Singer Songwriter & Vocal Coach, Lizanne Hennessey - Voice Coach


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How are music-related reality shows destroying our relationship with music?

Hi all!
You all know which shows I'm talking about...

I am doing some research into integrating music and singing into our everyday lives, and find myself 'stuck' on singing out loud.

I'm a singer, I also give singing workshops, voice lessons and direct a children's choir. I was an 'in the closet' singer for years, all too aware of the voice being the most personal, vulnerable instrument there is.

In my experience singing with kids, I notice that something happens to kids after +/- 10 years old. Either they begin to lose their uninhibited musical nature and become so embarrassed about singing that nothing comes out, or they have so much confidence about their (mediocre) singing ability that they are convinced they will 'be famous' some day with as little effort as possible.

Music, particularly singing, comes naturally to us. It's a genetic tool. Whether we sing 'well' or not, is to me irrelevant. What's important is how music is used as a form of expression.
Commercialism, ratings and insane amounts of money have created a different kind of incentive to make music, that has nothing to do with music as a form of expression.

I have my own ideas about how music is suffering from these shows, but am curious about what you think.

(Any known TED presentations or talks related to this topic are welcome!)

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    May 5 2013: I think the point most people miss is that they are TV shows and have nothing to do with music.

    Music is not really something people listen to anymore (well, not like in my day). Even more than ever, it's become a commodity thanks to these sorts of shows (ratings) and the internet (likes and views).

    Thanks to these sorts of game shows, it's possible that a lot of young people think that if they have the latest hairstyle and can sing in tune, they only need a "break" to become the next Justin Beaver. These shows don't portray the hard work and graft that you actually need to put in to become a musician and performer.

    The concept of a music 'judge' is flawed from the beginning. We have an X factor show starting in New Zealand and it's rubbish. A lot of my friends have tried out. It's not something I care to do because the whole concept has not only been done before, it is almost the complete opposite of what attracted me to rock 'n roll and popular music.
    • May 6 2013: My sentiments exactly, Scott.
      Honestly, people seem so convinced about that ever-lingering 'big break', it's like there are a zillion 'breaks' just lying around, up for grabs! Considering there are only three major record labels left and money being an issue and a risk, those 'big breaks' are about as rare as finding a piece of hay in a stack full of needles!!

      I also wholeheartedly agree with what you say about judging. Music is a form of expression - there is simply no right or wrong way to express yourself. Shows like these, like you say, have nothing to do with music at all.
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    May 5 2013: My guess is that, from a psychological perspective, music has become far too left-brained, cliche'd and formulaic to stimulate the more primal right-brained centre for deep, emotional involvement and appreciation - which is really what music should be about.

    Unfortunately, if music is to make huge revenues, it has to be formulaic in order to guarantee income for the 'music' businesses. It is the music business that sets the formula - not the artists; hence the disproportionate rake-off of revenue for those at the top, with the artists receiving very little. It is no longer talent and natural ability that is rewarded.

    I think there is evidence for this when artists produce outstanding first (and possibly second) albums that showcase their real, raw talent - but then the record companies grab hold of it and apply the dreaded commercial formulae, thereby dumbing down every vestige of that original talent. Not surprisingly, the artist then fades into obscurity.

    It's not only music that suffers from such polarisations of priorities, and what now seems to be important in what we laughingly call 'artistic expression' within such formulae. It is a general principle, I feel - a marker if you like, of economic, psychological, political and ethical one-sidedness and their indisputable influences on what now passes for 'the arts'.

    If our relationship with music has got so dumbed down as to be willingly orchestrated by reality shows and big money, then it really is time to stop cozying up to big business. Removing the word "Industry" from the Music Industry might be a good start.
    • May 5 2013: Oh, Allan, you have summed this up just beautifully! Thanks so much for those links, as well.
      The Music Industry can be called what it is, as far as I'm concerned. I prefer to nestle myself into the artists who are still passionate about expression. What can we call that? The Dynamic Bunch?
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    May 16 2013: Music/vocal competition reality show (or whatever we call it) give us artists that instantly popular, something that will hit the market cause they have fans. It's good strategy for record companies, I'd say.
    Don't get me wrong. I think some of them are talented and worth to be support for their place in the world of music. But, as Elton John said once, these young artists do not have the whole idea of music business (He gave this interview few years ago. I'll try to search video for you ;)). They may be very good at singing and may know how to write songs, but they may not know about how to come up with their personal concept, style, production/ promotion process, marketing, and how to deal with all sort of other people in and out music world, etc. So eventually, they are in pipeline of production/ record company that provide them everything and they do not really have their own "identity" or "signature"; not so distinguish. Elton said that he has really rocky time figure all these out along his up and down career. That has trained and tough him along the way.

