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?

Taylor Swift – Is Her Career Over?

I wrote this to Bob Lefsetz in response to his rallying cry for Taylor Swift and against the almost universal online and mainstream media bashing.

Bob specifically gave Taylor the following advice:

Everything’s got to come out.  Honesty is the best policy in a crisis.  We’re a forgiving country.  Tell the backstory, the true story, of how Scott spent so much to make Taylor happen.  Not as a tale of millions spent, but as a father doing everything to make his daughter’s dream come true.  Release video of Taylor singing at twelve.  Show the arc of her development.  Make the Grammy appearance part of her development.  Instead of the end of the story…

This is serious business.  Just look at John Edwards.  The aforementioned Tiger Woods.  There are people who specialize in handling these crises.  Hire one.  Because the team in control of Taylor Swift’s image is woefully overmatched.  I wouldn’t call it a public relations offensive but an explanation, a bringing of the public into Taylor Swift’s heart.  Don’t throw stones at your enemies, hug them tight, by admitting your faults and showing that you’re reasonable, and dedicated to solving the problem.

Thought you might be interested in my response to Bob’s email:

Dear Bob,

I so agree with you.  And all she’s got to do is say – “Whoa, I’m 19 (or whatever age she is, I don’t track these things).  I’m working with a vocal coach.  I’m working with a guitar teacher.  I’m always working on and improving my songwriting skills.  When you’re an artist you must always be working on and improving your skills.  I know I’ve got room for improvement.  Who doesn’t?”

Being able to sing on key, support your breath, harmonize – these are skills.  Some people are born with a large amount of talent.  The rest of us need to build our skills.  And the truth is, it is more likely the people who have to work very hard to achieve high proficiency are more likely to be successful in the long run, than the folks for whom it comes easy.  Because those of us who have to work hard all along – become used to hard work.  So, when the going gets hard, we just buckle down and get to work.

It’s also extremely rare for someone to be hugely talented across the board.  You’ve said yourself, she’s a talented songwriter.  I agree.  I also think she’s a talented performer and producer.  But she needs to build her skills in other areas.  Hey, she’s young – give the girl a chance, will ya?

Your Music Business Coach,

Debra Recommends Session Singing In Hollywood

Debra Russell recommends, Music Industry, Session Singing, music business I met John West at the TAXI Road Rally a few years back.  He became my client and one of the projects he worked on was creating this e-Book, Session Singing in Hollywood.  I think that he and Elin Carlson have done a fabulous job of creating a clear manual for pursuing Session work as a musician.  Many of my clients make a seriously good living working as a Session player.  While it may not feed your ego in the same way as being the featured artist on stage.  Being a session player will feed YOU, both financially and also by helping you to develop and hone your skills as a professional musician.

Inside this jam-packed e-book, you’ll learn:

  • How to effectively meet the right people
  • How to conduct yourself in the studio so they will want to hire you again
  • How to completely prepare yourself for making it in Hollywood.
  • How to avoid the pitfalls that many singers make in pursuing their careers, and how to save time and money in that process
  • How to make lifetime residual income
  • How to market yourself for the best possible results
  • How to be, and stay, prepared for the highly competitive world of session singing

And while John and Elin speak specifically in terms of singing in Hollywood, I’m confident you will be able to apply this information to being a session musician in any professional setting.

I heartily recommend John and Elin’s How-To eBook Session Singing In Hollywood.




Debra Recommends Songwriting with Jason Blume

Debra Russell recommends, songwriting, Music BusinessFellow TAXI Drivers Ed Faculty -I often talk about getting feedback from qualified experts – and Jason certainly is that!

Songwriting tutor and cross-genre hit maker Jason Blume recently celebrated ten years of BMI-sponsored workshops and seminars. Since the BMI Songwriters’ Workshop inception in 1997, Blume has mentored more than 6,000 aspiring songwriters from at least 38 states. More than 120 workshops have been held in music hotbeds and invigorating locales including Nashville, Austin, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Kauai, and Atlanta.

