herself to fruition through her performance

In past Idol seasons, the contest has clearly favored artists who had a solid and internalized concept of who they are as an artist; that concept was well suited to their unique voice; and they had learned the skills necessary to communicate who they are to the audience.

Lesson One: Identify your unique essence as an artist And learn the skills necessary to communicate who you are to your audience.

Which leads me to the second lesson from last night’s episode.  Learning how to communicate to your audience through your art.  Whether your art is music (either composition or performance), theatre/film, visual, fine art or writing

Lesson Two: All art is communication

In the performing arts, the key to communicating effectively comes down to Intention and Choices.  When you don’t learn how to do this effectively your audience WILL NOT CONNECT WITH YOU.  They won’t know why.  You heard it multiple times last night from Randy Jackson and Ellen DeGeneres.  They didn’t really know why it didn’t work.  But they knew it didn’t work.  They didn’t connect or perhaps they didn’t feel like the singer was authentic or genuine or really feeling it.  But really, the problem was with the contestants’ intentions and choices.

What I saw were artists whose intention was about pleasing the judges and surviving the cut. The result of holding that intention, made them seem stiff, disconnected, or as Simon put it, “like you sucked the energy right out of the song.”  The intention behind the song needs to be about the impact you want to create in your audience – and it can’t be about them liking you. In order to create an impact, your intention needs to focus on your audience, not on you.  You need to make specific choices about who you’re singing to – and what you want them to do, feel or know.

What is the experience you want your audience to have? How do you want to affect them?

Lesson Three: Make choices that allow the power to build throughout the song and that communicate the clear message of the song.

The artists whose intention was focused on telling the story of the song – Lacey, Siobhan, Didi and Crystal – all did extremely well.  The difference was in their intention and the choices they made in the communication of the song.  The resulting performances were of tremendously high quality.

For example, when Didi sang Rhiannon – she was genuinely asking the question – “Would you stay if she promised you heaven?” and “Will you ever win?”  She really wanted to know.  They weren’t just words and notes – there was a choice and an intention behind her words and the result was that the music created a true response within us as an audience.  It was the intention and the choices behind her words that generated the response.  Katie, on the other hand, was focused more on the technical use of her voice and on getting the approval of the judges.  How do I know?  We didn’t connect with her and felt like she wasn’t connected to the song.

And its not enough to have intentions and choices, they need to be the right intentions and choices.  Paige made strong choices that didn’t work.  She chose to focus on the “though your heart is breaking” aspect of the lyrics, completely missing the uplifting and inspiring aspect of the song – which was to SMILE – as Ellen pointed out.  And the result was that Paige was overcome by emotions and we were left unable to connect with the song or with Paige.

So the 3 lessons here are –

  1. Make clear choices and intentions
  2. Make those choices and intentions about the effect you want to create in your audience or the message you want to communicate to your audience (and wanting them to pickup the phone to vote for you is about you, not them)
  3. Make choices that allow the power to build throughout the song and that communicate the clear message of the song.

One last note on Simon Cowell‘s use of the word indulgent.  I really think that what Simon is commenting on is the result of the singer’s intention and attention being focused on themselves and what they want, instead of creating an intention about the impact they want the song to generate in the audience.  A better word might be self-involved.  But whenever I’ve seen him make that note to a contestant, it’s usually because the singer has communicated a message of “me, me, look at me!”  Instead of communicating the message and the impact of the song.

How do you create intentions and choices from moment to moment in your performances?  Is this something you work on and develop?  If so, what are your methods?