This week, our illustrious Top 4 American Idol finalists celebrated the music of the King himself, Elvis Presley. Has there ever been a more celebrated and revered icon in the history of pop music? Almost 30 years have gone by since Elvis’ death and the tributes keep on coming in – from the thousands upon thousands who visit Graceland each year, to the Elvis impersonators who continue to evolve through each generation of singers and, now, to the ongoing musical collaboration with American Idol.
The singers were impressively coached in Graceland in the illustrious company of record producer Tommy Mottola and, for the sixth time this season, the singers were able to extract musical expertise through the inclusion of yet another legendary musical legend. The big question that concerned me was this: which of these singers would be successful in interpreting Elvis’ music with a distinctively musical style? This was the challenge set forth by our Top 4 this week, as they prepared to honor one of the greatest musical innovators of the 20th century.
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Chris Daughtry “Suspicious Minds” and “A Little Less Conversation”
Strengths: Chris, both performances this week were very good. You chose your songs wisely and, at this stage of the competition, song choice and song arrangements become crucial to each singer’s success. This week, as in last week, I felt that you were truly liberated in your showcases and you involved the audience with your stage presentation.
I do echo Tommy Mottola’s statements that you possess one killer recording voice, which is naturally rich and robust in timbre. In both songs, you once again displayed your adherence to the bel canto technique of sustaining your vowels through a consistently circular mouth formation, enforced by diaphragmatic breath support.
Both songs were presented with a professional and believable demeanor, with good attention give to the stage choreography. As I was watching you move effortlessly through the audience during <A Little Less Conversation, I was reminded how far you have come in this competition. In the earliest stages of this show, you were practically glued to the stage, almost overwhelmed by the entire Idol experience. And who wouldn’t be? It is a nerve wracking, stressful performing situation that would crush most industry superstars. However, you have enjoyed a true artistic metamorphosis as the weeks have gone by.
Suspicious Minds, in every way, was just a stellar presentation. Your voice enjoyed a rich and muscular presence throughout this song performance and your vocal delivery was seamless in every way. Your voice sounded smooth and seamless as you navigated every part of your vocal range and you negotiated the tempo changes effortlessly and flawlessly.
Stylistically, you had a wonderful “look” on stage. In Suspicious Minds, I loved the sunglasses – the whole rock star image, in fact. Although the stage choreography for this particular number was more simple than A Little Less Conversation, there is something to be said in keeping the movements clean and uncluttered. It allowed the listener to focus on your wonderful vocals and, additionally, allowed the listeners to really listen to the lyrical content of the song.
In A Little Less Conversation, I loved your fluid and confident stage entry at the beginning of this number. You established the mood from the very beginning of this song and never relented. Vocally, you negotiated the octave jump in the closing part of this song very effectively. I love listening to your tenor range, Chris. Your voice exudes such a beautiful quality in this part of your range and, when you remember to use your technique correctly, it is quite the auditory experience.
Never lose the technical foundation you have secured through your experience on this show. The technique will give you the security you will need to carry your vocal career to the highest levels, opening other doors for repertoire expansion and diversity within the rock genre.
Bravo and congratulations on another great showcase, Chris!
Critique: Chris –here we go with the head raising issue that I harp on about every week. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but this week, it was still a very apparent problem in your performance technique. It really impeded the complete technical and communicative aspects of your performance and, hopefully, with time and patience, this technical flaw will finally be eradicated.
Also, the camera angles this week didn’t help this problem; the camera technicians really loved filming you from the bottom up and, although this may be their version of creative camera work, the television audience was left viewing your performance as if they were lying on the floor looking upward.
Also, as I said in the Strengths portion of this evaluation, you were extremely committed to various aspects of the bel canto technique when you performed your numbers. It was absolutely wonderful to see and hear, Chris. However, at times, your diaphragmatic support coupled with your constricted throat was less than efficient this evening. For instance, at the close of A Little Less Conversation, you basically screamed out the final notes. Although it was the only time in both numbers that this screaming element became problematic, nevertheless, you have to multiply this by the number of songs you would sing during a two hour Chris Daughtry show. You see my point? In a full-length concert, you would have no voice by the end of the evening.
