By: Jennifer Myha
Welcome to my first column, everyone! Thank you, Rosanne, for giving me the floor, and thank you, wonderful readers, for your patience as I navigate this uncharted territory of providing weekly recaps of my thoughts and insights.
This past Wednesday the top six American Idol finalists performed songs from singer-songwriter Carole King’s catalogue, and to the ear of someone decidedly less familiar with Ms. King’s body of work, I found the show unexpectedly enjoyable. This episode ventured ever nearer to the stand-out moments that have curiously eluded this season (despite the contestants’ high potential and avoidance of all-time performance lows).
I’ve split my evaluations into two sections: Impressions and Technical Replay. The latter sections are long, almost to the point that I worry if anyone will read them! I know that in the past, MCL readers have appreciated my in-depth comments, but to be thorough while avoiding information overload is akin to walking a tightrope. Readability is one of my highest priorities, so I hope that once you set aside the intimidating amount of scrolling required, you will find this article easy to read for its length. Please feel free to tell me how I did, and leave any suggestions, questions, or feedback in the comments!
In the future, my evaluations should decrease in length because the technical groundwork (concepts, terminology, and personal stances I revisit) will be more and more in place. Even in this article, many of the critiques cross-pollinate, and providing in-depth explanations early on allows me to do this. Thanks for your patience!
Just to change things up from Rosanne, I’ll be reviewing the performances in chronological order, but you can also access each evaluation from the alphabetical (by last name) listing below.
« Impression »
Jacob, what I enjoyed most about this performance is seeing you have fun on stage. In previous weeks, we’ve seen you grow more restrained in your vocal delivery, but I often got the sense that you were fighting against that restraint—that you didn’t feel entirely comfortable dialing back—and that prevented me from feeling fully engaged in your vocal.
What was refreshing this week is that you managed to add more of your signature runs and to do so tastefully without derailing the performance. The result is that we got the confidence you feel when you’re letting loose but not the loss of control that happens when you go too over the top. I am glad to see this younger, happier side of Jacob, and I hope that you continue to find this balance in your artistry.
When you learn to fully embrace restraint, your voice will be able to take on much more nuance because of the intention that comes with it, and that intention is what will breathe beauty into the most unadorned of passages. The re-incorporation of runs is not quite the same thing, but I found it appropriate because it boosted your comfort level and allowed you to embrace your vocal delivery, and the result was that you more joyfully maintained restraint as well.
« Technical Replay »
Jacob, you have a distinct timbre that I’ve learned to appreciate, but your tone is vague and unfocused at times because of inadequate support. In the opening lines, several of your notes have unintentional noise, meaning that you’re activating extra muscle groups that you don’t need for healthy singing. The noticeable grit on “a single world was true,” “I told them,” and “I just kept on saying” did not sound constriction-free to me.
Grit is aesthetically appealing when done right, but ideally, singers should be aware of when their method of producing grit is not the most efficient, so that they can learn alternate modes of vocal production or, at the least, understand the risks involved in singing the way that they do. With healthy distortion, the key is to make sure the true vocal folds are still vibrating freely.
There are certain exercises (such as the “silent laugh”) that help the voice to de-constrict, and healthy doses of support and twang help to keep the voice as centered as possible. There is no guarantee that even “healthy” distortion will have no long-term effects on the instrument, but as singers, we can minimize the wear and tear by learning the most efficient methods of vocal production.
That said, artistically, I appreciated the use of close-to-pure head voice in the beginning, and once you hit the chorus, the energy and focus in your voice increased dramatically. I love the richness and depth of your tone when you sang “those other girls” and the phrases “told me when rumors spread” and “a word she said” in the second verse; this is what I want to hear more of from you! I also loved the clarity of the higher “baby use your head” phrase.
The range in which this song sits catered to the sweet spots of your voice much more readily than last week’s song choice, and I felt that there was movement in the melodic line. The scatting was well-executed and in tune, and although your “oh” glory note was not quite in the pitch pocket, the coordination was mostly solid, and the shredded-sounding “no” at the end (a common effect in gospel music) sounded right to me as well.