    So I think he made a good point of these reality show business. What do you think ? :)
    • May 16 2013: I agree completely, Kelwalin! It would be great if you could find that interview, I'd love to see it.

      That is perhaps indeed what is most disturbing about the music reality shows. Indeed, these people are thrown into the industry with so little preparation, they can so easily lose their way and pay the ultimate price...!

      Thank you for this!
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    R H

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    May 3 2013: "How will we get people to watch the ads? Music as competition. Music as sport. We'll find who's the strongest, the clearest, who can belt one outta here while doing somersaults! Then they'll buy the soap and we'll be rich.""Now, I've got an idea about bachelorettes..."
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    May 3 2013: It all started with the concept of getting "voted-off". The really big profit for media producers is in the drama of developing individuals over the weeks and building-up a fan base. It all gets more intense, and profitable, as the dreaded ELIMINATION looms ever nearer. It all culminates in the "Super Bowl" where #1 and #2 face-off. Wow, what intense drama, what gut-wrenching emotion, what edge-of-your-seat anxiety! It ain't about the music because there's no profit in music on TV (who remembers Lawrence Welk, or The Hit Parade, or Sing Along With Mitch, or The Amateur Hour, or even The Gong Show?). Music is reduced to a mere carrier for the real profit generator. . . human drama.
    • May 3 2013: Yes, human drama. Well put, Edward.
      What you said about there being no profit in music in TV, I agree. But, we have a show here in the Netherlands that has live music, oh yes! Musicians get a whole minute, an entire 60 seconds, to do their thing before the camera shoots off to something else. The argument, when artists began to speak up against this ridiculous lack of respect, was that people get bored when they have to listen to music for longer than a minute.
      It breaks my heart.

      The BBC still does music on TV quite well... Later with Jools Holland for example... But that is a showcase of professional talent, no human drama involved...

      Thanks, Edward! I enjoy your comments immensely!
  • May 7 2013: Hi all!
    Someone just shared this with me, and I thought it was pretty poignant (although the use of profanity could've been turned down a notch, the message is loud and clear):
  • May 6 2013: The whole concept of the music reality shows is the instant popularity linked with winning. Hundreds or thousands of people line up for one shot at the big time. They go through eliminations then sing to a panel of "professionals" who deem them good enough or not to move on. Then, if they move on, it is a series of eliminations based not on talent but presentation as voted on by the public. That isn't talent, that is a show and they are actors trying to be the best with a good voice.

    This, like so many other things, weakens the craft and art of musicianship. And sadly, they see someone who "wins" and makes it big, giving the allusion of a chance at winning big. The "if he/she can do it so can I". Hard work, practice, mastering a craft, learning to perform, etc. are not as important as that big break.

    But it falls in line with the "instant success" attitude we see so prevalent in people. People don't want to work hard or put in the time. Granted, there is the sense of "not as good as you" as well, but most people who see these shows just don't want to work.

    The issue with young kids is not just about music though. They enter an age where they are truly self-conscious and need to be supported and encouraged to work hard. Many things start to change in their body and persona as they learn to transition to adults, and that makes them self-conscious. That makes everything tough for them, not just music.

    Remember though, performing is scary. Putting yourself out there with you music is not easy. Sometimes, it is easier to just enjoy playing by yourself or with one or two other friends than to put yourself out there and play with in front of a group of any size.
    • May 6 2013: Thanks so much, for your insightful look on this, Everett.

