Singing is more than just singing

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danceThe folks at GhostNote Music, a local music store owned by musicians, posted this link to an article about Harry Connick, Jr. on American Idol. The article basically explains what happens when Connick attempts to coach the four finalists on the show through performances of pieces from the Great American Songbook. Standards like Stormy Weather and You’ve Changed and My Funny Valentine. What happens is it hurts. It’s painful for Connick to hear the contestants turn the songs into showcases for their vocal tricks.

I don’t have any vocal tricks, which is a good thing, as I’m not on American Idol. What appeals to me about singing is that it feels like channeling something. When you sing a very old song–Fair and Tender Ladies or Shady Grove–you are channeling generations. Through your singing, you touch the people who first sang the notes hundreds of years ago and all the people in between.

Even when you’re singing something not quite that old, it is a way of reaching out to those who wrote the song or sang it before. How can you sing Me and Bobby McGee without thinking of Janis Joplin? Or Black Boys on Mopeds without at touching some of the rage that fills Sinead O’Connor’s early music? That is a powerful thing.

Connick wanted the contestants to actually find out something about the people who wrote these songs they were singing and sometimes about the people who most famously sang them. What does My Funny Valentine really mean? It’s not a funny song at all. What does it feel like, as in You’ve Changed, when someone you love drifts away?

The contestants on American Idol either didn’t listen or didn’t really understand what Connick was saying. Maybe they didn’t care. Randy Jackson, one of the judges, didn’t seem to understand what Connick was saying, either.

All this raises an interesting question. Is American Idol about learning an art form or becoming a pop star? They’re not the same thing. I’m not a fan of Idol; I confess I’ve only watched one season. But I don’t condemn the format. I very much enjoy So You Think You Can Dance, a show in which contestants compete to become America’s favorite dancer.

Like Idol, SYTYCD is partly a popularity contest. But along the way, judges and choreographers seem to also want to teach the dancers about their craft–their art form. They want them to watch footage of Bob Fosse or Gene Kelly or Martha Graham. They want them to learn how to tell a story with their bodies.

That seemed to be what Connick was trying to teach the American Idol contestants. You are more than a circus performer. Use your voice to move us. Too bad no one seemed to hear him.

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