If you want to learn specifically how to write hit songs, songs that will sell, Jason is the guy.

Check out Jason Blume’s Website



Debra Recommends Songwriting with Steve Seskin

Debra Russell recommends, songwriting, feedback, Music BusinessI’ve known Steve Seskin for several years as we are both speakers on the Music Conference circuit.  Steve is renowned as one of the best songwriting craftsman around and you can learn tons about the art and craft of songwriting from him.  He can teach you how to make your songs good and then how to take your good songs and hone and polish them until they are truly great.

One of the best in the business – and an exemplary teacher.

Find out about studying the Art of Songwriting with Steve Seskin


Debra Recommends John Braheny

Debra Russell recommends, John Braheny, Craft and Business of Songwriting, Music Business

From left: Joann Braheny, Debra Russell, John Braheny

I met John Braheny and his wife Joann several years ago at the West Coast Songwriter’s Conference and they introduced me to Michael Laskow, CEO of TAXI. When I recommend a place to get expert feedback on your songwriting – John is always one or two or three names on the list.

John is in demand as a top consultant for songwriters, performers and industry entrepreneurs. He is a consultant and screener for, the worlds leading independent A&R company and offers valuable feedback on songwriting craft and business and career strategies for performers.  He is one of the most respected people in the music industry, and, more specifically, in the songwriting community. He is referred to as “the songwriter’s best friend” for his tireless efforts to create education and discovery opportunities for songwriters, to help bring public attention to songwriting as an art form and to champion songwriters’ rights. His activities in these areas include:

It is with devastating sorrow that I give you the news that John Braheny has left us.  On January 19th, 2013, John died of cancer.  He will no longer be able to teach you songwriting in person.  He will no longer be offering in person songwriting and music business advice to songwriters.  But his brilliance lives on in his book and the videos he did for TAXI TV.  And in our hearts.  We miss you, John.

John’s book – Craft and Business of Songwriting

John’s Website –



Debra Recommends Music XRay

music business, A&RI have recently been listed as an expert – under career coaching for Music Xray.

Music Xray is a resource for both musicians, composers and the buyers of music to connect in a professional and transparent environment.  Music industry professionals use Music Xray as the preferred, direct and transparent method for interacting with artists.

Music Xray is developing unique applications, patent-pending methods and user interfaces that leverage the cutting edge of Music Information Retrieval Science.

Music Xray also funds, licenses and commercializes research, development and patented technology created by several of the most prestigious universities that are engaged in expanding the science of music information retrieval.

Music Xray is currently providing related products and services to notable legacy and startup companies within the music industry. Technology and services provided by Music Xray enable:

  • Music consumers to obtain accurate music recommendations.
  • Music industry professionals to make accurate and informed music investment decisions.
  • Artists and music industry professionals to measure, monitor and more easily grow market demand for music.

Music Xray’s technology and services are designed and developed to radically minimize the effort currently required to quickly connect any artist/song to both intra-industry and consumer audiences.

Music Xray plans to end the need for artists to engage in inefficient, pre-popularity promotion.

Check out Music Xray


Debra Recommends Concerts in Your Home

music, concerts, live musicFran Snyder has created a great resource for musicians who are looking to perform in house concert venues as well as home-owners who are interested in creating wonderful events in their homes.

Their Mission:
CIYH creates and nurtures opportunities that pay artists to perform in a listening environment, while bringing communities together with a renewed passion for live music.

It’s increasingly challenging for touring performers to draw audiences to clubs, and more difficult still to connect with these audiences in a meaningful way. Most venues offer too many distractions (televisions, loud conversations, etc.), and are far too reliant on alcohol sales and a “Top 40” atmosphere.

CIYH promotes the concept of house concerts to artists and music lovers across the U.S. and beyond. Through the web and word-of-mouth, this site promotes the appeal of house concerts and helps turn music fans into concert promoters.

Concerts In Your Home