As I said in previous weeks, you have to learn to manage your powerful dynamic levels by accessing the diaphragmatic breath support and by allowing your throat to remain open and unobstructed. Back to the raised head position, I feel that this problem is encouraging you to tense your neck and face muscles. You have such a committed approach to the circular mouth position when you sustain your vowels; now, you have to trust your lower body to consistently compliment and support the facial masque components.
Also, I though that the musical arrangement for A Little Less Conversation was much too fast. This is an extremely verbose song and, coupled with the frantic pace of the musical accompaniment, I felt that it didn’t allow you time to breathe and support your vocal sound in an efficient manner. The first part of the song lacked vocal substance, I thought, and I attributed this to the frantic pace of this song. Furthermore, when confronted with a song that was so wordy, you must remember to rehearse the song slowly, making certain that all the words are distinct and the vowels contained in the words sustained with technical efficiency
I was very frustrated for you, Chris, during the performance of your Conversation number. The manic tempo of the number was just an impossible situation for you and, when added to your vigorous choreography, it really deleted an enormous amount of energy needed for consistent technical support in your performance. I felt that your comfort level was severely compromised.
Finally, you must implement head tone into your lower notes; if this doesn’t happen the lower voice sounds muddy and inaudible. Also, remember to enunciate clearly in this part of your range. I call this the speaking range of a singer’s voice because oftentimes it mimics a singer’s speaking voice.
How I would have loved to hear this number again, but at a tempo that was suitable to you. Every singer is different and what works for one will not necessarily work for another singer. So, in the future, make sure that every aspect of the musical arrangements is conducive to a comfortable and effortless performance. Make certain the key is correct for your singing range and that the tempo compliments rather than detracts from your showcase.
Excellent work, Chris! I will really miss over the next two weeks! Never give up – ever! You are a consummate performer.
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Elliot Yamin “If I Could Dream” and “Trouble”
Strengths: Elliot–this was another fantastic week of performances for you. What I have come to admire over the weeks is your fighting spirit on stage. I felt this week, as in previous, that you were presenting your songs to the very best of your abilities, leaving no stone unturned and no emotion untouched. Your passion and artistry on the stage this week must be a personal best; you performed both songs with heartfelt emotion and vocal passion.
Also, there was noticeable improvement in your stage choreography in both numbers. I felt that you were moving effortlessly with the rhythmic components of the numbers rather than against it. Noticeably absent were your awkward hand and arm movements; this emphasized the apparent fact that you have been working very hard to improve the choreographic elements of your performances. I have nothing but the greatest respect for your stellar work ethic, Elliot.
Your second number, Trouble was surprisingly the most impressive of the two. I was skeptical when I heard you were singing this number yet, ultimately, you delivered an absolutely stellar version of this great Elvis classic. It just goes to show that sometimes we, as listeners, cannot make value judgments on a singer’s song choice. A singer’s instinct and passion for a specific song often overrides many vocal obstacles set forth by that song; this week, Elliot, you absolutely proved this fact beyond any doubt.
During Trouble, you vocalized your vibrato judiciously; I felt that the technical components (diaphragmatic breath support) were controlling the vibrato element extremely well. As I have said in previous weeks, vibrato is integral to a singer’s dynamic range and, if controlled and used in a judicious manner, adds a distinctive quality to a singer’s vocal sound. A noticeable example of this is the late lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury. He exhibited a wonderful, but controlled vibrato, in his tenor voice, one that allowed the listener to identify the singer immediately.
Also, during Trouble, I felt that you added some superb artistic elements in your vocal performance. Your melismas (scale like runs) were impeccably vocalized and your upper range exhibited a glorious and energized classical sound that complimented the inherent soulful nature of the song. Your genuine and authentic personality was never more evident to me, Elliot, than during this number. Your internalized emotions rose to the surface and flowed through the inflection and nuances in your vocal interpretation of this number. Your diction was crystal clear and you communicated the poetic content of this song in superb fashion
In your first number, <If I Could Dream, I felt that your vibrato gained control toward the end of the song, when you moved into the key change. It seemed that you were working hard throughout this performance to utilize the correct technical approach and, therefore, the ending of this song was very strong. I love when a singer corrects technical problems throughout a performance. It shows commitment to excellence under the most stressful of situations – a live competition in front of millions of people. This heralds only the greatest success for you Elliot, as your career continues to evolve and mature. Bravo on an excellent and heartfelt showcase this week.!
