Learning to excel

Experts reveal the key to having the X factor.

For some people, standing in front of an audience of thousands and singing a few lines of your favourite tune is the stuff of nightmares. For other talented – and not so talented – people, this is living the dream. The X Factor is undeniably one of the most popular shows on our television screens, attracting millions of viewers each week. But what do performers experience when they step on stage and has the show skewed music students’ understanding and expectations of this competitive industry?

Steve Cooper is Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Wolverhampton’s School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure. He is also an extremely experienced musician himself, having appeared alongside the likes of Robert Plant and Lionel Richie. To get on the BA (Hons) Popular Music course, prospective students have to audition.

“Students think it will be like the X Factor but it is not like that at all. It is much more personal. Some say they are worried, but we are not trying to put them in an awkward spot, we are just trying to make sure they have skills we can work with,” Steve explains.

But the live performance experience is not something that every singer or musician can cope with, demonstrated by the number of contestants who forget the words or say they can perform their song “much better than that”.

“When you see less experienced performers it is easy to see how stressful the performance situation can be. The X Factor puts people  who are generally not experienced in situations where you require a lot of experience to draw on.

“It is well documented that nerves can hold you back in a performance situation. One of the things you can try to do is work out what a  performance will take out of you. For example, if you can perform a piece so it is 90% right in a practice situation then you are almost there. But when you are on stage, you can lose about 20% in terms of nerves, which means it will only be about 70% right in front of people – and The X Factor exposes that,” Steve says.

Another skill tested by Simon Cowell and his fellow judges Louis Walsh, Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue is the ability to shine in a very short amount of time. Contestants have no more than two minutes to perform for the judges, but must wow them in the first few seconds.

“It shows that it is about the preparation you put in beforehand. There are so many distractions in the room – the sounds will be different or you may look at an audience member and catch their eye and then find you are lost, and it is about knowing how to deal with that. The more  confident and experienced you are, the less likely you are to slip into those habits.

“With our students we try to teach them performance is about preparation and knowing what to expect. If you are going to be nervous then you have to face it and think of ways of minimising that. We encourage them to think of exercises they can do or things they can focus on.

“Performance does not come naturally to a lot of people. The most successful performers are the ones who communicate what they mean and feel through their performance. It is not always about leaping around, but something that connects with the audience.”

Another talent show, BBC’s Strictly Comes Dancing, partners celebrities with professional dancers and tasks them with performing new routines each week. Sportsmen and women have done well over the previous six series of the show, possibly because they are more accustomed to competition or are more co-ordinated. But Dr Matthew Wyon, Reader in Performance Science, says that dance is still a very different skill from sport.

“Success in sport is easy to monitor; basically you have to either run faster, jump higher or score more goals than your opponents. But in dance and other arts, success is determined by the audience’s subjective view of your performance. You might have performed out of your skin, but if the audience doesn’t like it, have you really succeeded? The main difference is about entertainment, dance is there primarily to entertain whilst in sport it is to conquer.”

What is the X Factor?

One of Steve’s students, Treyc Cohen, made it through to the last 24 contestants of this year’s series of the X Factor, before mentor Simon Cowell revealed she was not going through to the live shows. Steve, who has worked with former contestants Journey South, Ben Mills and Brenda Edwards, says that of all the very talented students he has encountered, Treyc was the one he would have guessed would do well on the X Factor.

“She has a great voice and a great personality and I knew she would do well. I think she will be able to build on the experience, particularly locally. She will be able to use the contacts she has made and the promotion the show has given her to expand her horizons.”

There are many critics of shows like the X Factor, but Steve says it is good as it creates jobs for musicians. But it does give the illusion of instant success, whereas many musicians and singers have to work extremely hard for years before gaining recognition, money or fame.

“In reality, it is very small steps rather than one big rush of success – but that is the nature of the show. It takes you from zero to hero in eight weeks rather than slowly and steadily building up contacts and seeing how that develops.

“Having the X Factor is about having the whole package. You have to look right, particularly in the live shows – they probably spend more time on the styling than the vocal coaching. It also helps to have a back story as well and they seem to have to come up with something more extraordinary each year.

“But I would say if you can make a career in  the music industry then you have the X Factor.”

For dance science expert Dr Matt Wyon, having the right body for the particular dance genre is important, as is possessing an underlying talent.

“Dance is about visual aesthetics. You find there are people who are technically good and then there is someone who is awesome. Often the X Factor is something underlying, that has come together in one person. It is about being technically great and being able to interpret the technique to make it look beautiful. For example ballroom dancers perform smooth movements and make it look effortless – even though it may be hurting them and be hard – it is a look rather than a reality.”

Students are encouraged to have an entrepreneurial outlook during their studies, and Matt says many go on to have their own dance schools. Steve Cooper adds the Popular Music degree is  evolving to further embed a career focus in the course.

Employability is one of the strands of the degree, providing students with an awareness of what it means to be self employed.

This is supported by a technological aspect, with students being shown how to build their own website, as it is now expected that all musicians will have an online presence. And what last piece of advice can Steve offer the budding stars hoping to follow in the footsteps of Leona  Lewis, Girls Aloud and JLS? As with many things in life, the reality is hard work and determination to succeed.

“Be patient and never say no to anything. If someone asks you to do something for free in a church hall, then do it. You never know who you will meet.”

Photograph - Copyright: talkbackTHAMES