Preparing for Your American Idol Audition: How to Turn Yourself into a Pop Star

You would think that for a singing audition, the most important thing would be how well you sing. Unfortunately (and being a voice teacher, it pains me greatly to say this), this is not the case. The quality of your singing is only one aspect of what judges and audiences of pop music are looking for . . . and it's probably not even one of the most important things. If you want to blow away your competition at your American Idol audition, or any other pop music audition or performance you are going to do, there are four major areas that you have to have down solid:

1. Appearance

Like most things in life, your first impression on the judges and your audience will be how you look. Before you have opened your mouth to sing one note, they will have already have an opinion and expectation of what you will sound like and, unless you have a voice like Paul Potts orSusan Boyle, you will have a hard time changing their minds. And even then, you will notice that neither of those singers are filling any concert halls. Audiences want to listen to singers that they like to look at, and judges will strongly consider this in their decision.

As part of your preparation for performing, you should find out how to make yourself look as attractive as possible. This means finding clothes, makeup and hair styles that are attractive and set you apart from the audience. You need to be the person that everyone's eyes are drawn to in the room. When done right, your appearance will bring a boost of confidence that will help keep you from getting too nervous.

Professional singers and actresses always have special clothing and hair and makeup styles that they use for their performances. It is different from "day to day" makeup and clothing, so you will need to learn the difference and do it right. The best thing you can do is observe other singers of the same genre you are singing and find a similar style that works for you.

It is also usually a good idea to include elements in your appearance that are unique and stand out. This may mean a unique hair color or style, a bold clothing color or cut,a unique accessory . . . anything that makes you more memorable to the judges can be a good thing. Just make sure it could not possibly be offensive to them, or you can kiss your audition good-bye!

2. Stage Presence

Stage presence is the intangible element that shows the audience that you are a professional rather than an amateur. Perhaps it would be easier to start off with what stage presence is not. Stage presence is not nervously shifting your feet or moving your fingers. It is not apologizing to your audience for being there or looking down at your feet. However, stage presence is also not how you normally act around your friends and family either. (If you acted that way around them, they would probably call you conceited and fake.)

Stage presence is taking control of the stage and being comfortable as the center of everybody's attention. It is a larger-than-life show of confidence and enjoyment for the sake of those watching.  It also requires a larger expenditure of personal energy than normal day life that can be exhausting to those who aren't used to it. A performer may actually be nervous or not be enjoying themselves at the time, but the audience will never know because he or she turns on their stage presence when they step in front of the audience and puts on a show of confidence and enjoyment for them.

A good way to learn about and practice stage presence is to take a drama class. Once again, you should observe how other singers act on stage and try to copy their demeanor. Your voice teacher may also be able to help.

3. Singing

Not until well after the audience and judges have seen the performer and seen how confident and happy they look will they finally hear their voice. By this time they have probably already decided whether they like you and want to hear more, or whether they think you are unprofessional and not worth their time. Many successful singers manage to get by with voices that are weak or not pretty, making up for it either by their appearance (think Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson) or their stage presence or interpretation (think Bono or Mik Jagger). However, competition in the music industry is more tight than just about any other profession: if you are serious about pursuing a career in it, you should do everything you can to sing as well as possible.

The first and most obvious thing that has to be right about your voice is pitch. Nothing turns an audience off a singer faster than an out-of-tune note. (While again, a handful of singers have gotten by with pitch problems--such as Meatloaf and the lead singer of Third Eye Blind--by liberal use of auto-tune, I would not count on a judge or record label taking you when they could take someone else who can sing in tune.) Out-of-tune singing comes from one of two problems either you are tone-deaf (you cannot hear the difference) or your voice lacks training and experience to hit the right notes. Both problems can be fixed by working with a voice teacher. (The first may take some time but the second may only require a few weeks!)

The second area of concern in the voice is called projection. This means being able to sing loudly enough to be heard across a room, without resorting to screaming. It requires proper breath support and widening of the throat and mouth. Again, a voice teacher will help you with this. (With the advent of the microphone, it would seem that projection is not necessary when you could just turn up the volume. However, projecting the voice not only makes it louder but gives it a different tone and smoothness than the normal voice that is usually preferred. No one wants to hear a "mousy" singing voice, and even Karen Carpenter got flak for singing too quietly.)

Two more considerations of a good voice are pronunciation and tone. It is almost always important that a singer sings the lyrics in a way that the audience can understand them. This means holding out the vowels on the long notes and crisply singing the consonants at the ends of the syllables. Usually singers will pronounce words a little more purely while singing than they might while talking. A voice teacher will help you work on this, as well as making the tone of your voice more appropriate to the music you sing. (Usually more beautiful, unless you're singing metal.)

