A BYRD’S EYE VIEW: A PHONE INTERVIEW WITH IDOL VOCAL COACH DEBRA BYRD
BY ROSANNE SIMUNOVIC
This article was written during the Season 2 Production of Canadian Idol. However, with American Idol Season 6 quickly approaching, I felt that the comments would be especially relevant and interesting for current AI enthusiasts.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with the supremely talented Debra Byrd, affectionately know as “Byrd” by her peers and friends. She was juggling phone interviews with coaching responsibilities for Canadian Idol, plus over seeing the launch of her new book: “Vocal Help Now!” The interview that follows is candid, heartwarming and educational in content. Throughout the interview, Debra and I realized that we had very similar musical backgrounds and this made for a very relaxed and open conversation and a mutual sharing of ideas. I would personally like to thank Debra for allowing this original 15-minute interview to stretch into 60 minutes. The lady is fast becoming a musical legend and achieving a superstar status that will most certainly surpass some of her Idol protégés.
Rosanne: Hello there, Debra, and thank you for donating some of your precious time to talk with me. I have been teaching voice for 27 years so I really appreciate and admire the fine work you are doing with these young singers!
Debra: Thank you so much!
Rosanne: The Canadian Idol pace is starting to pick up now. We have moved through our first two finalists, and, at this point in time, you are presently working with the third group of Canadian Idol semi-finalists. Have you been impressed with the diversity of talent thus far in the Canadian Idol process?
Debra: Yes I have, although they are bringing different levels of performing experience to the competition. At times it is frustrating for me as a voice coach as I have to correct many bad habits in a short period of time. In any Idol competition, I always ask the semi-finalists: “Let’s check and see who has received voice training prior to Idol”. This enables me to see who has received good, bad or no training whatsoever and it gives me a better idea of my goals for each individual singer.
Additionally, I encourage the singers that if they are having technical problems, they should consult a voice instructor who specializes in correcting technical deficiencies in the singing voice. They are allowed to do this, as my job is to ensure that the performing elements are in place when the show goes live. There is not enough time, during the course of the week, to work on technique in addition to my work in developing their performance skills, charting song arrangements etc.
Rosanne: Have you noticed any differences between the Canadian and American singers in the short time you have been here? Do you feel that there is a definitive Canadian flavor happening in our show?
Debra: Not really – except for one thing. There are more Francophone singers in this country and, therefore, the pronunciation of the English diction can become problematic. I personally like the different accents, as I am accustomed to hearing this in the U.S. My Americanism philosophy encourages the diversity in the English language and, truly, as you become older, your natural roots will become apparent when you speak or sing. For instance, if you listen to Sean Connery speak in present day, you will notice that his Scottish accent is actually thicker and more pronounced compared to when he was younger. (Rosanne’s Note: Byrd is right! If you listen to Celine Dion sing in present time, you will notice that her accent is more pronounced now compared to when she began her career)
Rosanne: How long are the individual singer’s sessions with you. Does it vary or do you have to maintain a pretty rigid schedule?
Debra: Well, you have to maintain a sense of fairness throughout the competition; so all the singers receive the same amount of time. At this stage of the competition (Top 32 elimination rounds), each singer receives 1 hour on the first workshop day and another hour on the 2nd workshop day. On performance days, I oversee the singers as a group, as the time is just not there to work with them individually.
Rosanne: All the singers are talented; however, I am sure they bring varying degrees of vocal ability and performing experience. What performing elements do you try to impart to each singer?
Debra: It all depends what the singer brings to the table. Some bring more experience than others and I work to correct performance elements in each singer that need the most development. Lou Pomante(the pianist for Canadian Idol) and I work out the vocal arrangements with each competitor and determine a key suitable to the singer’s range. The competitor is responsible for selecting which parts of the song he or she wants to sing and, of course, we will give advice if we feel that is necessary. However, their personal song choice is entirely up to them and they are free to call or discuss their song choices with their family members or personal voice coaches.
Rosanne: You work really hard with the singers and your guidance must give them additional confidence in their performing abilities. During the rehearsal process, you must see them progress and develop their skills in order to achieve their best performance for the live shows. However, during the live performance shows, do all the singers perform pretty much as you would expect or have some singers actually surprised or disappointed (maybe that’s too strong a word) you?
