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'Idol' Tracker: Debra Byrd teaches the world to sing

March 20, 2008 |  3:02 am

Debrabyrd1 Just one week into the season and already the first shock waves spread across the Idoldome; not really for the ouster of rocker girl Amanda Overmyer, a delightful personality but ultimately an underperforming novelty candidate more than a serious contender.  Far more shocking still was the first intimation of many heartbreaks to come with the horrifying placement of the Great Irish Hope, Carly Smithson in the bottom three.

With nine weeks ahead between now and Nokia, there will be surprises aplenty, and ultimately, all but two of our warriors must fall before that day.  In a season as rich with competitors as this, no one, it seems, can afford even one off week (no one except The Chosen One, David Archuleta).  There were, however, some heart-stopping moments while we in the Idoldome watched a very stricken Carly wait to hear her fate and there is good reason to think a major riot would have ensued had the verdict gone another way.  As is, we can chalk this up to one of those helpful early scares many go through and that can motivate a singer’s partisans.  And now Carly gets her own room.

Last week, I had a fascinating phone call with one of the people most responsible for helping the contestants to never have a bad week: Debra Byrd, "American Idol’s" vocal coach and arranger. 

I expressed to her my sympathy for the contestants in the ridiculously impossible task of picking (in one day) a song that allows them to express their vocal abilities but also stays within their natural range while showing they can do something different while being true to the original version, while taking chances with it, while picking a great song, but not one whose original version is so great that you can’t possibly touch it.  When I asked her how she navigates the singers through this minefield, Byrd (as her friends call her) said with a laugh, “Navigate is the correct word.  It really, really is.”

Offering a case study, she shared the story of the making of what has been perhaps the most celebrated performance of the season: Chikeze’s rendition of “She’s a Woman.” “What you did not see was the agony of him trying to choose the song. He had chosen 'Help!' and we worked on it and he began changing the arrangement. He changed the chords. And I said, ‘You can't do that to a Beatles song, my dear. Sorry. You can't do it.’ And I said, ‘You're either going to have to do one of two things. You're going to have to surrender to what the song is or you're going to have to pick another song.’”  Late in the game, with only a tiny amount of time left before the Tuesday show, Chikezie “slept on it, thought about it overnight and came in and said, ‘OK, I've changed my song.’”

Byrd continues, “When he first sang the song ‘She's a Woman’ and I couldn’t feel it. I said, because part of it is finding it, ‘is it an R&B vibe? Is it a rock vibe?’ How do you see yourself singing it?’ And he got very excited and he said, ‘Oh OK! I want a banjo and I want a fiddle!’ And I was like, OK now I can hear it. And as soon as he said banjo and fiddle, then I could hear it.”

On last week’s other major sensation, Carly Smithson’s  “Come Together,” Byrd revealed that although she had performed this frequently before, the rehearsal time also brought some critical changes. After practicing it a few times, Byrd and Smithson felt that despite the singer’s comfort and history with the material, something still wasn’t clicking. It was at this point that Byrd wondered, “With her band was she singing ‘Come Together’ in Paul McCartney's key?”

After confirming that she was in fact singing in the original Beatles key, Carly and Byrd conferred and decided to try it in a higher key. " And you know she was very happy because it changed her vibe. She didn’t sound like a guy anymore.  She sounded sexy like Tina Turner.”

One of the biggest challenges, as the judges complain and Byrd commiserates, is working with contestants to find their musical identity.  While some arrive fully formed, for others it’s a grueling process that may not sort itself out until late in the season.  Byrd explains, “They have to discover themselves. And what we on the music team do is we help them discover. I would like to use Phil Stacey from last season as an example, if I may. Phil Stacey is a wonderful, wonderful singer. But he couldn’t figure out his vibe. He couldn’t figure out his genre. And I think halfway through, when he latched on to certain songs, then he got in.

“Chikezie just had that same kind of epiphany because with, last week's song. He said, 'Who knew I could sing that stuff like that, I didn’t know it.' So, I love watching them discover new things about themselves. That's really a joy and that's what keeps me excited about all this stuff.”

For Byrd, her journey with Idol began at "'American Idol’s'" beginnings, when just before Season One, after a long singing career of her own, she was desperate for a job that would keep her off the road. “I was driving on my way to do a vocal demo for a Diane Schuur jazz album that Barry Manilow was recording and on the way there I got a phone call to redo -- the last show I did was 'Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk.' So, on the way to the session it's like we want you to do the role with Savion Glover. I said, 'OK fine, no problem.' I had done the role for two years already. But I remember thinking, 'Oh boy, that means I have to go on the road again, eight shows a week.' Then, just on my way back from that session I got another call saying, 'There's a new TV show that needs a vocal coach. You are not performing. It's a singing show and you are helping singers in a competition' and he kept saying, 'You are not performing.' And he said, 'I thought of you first because I love the way you work with singers.' And I said, 'Yes and I don’t know what "American Idol" is but count me in.' Famous last words.”

Now Byrd’s year is consumed for months by "American Idol" followed by months up north where she serves as the vocal coach for "Canadian Idol."  Of that show she says, “'Canadian Idol' is more rock-based than 'American Idol.' And that’s because the executive producers are rock 'n' roll guys, a sister and brother and they are rock 'n' roll people. I've done a lot of rock medleys for 'Canadian Idol.'”

Having been a pillar of the Idol establishment since its formation, Byrd has now lived long enough to see the children that Idol created grow up and become contestants themselves. She says, however, that while  "American Idol" contestants often cower in awe and shy away from the signature songs of the giants Clarkson, Underwood and McPhee, the contestants on "Canadian Idol" revel in performing the classics. “I would have 'Canadian Idol' kids saying, ‘OK, I want to sing this Kelly Clarkson song.’ Or even deeper than that, ‘I want to sing -- do the same arrangement that Tamyra Gray did for the big band show.’ They've become very show-specific and then I have this whole flashback of, 'Oh yeah. I remember working with her on that. We did this, we did that and it's very interesting.' They want to sing a past "American Idol" song, which is very interesting whereas they won't do that on this show.”

Byrd goes on, “The 'Canadian Idol,' the girl who eventually won, said, ‘Byrd I want to sing Katharine McPhee's version of 'Who Wants to Live Forever?' I said, ‘Oh yeah that's the one Mandisa did.’ She said, ‘No, it's Katharine McPhee.’ I said: ‘Trust me. It's Mandisa.’ It's interesting how this thing becomes cyclical. It freaks me out because for me being there from Day One and I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, I worked on that.’ How cool is that?  So, you know it's quite a joy for me.”

In her brief break between the two Idols, like all the pillars of the Idol establishment, manically super-achieving year-round, Byrd trains the future generation of Idol contestants and singers with a series of seminars, “Welcome to Star School,” where she offers students and her families the basics in auditioning and the business of singing.  She also has created an instructional video in how to audition, titled “Vocal Help Now.”  And many former Idol contestants, including Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, can be spotted carrying around a little electronic device Byrd created called “Pocket Tones,” a digital pitch pipe singers can put to their ears and instantly get their starting note.

Asked what advice she gives her students on auditioning, she offers some sage counsel that the Idol contestants who this week had a bit too much to say after their songs would do well to keep in mind. “Sing something you know and don’t make excuses. 'Oh, my voice isn’t good.' 'Oh, I just woke up.' 'Oh, I have a cold.' Well, stay home because nobody cares. They really don’t care. And they don’t want to hear it because when you walk in the door with an excuse, that's how they remember you, the one with the excuses.”

- Richard Rushfield
(photo courtesy of Fox)

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