Critique: Elliot –in your first number, If I Could Dream, your vibrato, lacked the proper technical support and, as a result, was clearly unmanageable. As you were walking across the stage, I wanted to yell, “Stop moving and get your technique back on track!”. However, this was the performance and not the rehearsal, so what’s a singer to do? He has to perform and that you did and extremely well, correcting the uncontrollable vibrato at the end of this performance. So, I would like to emphasize to you to make certain that you are rehearsing your stage movements slowly and methodically, in an effort to properly balance and pace the choreographic components with the technical components.
Also, make certain that you are diaphragmatically supporting your voice in ever area of your vocal range. At the beginning of If I Could Dream, you were singing in your lower register and so it is natural to lose the technical momentum and energy in this part of your register. Singers naturally feel that they need to kick in the technical components as they traverse their upper range, but this is not correct. Your lower range needs to be vocalized with the correct technical support and, additionally, you must judiciously balance the head and chest tone elements. This is why your vibrato was more of a tremolo or wobble; the unrestrained quality of this element was not supported and vocalized in a disciplined manner.
Additionally, your lack of support in this song adversely affected your pitch. Since the vibrations were so wide and poorly centered, your melodic line was inadequately tuned and, if not for your superbly strong finish, would have adversely affected the entire performance.
Also, it became very noticeable that you were extremely tense throughout this song. Your throat sounded more constricted despite the appropriate circular mouth formation. When you ended this song, your jaw was very tense and quivering as you sustained your final note. This reinforced the fact that you were not allowing the diaphragmatic muscles to fully support and place your voice in your vocal masque. You have to trust your breathing muscles, Elliot, allowing the throat and facial muscles to remain open, free and unobstructed.
However, this was my personal favorite Elliot showcase and I applaud your dogged determination to achieve and maintain excellent performance levels each week. Bravo!
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Katharine McPhee “Hound Dog/I’m All Shook Up” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”
Strengths: Katharine – I have to hand it to you! Your first Elvis number was just outstanding. This was not an easy arrangement: it was fast-paced, choreographically detailed and vocally challenging. However, your performance of this number was just marvelous and, regardless of the slight memory loss, it was still, for me, one of the highlights of the evening. Contrary to Simon’s analysis, I thought that this was a meticulously performed number and your vocal delivery was as strong and as proficient as ever.
You exuded such a phenomenal charisma, Katharine. At one point in the medley, your movements, coupled with the excellent camera work, captured a “Shania like” quality to your stage demeanor. Your movements, like Shania, were effortless and fluid and absolutely complimented the energetic and playful quality of these celebrated Elvis numbers.
Vocally, your voice exhibited a radiant and resonating presence throughout your Hound Dog/ShookUp number that was efficiently and consistently controlled through the correct diaphragmatic breath support. You added just enough melodic variation to stamp your personal signature on this song performance and emphasize your inherent creative approach to your interpretive style. Also, your melodic bend added a refreshing and surprising element to this medley, distancing it from the original Elvis covers. This was a very distinct Katharine performance of these great Elvis classics. I just loved it.
Additionally, your choreographic movements were rhythmically secure, emphasizing and punctuating the mischievous, buoyant quality of this first number. You paced your stage movements extremely well, Katharine, making certain that your technical and choreographic components were cooperating in an efficient and fluid manner. Your voice never sounded breathy throughout this quickly paced medley, accenting the fact that you once again had applied a judicious and comprehensive approach in the preparation of this medley.