Debra: Both –this is human nature in any situation. The singers will either “score” or “choke”. They’ll do great or they’ll make mistakes. They’ll either abide or internalize the motivational tools that I give them to alleviate the stage anxiety and stress or not! I really try to emphasize that they must go out on stage and have fun. However, I have a limited amount of control over their anxiety; the rest has to come from them.
Rosanne: I read a news article that stated that Season 4 of American Idol would include the assistance of a voice coach during the audition process. Is this true and will you be a part of this process? Seems like a really excellent idea.
Debra: This is totally a rumor. (Rosanne’s Note: So there, everybody! Let this rumor die once and for all!)
Rosanne: Do you find the judging process –during the live shows – sufficient in content? The judges only have so much time to comment on the singers. Is it right to expect more from the judges at this point or do you feel that their comments should basically address their personal preference for the individual performance?
Debra: You know- it’s all purely subjective. One will love you, the other won’t. Sometimes you will love the singer and not the song. The singers often ask me: “Do you think so and so will love this song?” I tell them to try and not second guess the judges. It’s a waste of energy. Be the best that you can be.
Rosanne: Canadian Idol is fortunate to secure your expertise throughout Season 2. Although your pace is, undoubtedly, busy, will you have time to explore other musical projects while residing in Toronto? In fact, if professional singers from Canada wish to attain some coaching time with you, would you have time to coach them?
Debra: Well, Canadian Idol really exhausts most of my time and eventually it is a seven days a week process. Additionally, the hours are extremely different each day of the week and so my schedule is not flexible enough to accommodate teaching and performing opportunities outside of Canadian Idol. However, one can always contact me through Media Relations on the CTV Canadian Idol site.
Rosanne: Your resume on the CTV Canadian Idol website is extremely impressive. You sang and arranged for legendary singer songwriter Barry Manilow – one of my absolute favorite performers of all time. Do you still perform with Barry from time to time?
Debra: Yes – two weeks ago, I performed with Barry in Las Vegas. It was wonderful. We perform together often – it is an ongoing, musically collaborative relationship. I have recorded duets with him, arranged his music and so much more. I am a fixture in Barry’s musical family.
Rosanne: Everyone has mentors! Who encouraged The Byrd to sing and were your training skills developed through the educational process or through the experience process?
Debra: My grandfather was my earliest influence and, through him, I was instilled with the passion and love for music. I was fortunate to come from an extremely musical family –everyone sang and everyone had to learn to play the piano. My grandfather insisted that his children must learn the piano and then his children past it on to their children. It is a wonderful legacy for which I am forever grateful.
I studied opera at the age of 12 years and, from this, I learned to sing in and appreciate many different languages. I sang in my church and school choirs and, in fact, organized my own choir at the age of 16 years. It was an auditioned choir (Byrd laughs at this point!). Can you imagine me having the nerve to audition singers-but it worked? Singers from all over Cleveland Ohio came to audition and it was a really great choir. I also had my own band, played the piano all the time, especially with my school orchestra. The experience list is endless. (Rosanne’s Note: Musicians and singers alike should strive to emulate the Byrd’s example. Every musical experience is necessary to succeed and develop your skills – don’t be picky if you want to succeed in this business.)
Rosanne: You are still very busy performing all over the map! Where can we see The Byrd perform in the days and months that lie ahead? You have an ever-evolving fan base and should really stage a concert of your own.
Debra: Plans are tentative and being formulated at this point. Somewhere down the line something will happen. Just look in the near future for further announcements!
Rosanne: I write the FoxesOnIdol.Com Vocal Master Class articles for American and Canadian Idol and they are a lot of fun to formulate! Have you ever considered conducting vocal master classes throughout North America?
Debra: I actually conducted Master Classes before American Idol was on the air. I still do them when I can and, in fact, conducted two or three last year in the USA.
Rosanne: On a similar topic, I understand that you have written a book –“Vocal Help Now”- that will be on sale in the next couple of months. This is wonderful news. Will it include only Idol related tips or will the information included in the book be an instructional manual to assist all singers in any genre of music?
