by Dianne Austin
American Idol has just started its 12th season. The first shows of the new season premiered on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 16th and 17th, featuring a new panel of judges that include Keith Urban, Niki Minaj, and Mariah Carey. The seasoned, resident judge, Randy Jackson, is still in tow, and the devil-may-care Mr. Ryan Seacrest, continues to grace the stage as the emcee.
In today's TV world, a twelve-season stat is nothing to thumb your nose at. If you've wondered why the show has had such longevity, the bet is that a great part of its success is due to the efforts put forth by its two Executive Producers, Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick. Others, however, will venture to say that it's also because of some key people who work (for the most part) behind the scenes--the indefatigable American Idol Vocal Coaches.
Michael Orland is an AI Vocal Coach of a special sort because he's been with the show since its beginning. Orland now starts each new season going out on summer auditions with the rest of the crew, and his job doesn't end until the proverbial crown is placed on the new Idol's head, several months later.
On second thought—please excuse the blunder—this isn't true at all. Orland's job doesn't end when the Idol is named. He continues accompanying the runners-up on promotional appearances at various venues and TV shows for some time after the show has come to a close.
So what's his hiatus like? Well, after speaking with him for just a few minutes, it becomes clear that he doesn't spend too much time basking under a palm tree with a drink in his hand. Some vacation time may be taken, but the rest of the year is filled with other individual musical pursuits that will add to the legacy he's already established as one of the greatest “piano-men,” songwriter/arrangers, and musical mentors around!
An interview with Mr. O. is quite revealing for many reasons. He's down to earth, accessible, always inspired by some “one” or some “thing” new that's grabbed his attention, forever excited to share his inspirations, and he ALWAYS has the gift of gab!
Q: Will the new panel of judges in any way change the format of the show?
A: You know, when Ellen [De Generes] was on it seemed to, so I would say yes. Maybe not the actual “format” but when you get entirely new and different personalities in there, it's bound to change the “tone.”
Q: How do you think the personalities of the judges will jive with one another?
A: Well, with these huge celebrity performers you're going to get some moments when they don't mix well, but aside from all the hype about that, we should remember that the three new people will be able to draw directly from their own experiences as artists when it comes to judging the contestants. In the early years, we only had Paula Abdul who came from that kind of a perspective. Now, we have three huge talents, and even if one or all of them are not your cup of tea, they still will be recognized as artists who bring a huge amount of know-how and knowledge to the table at American Idol.
Q: One of the concerns that is foremost in a lot of viewers' minds is--will American Idol be more about the judges than the contestants this year? Will it follow suit with so many of the newer talent show competitions and put more of a focus on the judges than on the kids?
A: I'm here to tell you no, that is not the case. Our show will be more about the contestants. Listen, all production staff people have to be concerned about the ratings. The ratings are indicated by how many watch the show--how “popular” it is. I'm sure that many will tune in to see what color hair Niki Minaj is showing up with tonight. Others want to take a look at the dress that Mariah is wearing. It's true that the judges create interest in this way but AI will always be the show that concentrates more on the contestants than on the judges—especially now because so many of the newer ones put a whole different kind of emphasis on the panel of judges.
Although Orland is not as recognizable as these high profile mentor-judges he speaks of, his role on the show is just as important. If you've been following AI for awhile, it's very likely you've heard Michael's name repeated often by scores of Idol alumni. Now, audiences are beginning to recognize his face as well. Orland's the one who is generally sitting behind the piano when individual (and small group) rehearsals take place. Contestants flock to him. As was depicted in an earlier article, he can be thought of as the “Pied Piper” for American Idol contestants. And there's a reason for that.
Michael's approach with the kids is one of warmth, vigor, and a nurturing spirit. Many of them are young and away from home for the first time—no family to help support the nerves, the daily life questions that come to people of that age who are finding their way, and who have been given an opportunity to find it fast. Orland fills in some of the gaps for them, not only for what he provides in the way of professional advice and knowledge, but also as a cushion and sounding board for fears, hopes, and dreams. He advises and critiques but does it with a gentle and nourishing emphasis. He seems to know when to boot 'em in the butt and when to cover them over with a protective blanket. He instills and develops trust, hope, and courage.
