2 Lessons from American Idol – Top 7

Got behind in my blogging again – here are the two lessons from American Idol – Top 7.  In Idol 7 – Alicia Keys was the Mentor and she talked about how she intended to help the contestants find out what they’re made of.  And that “Idol Gives Back” will help them discover what their character is and how to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

She gave them guidance to really connect with the song and communicate their uniqueness through the song.  The problem I see a lot of the contestants having is that instead of discovering who they are and communicating honestly through the music, they are trying to apply uniqueness externally – from the outside in.

Lesson 1 – Your Uniqueness as an Artist Emerges as an Expression of Your Internal Truth.

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3 Lessons from American Idol – Top 10

This was a very juicy week for Lessons from American Idol!

The first 2 lessons were pretty clearly expressed by Usher in his role as mentor. I have to say, I think Usher is my favorite American Idol Mentor so far! He wasn’t just interested in the arrangement, he really gave the Contestants constructive and immediately applicable lessons for their performance as well.

Lesson 1: Projecting Your Energy is Everything

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2 Lessons from American Idol – Top 11

In last week’s American Idol episodes, I felt there were 2 lessons worth exploring.  The first has to do with the choices the Contestants were making – and you’re making as an artist whenever you create.  I felt that the American Idol Contestants fell into two categories.  The first are Artists who were making decisions and choices that were about the music.  These Contestants consistently get feedback from the judges that they know who they are as artists.

So, what does that mean?  I don’t think it means that they know what genre or type of music they should be classified as.  It’s more that they are focusing on songs that suit their instrument (their voice) and then invest time and energy to serve the music in a way that is uniquely theirs.

Lesson 1: Focus on expressing yourself in a truly unique way that serves the art and the audience.

Miley Cyrus put it really well when Katie asked her what she does when she gets negative feedback – and Miley said – “You have to remember why you’re doing this – it’s about the music.”Which makes a huge assumption.  I think with some of these contestants and perhaps many of the musicians in the world trying to “make it” in the music industry.  For some of them, it’s NOT about the music.  It’s about ego.  It’s about the fame, fortune, or filling some emptiness inside of themselves – not by making art, but by getting attention and recognition.  It’s not about the music.

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2 Lessons from American Idol – Top 12

The format of American Idol requires artists to create cover versions of other people’s music. This is only slightly artificial as many independent artists perform songs written by someone else. And so, the ability to take a song written by someone else and make it your own is a critical skill for your success in the music industry.

And this is certainly true across the Arts & Entertainment industry. If you’re an actor, you’re going to be speaking words, not your own. If you’re writing, even if it’s fiction – your story is probably similar to a million other stories out there – so finding a way to make yours unique is a requirement. As a visual artist, your subject matter has likely been covered by a Master, so how do you make your treatment unique?

Lesson One: Focus on a Positive Intended Outcome in all of your efforts.

Getting back to American Idol, in last week’s episode, the contestants were covering the Rolling Stones. We saw some artists do renditions of songs that were pretty close to the Rolling Stone’s version and they were showing how well they could sing that song as written. And then there were a few artists who really changed the style and arrangement of the song – which seems to be what the judges ask for, week after week.

Some of those arrangements really worked – like Siobhan‘s version of Painted Black. And some of those arrangements really didn’t work – like Tim’s version of Under My Thumb. And I have a theory about why Tim’s version didn’t work. Tim said that he decided that he couldn’t do a Stone’s song justice. This is a negative assumption. He started out from a place of failure and he could only try to do something better. This assumption, I believe, colored his whole approach to the song. So, he tried to find a way to match his limitations.

Siobhan, on the other hand, looked at the song and explored a way to both serve where she wanted to grow as an artist and what would really serve the song. She wanted to get a bit darker and more dramatic and show off her vocal range and power. And so she picked a song that was dark to begin with and created an arrangement that really allowed her to explore the dramatic depths of the song and her own instrument.

So, the difference was that Siobhan focused on a positive intended outcome. And Tim focused on doing the best he could within an assumed failure and limitation. I wonder what would have happened if Tim had looked for a song he truly connected with and explored ways to arrange the song to suit his vocal instrument. I believe that’s what Aaron did incredibly well with Angie.