Debra Yes – it will address Idol related vocal issues and, as well, assist anyone who uses their voice – singing or speaking. (Disc jockeys, newscasters, singers from all genres)
Rosanne: When is the official release date for the book?
Debra: Again – another tentative date. I will have a definite answer to this question in a couple of weeks.(Rosanne’s Note: Keep checking FoxesOnIdol.Com or Amazon.Com for further developments.)
Rosanne: I saw your interview on CTV’s Canada A.M. and you mentioned how you really become close with all of the singers. Is it hard to “let go” when the series comes to an end? You develop such a bond with these young people and I am sure that it must be difficult to say the “goodbyes”!
Debra: It always is, but to the majority of singers I always tell them: “I would love to see you in five years – how you’ve grown as an artist and as a human being and, additionally, what career choices you have made.” I have worked with American Idol for all three seasons and I still get at least two calls a week from former Idol competitors who need advice or encouragement or wish to share performing news. I always want them to know that I am there for them if they do need me somewhere down the road.
Rosanne: What special elements do you look for in a singer that speaks to their potential star quality or is it an intangible element that cannot be explained?
Debra: Heart and passion – how they convey a song. You know, in American Idol Season 2, I was watching the 119 semi-finalists and was instantly drawn to three singers: the boy with the big ears (Clay Aiken), the big guy (Ruben Studdard) and Frenchie Davis. This was before the American public noticed them. They had unbridled passion and enthusiasm when they sang. I remember that, at some point in the 119 competition, I was pulling other singers aside – offering them advice in how to enhance their performance skills etc. Then the “boy with the ears” came up to me and said: “You didn’t give me any advice. Am I not doing well?” (Laughter – Debra and Rosanne). It was the exact opposite, but Debra basically told him that he was doing just fine and the rest is history.
Rosanne: Which singers or musicians in the professional singing world –apart from Idol – do you really love and respect?
Debra: Ray Charles – hands down! My all time favorite and my entire family’s all time favorite. He was a legend and I learned so much from him. He was so diverse and broke so many musical barriers in the music world. Ours was a Ray Charles house! The other singer who I very much admired was Ella Fitzgerald! Every singer inspires me, however, and that goes back as far as my high school teacher and my minister.
Rosanne: What style of music do you most enjoy?
Debra Everything! I love all music! This is why I am so happy doing this Idol gig as it allows me to explore and develop all kinds of music. I grew up singing and playing everything and have truly done it all – from Musical theatre, to performing with the Eurhythmics and Bob Dylan and Barry Manilow to recording all genres of music. In fact, my recording company was extremely upset with me at one point, as no one knew where to place me -I couldn’t be slotted into one genre. In order to receive radio play, you have to fit into a specific genre and I didn’t, but that’s what made me the musician I am today. For this reason, I have to congratulate American Idol Season One winner Kelly Clarkson – she fought to maintain artistic control over her CD and it paid off. She didn’t want to compromise her versatility, so good for her.
Rosanne: What is the most important piece of advice that you can give an aspiring young artist who wishes to succeed in the music business?
Debra: So much to say here! I guess I would say: “Find you passion. If you don’t love it, you won’t get it! Be the seeker”. You know, when I was growing up, I was doing so much all the time that my mother would say: “Debra, you are going to burn out!’ However, I never did. I loved my music and everyone must love his or her chosen profession or there will be no success at any level.
Rosanne: Well, Debra, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you and I look forward to purchasing your book and watching your fine work evolve on the Canadian Idol stage. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your Byrd’s Eye View!
Debra: Thank you so much! Let’s talk again in a month!
Rosanne: Sounds like a plan, Debra! I look forward to it!
Rosanne Simunovic is the Voice Instructor and Conductor for the Timmins Youth Singers. If you have any further questions our comments, please e-mail her. If you want to hear how she applies her technical methods to a variety of musical styles music, have a listen to one of her double disc CDs, Scenes from a Dream, a live compilation featuring outstanding performances between 1984-2000 with the Timmins Youth Singers and renowned classical, Broadway, and pop artists. Enjoy!