The lights, the cameras, the 30 million or so viewers ... "It's a lot of pressure," as Elliott Yamin said on Tuesday's "American Idol."
Even the biggest names rarely perform for audiences that large — to give some perspective, "Idol" got double the Grammys' ratings when the shows fell on the same night — let alone amateurs accustomed to high school musicals and local club shows.
"As soon as you go out onstage, your heart kind of sinks," this season's 10th-place finisher, Lisa Tucker, said last week. "You just know that all those people are watching."
With that in mind, it's actually rather remarkable that after four and a half seasons of "Idol," there's never been a major onstage breakdown. Nigel Lythgoe, the show's co-executive producer, credits the singing coaches as well as his own advice.
"There are two things that I point out," Lythgoe explained. "Breathe — which is a crazy thing because we all do it naturally. But somehow they stop breathing before they go out there, and by the time they come out onstage, they're, like, [frozen]. Their hearts are pounding, and they're not keeping up with the oxygen level.
"And the other is, focus," he continued. "Because the minute they go onstage, their eyes start going [into the audience]: 'There's Mom and my sister ... and look, there's a sign with my name on it.' So they don't focus, and all of a sudden the intro's there and they freeze or hit the wrong note when they come in. So it's breathe, focus and remember that the votes are through that lens, and not their families sitting in the audience."
Contestants also have their own calming methods. "You can't think about it," said season-five semifinalist David Radford. "I don't know anybody who can really comprehend that number of eyes watching you. So you just have to look at it as you're performing for the cameras and America, but not as a number."
"You can't look at it like [a high-pressure situation]; you just have to have fun," added current contender Kellie Pickler. "I've grown so much since the first performance week, and it's because I was so nervous. You have to get the nerves out and just have fun, because that's what it is all about."
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"I tried not to dissect and analyze it to death," she said. "Honestly, though, I don't think we had any clue it was as big as it was."
Of course, the show is bigger than ever these days — and the contestants know it.
"I try to relax — yeah, right," finalist Taylor Hicks said with a chuckle. "No, you just have to take all of that energy and try to have the best performance you can."
Surprisingly, the youngest singer left in the competition, 17-year-old Paris Bennett, seems to be one of the calmest.
"I am never nervous. If you ever see me, I am always like I am right now," she said with a huge smile. "It's prayer. Prayer keeps you humble, and God hasn't given me the spirit of fear, so I just keep going and let Him do what He does."
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