      This does indeed "weaken the craft and art of musicianship". In Juan Enrqiuez's recent TED presentation, he wondered if Andy Warhol's idea about everyone's 15 minutes of fame was wrong, and that we our online presence is as permanent as a tattoo:

      I think Andy was absolutely correct, and these shows are a tribute to that very fact. Before you know it, people will be referred to as 'the one who broke down on TV', or 'the fat one ho couldn't sing', or the 'weirdo who fell down on TV'... our shortcomings are magnified and permanently on file for eternity, while our vulnerability takes a severe beating.

      You are so right - performing is nerve-wracking. I still feel it before I go on stage, even though I've been doing it for 20 years! It comes down to respect for one another. I agree, music as a tool to express does not always need to be publicized!
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    May 5 2013: I doubt they're damaging music. I don't have a TV, so I don't watch them. I really believe "doing something for commercial purposes" is in the eye of the beholder, if you perceive that they are just performing for money, that says more about you than it does about them.
    • May 6 2013: Agreed, Greg. In my experience, however, those who are sensitive to these kinds of shows are most likely to be the ones who get hurt by them, because they enter the 'game' with the wrong expectations. They expect justification of their talent and receive none. They want the jury to provide the confidence they lack in themselves. For these individuals, I am concerned.
      For those who are confident in their ability and see it as a way to boost their career, power to them!
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    May 5 2013: The basic question Lizanne places here can haunt many like us, who find music personally inspirational with stories to each and suffer in the face of industry labeled music, a macabre commercialization of the most natural expression of humanity that we call music.
    I want to talk about hope. Hope because music is being made with love, spontaneity and sheer artfulness all the while outside the charts and sale stats. And such creative process is everywhere and in every culture.
    Inspired by Lizanne I shall share a few such musicians whose work I find extra ordinary. This list is just a glimpse of the treasures that will never find its way into reality shows – simply because they are so real.

    Paban Das Baul is a singer from my native Bengal.
    And here is his music.
    Baul is a folk genre of India that vibes perfectly with jazz.

    Susheela Raman is one wonderful vocalist, whom I find so inspiring.
    Here is her music.

    I am head over heels with Asa’s music.
    Here her music.

    I am watching Amit Trivedi, a wonderfully gifted composer slowly working up the Indian music scene through jingles, ads and all the chores that a struggling musician has to do.
    The following song featuring Natalie Di Luccio creates a genre by itself fusing jazz, sufi and Indian mainstream Bollywood.

    Enjoy and thanks to Lizanne.
    EDIT: On my son's request. Ashutosh Gangopadhyay (Ash King)
    His music here.
    • May 5 2013: Pabitra, this is truly inspiring!
      Where there is frustration, lies a solution.
      Where there is despair, lies hope. It's just a question of knowing it's there, and finding it!

      Being a musician and loving music the way I do, I share your optimistic point of view. There is so much goodness in the form of true, genuine music, and I can't wait to explore the examples you've listed!
      Music is about sharing. Thank you for this!!
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    May 4 2013: The biggest problem here is society doesn't allow people to realize their full potential. They are bogged down by real life problems.

    Shows aren't the issue. Parenting and education are the big players here. Plenty of people to blame. The media just perpetuates our current mind-set. It doesn't form our current mind-set.
    • May 5 2013: True, Henry - these shows are indeed cashing in on this low self-esteem issue. Thanks for pointing that out. 'Real life problems' do become a priority as we get older.

      I agree that parenting and education are responsible for creating a solid foundation for kids to grow and build self-confidence - I also think by over-stimulation, the confidence level can grow out of proportion, and with under-stimulation, it can remain deeply buried into adulthood. It bothers me that shows like these prays on that vulnerable aspect, doing more harm than good at the end of the day.
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    • May 5 2013: Hey ZX!
      Henry pointed out the same thing, and I agree - self-esteem can be either built or crushed by the situation kids grown up in.

      This is my experience:
      I had a student who really is talented, but her self-confidence was extremely low. She has been taking lessons with me since last summer and was improving greatly. She announced a few months ago suddenly, that she was going to audition for one of these shows. I was concerned, because she didn't tell me sooner - I had no chance to prepare her, especially in view of her low self-esteem. Long story short - she went, she was devastated, and she won't sing anymore.
      I believe she went for the wrong reasons - that the jury would give her the confidence she couldn't give herself. She went into the audition weak, and came out destroyed.

