If you’re one of those cynical types who can’t stand X Factor, BGT or The Voice then read on. Julie Miles is a vocal coach and founder of Vocal Ovation. You’ll often find her – if not one of ‘the hundred’, in All Together Now – she’ll be giving some one-on-one coaching to the many ‘amateurs’ who are appearing on our screens as they attempt to wow the celebrity judges.
Sardines spoke with Julie in July and uncovered a few home truths about some of the most popular TV talent shows…
How are you, four months into lockdown?
“I’m actually pretty good. Life has adapted nicely to being at home; I’ve got back-to-back online lessons, Monday to Friday, so it’s all good! Even though I should have been teaching in Poland now, and that had to be cancelled… then I was involved in the Little Mix tour, and that had to be cancelled… Onwards and upwards; I’ve not got too much I can complain about compared to what some people have been going through.
“It’ll be seventeen weeks on Thursday since I called it a day with face-to-face lessons and decided to take things online. I thought, ‘Oh, great, I’m going to have loads of time on my hands to get all kinds of things done,’ but I couldn’t have been more wrong! I’m really not complaining. Ha, ha!”
When do you think things will get back to normal?
“Well, I am getting more questions now about when I’m going to resume face-to-face sessions. I’m going to start staggering it. Towards the end of August I’ll start some face-to-face lessons and, in terms of performances – I deal with a lot of people who want careers in the industry – I’ve been lucky to have people who are either doing it part-time or their parents are still paying. So, I haven’t been hit in the same way that people in the West End have, who are completely reliant on their jobs. Plus, West End performers simply can’t afford to pay for vocal coaching at the moment. Some of my singers who are semi-professional have started to perform outside now – being booked for outdoor parties and that kind of thing. But in terms of ‘normal’, I really think we’re going to be quite a way away from what we know as normal.”
Have you been spending much time people how to produce a great sound via Zoom-type platforms?
“Yes, absolutely! A lot of singers I work with have also got a large presence on social media and they’re already used to posting videos online via YouTube, Instagram or Facebook etc. Because I’ve had so many students who have done that, the ones who have been a bit scared to dip their toe in the water have really been forced into it. These are the available platforms on which to show off their talent.
“The other thing that’s been brilliant is that I’ve always been involved in competitions. And the one that I’ve been involved the closest with went completely online this year. That gives singers an outlet and a goal to actually work towards. It’s a weird situation because I think really a performer wants to perform, they want the audience. When you’re doing a ‘live on Facebook’ you can see how many people are watching but you’re not getting that instant audience interaction – no matter how good the technology gets. That’s what feeds the performance, by having those people sat in front of them. You can see their faces and how they are reacting to you. So, while it is good to be able to do it, it’s essential to be able to do both.
“X Factor was originally acapella before they switched the auditions into much larger venues. I think in that situation, when you have – hopefully – got thousands of people really rooting for you, it is on one hand nerve-wracking but you can also see that immediate gratification of a crowd cheering. You can’t get any better than that. In an acapella audition scenario, you have got judges and potential employers sat in front of you. So you are at least getting a sense of how you’re doing, but I think with the old X Factor process they were really there to kind of intimidate rather than anything else. And I know that in terms of going for big musical theatre shows in the West End, the people who are doing the auditioning are absolutely brutal. They take no prisoners, their purpose isn’t to make you feel really, really comfortable. They just want to get the numbers in and out and find ‘the one’.”
Many musical ‘lockdown’ performances on YouTube look and sound great. has more work gone into their production than people realise?
“Oh, my goodness, yes! The amount of work that goes into producing something like a video for YouTube is absolutely huge! Unlike a live performance where any little glitch is over in a split-second, when it’s a pre-recorded video you’re leaving yourself open for every minute bit of critique… not only from the audience but also from YOU. You don’t usually get a chance to watch yourself immediately with a live performance. So with these recordings I know people who have literally spent all day, doing thirty, forty, fifty takes to get something that they’re really happy with. Perfectionism gets taken to a crazy level! So, when there are more people involved they have to get it right, quickly. That takes a lot of work, to produce something viewable for the public – and to a standard the public is used to.
You spend a lot of time working on TV talent shows. Does this usually involve inexperienced amateurs or professionals?