One could quibble your interpretation of the song and the dancing (fair comment), and your tremolo and a spread tonal quality crept in at parts (with them a few tuning issues), but overall, I enjoyed this performance for what it was. Watch out for the quivering jaw, but the energy you infused into your vocals is exactly the right direction for you to clear up your technical hindrances. Good job, Jacob!
« Impression »
Lauren, I applaud you for attempting to break through your inhibitions! Your voice cracked on national television, the judges called you out on it (and spun it positively), and you know what? The world’s still turning, and you’re doing fine. I hope you keep this perspective; you were upbeat and took the performance in stride, and I’m proud of you for that.
I remember what being a sixteen-year-old girl is like, and for those who don’t (and the fellas out there), it’s tough enough without the public scrutiny, and for you to get up on that stage, Lauren, knowing that millions of people are watching you, takes guts. Don’t let the naysayers get to you. You’re the one putting yourself out there on that stage. You’re the one doing something with your life. You still have plenty of room left to grow, that’s for certain, but don’t you ever let anyone convince you that you’re anything but beautiful and talented. Believe it!
« Technical Replay »
Lauren, you stretched your vocals this week and encountered a few problems, but I’m proud of you for going there. The higher notes in this song definitely revealed your technical weaknesses in your upper range—the same ones I’ve glimpsed in previous weeks—but I always believe that it’s better to expose the cracks than to mask them because the only way to correctly learn a coordination is to own up to one’s present lack of coordinating ability. A good friend of mine always says that covering up the cracks tends to create more problems than letting them show.
Your main technical issue is hyperadduction in your upper range. This is just a fancy way of saying that your vocal folds are pressed too tightly on some of your notes. When you blast too much air through your vocal folds, they do not vibrate optimally, so your larynx actually activates other muscles (ones associated with constriction) in an effort to close the vocal folds and protect them. It is not uncommon for singers to use too much air to eke out high notes, but I’d highly caution you against doing so. Singing, in one sense, is controlled exhalation.
Support is when the body works to resist all the air from escaping at once as you sing. (You can read an anatomical description of support here.) When a singer uses high air pressures (and that is the case for heavier-sounding coordinations), he or she must actively resist those pressures with bodily support, or else the vocal folds (those tiny membranes!) end up taking the pressures head on.
Because of the properties of the human vocal tract, the voice has several areas where singers naturally want to shift resonance, and these areas may be the most difficult to navigate because of the adjustments singers need to make to stay centered. Many females experience a shift around a D5 or Eb5 (the second D and E-flat above middle C, respectively), and Lauren, this is where your vocal struggles tend to kick in as well. I don’t believe I have heard you sing a completely released note above a D5. (The high note in “Natural Woman” was an E5, and I definitely heard hyperadduction there.)
For you to achieve your desired aesthetic on these notes more efficiently, you need to dig deeper into your support (raise your sternum!), narrow your vowels, use less air and a clean attack, and avoid constriction (e.g. gripping in the throat).
Learning to fine-tune other elements of your vocal tract is also helpful, but the foundation you need to learn is how to hold onto your support and release all excess tension. This is not easy, but it begins with trust and experimentation, and I hope you grasp it, Lauren. Refining this technique will help you break through your upper limits and access your top range with greater freedom.
The above critique applies to the high “be” notes in all the choruses [D5 and Eb5], the higher “where you lead” moments before and after the key change [D5 before; Eb5 after], “tell me to” [Eb5] after the key change, and the “need” right after the preceding phrase [Eb5]. The degree of hyperadduction varies, but it is most noticeable in the last two spots I listed.
Elsewhere, Lauren, you displayed beautiful texture and tone from the opening line. In your recent performances, you’ve learned to anchor that texture with more focus and better projection. You slipped into a few breathy moments—at the beginning of the bridge and when you moved to sit down—but overall, your voice had strong underlying presence.