      Teens are so vulnerable, it just frustrates me that shows like this take advantage of that vulnerability for the sake of big bucks.

      Groetjes terug! ;)
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    May 4 2013: I think I know what you are talking about Lizanne.
    I am out of touch of popular music or industry labeled music for long. But by no means I am out of touch with music and musicians. When my son picked up my old Hobner guitar and strummed its strings, life for me came through a cycle of sorts :) At 18 he sings his heart out when his young mind needs inspiration. So there is more to music than labels have us to believe.
    You are a musician so you must be knowing how primal, visceral music can be to human mind and body. I keep listening to very talented yet unknown musicians from all across the world ; some become famous, some not so but I can hear music's call to us transcending cultures and borders.
    Have you heard this young man Shankar Tucker? Here is a story of an all American boy falling in love with musical inspirations of a very different culture and a journey into unknown. For us listeners, this is such a blissful gift! I cannot but feel elated when clarinet, essentially a French instrument, come alive with Shankar in traditional Indian raga movements.
    I would like you to 'watch' Shankar's music :)
    I wanted to recommend vocals too but since language may cause problem, thought better.
    Btw, I shall be keen to sample your music as a fellow TEDster :)
    • May 4 2013: Wonderful, Pabitra! Thank you so much for sharing this!

      There are amazing things happening in music all the time - what bothers me is how much emphasis is placed on the commercial aspect of music, instead of the creative learning process like you describe. It thrills my heart to read about your son singing his heart out!!! Please share what inspires you vocally - in my book, language plays no role in vocal expression!

      I work a lot with kids and voice, and so many of them are determined to do an audition for one of these shows. The kids who want this most, tend to be those who are either over-confident or have no confidence at all about their singing abilities. They are looking for justification, an ego-boost, which they believe can only be provided by a TV show jury, rather than through themselves. The jury is holy.

      If you'd like to hear what I do, here is a link to my music:
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        May 4 2013: Hi Lizanne, it's a great relief to know that you don't have a handlebar mustache :D. You seem to have an impressive collection of music, which I am still checking out.
        In a way, yes I think reality shows and industry labeled music are altering our relationship with music, if not destroying it altogether. There are several such shows one gets to see in YouTube. Sometimes after watching those, I feel that our personal stories with music are losing out to the glam and glitz of instant stardom. Music always remained very personal to me.
        However, I also see some talents who make their mark in those shows.
        I am old fashioned in my taste as I like trained musicians compared to the natural talents and like music with pure notes and soulful lyrics. I mean if it's a song, I like vocals to be sharp and moving.
        So, if one tries to make a career in music there is no shortcut to training and practice. The reality shows don't seem to uphold that.
        Thank you so much for sharing your music with us :)
        • May 5 2013: Pabitra, this really strikes a chord with me:
          " I feel that our personal stories with music are losing out to the glam and glitz of instant stardom."
          I agree! Music is becoming less personal, when it is one of the most personal forms of expression there is, singing could be argued to be THE most personal, in fact.

          And, no, I agree, there is no shortcut... but these shows tell us there IS.

          And, you're very welcome! There's really only one thing better than making music, and that's sharing it. :)
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    May 3 2013: Lizanne, I have not watched the music reality shows or the dance reality shows, but my hunch is that they don't have a great effect on whether young people feel comfortable singing or dancing with their friends. Kids have, after all, been hearing people sing on the radio and on television for a long time, many of whom sing better than I am guessing most contestants do on reality shows.

    I will wait to hear your theory and evidence on this.
    • May 4 2013: Hi Fritzie!

      In my experience with kids, giving voice workshops, voice lessons and directing a children's choir, the desire to compete in these shows has grown dramatically, especially the last 5 years.

      I agree, kids have been listening to music for as long as music has been made to listen to, but the 'game show' element is something new. It doesn't encourage kids to use music as a tool for self-expression, it teaches them that music is a tool to compete with each other instead of listening and respecting each other. These shows give kids a very distorted view of what making music is all about, in my opinion.

