Becky O’Donohue knew making the “American Idol” semifinals would make her a celebrity. It was what happened to her as a singer that came as a surprise.
“You just never actually think that you’re going to become a better performer and artist for it,” O’Donohue said. “I was pleasantly surprised with just how far I’ve come.”
With its glitzy stage, well-dressed host and spectacular ratings, it’s hard to think of “American Idol” as more than a TV show (or TV phenomenon), but for those who have experienced it, it’s just as much a learning lab as it is Simon Cowell’s soapbox.
“Behind the scenes they call it star boot camp,” explained fourth season runner-up Bo Bice. “That’s what they do, and you can see the refinement.”
In fact, once “Idol” wanna-bes make it to Hollywood, one of the first things they do is meet the vocal coaches who will be working with them through the finale. Viewers only see the drama, but while the Brittenum twins are running their mouths, others are learning the ins and outs of theirs from experts like Debra Byrd.
“I tell them, ‘Welcome to star school,’ ” Byrd said. “Carrie Underwood just wrote me a note and said something like ‘I hope these new contestants appreciate what you give them. I try to remember everything you’ve taught me and I hope they appreciate being in star school.’ ”
Subjects in star school (or boot camp, depending on who you ask) range from singing techniques to industry tips to everything in between. And it’s all through firsthand experience.
“I have learned things here that you can’t learn anywhere else,” said semifinalist David Radford, who was formally trained when he came in as season five’s token crooner. “It’s like Show Business 101 … and you learn how the business really works and what to do and what not to do. I think that’s very important and I’m one step ahead of other prospective musicians.”
Business education is part of it, but it all starts with the voice for Byrd, a former Barry Manilow backup singer who has coached everyone from Bob Dylan to Anita Baker.
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“I teach the things that should help you from now until you’re in the nursing home,” she said. “Things that should really help you vocally no matter what the gig is.”
Semifinalist Kinnik Sky, for instance, learned that smiling while you sing helps keep you on pitch. “Just a lot of little things, that if you can be conscious of while you’re performing, really help,” she said.
Of course, Byrd and her team also work with the singer on the oh-so-common mistake of oversinging (see “The Scourge Of ‘American Idol': Oversingers” ).
“I always tell the kids: In competition if you run faster, if you jump higher, you win, but with singing it’s not like that,” music director Michael Orland said. “The harder you shout, the worse you sing. You go out of tune, you go way sharp. So the thing is to keep your poise and sing with passion and sing like you mean it without screaming.”
“Idol” also teaches contestants how to maintain their voices. “Breathing properly, basic vocal coaching,” Byrd said. “Kelly Clarkson got it from her high school choir teacher, who was so fabulous, so they get little bits along the way and I just embellish on it.”
And then as the season goes on, star school starts to become more about performing — blocking, using your body, singing while dancing, those sorts of things.
“I have people who’ll stare at the ceiling or they’ll stare at the floor and I always teach them: know where you are, sing into that little box right there [the camera] and sing to someone and connect and get the votes,” Byrd said. “That’s the most daunting thing, because most of them have never done that. Justin Guarini was a master at it. EJay Day was a master at it. Constantine was Constantine. So now they get it.”
Even the seasoned Constantine Maroulis admits he learned a whole lot while on “Idol.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “There is a reason why they are the number one show — they have the best people working there.”