“It’s definitely a mix. Again, years ago, when the whole X Factor thing was a lot more popular, you would definitely get queues and queues of people who were complete amateurs – and, in some cases, delusional. We’ve all seen that and I think the whole focus on mental health, empathising and being kind to people has exposed that it’s not entertaining but cringe-worthy, in my opinion. So the queues – where people just had to click on the website to enter – used to include a lot of amateurs. The reality NOW is that on any of the serious stages, the people who get in front of the cameras, have been scouted and invited to audition.”
“That’s where I get involved a lot; having a number of really great singers who are ready to appear on a show like that. I’ll do showcases for all of the main TV competitions and the producers actually come to my studio and watch my singers doing their stuff. And from that they can start sifting the ones who have stood out. There might be very few of them who are actually earning a living from singing, all of them have put a lot of hours into their singing and performing. So, yes, they do tend to pick the cream off the top to make a good show, really.
“It’s all about making television. Going back to your earlier question about what goes into making these YouTube performances; you do see every detail. You can get in a lot closer in with a camera that you can sitting twenty rows back in a theatre, so it really does come down to the minute facial expressions.”
Can you tell us a little about Vocal Ovation?
“It’s my ten-year anniversary this summer. I started out as a professional singer who got involved in the performing arts when I left school. But it’s tough earning a living as an entertainer, so I got a ‘proper’ job on the side until, eventually, I stepped away from performing completely and just worked solely for a FTSE 100 company. I took voluntary redundancy when the opportunity came along and my husband booked me a surprise lesson with David Grant [of David & Carrie Grant] who I’d loved watching over the years with Fame Academy and Pop Idol. That lesson was amazing so I took some more slots, and on the second one David asked me, ‘Julie, have you ever thought of being a vocal coach?’ … and it all stemmed from there; I travelled down to London every month to work with David and I went on from there. My studio, which is on the side of the house, has a stage and everything. I’m actually in the middle of the countryside so when people come up – and you do have to have transport just to get to me – when they walk into the studio they cannot believe it. So the space I’ve got has really helped, plus I do train hard. I put people in the mind-space that they can step onstage with a full P.A. and sing to an audience… and don’t forget experience is everything!”
What is the most important aspect of performing that amateurs need to focus on in a live performance?
“Well, I’m bound to say training and having a coach is very important, but also studying people you admire and, perhaps aspire to, is a powerful tool. Look at how they perform and what they do onstage. Having the mindset that when you are onstage – and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an amateur or a professional – you need to be able to deliver the exact same performance every time. You cannot step onstage and think, ‘well, I’m an amateur; if it doesn’t go right people will understand.’ To want to be on that stage, you could be getting paid thousands of pounds or just because you love it, but at the end of the day the most successful people genuinely love what they do anyway. Don’t get onstage unless you love performing to an audience or you’ll be found out very quickly. And there are professionals who don’t always get that right.”
Has the quality of any untrained contestants on the many TV talent shows you’ve worked on ever shocked you? Likewise, have you ever come across any amateurs with a natural ability?
“Yes to both of those questions. Starting with professionals, going back to the TV shows I’ve been sorely disappointed with some of the ‘special’ guests they’ve had on who do this for a living. It’s a nerve-wracking thing for any famous singer to put themselves on that X Factor stage and perform when there are ten or twelve incredible amateur singers waiting for their moment. Time after time, the likes of Katy Perry and Cheryl Cole, and you think, ‘Oh my, that was absolutely awful.’ These guys are putting themselves through so much pressure every week singing live, and you’ve come onstage and lip-synced. Doing that is really setting yourself up for a lot of controversy. Some of them haven’t even got any idea about who the performers are anyway! They’re getting standing ovations really because of who they are rather than what they’ve just done.
“Equally, bearing in mind I work in quite a detailed way with singers, helping them with their technique and locking the issues that are stopping their voices from working, you will see singers getting up on these shows and blowing your socks off. But then they might say, ‘I’ve never had any vocal coaching.’ Sometimes it’s not quite true. But on the ones where it IS, then it’s a completely natural ability. Some people have the most incredible voice. When, for some reason somebody has a God-given talent and their voice is working so beautifully, I sometimes notice that they may have an amazing voice, but they’ve also got no stage-presence or I’ve not ‘believed’ in a performance of a song. There’s normally something which immediately draws you to it and carries the possibility of boring people. It’s my job then to work on the complete package. This industry is not just about possessing a brilliant voice. I would rather hear a few flaws here and there or a voice cracking from emotions that are coming through rather than give a flawless vocal that can leave you a little bit, ‘Whatever!’”