And so, after much speculation, intrigue, fan frenzy and numerable outstanding performances, it has come down to this very talented Top 2: Katharine McPhee and Taylor Hicks. These two singers have been on such a rollercoaster ride throughout this show and there were times I couldn’t envision either in the Top 2. This was not my personal reflection of their musical ability, but rather it was my confusion over the mixed messages conveyed through the judges and producers throughout this season.
However, in the end, it was indeed the fans that dictated who they wanted on the Kodak stage and the result was a diversified and energetic farewell performance by these two fantastic artists. It was a great evening of music and the crowd was energized and pumped as could be to support and rally behind their favorite of the two.
Before we continue to the Top 2 Vocal Masterclass, I would like to leave you with some personal observations. Many years ago, the legendary Frank Sinatra crooned the words: “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain” during his hallmark performance of Paul Anka’s composition, “My Way”.
And for our Top 12 Idols, certainly their Idol end is near, yet this is definitely not the final curtain. Each will, hopefully, follow the golden career path paved for them due to their auspicious journey here on American Idol Season Five. I can only imagine the wonderful opportunities that lie ahead for these supremely talented singers and I wish all of them the very best that life has to offer.
Now, even Masterclass Lady is expected to have favorite, correct? Well, for me, it has always been about Taylor Hicks. His warmth, intelligence, passion and respect for his music are pretty hard qualities to ignore. It has been truly inspiring to watch Taylor each and every week. He has been and will continue to be one of the most genuine and generous artists in the music industry and I am so happy – ecstatic, actually, – that his hard work and savvy determination has paid off in such a monumental way. The Idol franchise’s appreciation for his distinctive artistry has created a higher degree of credibility for this little old talent show called American Idol.
Additionally, it has been a great pleasure to listen to and evaluate these young artists and an even greater pleasure to meet you, the readers, through your interaction with these Vocal Masterclass articles. I have enjoyed writing these articles so very much and look forward to sharing my teaching thoughts with you once again next season.
Until then, thank you once again for your support and your positive feedback.
Also, many fans have asked for some clarification on the vocal terminology. I always aim to please, so click here and, hopefully, the technical veil will be lifted.
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Katharine McPhee “Black Horse and Cherry Tree” (K T Tunstall), “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (Harold Arlen) and “My Destiny”(Idol Single)
Strengths: Katharine –I thought your trio of songs were just wonderful and it once again allowed the viewers to truly appreciate your technical and artistic excellence. You have worked tremendously hard to hone and craft your stellar vocal skills and I have nothing but the highest of appreciation for your diligence and dedication to the perfection of this precious art of singing.
Your first song selection, Black Horse and Cherry Tree, was as fantastic as I remembered the song to be during your Top 5 performance. Your carefree and youthfully exuberant personality centralized the successful performance of this number. You clearly adore this song and exhibited a relaxed stylistic demeanor throughout the entire showcase.
All the integral elements of the bel canto technique – the round mouth, the relaxed jaw, and the sustaining element on the pure vowels of your lyrics –were visibly and audibly apparent during this number. Additionally, I appreciated the fact that you varied your stage position in this performance to distinguish it from your Top 5 performance. It provided a more appropriate contrast to the number that was to follow. This was a very smart choreographic move, Katharine. Good for you!
And this leads us to your signature performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, initially revealed to the viewers last week during the Top 3 showcase.. Once again, your technical and artistic gifts were absolutely unmistakable and I could find little fault in this immaculate performance. I really feel that the Broadway/Cabaret stage lies within your destiny and you should focus and steer your musical vision in this direction. Your beautiful voice in combination with your breathtaking charisma are just natural and vital components for this genre of music.
You ended your Top 2 showcase with your new idol single, My Destiny. The opening of this song was just fabulous. The lighting in combination with your radiant demeanor was just the ticket to establish the captivating mood of this song selection. I do, however, agree with the judges that the composition of the song did very little to showcase your stellar vocal abilities.
However, the lower key selection of this song, allowed the listeners to enjoy your resonant lower and mid register. Even though your voice sat too low for too long a period of time during this number, you technically supported this area of your vocal range perfectly well. You avoided the tendency to belt out this area of your range, allowing the correct diaphragmatic technique in combination with your relaxed facial features to place and focus your vocal sound.
So many singers ignore the correct vocal process when navigating their lower registers and, oftentimes, we are left with an abrasive and poorly pitched vocal sound. However, you, Katharine, stayed true to your technical roots and, in doing so, you allowed your lower vocal sound to remain free and uninhibited.
Additionally, I so appreciated your wonderful nuances during this number. Your lovely messa di voce (moving from a softer to louder, then back to a softer dynamic) before the key change was spectacular. This is such a difficult technical element to implement and it speaks to your years of experience with the classical repertoire. Never lose this, Katharine, because it will continue to solidify and enhance your vocal gifts in the years to follow. You must always stay in touch with your classical soul!
Brava on another week of excellent performances, Katharine. Here’s to your prodigious future!
