Everything's Coming Up Michael Orland!

auditioning broadway industry inspiration Oct 16, 2023

Written By: Chelsea & Cynthia 

Featuring: Michael Orland 

For 16 seasons, Michael Orland coached superstar hopefuls on the hit show, American Idol. As a music director, arranger, and vocal coach to folks like Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, and more (!), he knows that the singer/pianist relationship is one of the most intimate you can have with someone.

We were honored to sit down with Michael and learn from him what makes a memorable performance (it's more than just impressive vocals, friends!) and how following up and showing up is half the battle! 

If the idea of auditioning for these iconic shows has ever crossed your mind, you'll want to keep reading this insightful interview!

Q: How did you first get started on reality talent shows? And did you have any idea what you were getting into when you first started?

A: I tell people all the time that this whole business is about who you know, and being at the right place at the right time. And yes, you have to have talent to sustain it. 

A long time ago, I was a rehearsal pianist for Barry Manilow, and I met Barry's background singer and his musical director at the time who happened to be the head of American Idol Season One. I'd never heard of the show, but they called me one day because I used to play for Barry's rehearsals and every time they had a new background singer, I would come in and help my friend Deborah teach all the parts. So they called me and they said "This show is right up your alley, you know every song ever written, Burt Bacharach's coming on as a mentor this week..."

And because I never heard of the show, I said, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I can't come in tomorrow. I have a prior commitment with a friend"  And Deborah literally said to me, "Okay, just let me tell you something. This show is right up your alley. You need to be on this show. Please bug me in three weeks. We need to get you on here".

It's all about the follow-through, which I was never good at. But I really did call her back three weeks later because my friend Amy Engelberg, who's a television writer, I had told her what happened and that I turned it down, and she immediately said I needed to call Deborah back because it's the best show ever.

Anyway, I called her back a few weeks later and Deborah said to me, "Be here tomorrow morning at the Kodak Theater, we're going to be here all week getting the finale ready". I followed up to ask how long we would be there, and she let me know the call time was at 8 AM and I'd be there all day. And that was it. I just never left for 16 years.

  And I just have to add, what's unbelievable as you both know, the singer, coach, and pianist relationship is the most intimate relationship you can have with somebody, which is what I love. I have become lifelong friends with so many of these people.

Q: What is it like coaching an American Idol contestant? And how much time do you have with the contestants each week in order to get the performance out of them?

A: It's not a lot of technique building, because we also don't spend a lot of time together, we would get them like for an hour a day. These kids would come into our room on a Wednesday with a brand-new song they never heard. And six days later, they had to perform it in front of 30 million people. So, we got to do some performance techniques, but we didn't really get to fix their notes. We could tweak a note here and there, but they didn't get a voice lesson every day, which they probably should have. They all had vocal issues during the show because nobody ever sings that much every day, for that many hours.

We mainly focused on the cuts and even though we weren't allowed to pick their songs because it had to be the contestant's choice only, we'd still find ways to let them know what we thought was best. But I also got to be a therapist, pianist, and comic relief for these kids who are going through such stress. You can't believe the pressure they're under, especially in the heyday of the show when 30 million people a night for two nights a week were watching the show.

Q: Did you find there were qualities or characteristics that the people who went really far on the show seemed to have in common? Was there anything that predicted success for some of these contestants?

A: Okay, that's my favorite question ever, ever, ever. The ones with the great work ethic are the ones today that you know their name. Jennifer Hudson used to be in the hallway listening to her track we just made her, practicing her song, and some of the other kids were on the phone with their boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, aunt - whoever.

Of course, there's luck and timing and the music business has changed so much now. But at the beginning of ldol, people would release an album and it would go triple platinum in a month. Now, if a winner releases a song and it doesn't do anything, the management company or label just drops them. But it's definitely all about work ethic.

I mean, Kristen Chenoweth rehearses more than anybody I know. And I tell people that all the time, it's like she can't get enough rehearsals in. But that's why those people are so good, it's everything to me.

So often I hear friends say their voice is in great shape and that they don't need voice lessons anymore. And I'm like, no. Who stops taking voice lessons? You are always learning. Chita Rivera, who's in her nineties, still takes voice lessons. So keep going. You can always learn, always improve and keep everything in great shape.

