Monday, May 11, 2015

Yes, I'm a Singer Who Hates American Idol.

When people find out I'm a singer/choir teacher/nearly-life-long musician, I often get asked what I think of shows like American Idol and The Voice. I'm not shy about telling people that I don't enjoy either. When asked why, my simple response is, "Neither show promotes a healthy singing style."

Case in point: eight years ago, Kelly Clarkson performed before the Daytona 500. I was excited for a new season of NASCAR to start, but not so excited about her performance. This is live television. Kelly Clarkson sounds like she's screaming. I remember watching, my mouth slightly agape, thinking, "Wow. She's going to be mute by the time she's 40, if she keeps this up."

To this day, I can only listen to a few minutes before I'm cringing so hard, I can't see my computer screen to type this.

I am not jealous of women like Kelly Clarkson, or other singers I criticize (and I'm known, among my friends, for being notoriously critical of singers in general, though I give them a pass if their music is good). Sure, they're laughing all the way to the bank and could care less what some singing blogger in Northern California thinks of their singing...but being in their shoes was never my objective.

What I resent is that all over the country, people are emulating that style of singing, taking notes that ought to be sung in the head voice and singing them in the chest voice instead. This is what creates that loud, "powerful" sound that people like (think Adele), but it fries the vocal cords. Singing the higher notes in head voice, on the other hand, sounds too choral for pop music. A classically-trained voice is way to Disney Princess for "Since You've Been Gone."

The stars of American Idol and The Voice often end up singing in this style. It sells records, and that, of course, is what these shows are about. Make the money.

So, what do I like? Here's one: Sara Bareilles. She has a slight tendency in this recording to belt through her passaggio (I've sung along with this many a time in the car and I can tell you that it's in a difficult part of the mezzo-soprano range). When she gets to the "I" part, however, she's gliding along in a healthy manner. And oh, thank goodness, she sings in tune.

Another vocalist I don't have issues with (she opened for Keane once and is a marvelous musician) is Ingrid Michaelson. But I do admit it's difficult for me to come up with a lot of contemporary singers in the pop realm that I truly think sing well. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy pop music; I'm simply not easily impressed by the singers out there.

When I saw the news item this morning that American Idol's next season will be its last, I felt relieved. I've known too many young singers who try to push their developing voices to sing that way, and it's not healthy. What's important is that young singers learn how to access all of their voices using breath support and proper placement (that's the head voice/chest voice thing). Volume comes when the rest of these things are seen to properly. If a singer has to push, or clench the vocal cords, to produce that tone, it's only going to cause pain and injury--Adele had vocal hemorrhaging and had to go on vocal rest. In fact, this whole paragraph from a New York Times article about her says it all:

Singers on tour often do back-to-back concerts, sometimes performing four times a week. A lack of sleep and poor diet on the road can affect the voice, as can drinking and smoking, Dr. Mirza said. Some pop singers are also more susceptible to damaging their vocal cords because they have not had classical training, and their emotive, raw-sounding vocal techniques can place extra stress on tissues, she said.

Yes, yes, yes. (Emphasis mine.)

When you factor in youth, and the fact that our voices are the last thing to mature completely (one choral professor once told me your voice matures well into and even past your 30s), you risk really injuring the voice by emulating that raw style that sells concert tickets. And American Idol contestants are all young--the age cut-off is something like 29 or 30, but most contestants seem to be late teens and early 20-somethings.

As a teacher, I make my thoughts very clear to my students. Of course, I'm nice about it. If they mention liking an artist whose style is unhealthy, I find a diplomatic way of telling them that the style of the artist in question isn't something they ought to emulate. I'm a big proponent of all students finding their best voice, in all its unique glory, and in emphasizing ear training so they can stay on pitch and sing harmonies, and truly understand how the music their singing comes together.

You just don't get that on American Idol.

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