And then you sang probably one of the most heartfelt romantic songs ever composed during the 20th century, Can’t Help Falling In Love With You. Your voice embraced the melodic line just beautifully Katharine and I applaud the fact that you programmed two very distinct song styles in your showcase this week. By doing so, it emphasized your artistic versatility as a performer. It also emphasized that you understand the fact that audiences needed to see different sides your artistry. Variety in song choice creates a well paced and captivating performance and this is what we have seen from you each week, Katharine! Bravissima, young lady
Critique: Katherine – all of my critique will focus on the specific problems you encountered during your second performance, Can’t Help Falling In Love With You. I think everyone agrees that the opening segments of the song were beautifully interpreted and you added a delicate intensity to this song that was so appropriate to the meaning of the lyrics.
Then, unfortunately, your vocal style in the remainder of the song developed a driven, aggressive quality that was the extreme opposite of the lyrical emotion of this song. Even The King himself performed this song with a calm and sensitive restraint that more genuinely addressed the heartfelt emotion of the poetry. I was so surprised to hear this approach, Katharine, as you, among all the singers, were admired by this writer for your ability to add the correct amount of inflection and nuance in your ballads. I had come to love and appreciate the beautiful head tone quality of your crystalline soprano voice and was clearly missing this component throughout this number.
Part of me sensed that you were very nervous, almost preoccupied throughout this number. It appeared that you were unable to connect and truly feel your lyrics. I wonder if the judging comments coupled with the memory lapse of your first number negatively impacted the successful performance of your second song? If so, this is a true shame, as this song accurately suited your voice and, for whatever reason, you just couldn’t make it work this week.
Always remember that, regardless of how you think or how the judges think your first performance fared, you must remember that thousands of viewers would have the extreme opposite opinion, myself included. As a performer, you have to sing each number as a separate scene in your performing act. Move on and never let a few people negatively affect the rest of your performances.
Vocally, when you navigated you upper range, you left all your beautiful head tone behind and carried far too much chest voice into your upper register. The result was an over extended, less resonant vocal quality that affected the centered focus of your pitch. Always make certain that your technique is providing the foundation for your singing, regardless of the pace of the song. This song, because of its simplicity, really exposed the technical problems this week, Katharine, and, on another night, in another venue, I have a feeling that we would have heard an entirely different performance.
However, your first song was pure magic for me and I congratulate you on presenting such interesting and diverse showcases each week!
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Taylor Hicks: “Jailhouse Rock” and “In The Ghetto”
Strengths: Taylor –this was your night without a doubt. Taylor performing Elvis? It doesn’t get much better than this. (Well, maybe Taylor performing Ray. I’m still waiting and waiting and waiting….). However, what I loved about your performances, Taylor, was your distinct interpretation of these stylistically diverse numbers. You have the artistic soul and the entertainment values that are identifiable with the legend of Elvis Presley and yet you have a specialized feel for Elvis’ music that is truly singular.
This is the reason why both of your numbers were so successful this week. Elvis was committed to entertaining the masses and this statement applies to your musical mission as well, Taylor. The stage just ignited when you opened the show with Jailhouse Rock. You were musical fire and brimstone and the flame never perished when you sensitively communicated the emotional core of In The Ghetto in the second half of the program.
I am glad that Tommy Mottola had the wisdom to move the key of the song, Jailhouse Rock up a semi-tone. In doing so, your vocals had more presence and the higher key energized the overall vocal and instrumental production of the song. A half tone key change can make such a difference in a singer’s performance. Additionally, the song was sitting more favorably in your natural whiskey tenor singing range and, therefore, you were able to vocally support the melodic line with ease.
There were so many wonderful moments in Jailhouse Rock. I loved the inclusion of the gyrating guitarist, another subtle Elvis touch to this very visual performance. You wove yourself through the audience in a believable and communicative fashion, physically including them in your musical ride, and, then, seamlessly transferred yourself to the main stage mid way through this song.
I was very impressed with the degree of vocal comfort you were maintaining throughout this very busy performance. This was such a rhythmically fluid number; it seemed almost effortless, but I expect a great deal of planning and thought went into this fantastic performance. You paced yourself extremely well, Taylor, and, as a result, you never lost control of this song. You reminded us why it is so important during these high -energy numbers to slow the performing process down in your mind; by doing so, you were ensuring that the technical and choreographical elements were perfectly balanced. Additionally, Taylor, your verbose text was expertly communicated; all the words were distinct and your phrasing was impeccable.