The efforts you’re making to achieve more balance in your vocal mix are paying off; the reedy quality that crept into your voice during earlier performances is disappearing. The “get satisfaction” phrase in the bridge had two D5s, and you nailed them. Your transitions from chest voice to head voice and growls were skillfully done.
Although your breath control could stand to improve (you still sounded out of breath at times), you tackled longer and less fragmented phrases, in general. Most of all, you had fun and involved your audience (quite literally!), and this confidence is what you need to continue growing in your journey. Keep at it, Lauren!
« Impression »
Scotty, I am so proud of you for taking the judges’ comments to heart. This was a fine performance. The vocals were flawed, but what I appreciated is that you experimented with additional textures, colors, and coordinations in your voice, and this is exactly what I wanted from you but didn’t quite believe you’d ever do.
I loved the bare arrangement of the opening and the gentleness of your tone; we heard a completely different side of your instrument thanks to the suggestion that you avoid your “traditional Scotty voice,” and I thought it was beautiful.
You also ventured into more of your higher register than ever before, and I know that’s you pushing out of your comfort zone and digging deeper, and I admired that attitude—it’s exactly what you need to grow as an artist and a vocalist. There’s some roughness around the edges, but that’s part of the growing and developing process. I felt the emotional connection and the commitment, and that was a nice complement and anchor to the vocal risks you took this week.
« Technical Replay »
Scotty, your interpretation of this song was filled with nuance and inflection, and the urgency and intention that permeated your vocals carried them to the end. The first verse is breathtaking; I attempted to pick out my favorite lines and ended up citing nearly the entire thing! To hear the catch in your voice and the softer texture in parts was so authentic and moving; you’re adding so much more color and shade to your vocal delivery.
What you need to learn now are some of the tweaks and adjustments you can make to your middle and high notes in order for your voice to sound more open and free. When you sing, you are, consciously or unconsciously, positioning all the elements in your vocal tract (tongue, soft palate, jaw, larynx, etc.) in a certain way.
For every coordination you want to achieve, there is an ideal set-up that allows you to produce your desired aesthetic with the least amount of effort. When you stray away from that set-up, your vocal production becomes less efficient, and sometimes you get noise in the voice as I mentioned in Jacob’s evaluation. What I’m hearing in your voice is creaking, which occurs when your set-up is halfway between a traditional mix and the brassy coordination you hear in this video @ 0:04.
This critique applies to these specific moments: whenever you sang “all you’ve got to do” [F4], “I’ll be there” [F4], “they’ll desert you” [F4], and the highest note in this performance, the “do” note towards the end [G#4].
The key to avoiding creaking is to choose one of these set-ups and adjust your volume accordingly. If you like the aesthetic of a traditional mix, you should narrow your vowels and aim for a medium volume. I feel that you are closer to a traditional mix set-up anyway, so this solution is probably better for you. In fact, there were several notes where your vowel was moving you slightly off center, but your volume, support, and the rest of your set-up prevented you from creaking. (For those who are curious, pay attention to the instances when Scotty sings “EH” and “OH” vowels.) If you are careful not to sing your vowels too wide—what we call “splatting”—and maintain an even dynamic, you’ll be fine.
On a positive note, I feel that you supported your instrument much better this week than in previous performances—perhaps because the higher range challenged you to increase your energy level accordingly. However, your top notes would sound even fuller if you released all the excess physical tension in your abdominal area.
I get the sense that you, like Lauren, are a tad inhibited in your upper range, perhaps because you are scared of the resulting volume when you properly support your notes. This is not uncommon, and it’s completely understandable, especially because a baritone voice like yours would sound booming if you let out those high notes at full throttle.
It sounds to me that you’re holding back the sound too much on your high notes (in a literal physical sense), and that is another reason why you’re creaking. Don’t force your volume, but let your voice be as loud as it wants to be on those notes. Avoid tightening your body in response; this causes constriction. Just stay calm and keep the support muscles engaged. High levels of support tend to feel very foreign to most people at first, and you need to condition the body to become accustomed to it.