      Recently, I had to stop teaching a 10-year-old student for this very reason. I've been teaching him for about 6 months, and every lesson, we pretty much had to start from scratch. He wouldn't practice. In his free time, he would do anything except sing! Recently, he sang a song for some family members at his Mom's birthday. I asked him how it went, and he said he was very nervous. He went on to say, "Later, when I'm famous, I'm going to have to get used to singing in front of thousands of people!"
      Later... WHEN he's famous...
      It was suddenly clear that he had no intention of actually practicing singing, but had every intention of making a living as a singer.
      With digital technology like 'auto-tune', you don't have to be able to sing these days. These shows scream: As long as you've got the 'whole package', money will just gravitate your way.
      In actuality, shows like this encourage ridicule, exploiting a gimmick, elevating hopes and casting them aside like yesterday's news.

      Take Susan Boyle:
      "Already a slave to the demands of the clutch of TV executives, music producers, managers, and promoters who’d already begun to divide up the rewards they were expecting from her talent..."
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        May 4 2013: To me this is different. I can believe that those who take voice lessons do so because they envision a career singing. When I was a child, long ago, it was also true that those who took voice lessons were the ones who envisioned a career in singing. Meanwhile loads of kids took piano lessons with no such professional aims.

        I thought you were talking about whether people are now less likely to sing as a matter of course- like while they are doing their chores, driving the car, walking the dog, taking a shower, at a party...
        • May 4 2013: Hey Fritzie,
          I see what you mean!

          Coincidence has it, I am working on a sort of video-thesis on the very topic you describe - integrating music and singing into our everyday lives without any intention of making a career out of music, purely as a form of expression, to build self-respect, and to encourage communication.

          My frustration with these reality shows is I believe they are affecting that very thing, like you described - a free, uninhibited desire to use our voices and belt out a song whenever and wherever we feel like it. Suddenly, we seem more preoccupied with the perfect execution of a song, rather than the creative learning process involved in singing and making music on a deeper, abstract level.
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          May 5 2013: Interesting thread Lizanne and Fritzie!
          Fritzie writes..."I can believe that those who take voice lessons do so because they envision a career singing".

          I've only watched the singing competitions on TV a couple times, and it appears that the contestants have not studied voice. I observe that they like to throw the head back, open the mouth wide (so everyone can see the tonsils and fillings in the upper teeth !), and belt as loud as they can, which is not the best practice for the throat and vocal cords. Have you noticed that many popular singers are often "out" because of throat/vocal cord challenges?

          My mom sang and played the piano, so we (8 kids) grew up with music as our own entertainment. I won a talent contest at age 9, and by high school, was singing for weddings, funerals, local talent shows, high school productions, etc.I studied piano for 6 years as a kid, decided as a teen that I wanted to play the guitar, so bought one and taught myself. I played and sang folk music, was invited to play in a teen center, then lounges at a ski area. Got married, had kids and started the routine with for our own entertainment:>)

          In my 30s, I missed singing on stage, so auditioned for community musical theater, which led to performing in summer stock theater, and many productions were musicals. It was then, that I started studying voice, because I was playing different characters, with different voice qualities, and the shows ran and changed about every two weeks all summer. I needed to learn good voice techniques to maintain the voice and project different voice qualities.

          I do not think music-related competitions are destroying our relationship with music. I went to a jazz concert last night, which was the final exam for music students at the university, and they had a GREAT relationship with their music, as did their many peers in the audience. Perhaps the "winners" of the voice competions are not really "winners" in the end?
        • May 6 2013: Colleen, I think you've hit the nail on the head - I doubt the winners are actually winners.
          I can imagine the scenario: here is the 'big break' this person has dreamed about! Finally! I got through every elimination and am crowned the best (when it's comparing apples to oranges at the end of the day, but that's not important). According to this panel of music gods, I have the whole package.
          Then, it really starts. Interviews, tour dates, recording. Sing like this, wear your hair like that. Don't be seen with this person, you have to talk to this person.
          There is so much money riding on this one person, it is virtually impossible to go from complete anonymity to mega stardom without getting hurt somehow.

