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Polishing Their Pitch
The Cameras May Be Off, but the Heat Is Still On

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Finally, television's top-rated series gets to the meat and potatoes: The 12 male semifinalists take the stage Tuesday and the 12 female semifinalists Wednesday in two-hour sessions of "American Idol."

We'll see the contestants strut, sing and sweat on stage as they await possible skewering from the judges. But what we don't see are the arduous preparations that take place behind the scenes as coaches help contestants choose songs and polish performances before they take the stage in front of millions of viewers. The coaches -- part parent, part shrink -- must deal with contestants' fragile egos and their often extreme hopes and fears.

The guys work with associate music director Michael Orland and vocal coach Matt Rohde, the gals with Dorian Holley and vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd.

Orland and Byrd revealed how a typical week spins by, along with the pressures and challenges faced by the contestants -- some of whom have never sung in public or performed with live musicians.

Day 1:

The day after the results show is the most important and is "the hardest day, absolutely, because it's their music-picking day," Orland said.

Contestants learn the theme of the upcoming show, chosen by executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, and get a CD with snippets of 50 to 200 songs that fit in the category. Song selection is critical -- a point stressed week in and week out by judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

The final choice of what to sing, Orland said, falls to the contestants.

"We are technically not allowed to help in the song-picking," Orland said. "However, we can say, 'What did the judges say to you last week? What is it you want to show different?' It's all about the contestant bringing their best and showing a little something different every week -- you don't want to be a one-trick pony."

Each contestant gets an hour to select a song and find a proper, comfortable key. Then the song is edited to fit the 90-second performance slot. The challenge is to make the song sound complete while also showing off the contestant's vocal range and personality.

At that point, music director and bandleader Rickey Minor and associate music director John Beasley are e-mailed MP3 files of the contestants performing their songs. After some fine-tuning -- perhaps changing the key, adding or subtracting a bar, sharpening the beginning or ending -- they score each song and develop the orchestration themselves or delegate it via computer to one of 20 freelancers around the country.

Day 2:

Coaches spend a half-hour with each contestant to "perfect their song," Orland said, including finding ways to keep on pitch from the first notes. Concurrently, the "Idol" band starts rehearsing to prepare for live filming.

Before Minor arrived at the beginning of Season 4, contestants sang to prerecorded music. But that, Orland said, "left no wiggle room for tempo, holding a note longer or holding back for dramatic effect -- the things that happen in a live performance with live energy."

Now a five-piece band accompanies the final 24 contestants; the final 12 perform with a full 22-piece orchestra.

Days 3-4:

The contestants' often-hectic weekends include filming commercials, shopping, sitting for photo shoots and choosing a wardrobe. Though the contestants are urged to rest their voices, the coaches are always available to work on the songs.

Day 5:

Contestants rehearse with the band several times and learn the group number they will perform that week. The coaching teams help contestants shape their songs vocally and emotionally, and try to break some bad habits -- perhaps eyes are focused in the wrong direction or, more often, a song is performed with too many notes or too much volume.

"We constantly fight, constantly ask them to pull it back," Byrd said. "We'll work on it, but when they are under the gun, when the camera's rolling, when the audience is yelling, they'll fall back on that habit -- and whatever bad habits they have -- and just backslide."

But Byrd knows trying to teach or improve technique at this stage probably would hurt or confuse the mostly untrained contestants.

Day 6:

This is the most exhausting day of the week, full of drama and pressure. Contestants sing a song at least three times before showtime: once for sound check, once for camera blocking and lighting, and once for a dress rehearsal in front of an audience. (It's not the same audience that will be there that night, though clips from that performance will be used in the show.) The day ends with the all-important final performance -- the one that counts with millions of viewers.

Day 7:

Results day -- always very emotional -- has a different energy than any other day as the hopefuls learn who is cut from the competition. But the remaining contestants have to get over it immediately and get back to work as the whole grueling process revs up again.

AMERICAN IDOL

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

8 p.m., Fox

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