You included some innovative moves during this number – lots of twirling happening here. That was a lovely pirouette on stage, Taylor, (smile) and I guess you became friends with the mike stand, because you gave it a friendly twirl as well. Loved it!
Vocally, your voice was stellar and your voice exhibited a sustained, resonant presence throughout this number. The rhythmic energy and drive of this song encouraged you to access your support in a consistent and buoyant manner, therefore encouraging you to reveal a variety of vocal nuance and inflection throughout this song presentation.
Your second number, In The Ghetto gave you opportunity to highlight your dynamic range to even greater effect. I was taken aback by the beautiful, resplendent head tone midway through this song. The pitch was beautifully centered and the inclusion of this falsetto musically stamped this song in great “taylorized” fashion. This is what we have come to expect from you Taylor – the unexpected.
Your poignant and restrained performance of this song contrasted so beautifully with your first number and emphasized the depth and intensity of your artistry. You truly have the soul of an artist. Oftentimes, it is not only about the voice, but also about feeling the heart and soul of the music, digging beneath the layers of a song to expose areas of the composition that are less obvious to the average listener. This is what you do each week, Taylor, and this is why you have been so successful in this competition.
Bravo, kudos and high fives on an excellent showcase this week.
Critique: Taylor –vocally, for me, I thought you sounded technically secure during your first number, Jailhouse Rock. Your voice enjoyed a strong presence throughout this performance and the vocal issues were not apparent – until In The Ghetto. (And all the Soul Patrollers open their mouths in shock!). There’s nothing like a slow, sustained ballad to expose any inherent vocal difficulties that a singer is experiencing.
However, I have to call the shots as I hear them and I thought, for whatever reason – and I have many theories, – your voice sounded less resonant and more constricted than lastweek’s performance of Something. I sensed fatigue and almost a tentative approach at the start of the song. Perhaps you were a bit nervous interpreting one of your favorite songs. I know I would be. As soon as one says it is a personal favorite, high expectations fall on the shoulders of the singer and the ears of the listener.
Vocally, Taylor, you must remember to vocalize with the correct support, allowing your throat and facial features to remain open and free. This will encourage the diaphragmatic muscles to efficiently and consistently support and place your voice in your vocal masque. Also, that beautiful falsetto (head tone) that we heard midway through this song must be a permeating element throughout your vocal range. It will add depth and an inherent ringing quality to your entire vocal range.
Additionally, I think many of these problems could have been avoided by adjusting the key of this song. I would be interested to hear you sing this song in your baritone range, Taylor. When you perform this song again, try experimenting with a couple of lower keys. I think the lower key will add a richer, more intense vocal sound that will compliment the emotional intensity of the song. However, make certain that you are incorporating the head tone element into the lower part of your range; otherwise the lower range will sound muddied and lack focus.
I also felt that this song lacked a sense of flow and forward momentum and I attribute this problem to the fragmented arrangement and not to you, Taylor. To my ear, it sounded like the earlier Elvis arrangement –background vocals and all. I didn’t like his arrangement and the same feeling applies to this week’s arrangement. It just clomped along endlessly and the repetitive nature of the harmonic structure added a monotonous feel to the whole arrangement. Can you imagine how remarkable this song would have been if the arrangement had a gospel chorus in the background instead of the background singers repetitively echoing “In the ghettooooo”?
Thank heavens that you, Taylor, are such a strong and committed performer, as you catapulted this song to very high level through your inherent artistry and passion. This arrangement, in the hands of another singer, would spell disaster and this performance was far from that. I just feel that the arrangement did not respect the performer. Case closed!
And so, we wait and see what surprises will be revealed by The Man in the Top 3. I, for one, cannot wait. See you next week, Taylor!
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Rosanne Simunovic is the Voice Instructor and Conductor for the. If you have any further questions our comments, please at 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!