Lesson Two: Learn your instrument/craft, so you can make the most of your talent

In Simon’s critique of Aaron – he said that the song, “allowed you to stay within the limits of your voice.” Now that’s not the same as Tim’s self-imposed limitations. You need to know your instrument. If you’re playing a cello, you just aren’t going to be able to hit a high C – it’s not within the range of the instrument. Your voice is also an instrument, and understanding and being able to exploit the range and quality of your instrument will allow you to use your instrument to truly serve your art.

And that’s really the point –

  1. It’s important to start with a positively focused context.
  2. Look for a way to use your instrument to both serve you as an artist and serve the art and what you want to communicate with that art.

How are you assuming failure in your approach to your music career?  What would change if you assumed success?  How would that change your approach to your music/art?  How would that change your approach to your business?

7 Lessons from American Idol – Top 16 Results

In the writing of this blog series – I will not be commenting on who stays and who is voted off, no matter how tempted I may be.  My purpose in writing this blog is to help you in your serious pursuit of success doing what you love.  While American Idol may feed into the confusion of success and fame (which don’t necessarily coincide), I believe that there is a lot here to be learned about what works and doesn’t work in the music industry.  And many of these principles can be extrapolated to apply to any industry both in the arts and outside of it.

Here are 7 lessons I pulled from Thursday night’s results show.  Many of these came in the form of advice about what contestants need to do or comments from the judges.  And one came from a contestant who’d been eliminated:

  1. Consistency
  2. Have fun
  3. Be unique
  4. Sing from your true experience
  5. Confidence
  6. Believe in yourself (not exactly the same as confidence, although they generally coincide)
  7. Use “losing” as an inspiration or a push to do more

What were your biggest lessons from this week in American Idol?

2 Lessons From American Idol – Top 8 Male Semifinalists

In Wednesday night’s American Idol there were two lessons that can help you be successful as a performing musician or artist.  When giving Alex Lambert feedback, Kara DioGuardi said, “The only thing standing in the way of you winning is you.”  She was specifically targeting Alex’s clear lack of confidence.  And while, his performance was getting better each time, it was not going to be enough for him to make it to the finals.

So, let’s talk about this confidence thing.  This is a common theme on American Idol, because most of the contestants have little or no performing experience and certainly no performing experience in front of an audience of this magnitude.  Most professional artists get to this level after long years of experience and their proficiency in performance is a skill that they build and develop over time.  How are you building your performance chops?

Simon Cowell told Alex to just believe in himself.  As if it’s that easy to choose to believe in yourself.  You know what – it is.  Because what you believe is your choice.  This is something I teach in my Transform Your Beliefs – The Key to Success class, that’s available for download from the Artist’s EDGE Membership.  You can change what you believe.  However, when working alone (and not with a coach), it can be very challenging to change what you believe.  But the easiest way to change what you believe is to change what you’re focusing on.  If all you’re focusing on is the thought, “Don’t let me fail.”  Or, “I’m not good enough for this.”  Then that’s what you’ll believe.

Want to believe in yourself?  Change what you’re focusing on: “I have a good voice.”  “My fans are voting for me and rooting for me.”  And then find evidence of that belief and focus on that.

And really, that’s all Simon was suggesting when he offered the stunning image of Randy in a bikini – having that image in your mind will make it harder to worry about anything, much less your performance.  It’s an old speaker’s trick, imagining your audience in their underwear.  And it works!  Though I’ve always preferred to imagine my audience having transformational experiences, personally.

Lesson One: Choose to believe in yourself and focus on the right stuff!

The second lesson I saw was in the nature of skill development of a different sort – vocal skill.  Now it is true, both on American Idol and in the vast world of the Music Business, that a great performer can, to some degree, overcome a lack of vocal ability – I mean look at Bruce Springsteen.  And in today’s Music Industry, the use of Auto-Tune in live and recorded performances has become almost an industry standard, particularly in the commercial or pop music world.  However, as Taylor Swift discovered, it doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems of a professional lacking in trained vocal skills.

On the other side of that fence, as we saw with Katie Stevens in the previous night’s performance, an incredible vocal skill absolutely does not make up for the lack of performance skills.  But one thing that vocal training can make up for – nerves.  One of the first things to go when dealing with nerves is breath.  And without breath, being able to maintain pitch, particularly over a sustained note, becomes nearly impossible.

But if you’ve trained your body, your diaphragm, your vocal chords, to breath and maintain your pitch, then when you are challenged by nerves or emotions, your muscle memory will enable you to maintain your pitch through your emotions.