There are so many misconceptions about support, so if anyone would like more information (or practical tips on finding it), I’d be happy to address other aspects in the comments, but for now I must move on!
Aside from these points, your phrasing is still a tad choppy, but I like that you ended several of your phrases on sustained notes, such as “there” [C#4] or “if you let ‘em [D#4].” I really like hearing you stretch yourself by holding out your notes.
Not only that, but you improved on some of your visual quirks, I feel. You managed to keep your facial features relatively open, and call it my imagination or not, your microphone appeared to be less sideways than in previous performances.
Most of all, you looked very sincere, which was endearing. The musical moments you created with your voice and the arrangement came the closest to a true Idol moment in a long time. Keep challenging yourself, Scotty! You’re capable of wonderful things when you do.
« Impression »
James, what a stunning introduction! I was wondering who would be first to take on the extended a cappella opening at this stage of the competition, and it’s not surprising that one of this season’s most consistent and ambitious contestants would do so.
This vocal sat in a beautiful part of your range. The previous song choices reached into your lows and your highs, but the majority of this performance was in the sweet middle spot, and that enabled you to sing in a very natural and conversational manner that resonated with me.
Of course, you ascended into your characteristic heights towards the end, but I thought you managed to avoid the trap of showboating through the majority of the performance, and that organic feel to your delivery stuck with me.
Your higher notes toward the end sounded more held-back, and on replay, I’ll analyze this, but in general, I heard very little constriction in this performance and enjoyed the stripped-down acoustics and vocals.
« Technical Replay »
James, you’ve given me very little to critique this week! After Scotty’s performance, I wondered if anyone would answer the vocal risks he took in his song, and from the opening strains of your performance, you declared, loud and clear, that you are not an artist who rests on his laurels.
Every week you strive to challenge yourself and showcase different sides to your artistry. In that way, you are very savvy with your song choices, and this wisdom extends to the visual aspect of your performance as well, where you’ve been careful to balance theatrics with simplicity from week to week. Your energy on stage is infectious! You truly are a born performer, and your comfort and ease up there comes through so clearly to the audience.
What stood out to me this week was how released your singing was, especially in the first two-thirds of the song. Your voice sounded refreshed and focused; the fatigue I heard a few weeks ago was largely absent. That you sound more well-rested is assuring because I know that, in the past, the intense schedule of this competition has resulted in more than one weary-voiced singer come finale time.
Your pitch was particularly centered this week; even when tackling tricky intervals, you hardly had any tuning issues. Most of all, your coordination was seamless. If I were not paying close attention, I would’ve thought you were using the exact same set-up to produce all of your notes in the middle section, but in reality, you were making adjustments all over the place but maintaining the coloring of your voice. That consistency requires a singer to be very in tune with his or her instrument
That said, there were a few moments where you held back your sound a tad too much. These moments came in the last third of the performance: the “yeah“s after “the morning sun” [E5], the “ask again” (the first word and the ending run) [E5], and the last “yeah” note [E5] in the performance. Your voice was well-supported, and you did not creak, but you encountered an issue similar to Scotty’s.
In your case, I suspect the sudden back-and-forth between these very high notes and your comfortable range may have caused you to approach those top notes with a little excess physical tension in your body. For greater ease, I suggest that you open those top notes just a tad more. This is a slight nitpick because your voice is still relatively free on these notes, but I noticed the slightly muted quality of those particular notes and wanted to point out that if you released them, your volume level would swell to match the dynamic you’re going for.
Regardless, this is a performance where your technical skills came together, and for a second time this night, you showed a spark of the Idol moment fans have been yearning for this season but has largely been absent (blame it on producers or not).
I most enjoyed the moments where you subtly varied your tone, like the softer texture on the words “eyes” and “tomorrow” in the first verse and the darker coloring of the phrase “I’d like to know.”
You also incorporated grit in the middle of runs during the first verse (“light“) and third verse (“I‘m the only one“), and I was really impressed by how you didn’t lose control of your pitch for a second during those moments.
