American Idol and the likes of other singing contests have created a false impression that what it takes to be a musical star is to sing really well.
The aim of reality television singing contests is to sing as good as the Adele’s or the Freddie Mercury’s of the world. Sing the songs of others and make it your own.
Actually, reality TV has a different aim: it isn’t primarily aimed to help artists, it is to get more eyeballs on TV. While budding artists aim to get recognized, they in turn get instrumentalised in the process, in the name of more viewership.
What the World Needs Now
The world needs more of individuals who pushes their own boundaries and write their own songs, and speak from their own truths. Sure, someone can singer as well as, or even better than Bono, but what’s the point?
I mean, Bob Dylan doesn’t even have a great voice. Leonard Cohen doesn’t have range. But both are highly acclaimed lyricists, poets and songwriters, and have left an undeniable mark in our modern culture.
I recently heard Taylor Swift performed her own songs with the accompaniment of just her playing an acoustic guitar and sometimes a piano (watch her NPR tiny desk performance… Ok, truth was, I only really listened to her when Ryan Adams covered her entire 1989 album). Even though I’m not a fan of her music, it was hair-standing. Not because her voice was technically proficient, nor was she Aretha Franklin, but the fact that not only did she write her own songs, the songs stand on its own, even when it’s stripped of all the pop fanfare.
Good Voice… So What?
One of the world’s greatest improviser and musician, Bobby McFerrin has this to say about American Idol (yes indeed, McFerrin is the one who is brought us “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” If you don’t know more about his beyond that song, check out his keynote with leading cognitive scientists, including Daniel Levintin. See video below, or click here for the entire discussion . And make sure you watch this life improvised performance!):
MS. TIPPETT: …Do you ever watch American Idol…My children watch it, I try.
MR. MCFERRIN: Yeah, I know.
MS. TIPPETT: I try.
MR. MCFERRIN: Sure. You know, these singers have these wonderful voices, you know, I’m, you know — every …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right.
MR. MCFERRIN: … once in a while, I thought to myself if I was asked to be like a guest judge on the show would I — would I volunteer would I do it? I don’t know, but you know these singers, God bless them, God bless them, because they have wonderful instruments. They have a wonderful voice. They can sing well. They can sing in tune most of the time.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. MCFERRIN: You know, uh, they have wonderful instruments, but my father would say, “OK. So what? So what you got a wonderful instrument? So what you can sing in tune? So What?” You know, big deal. You know, what we want is the core — your — your essence. We want your essence. That’s what we want to hear more than anything, you know?
Get Good at Your Instrument?
The point for therapists who want to develop is this: worry less about getting good at a specific approaches. It’s much easier to get good at an instrument, than to get good at becoming a better songwriter. It’s also one thing to write a one-hit wonder, but quite another to keep releasing albums that continues to push the musical boundaries of our times (I’m thinking of artists like David Bowie, Radiohead, The Beatles… any others?).
While most parts of our field in psychotherapy claim that “getting good at your instrument” will lead you to “getting good at song craft,” stand firm with the backing of cumulative evidence on this. Working at improving specific-model techniques account for very little (0-1%), compared to other higher yielding factors (i.e., empathy, 9%, goal collaboration, 11%, client factors, 87% on outcomes).
Plant your seeds on higher yielding soil.
Spend more time trying to define and refine your own craft by pushing your boundaries.
But first, figure out your voice and the measure of impact on your clients. Be systematic. Develop an idea of your baseline performance. Get help. As highlighted in our forthcoming book, Better Results, central to using deliberate practice to improve effectiveness is the get a coach to help you in coaching for performance and coaching for development (see 2 videos on this topic, taken from the online workshop called Reigniting Clinical Supervision. Video I, Video II).
Back to the American Idol analogy: we need less validation or approval from judges about how good or bad our artistry really is. What we really need is more guidance… and the outputs shall be judged by the market of whom you are trying to reach.
This process of true artistry as a therapist is not an overnight endeavor. As the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis once said, “it takes a long time to sound like yourself.” Combined with momentum, the key here really is orienting yourself in the right direction,
Get started on sounding like who you really are, because the world needs less mimics, and more of others who truly occupy their own space and invite others to this dance and come alive.
 Listen to what acclaimed musician Damon Albarn (frontman of Gorillaz, Blur, and solo artist) has to say about boycotting singing contests
 For the full interview with Bobby McFerrin, listen to OnBeing Podcast Episode: Catching a Song.
. These data where derived from the following journal articles. (squaring the r scores provided in each of the studies):
Elliott, R., Bohart, A. C., Watson, J. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Empathy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training March, 48(1), 43-49.
Horvath, A. O., Del Re, A., Fluckiger, C., & Symonds, D. (2011). Alliance in Individual Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 48(1), 9-16. doi:10.1037/a0022186
Tryon, G. S., & Winograd, G. (2011). Goal Consensus and Collaboration. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training March, 48(1), 50-57.
For a comprehensive overview, read the 2nd edition of the Great Psychotherapy Debate by Bruce Wampold and Zac Imel (2015).
Photo above by Sunyu Kim