In my career, I’ve had some truly extraordinary performance experiences. Being on American Idol was no exception.
During season six, I was called in to sing backup vocals for Hollywood Week, which brings the top 30 finalists to Los Angeles for seven days of intense group work and solo performances.
Being there was incredible, in part because of the ability to be in it without being in it; getting to participate in the week and be on stage without the pressure of being a competitor gave me a priceless view of both the cultural phenomenon that is American Idol, and the very human experience of being a part of it. Gazing past the hot seat (or hot mic, as it were) into the faces of the judges and those in the audience afforded a perspective I’ll never forget.
And it’s a great perspective.
There is an ease that comes from being only partially in the spotlight.
It’s the best of both worlds, in a sense: I’m on stage and doing what I love, but without the pressure that comes from being wholly responsible for the performance’s success.
Yet something is missing from that view, as comfortable as it is.
I’m not talking about the fear, sweaty palms and raw nerves, though certainly they’re a part of it.
I’m talking about the opportunity to be truly alive.
Being alive was the last thing on my mind when I first started my lead role with Cirque du Soleil. What I do remember was the fear of not being good enough, the overwhelming feeling of being in front of that many people and the pressure of carrying a show that so many had worked so hard to produce, and that so many people had paid good money to see.
Fortunately, once I had a few performances under my belt, I was able to enjoy the experience and the real opportunity it is to step up in that way. I was able to appreciate the awesomeness of being in that role, and the grace of carrying such a heavy load… the real privilege it is to bear the weight of that kind of responsibility, and the joy that comes from doing so.
Let’s take a step back and consider what it is that we love about American Idol, The Voice, X-Factor and shows like them. Certainly a love of singing, music and performance has something to do with it.
But I would venture that our cultural obsession revolves more around our fascination with those who have the bravery to get up, bare their souls and give their all for a chance at their version of glory.
It’s the story of the hero, repackaged, put to music and broadcast on television. And I believe it is our desire to be near and empathize with these heroes– both as people and as an ideal– that draws us week after week, show after show.
In my mind, this is the real opportunity of these shows. While they’re certainly entertaining, these programs are not mere entertainment.
They’re calls to action that sing to each and every one of us: bring everything you’ve got to the table… then risk it all.
You don’t need to be on television or even on stage to embrace this opportunity.
Whoever you are and whatever you do, life hands each of us a moment-by-moment choice: put yourself in the proverbial hot seat for what you care about and believe in, or don’t.
In our work and our relationships, in every conversation, the choice is up to us: to merely live, or to be truly alive.
I see my clients, whether they’re backup singers, Broadway stars, or business professionals, weigh these options in every day. It’s a painful debate, until the clarity dawns that…
only by being willing to risk it all does having “everything to gain” become possible.
I’ll never forget being behind Christina Aguilera on the Grammys when she emerged through the stage, smoke all around her, to sing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.” That took so much courage on her part… personally, vocally and musically. And while singing with her was certainly a great experience, the real magic for me was watching her embrace life– and really live– on the front of that stage.
The same is true of those young men and women who I had the honor of singing with on American Idol. Standing in the wings with them as they waited for their turn, I certainly empathized with their nerves and fears. But as our eyes met just before we walked onto the stage, what overwhelmed me was being in the presence of human beings that were choosing to really show up for and be alive in their own lives.
Mary Oliver says it so beautifully in her poem West Wind #2: “When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks– then row, row for your life toward it.”
This is your life, your one life. I wish you the opportunity of taking and rocking whatever stage you choose to play on. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
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My Experience on American Idol Originally published in the Huffington Post, June 2, 2011