Critique: Katherine – most of my critique will focus on your recurrent problem regarding the correct balance of chest and head voice when navigating your upper range. In your first and third number, I felt that your upper register voice did not enjoy a pure and pitch centered technical approach. Your voice sounded over extended and extremely tense and as a result your natural voice was severely compromised. Your diaphragmatic breathing was overlooked as well and we were left with a less than seamless vocal sound.
It is a strange predicament with you, Katharine, because on other weeks you supported your upper range just beautifully and your vocal timbre had a clarity and a brilliance that was conspicuously absent this week during Black Horse and Cherry Tree and My Destiny. Oftentimes, fatigue and tension are the culprits in this vocal dilemma and I am sure you have endured both of these feelings to a huge extent during the course of this last very crucial week.
However, you must allow yourself to remain in the moment when you perform, allowing the lower body to support and maintain the correct vocal production. Somehow, I felt that something intangible happened midway through My Destiny, as you visibly and audibly abandoned all of your technical skills. You were swaying nervously to the rhythmic components of this song and not truly living the powerful experience of singing with this fabulous gospel choir. You just seemed very ill at ease. The louder and passionate dynamic should have energized your performance and, in truth, the reverse happened.
Therefore, your voice lacked a pitch- centered security in your upper range and your stage demeanor lacked a confident and compelling presence. It was a shame, because, I felt the initial stages of this song were very good.
Regarding Black Horse and Cherry Tree, part of me wondered whether your stage posture contributed to the less efficient vocal dynamic when you moved into your upper range. You always have a wonderfully positioned stage posture, Katharine; however, during this number, you were bending in an effort to acknowledge the participation of the two drummers that were seated on the stage and this may have encouraged your rib cage to collapse.
Always remember to keep the technical elements central to every performance and if the staging is inhibiting the correct production of your voice, then you must make the appropriate adjustments so that the choreographic and vocal elements are correctly balanced.
Also, I have one final comment regarding Somewhere Over The Rainbow. It would have been nice to see a change in your stage movements during the performance of this number. Vocally, you were absolutely stellar; however, there was a sameness to this performance that just didn’t ring true. My suggestion would have been to stand and walk along the perimeter of the stage midway through this song, if for no other reason than to distinguish it from last week’s performance of this number. You must remember that this song was still fresh in the minds of the viewers and I feel it would have been a stronger performance if you had offered a newer artistic approach to this song.
This is why I feel that your studied approach to your singing style is more conducive to the Broadway stage, where a more disciplined and regimented artistic process is more the norm. The creativity is essential as well, but within the confines of what a stage director envisions. This is your strength, Katharine, as you always appeared to be a meticulously rehearsed performer each week, judiciously rehearsing your choreographic and vocal elements.
Focusing once again on Somewhere Over The Rainbow, please remember to keep the emotional core of this poignant song central to the entire performance. Sometimes, the essence of the song was lost in the vocal acrobatics and, although I appreciated your artistry and technical brilliance, the whimsical nature of this song needed to be more genuine and real.
However, you are truly a star, Katharine, and I have enjoyed your performances immensely during this competition. I wish, for you, only the very best in the future and I truly believe that you will enjoy a long and successful performing career on the Broadway stage or silver screen. Brava and thank you for sharing your immeasurable gifts with us each and every week.
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Taylor Hicks: “Living For The City”(Stevie Wonder), “Levon” (Elton John) and “Do I Make You Proud” (Idol Single)
Strengths: Taylor –as always, your primary goal this week was to entertain your legion of fans and adopt new ones along the way. You have an innate ability to select songs that highlight different segments of your personality, thus allowing your audience to become immersed in a musical taylorized ride that is inevitably loaded with numerous twists and turns. Programming is integral to the success of a concert and you, Taylor, are brilliant in processing songs that will keep your audience fully energized and absorbed in your stage show.
You opened this week’s showcase with a repeat of your Top 12 performance, Living For The City. Once again you communicated the enthusiastic nature of this song with professional brilliance, allowing the audience to fully participate in this great Stevie Wonder classic. My favorite segments in this song occurred during your rhythmic ascending and descending stair movements throughout this number. You were rhythmically cohesive during these rapid stair stepping actions, all the while allowing your voice to remain energized and resonant. These movements were reminiscent of your Top 8 performance of A Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and I am glad you included this neat choreography in this number. Thank you, Taylor. I loved it.
You had a rhythmic connection to this song that never relented and that embodied the essence and soul of this number. Your ability to involve your audience is unparalleled. From your off stage and onstage demeanor to the skillful use of the television cameras, it was evident that you were there for one reason and one reason only – to entertain both your live and television audience.
Then we moved on to the Elton John classic, Levon. I was actually quite excited to evaluate this song, as I was not given the opportunity to do so when you performed this song in the elimination rounds for this season’s Top 24 singers. What I loved the very most about this number – apart from the fact that it contrasted so beautifully with your previous Stevie Wonder number –was the fact that the earlier segments of this song allowed you to expose your beautiful baritone voice I have spoken about in previous Masterclass articles.