Not to say that it's just been a one-way stream of things for Orland, with all give and no take. He's the first to tell you that these kids, this show, these producers, have given back to him ten-fold, and that if there is a number one dream job that exists in the world, it is his job. When the show first premiered in 2002, the show's producers had him at hello, and vice versa.
Q: How has your role changed over the years?
A: For the longest time it was just two of us—Debra Byrd and me. During season 10 we brought in more people who could function in this role because the work load had gotten to be so much more. The responsibilities for the contestants were increased and the heavier burden put upon them for songs they had to practice and produce became so much greater. One of the people who was brought on board during that time was Peisha McPhee, Katharine McPhee's (Season 9 first runner-up) mother.
Today, Michael and Peisha work side by side on American Idol doing the same thing—coaching and guiding the contestants. These two have formed, not only a strong professional alliance due to their similarities in style and personality, but also a solid bond of friendship.
“I've found a best friend in Peisha,” Michael told us. “We love working together, both on Idol and our own online business, but we love just hangin' together as well. I can't believe we do so much together outside of work and I feel quite blessed to have her in my life!”
The personal business Orland refers to is FindYourUniqueVoice.com. It's designed to aid aspiring artists to ace that highly desirable audition. People are encouraged to send in a video of themselves performing a song, and Orland and McPhee view it, and then mail back a very detailed report on their reactions to voice, style, demeanor, and confidence level. Imagine receiving personalized advice and critiques from two of the biggest vocal coaches in the business! This web-based organization makes it possible. (Be sure to view the video here on Find Your Unique Voice at the bottom of the page!)
When he's not working on the set of Idol or focusing on the latest wanna-be star- singer who has mailed in their latest audition practice piece to him, Orland is often swept up by other performing-arts teams, organizations, and venues to work on projects and lend his own personal flare.
This past year, Michael was the Musical Director for Radio City Music Hall's Christmas show, and later, he also worked on a specialized form of musical theater called the “English Panto” with Lythgoe Family Productions.
The Panto is a musical play based on a story or fairy tale, but with contemporary music and Pop culture references applied. For example, the one they just produced was Snow White. The script for the stage version was rewritten and then set to music, but the music wasn't anything like what we remember from the Disney animated film. For the Snow White Panto, Pop and Hip-Hop favorites were woven into the threads of the story with the intent of completely updating it. In some cases, this can make for a very interesting and innovative take on an old tale, and often times, it can also make for a lot of laughs.
Q: We know that the “Panto” originated in England. How has it been received by audiences here?
A: Oh, our audiences loved it because it's like interactive family theater. Since the stories are old favorites to begin with, everyone knows what's going to happen when the wicked witch does her thing and that's when the audience starts booing. When Prince Charming kisses Snow White and wakes her the audience cheers.
Is another Panto in Mr. O's future? You bet it is! Keep an eye and ear out for the next one of these innovative theater experiences coming to the Pasadena Playhouse next summer!
It's no wonder that Michael Orland continues to be everyone's favorite on the set and behind the scenes at American Idol. Co-workers are charmed by his easy going nature and wit and contestants feel blessed to have a coach who is so musically talented with a nature that rarely shows them a scowl or frown but always leads with patience and humility. Think of all the lives he's touched--even changed! It's been twelve years and the sheer numbers of young people who have worked with him are mind-boggling!
It's easy to imagine that if all of Mr. O's colleagues and students were gathered in one great music hall to hail his achievements and applaud his efforts, the ovations would not stop after only one wave—they would go on and on until they achieved a “standing O” (with the pun made here--absolutely intended!)
American Idol airs each week on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. In order to glimpse Mr. Orland in action with the contestants, you can tune in to the Hollywood week segments of the show which will be televised on February 6th, 7th, 13th and 14th!