The American Idol Coach

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When Michael Orland’s mother took him to see a piano teacher at age 4, the teacher said “too young.” But then Michael played for her — and she agreed to take him on.

When Michael Orland sits down on the piano bench with American Idol contestants – those who made it through the initial cut, that is – he gives them a reassuring nod. “This is the only place you’re not being judged,” he tells them.

Orland has worked as a piano coach and vocal arranger on American Idol since season one in 2002. Hundreds upon hundreds of faces have passed through his door and grown into lifelong friends.

Orland sat with Adam Lambert at the piano, transforming “If I Can’t Have You” into a heart-wrenching ballad (which even Simon loved). He moved in with Clay Aiken and Kimberley Locke for a few months. He comforted Lauren Alaina when he found her crying in a hallway before a performance.

Perhaps because of his role on the show – as more of a cheerleader than a tough critic – Orland forms close bonds with the contestants that remain long after the end of a season. “Each new season of Idol is like watching your favorite season of Friends,” Orland says. “But you get a whole new set of characters.”

Age: 51
Graduated from: University of Massachusetts; majored in accounting
Based in: Los Angeles, Calif.
Previous jobs: After dropping out of school, I moved to New York, where I worked in every piano bar. Then I moved to Los Angeles, where I played [piano] for a bunch of people.

Your “big break”: In L.A., I played piano for Barry Manilow. Then, one of his background singers ended up being on the music team of the first season of Idol, and brought me in. So indirectly, Barry Manilow changed my life.

Do you experience firsthand the hilarity that ensues at American Idol auditions? Starting with season 4, I started going on the road for auditions. I’m one of the preliminary weed-er out-ers, before the judges sift through.

After auditions, what do your everyday responsibilities entail? Once the show starts, I’m one of the piano coaches and vocal arrangers – I deal with the kids on a daily basis. We don’t have time to give them voice lessons, but we coach them in performance techniques and build their confidence. About 90% of these contestants have had no experience beyond singing in a church or a karaoke bar.

Orland with Phillip Phillips,
Orland (L) with Phillip Phillips, the winner of season 11. “Starting a new season is like starting school all over again,” Orland says.

And you’re with them through the bitter end – which, more often than not, includes getting voted off. Yes. After people get voted off, they often go on The Ellen Show and Access Hollywood, and I go with them to play piano. So I’ve been on The Ellen Show, like, 70 times.

Was a career in music always in the cards for you? You went to school for accounting. I started playing the music from Mary Poppins by ear when I was 4. My parents talked me into [majoring in accounting], but my heart wasn’t in it. I dropped out after two years, because I only wanted to do music. I was playing music in this theater group in college, and I was like, “Why am I school? I can make $40 a night.”

Best part of your job: Just to be a tiny little piece of the contestants’ transitions. The relationship between a pianist and a singer is as intimate as you can get. It’s so rewarding to watch them grow into overnight sensations.

They grow insanely devoted fan bases incredibly quickly. The first time you go into a big set with all the contestants, it’s so crazy to watch the crowd’s reactions – people screaming their names, holding posters with their names.

Most challenging part of your job: To watch a contestant fold under pressure after he or she has been great all week. Another thing that can be hard: we’re not allowed to tell contestants which songs to sing. We can show them several reasons why they might want to choose one [song] over another, but we can’t say, pick this or don’t pick that. We help them create great arrangements or change up songs.

You deal with such a wide range of personalities. What approaches to coaching have you found work particularly well? I’m the class clown; I joke around with everyone, especially because they’re under such stress. I say “what the frick” a lot, since I have to be careful about swearing around young contestants.

Your advice to contestants: Walk out on stage with all the confidence in the world. Sometimes, the judges already have their minds set – so you can walk out doomed.

Pro- or anti-Simon? I love Simon, and I think he’s a very talented man. As mean and biting as Simon was on camera, he’d tell people off-camera, “This is what I meant. You have to careful on this song.”

Above, with Harry Connick, Jr.
Some of Orland’s fondest memories include those spent with the mentors who appear on Idol, like Gwen Stefani and Dolly Parton. Above: Orland (L) with Harry Connick, Jr.

Who do you think really deserved to make it, but didn’t? I’ll never forget when Chris Daughtry or Jennifer Hudson got voted off; I was so devastated. But it’s only a TV show. You can be on the show for two weeks and get enough exposure to make your career and do Broadway shows.

A quality you see in all the winners: It’s the ones you see in the hallway after rehearsal, listening on their iPhones to the tracks we just made them – as opposed to the ones on their iPhones chatting away.

Your dream judge: Cher. That way, I could have dinner with her.

If you could choose two contestants to be your roommates: After season 3, I bought this house out in L.A, and it fell through – it’s a long story involving mold – but I had already sold my old house. I was freaking out. Clay Aiken and Kimberley Locke had a house together at the time, and they invited me to come live in their huge 5-bedroom house. So my dog and I lived with them for, like, 4 months. It was like camp.

When has a contestant really surprised you? In season 8, I did an arrangement for Adam Lambert. It was Disco Week, and everyone assumed he was going to do “I Will Survive” or something. Instead, he told us he wanted to turn “If I Can’t Have You” into a heart-wrenching ballad. Even Simon loved it. Adam gave me credit on national TV, which was the first time anyone had publicly acknowledged me like that.

Preferred way of listening to music: Spotify and YouTube.

To you, the future of the show looks like: I like to believe it can go on for a long time. As long as Idol can keep producing people like Phillip Phillips – I mean, “Home” went triple platinum! – I think it can have a long shelf life.

And, in that future, are you coaching contestants? I’m also an aspiring songwriter. I wrote the song played on the finale of Idol last year. It was this joke that Randy Jackson always told contestants: “You’re so good, you could sing the phone book.” So we wrote a song for the finale called “Singing the Phone Book.” They were actually holding up yellow pages.

1. Talent can keep you somewhere, but it doesn’t get you in the door. Networking and meeting the right people at the right time – that’s it. Take every job you can to meet people and learn more songs.

2. It helps to have a working knowledge of all different types of music.

3. Then, just wait for me to turn in my retirement papers. But that won’t be for a while.

You can follow Michael Orland on twitter at @MichaelOrland. Photos, from top: Ray Garcia; courtesy of Michael Orland.

NEXT: The Video Game Voice Actor

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