          You said, "Have you noticed that many popular singers are often "out" because of throat/vocal cord challenges?" It happens so often!! I wish it was a question of technique, but I am actually pretty sure it's due to the unrealistic expectations of the record company/manager... It saddens me that people can be pushed that far.
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        May 4 2013: There may be other forces of culture at play as well. My maternal relatives all sang (not well) show tunes, hummed Viennese waltzes, and so on and likely had since their childhood in early twentieth century Vienna. My sister and I sing a tune here and there while doing other things, again as we have since childhood.

        But my three children, none of whom has ever watched a music reality show, don't. I don't think there were music reality shows when they were little, so it isn't that everyone else was watching those shows and the effect rubbed off on my kids. Of course they will sing on occasions, like when everyone is singing Happy Birthday.

        I have never found it difficult to induce kids to sing in groups with my participation.
        • May 4 2013: Absolutely, singing comes naturally. My parents provided instruments for us to experiment with, we'd sing awhile we washed dishes together, at the dinner table, etc. I do the same with my children, hopefully teaching them to express themselves through music, which is often easier than 'mere words'.

          I have done auditions for two of these shows, to see what it was like, to learn something from it all, to gauge whether or not my preconceptions about them were true. They were. I pass on my experiences to my students who want to audition, I try not to discourage them but to let them know what the real purpose of these shows are, and if they are serious about music and truly love it, they need to know that for a fact before they commit to going.
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        May 4 2013: It is my impression that kids are more likely than ever to play instruments. Is that what you have seen as well? Might the playing of orchestral instruments as well as greater involvement in sports and other after school activities have displaced singing during idle pursuits?
        • May 5 2013: Fritzie, if that is true, perhaps there is a silver lining to this after all!

          I grew up in the states, in a school with a large, even award-winning music program. My kids are in a school here in the Netherlands where music lesson is a half hour every two weeks. I compensate by making music with them all the time at home, not because I want them to become musicians like my husband and I, but because I want them to reap the benefits of making music, period.

          When I give music workshops at elementary schools, I always ask if anyone plays an instrument. I would say, on average, about 20% raise their hands. Not a lot.
          I feel, this is because people have difficulty in perceiving music as a profession, especially 'light' music. Consequently, music lessons are extremely expensive (thanks to the recession, subsidies for cultural enrichment in its entirety has been cut back to the extremes).

          I can't help but wonder if my frustration is a geographical issue. These shows are as popular here as they are in the states, but how music is perceived and integrated into everyday life is very different.
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        May 5 2013: Lizanne, I too derive my impression of kids' involvement with music only from my familiarity with the region where I live, as music education is not my field. There is a tremendous commitment here to jazz in particular and to music in the schools.
        • May 5 2013: That's wonderful - exposing kids to all different genres is so important! There is so much more to music than pop!!!
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    May 3 2013: Music or singing is a form of expression that is natural to us (our love of it and our response to it).
    I think reality shows focuses on those who want to make a livelihood from singing and performance. They have to be able to do better than most of us. Just like in art one can not compare the stick man drawn by kids to the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. Just as in the sprints, we can all run, but not like Usain Bolt.

    I dont think reality shows are any threat to those with the exceptional talent and passion. Justin Bieber is an example.
    • May 3 2013: Thanks for your thoughts, Feyisayo!
      I agree, that these shows don't pose a threat to professional musicians. It's sad to me, that young aspiring people do think that a show like this might lead to an actual livelihood...
      Music happens to be my livelihood, and has been for about 20 years. And yet, I've lost count of the number of times someone has said to me after a live performance, "You are so good, you should be on The Voice/X-Factor/Idols!!!" as if performing live after years of hard work building up technique doesn't qualify me as a singer until I am on one of these shows.

      My concern lies in the effect shows like this have on people, especially kids, today. It's more about a perfect execution of a song, about looks, about ridiculing those who are less talented than others than about encouraging us to use our genetic gift of singing!
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        May 3 2013: Every artiste must be prepared for critism, competition and pressure.
        So many people would have an opinion on how our art should be presented.

        As they say, "Follow your heart". If it is in the heart, it will be in the art.