You were confident, self-assured, but also very giving on that stage, and I am inspired by the clear importance of music in your life and how you convey that in your singing. Well done, James!
« Impression »
Casey, I loved the visual aspect of this performance. Your hat-donning jazzman persona is much more convincing than your rockstar persona, and this is the zone in which your artistry takes on more authenticity.
I definitely felt transported to New Orleans (even before Randy made that comment!), and I enjoyed the loungey feel, your piano playing, and the journey-like succession of musicians you highlighted in your stroll.
The stage lighting, your movements, and the camera work were perfect in evoking a completely different ambience than the Idol stage usually provides, and I don’t know how much of it was your doing, but I admire the vision of this performance.
Vocally, I feel that you lost musicality as you often do when you rely on your growl and your rasp too heavily, and although I bought the grit at parts, the lingering effect was spotty. All in all, the style and entertainment value were high, but the vocal performance did not match their level of success.
« Technical Replay »
Casey, I don’t know if the theories are true—that you purposely aimed to get eliminated in order to allow one of your fellow contestants a spot in the top five—but if so, that might explain why you let your vocals wander off in this performance.
For the record, I’ve been a fan of your jazzy–bluesy musicality since your audition, and when your vocals are right on target, like in “Your Song” (my favorite performance of yours), your voice is capable of such beauty and expression. When you abandon the sensitive phrasing and melodic sensibility that won over your fans, the side of you we see is less compelling.
This performance started off with promise. This song’s jazzy, bluesy vibe was the right fit of genre for you, and the entertaining visuals primed the audience for what was to come. The first verse placed your musicality front and center, and this provided my favorite moment in this performance. Your clear singing is where your voice takes on more nuance, and although you don’t always have the same level of focus and energy in these passages as in your aggressive singing, you don’t encounter the same level of constriction either.
The main technical issue you faced in this song was with your rasp. Your growls tend to sound more supported (“now let me tell you something”; “mighty slick”), compared to your rasp (“tempted,” the “yeah” about halfway through the song, “mother-lovin’ sky”). You tend to blast too much air in your raspy singing, so the result is a form of constriction known as… hyperadduction. Yes, what I discussed before in Lauren’s evaluation. One of the distinct moments of this in the song is towards the very end when you sang the word “ho,” and it sounds like you intended to hold out that note, but because your throat was closing up, you ended up inserting a “yeah” and throwing in a head-voice scat instead.
It is important when producing rasp (which I consider a form of grit) that you have a clear pitch underneath and a clean underlying sound. I think rasp can be highly appealing, especially in blues singing, but with any sound, you should be careful to avoid unnecessary constriction in the production of it.
In order to sing rasp in a healthy fashion, you must first be able to hit those notes with a completely clear, constriction-free tone. Since your rasp tends to kick in on your higher notes where you transition to head voice, I wonder if the rasp is an attempt to beef up your vocal production to compensate for a weak or undeveloped heavy-mix coordination.
In any case, the main issue I hear is that these raspy notes need much higher levels of support and less blasting of air to be healthily produced. As I told Scotty and Lauren, hold onto the support, dig deeper, and stay calm. Constriction is often a panic response, but if you stay calm, habits that produce constriction (such as spreading the corners of your lips) are less likely to occur.
One more note on your use of grit: remember not to forsake musicality in incorporating it. There were times in the song when I had a hard time figuring out what pitch you were aiming for. Your grunts (“nnn!” and “mmm!”) sound like throat-clearing—you don’t need them—and especially towards the end, your vocals lacked subtlety and contrast. It was all a flurry of growls, grunts, and raspy notes, and your pitch suffered.
I am convinced that if you put your mind to it—and I know that you are a diligent, disciplined musician—you could achieve this style with a lot more clarity and tunefulness. You have shown that you’re capable of melodic phrasing and tasteful runs and scatting; I wish you displayed more of that in this performance.