Finally, a very important (and largely unteachable) part of singing is learning and performing in style. This refers to all of the subtle things singers add to the music to personalize and fit it into the genre: a scoop here, a slide there, waiting a split-second to come in here, coming in a split-second early there, making your voice breathy here, making it louder there, adding extra notes here, singing the part up higher there, etc. Style can really only be learned by listening to other singers and copying what they do. Once you have learned the various things that can be done, then you can use some of stylistic elements that sound good in your voice in your own songs to personalize them. This is especially important if you are singing a "cover" song that other singers have sung before. You should always try to avoid singing an exact replica of another singer's version of it, but work out your own version.

4. Interpretation

Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of performing pop music (it's a toss-up with appearance) is interpretation. It is what connects you with your audience and draws them in wanting more. It is what allows the audience to think that they are experiencing a rare intimate experience with you that makes them leave feeling like something important has happened between them and you. It is the difference between seeing a piece of clothing on the hanger or being worn by a beautiful celebrity.

Interpreting a song is much more than merely singing it right. It is more like if you are dramatically telling all the details of a wonderful (or horrible) thing that happened to you to your best friend. To properly interpret a song, you must be able to express the words and music in a way that the audience feel like you are really experiencing the emotion portrayed in the song--love, hate, sadness, excitement, etc.--before their very eyes. To do this, you actually have to fool yourself on a level into thinking that you are experiencing what the lyrics are talking about so that you can elicit that emotion in yourself and it will show in your voice and expressions. By doing this the audience feel like they have shared a special moment with you and will feel a connection to you.

The best way to work on your interpretation of a song is to read the lyrics by themselves and try to picture what story they are telling. Add your own details that aren't mentioned in the lyrics: What happened before? What happens after? Most importantly, what emotions are you, as a participant in the story feeling during each phrase of the lyrics. If your song is about a fun party, you might be feeling excited and adventurous. To even more attract your audience, you might act flirty. If your song is about unrequited love, than you will feel longing, frustration and infatuation. If your song is about a bitter break-up, than you will feel anger and maybe some sadness for verity.

While you do need to fool yourself into thinking you're in the story so your reactions will look genuine, don't go overboard. Always stay in control. If you get choked up you may not be able to sing at all. The important thing is that the emotion is communicated to your audience. If you are sad but they can't tell, it is worthless and you have failed. Every emotion, even if you would normally keep it hidden inside, must be allowed to flow out of your body and be directed right at your audience. If you are at the party, you must flirt at them. If you are in love, you must be in love with them. If you just broke up, you must be angry at them. This allows the full power of the emotion to land on your audience and give them their money's worth.

Now, most singers don't stare at individual members of the audience as they are doing this. That could be very scary or disgusting, depending on the person. Instead, they imagine the audience as a single, faceless person above, behind, or in the middle of the crowd and they direct everything there.

Getting Ready for the Audition

Preparing yourself for the big day will take some time. Give yourself at least three months to choose your songs and get them ready . . . and much more time if any of these concepts are completely new to you. Remember that you will never perform as well in public as your do in private, so practice up until everything is down solid!

If you don't already have one, get a voice teacher so you can start working on breath support, tone, register shifts and pronunciation.  Most importantly, your voice teacher can listen to you with experienced ears and let you know what works, what doesn't and how you can fix it. 

Take every opportunity you can to gain experience performing.  It is only natural to be petrified up in front of a panel of judges and who knows how many audience members!  But just like anything, the more you practice it, the easier it gets.  More performing means more opportunities to get your clothes, makeup and hair right.  More opportunities to practice your stage presence and interpretation.  Most importantly, you can practice coping with stage freight and practicing the techniques that keep it in check.  As a reminder, those things are: knowing that you look good, keeping a persona of confidence and enjoying the show (which in turn, focuses your mind away from fearful thoughts), knowing how to make your voice do what it's supposed to every time, and focusing on the story of the song you are performing, rather than what you think the audience might be thinking about you.

Practice these things again and again and you will be more ready than most of the other contestants.  Best of luck in your future as a pop star!  Break a leg!

About the Author:

With over 25 years of experience training, performing and teaching music, Gregory Blankenbehler has performed in Italy, England and France and completed a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance. From his focused studies into comparative vocal pedagogy and private teaching experience, he has become an expert on teaching effective vocal technique to singers of all ages and specializes in rehabilitating "troubled" voices and helping them to reach their full potential. Gregory maintains a large studio of voice and piano students in the Sacramento, California area where he also performs regularly and teaches community music classes for adults and children.  He is the author of Singing Lessons for Little Singers and the editor of the Bel Canto Masters Study Series.

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