Q: What advice you might have for folks who are interested in auditioning for reality TV?

A: People come to me all the time who are auditioning for The Voice, America's Got Talent, and American Idol, which I encourage everybody to just go for it. Especially today with social media, you get on that show for two weeks, 10 weeks, five weeks, whatever. It's huge, you can't work in enough theaters, cabarets, or karaoke bars to get that kind of exposure.

But, and it's also a great learning tool. However, you've got to have the work ethic to really follow through. And I make everybody know going in, these are TV shows, not talent shows. I have sent so many people into all shows that you guys would be blown away who don't make it through for whatever reason.

They might not have a story they feel people are going to cling to or they might just come from a happy family. I don't know. There are so many things that factor in, but still, I say go for it. You don't know why somebody is going to catch on. And that's why I encourage everybody, even with how weird the music business is today, somebody's song can still go viral on TikTok for no reason. I think that if you can emotionally handle what they put you through, then it is worth the ride and the exposure.

This is the other important thing to know is that it matters that you aren't a karaoke version of someone else. Change the song up, no matter what you do, just to make it your own. It doesn't mean completely changing or ruining it. But I don't want to hear you sing Billie Eilish's song and imitate her sound and sing it just like her. I want you to do your own thing to it. Don't be afraid to take an up-tempo song and make it a ballad, or sing another gender song. 

Q: Speaking of social media, do you have any thoughts or advice for artists who are trying to get their songs to go viral on TikTok or gain exposure online? 

A: Here's the thing, I don't have the magic formula. But I think social media is so important as much as I hate it. I know as horrible as the internet is, and especially with spam and all that, but it's still important. I'm disgusted when I hear people say they couldn't get an audition for a commercial because they didn't have at least 5, 000 followers. I think that's horrifying, but it's just the way it is now. I wish I had the formula for how to make a song go viral because I would put one of mine up there. But it's worth it, consider it like a little side job that you have to be doing. Because I do love the opportunities it can bring people.

Q: Can you expand on the relationship between a music director, a pianist, and the singer?

A: I think the relationship between a singer and a pianist or a coach or a teacher is like the most intimate you can get. Especially like when we were on American Idol, we used to tell them all the time when they came into the room for their coaching sessions, this is your safe place. Nobody's judging you in here, nobody's picking apart - we only want to help. If you're stressed out, I'm going to make you laugh and I'm going to make you forget about all that for a minute. It's like playing piano for somebody and breathing with them. It's incredibly intimate and it's what continues to inspire me to be creative as I continue in my career. 

Q: What is different about performing on a live TV show appearance versus a pre-taped?

A: No matter what, I think a singer/actor has to be as prepped as can be, always. There's no getting away with it. Although I think on taped things, you can do things over if you have to, but even at the rehearsal process of American Idol, there were cameras just capturing everything we were doing and you could see the whole process. But when it's live, what happens happens. That's it.

I remember in season two, Clay Aiken was singing Vincent because the producers picked it for him, but he did not love that song and preferred another much more. The instructions were that you have three songs and four and a half minutes total to sing them, making each song like a minute and a half. So I said, how about this? Let's make the other song two minutes long and we'll make a short cut of Vincent to be one minute long. 

Well, the producers heard it at the dress rehearsal, the day of the live show. They came up to me, and were like, "What did you do to that song? This is our favorite song and he barely sings it". And they brought Clay and me into a room and made us fix the song right now two hours before we went live.

Clay hated the song and he had to sing an extra verse of it. You're not allowed to use teleprompters on live shows, nobody gets lyrics. He literally went blank because he learned it two hours before the live show. If you go back and watch him singing, Vincent messes it up because he forgot the lyrics. But that one goes down in Idol history and just the reality of the live aspect. You just can't always prepare for everything, and you have to be okay with that. Not everything is always in your control. 

If you're interested in diving deeper into this interview or exploring other interesting musical theatre conversations - check out the Broadway Vocal Coach podcast! Or check us out on Instagram, and get involved in the conversation! 

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