I encourage you to keep cultivating and strenghtening your clear coordinations; learn to focus your voice without having to resort to growling. If you build that foundation, your pitch problems should clear up, and your range of expression will increase dramatically.
On a bright note, I admire your impressive head voice range, which you took up to an A5 in this performance. When I hear those moments in your voice, I know that you have much more in you than we have seen. Keep refining your technical approach, and I’ll be excited to see where those improved skills and your musicianship take you. Good luck, Casey!
« Impression »
Haley, you are the season’s biggest surprise for me. Over the last few weeks, you’ve managed to convert quite a few viewers from skeptics to fans, and I am definitely among them. You have such raw natural talent, and I admire your plucky determination and dedication to improving your craft and your stage presence.
In your early showings, your performance tics and idiosyncratic phrasing masked how capable you actually are, but as you’ve grown less affected in both aspects, you’ve blossomed into a compelling artist with a remarkably nimble and multi-faceted instrument.
The bird-like scatting section of “Rolling in the Deep” was spot-on gorgeous, and I liked the unaffected, sensitive Haley we heard carrying over into this week. These softer, textured passages are what allow the audience to better appreciate the shading in your voice, so that when you start growling and adding grit, the result is impressive contrast, rather than a monochromatic display. This week’s arrangement tossed between two moods, but you gave it character in your interpretation. All in all, this was another solid performance for you. Brava, Haley!
« Technical Replay »
Haley, more so than any other contestant, you are capable of highlighting all the different colors in your voice. You started this song beautifully clear and strong, nailed the growly “get” note (loved it!), and sung the word “beautiful” with your quirky Haley pronunciation. I love the melancholy in your voice in the verses; even from only the audio, I can hear the emotion and sensitivity of a wallflower in your phrasing.
Some of my favorite moments are when your voice catches at the end of your notes—so beautiful and authentic! Your singing in the chorus conveys both presence and tenderness.
Artistically, I don’t know if I can fault this performance at all: you didn’t overuse your growl, and your tender, unaffected tones are lovely, easily one of the sides of your voice I find most compelling. I love the characteristic Haley stamp you put on the ending “feel” run. The only side of your voice we missed was your excellent jazz scatting—alas, maybe next time!
Vocally, you have one of the strongest grasps on your technique. In general, you support your voice very well, and this allows you fluid navigation of your wide range.
One of your few intermittent technical issues is blasting a tad too much air on your high notes. There’s a tinge of hyperadduction on a few notes (re: Lauren and Casey). These specific moments include: the “oh” after “we can only try” [D#5]; after the key change, “all the love in your heart” (“all” [D#5]; the ending two notes of the “heart” riff [C#5-D#5]); “yes you will” [D#5]; the last “beautiful” [F#5]; the last “as” [E5]; and the very last “oh” [F#5].
You are capable of singing in this part of your range clearly and with a healthy rasp, so rather than this being a fundamental issue in your technique, I peg these notes to fatigue or momentary lapses in support. Remember to stay calm during the tricky D#5/Eb5 transition and on your top notes above an E5, and rely on your support. You already know how to tap into those high support levels; you just need to stay released and avoid pushing excess air. Otherwise, a few other issues that I’ve seen other weeks (such as occasionally wide vowels) did not factor into this performance.
Major kudos to you, Haley, for the consistent growth you’ve shown over this season. Your on-stage presence is becoming less awkward (in part due to your improved posture; standing up straight suits you!), and you’re learning how to showcase the quirks of your voice while letting it breathe.
No matter what the outcome of this competition is, you should be proud of how you survived early expectations and earned yourself a spot in the top five finalists.
I’m so proud of this soulful, jazzy artist that is emerging; your song choices and performances are starting to gel, and you’re gaining fans every week. Why the American Idol producers haven’t capitalized on your story line is a mystery to me (classic narrative of human triumph, anyone?), but know that you have at least one fan who appreciates that you’re exactly the type of contestant this show was meant to discover: talented and getting better. All the best, Haley!