So many artists today don’t want to get vocal training.  Because they have some idea about wanting to maintain a raw sound or they’re afraid that they’ll have to change their vocal style.  But that can’t be further from the truth.  What vocal training allows you to do is to be masterful in your sound.  To have tremendous control over the tone and emotional content of your vocals.  And even more importantly, training will help you to maintain your vocal health and keep you from losing your voice as well as keep you from developing vocal nodes and other chronic conditions that will stop you from singing at all.

Lesson Two: Develop Your Craft!

How are you training yourself as an artist?  Whatever your craft is, you are never done developing it.  Always be working on your craft.  Many young musicians think that if they train too much, they’ll somehow lose their raw freshness.  Guess what – the best way to lose is to not train!  The better you are, the more power and choice you have.  You can always choose to be raw – but it will be very hard to maintain if poor skills destroy your vocal chords.  Masters are developed, not born.  And you’ll be able to go much further on training and skill than on talent.

How are you developing your skills?

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?

3 Lessons from American Idol – Top 24

OK – yes, I’m a few weeks behind in my American Idol viewing.  Let’s face it – the artificially inflated suspense (3 hours for the Top 24 results? Gimme a break!) just didn’t compete with the actual suspense available in the Olympics.

For Season 9, I will be commenting on AI every week, so I’ll catch up shortly.  I’m sure many blogs will be talking about this – but my perspective isn’t about who should win or lose.  It’s not about are the judges drunk or whether this contestant is gay or that contestant is cute – seriously…

I will be listing the lessons a music business professional can learn about how to create success promoting your career and your music.

In the episodes where they announced the top 24, there was one contestant in particular that I found very interesting.  Jessica Furney, when handed the very sad news that for the second season having made it to Hollywood Week, she would not be chosen to participate, did something very interesting.

First she begged – not only unattractive, but really not effective.  What, did she think they’d change their minds?  After 8 seasons, we’ve seen the judges overrule the audience’s vote and we’ve seen the judges change the rules to allow an extra person in.  But we’ve NEVER seen them change their minds.

Begging just made Jessica feel bad about herself and did not move her closer to her goal.  And when she realized that it wasn’t working, she changed tactics.  Well, that’s just BRILLIANT!

Lesson One: When you notice your strategy isn’t working, try something different.

I love that flexibility.  And then, she made a very interesting choice in tactic.  She asked for feedback.

Lesson Two: There is no failure – Only feedback!

Now asking for feedback can be a tricky thing.  (I’ll be writing a Words to the Wise Newsletter article about how to avoid the pitfalls when asking for feedback, so be sure to subscribe to the Newsletter, if you haven’t already.)   And sure enough, Jessica fell into one of the key pitfalls.

She asked a bad question.

Lesson Three: Ask Good Questions!

Jessica asked a question that was sure to illicit information that would NOT be useful.  She asked (I’m paraphrasing here) – “What did the top 24 do that I didn’t do?”  And Simon Cowell answered very clearly, “They sang better.”  Well, duh, no kidding.  But that’s not really useful feedback is it?

So what could she have asked, that might have yielded more useful feedback?  Here are some suggestions off the top of my head:

  1. How can I improve my singing?
  2. What should I work on to improve for next year? (this is a bit broader – not just about the voice, but the whole package)
  3. What song choices would you recommend for me?
  4. What did I do right, so I can do more of that?
  5. If there were one thing that you would have changed if you were my coach, what would it be?

Notice that these questions are very specific, and yet open ended (not “yes” or “no” questions) and they were questions focused more on the future than on the past.  They also didn’t ask “why”.  See, Jessica asked a “Why” question in disguise – why didn’t you pick me?  Why questions are generally not useful from a feedback perspective.  Because they elicit reasons why or why not.  The reasons aren’t that helpful, as we saw here.  What will be helpful are the answers to “how” and “what” questions.

What question would you have asked if you were in Jessica Furney’s shoes?

So to review, the 3 lessons for me were:

  1. When you notice your strategy isn’t working, try something different.
  2. There is no failure – Only feedback!
  3. Ask useful questions.

What did you learn from this episode of American Idol?  And how can you apply that to your music career?

And a word for Jessica, if you happen to be reading.  You made it further this year than last year.  Keep building on your success.