Taylor – you have a whole other register that needs to be highlighted more consistently throughout your performances. The opening segments of Levon emphasized the depth and robust beauty of your lower range and, additionally, allowed you to fully produce this part of your voice with the correct diaphragmatic breathing technique. Part of the reason for this technical efficiency had to do with the slower, more sustained pace of this song; however, nevertheless, the natural, pure beauty of your lower register just made the whole vocal process so much easier for you.
Stylistically, you entered the stage with a relaxed and quiet demeanor, thus complimenting the pensive mood in the initial stages of this song. This contrasted beautifully with the more passionate and energetic performing direction later on in the song. Additionally, your melodic variation throughout this number was very much appreciated and as always signified your distinct interpretive abilities as an artist.
Additionally, there was ample evidence of the bel canto methodology of singing during this number. You attempted to maintain a circular mouth position on those sustained, pure vowels and, in doing so, energized and focused your vocal sound through the diaphragmatic breathing process. All one has to do is watch you sustain your final note on the word Levohhhhhn and it is plainly evident that it was bel canto all the way baby! I loved it – nice relaxed jaw and all.
Your final number this week was your Idol single, Do I Make You Proud. And I answer- yes Taylor, you did! And here is the reason why. First of all, the writers keyed this song to highlight your lower and mid range and after weeks of waiting for a song to acknowledge this area of your vocal talent, we were finally rewarded.
Now you were singing in what I feel is the most natural part of your singing range – your baritone range. Your voice sounded rich and full and absolutely seamless even when you maneuvered those wicked intervals from your lower to upper register. And that segue into the key change was pitch perfect and vocally astounding. By accessing your diaphragm in the earlier stages of this song, you actually improved the overall resonant quality of your voice in your upper range and, at times, you achieved an almost classical timbre to your voice, Taylor.
Stylistically, this song could not have been performed any better. You took this song by the bullhorns and injected your authentic soulful sound into the lyrics and melody. This was a song for the Soul Patrol and it was evident that your heart and your spirit during this song performance embodied your devotion and thanks to the fans whom have been instrumental to your success on American Idol.
And so, I say to you Mr. Hicks, congratulations and bravissimo for staying so utterly true to your personal artistic vision week after week on American Idol. Your excellence and commitment as a singer, composer and performer are what is so dearly needed in mainstream music today. Thank you for not compromising your ideals and for always keeping it real.
Critique: Taylor –as I said last week, you are an instinctive and creative performer and no one can ever nor should they ever undermine your unique artistic gifts. However, you must make certain that you protect and care for your voice properly. You have only one set of vocal cords, Taylor, and you must make certain that the correct technical approach is part of your daily rehearsal routine.
This week, as in other weeks, there were intermittent vocal production problems when you highlighted your whiskey tenor range. We never want you to lose this sound, Taylor – this is your trademark, your vocal signature. However, there were many moments where I thought your throat sounded very constrained during Living In the City and Levon. I can understand that the fatigue and stress at this point in the competition must be tremendous, but, nevertheless, you have to find ways to manage and care for your vocal health.
Try not speaking or singing for 48 hours before a performance. I know this is not possible during American Idol; however, once you establish your own tour schedule, make certain you insist on this. Schedule quiet and reflective time for yourself. It really works and the greatest classical artists in the world use this practice all the time. In fact, it is a well -known fact that pop star, Celine Dion, does not speak or sing prior to her performances. And – no whispering as this still creates additional stress on the vocal cords.
Over the course of this competition, a high level of comparison was noted between you and Elvis – your persona, your stage movements, your soulful vocal sound, the Southern connection – all are justified. Presently, your vocal sound reminds me of a young Elvis, when he was vocalizing mainly in his tenor range. Listen to the earliest recordings of The King, and then compare the startling difference in his vocal timbre once he moved the key selection for his songs down a few notches in his later years.
This is the direction I feel you should pursue in terms of appropriate key selection for your voice. It was so evident in your second and, certainly, your third number that your voice sounded more energized and resonant when the melodic line of these songs highlighted and emphasized your lower and mid range voice. Your voice sounded absolutely stellar, very rich!
However, please don’t mistake this as evidence that you cannot sing into your upper range; on the contrary, you never want to lose your upper voice and that head tone (falsetto) is excellent. . However, you are at an age now where your voice is starting to deepen, and your lower range will definitely become easier to access when you sing. It is a well-known fact that everyone starts to lose his or her natural agility for attaining open and free head tone notes with the passage of time and that is why technique is so important. It ensures that, at the very least, the technical process will assist you in securing a solid, pitch centered and pure head tone register. You must learn to showcase your upper range in a way that does not overextend or tax the natural agility of the vocal cords. It’s about achieving a comfortable balance between all areas of your vocal register, Taylor.
However, Taylor my man, you have been a joy and pleasure to evaluate each and every week. What you do on that stage – well, it is something that cannot be taught. Like a fish can instinctively swim or a bird can fly, you, Taylor possess all the correct instincts when you sing. It is part of who you are as a person and as a performer and both entities are intertwined. Don’t ever change, because this is what has made you such a treasured and memorable person throughout this competition.
Congratulations on your American Idol triumph. It was a difficult road for sure, but the Soul Patrol had your back all the way. In the end, it is gratifying to know that excellence truly rises to the top. Kudos!
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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!