Saturday evening I sank into an armchair with a footrest to get my poor ankle up for awhile (the tendons and ligaments are still healing). I picked up the TV remote and started flipping through channels. Landed on "Making the Band IV" on MTV. Now first of all, I generally do not like MTV. Second, "Making the Band" is produced by Sean "Puffy" Combs, the rapper. I do not like rap. In the show--this being the fourth season--P Diddy (same guy, for those of you who don't know) holds American-Idol type auditions for singers and puts together a band. This year he's putting together an R&B/soul band. Now that I like. I also love seeing unknown talent be discovered and grow. All the auditioners were singing songs from Boyz II Men and that ilk. Man, I love those songs.
Anyway. In two back-to-back shows, a final fifty-eight guys from all across the U.S. were whittled down to the big 20. These talented 20 go live in a house owned (rented?) by P Diddy in New York City. (Hey, a rapper rhyme.) Then they have to get down to business and work real hard to perfect their talent. Only a handful will be chosen for the final band. They exercise, learn dance routines with a choreographer, and work on their singing with a known vocal coach.
It was vocal coaching scene that totally enthralled me.
The vocal coach is an older black man with the name of Ankh Ra. (People always call this guy by his first and last names and run them together. It comes out like "ANKra.") He's sort of a Yoda-like, wise mentor figure. One by one the 20 guys had to sing a song and be critiqued. A cute young black man named Chris introduced his song as being about someone who died. He launched in and immediately began snapping his fingers. Ankh Ra stopped him. (I will paraphrase the conversation.)
"I thought you told me this is about someone who died. And you're already snapping your fingers?"
Eventually Chris said he did that to help him "cover the pain."
Ankh Ra said huh-uh. "I don't want you to cover up your pain; I want you to feel it."
As Chris stood in front of the 19 other guys, Ankh Ra talked him through what the song meant.
Ankh Ra asked Chris what his grandfather would say to him right now, seeing him in this competition. Chris gave a long answer about trying hard and believing in yourself--and started to cry. Ankh Ra kept at him. In a gentle, understanding way, coaxing out of this young man why he was so pained about his grandfather's death. Finally the answer:
"I never had the chance to tell him I love him."
By this time a bunch of the other guys in that room, most in their twenties, were teary-eyed.
"Tell your grandfather now," Ankh Ra said.
And Chris did.
Finally he sat down without finishing the song. He was crying too hard to have the needed open throat to sing. Ankh Ra hugged him. Told him he'd done some good work. The coach's point to the guys was--singing isn't just about notes and words. It's about emotion. A singer is an artist who must project the emotion of the song to the audience. Without that emotion, the song isn't believable. The best voice in the world won't carry it.
Then Dan got up--one of the few white boys. He started to sing a love song. Dan's got a great voice, but Ankh Ra stopped him after about four lines. The coach shook his head. "I don't believe you. I don't believe you."
He talked Dan through the song. Why had he chosen it? Because the words meant something to Dan. He told the story--a long friendship, with the guy thinking this girl should be more than a friend, that "this girl's the one for me." Finally he gets the courage to tell her so.
"What happened?" Ankh Ra asked. "What's the end of the story?"
Dan broke into a smile. "It worked. We're together." And the kid just beamed.
"There, see that?" Ankh Ra said. "That's emotion. Give me that when you sing."
Dan started in again. This time he felt the performance. And it worked. The song just rolled out of him. His vocal inflection, facial expression, body language--all worked together to make the audience feel. The other guys nodded their heads and smiled. You could see them feeling it.
At the end of the session, Ankh Ra told the guys, "You all have stuff in you. Let it out. That's what makes you an artist. If you stuff it down, it stops the flow."
What a brilliant lesson for a group of young men who thought singing was just about--singing. No, no, Ankh Ra says. Their artistry comes not just from their throats. It comes from inside them. It comes from who they are. The more they're in touch with who they are and what they feel, the better singers they'll be.
"Don't be afraid to let it out," Ankh Ra said. "Don't be afraid to let it out."