Experiences of a Celebrity Judge

Written by Shankar Mahadevan Academy on 10 December 2015

Music is one of the most fun pursuits one can engage in, whilst also offering great value in terms of emotional and spiritual solace. It is one of the most natural things we do, be it as a bathroom singer or as a friendly game of Antaakshari, or as a more involved pursuit through professional engagement. A dedicated pursuit of music has a great many things to offer to the individual who takes up such a way of life.

More and more platforms are coming up in these very opportune times for musicians to express and challenge themselves, grow individually and share ideas to enable the music itself to evolve. Such platforms, be it college/ university competitions, cultural festivals, musical reality shows or any such platform, aim to bring forth talent and reward merit, and give an attractive incentive or motivation to aspire for excellence in musical performance. As a person who has judged such competitions, I feel they facilitate healthy competition amongst a group of talented peers, whilst also providing expert guidance in the form of master judges, who give valuable feedback and allow for the participants to take their musical prowess forward by leaps and bounds.

The judges are typically well accomplished musical masters, who very enthusiastically and patiently help the participants along their musical path, bringing out their unique individual talents and flavours, while still maintaining an iron grip over fundamentals of musical theory & practice. Judging a Music Reality Show is without doubt one of the most exciting things I have done. All of us had great fun with the very talented contestants, and got to see a whole bunch of fresh ideas and thoughts in Music. The participants also got to learn many practical aspects of music and performance from us judges, which will undoubtedly help them take their music a step ahead.

Music is an art form, and like any art form, it is a very personal and subjective experience. One would think that while judging a musical performance, there would be a lot of disagreements between the judges too. But though there were some small differences in opinions, we all agreed on most aspects of the music. The core principles of Music are very clearly defined, and there is rarely a conflict over technicalities. While individual approach and expression may be subjective, basic aesthetic principles are also not too ambiguous. So we generally split the comments on the technical aspects of music amongst ourselves and then we would each add some personal feedback over that based on expression and performance aesthetics. We also keep the comments as crisp and uniform as possible, and leave no room for ambiguity.

Sometimes, I encounter great talent in a show, but sometimes I get a bit disappointed by the quality of singers. We judges mostly unanimously agree that the contestants lack pitch perfection. This could happen because of lack of awareness itself, due to incomplete training, or the contestant could be aware, yet unable to execute perfectly owing to other factors.

I remember this one girl who got eliminated after 2 rounds at our show. She had a beautiful voice quality, and her expression was also quite impactful. But she had not trained for very long, and in spite of so much natural musical talent, she was eliminated. I was quite clear in conveying to her that she had great potential to become a successful singer, and just had to spend some time practicing with dedication. She too received it well, and I am sure we will see her soon doing much better.

Other factors may include nervousness or stage fright, improper pitch selection and so on. We create as friendly and informal an atmosphere as possible, and motivate the contestants to sing freely and not be nervous. Some contestants still take a while to overcome the nervousness, and that gradually goes.

I remember a young 14 year old boy who would sing very well in our practice sessions, but would not be able to create the same impact on stage. He was very talented and well trained, but was nearing elimination. I and the other judges took special effort to calm him down and help him be freer. Gradually, he got over his nervousness, and surprised a lot of people by making it to the final round.

When it comes to selecting the pitch of a song, many contestants mistakenly feel that they must select the pitch the original singer had sung in. They must realize that it is more essential to select a pitch according to their own comfortable voice range. The original singer too would have chosen the pitch according to his/ her voice range. There was this young boy who had chosen a pitch too low for him, because of which at very crucial parts of the song, his voice would sound very strained as the notes were in the lower saptak. I asked him to choose a pitch 2 half notes higher, and he immediately sounded so much better. Female contestants many times choose a pitch much higher than their natural pitch, and strain their voice a lot at the high parts of the song. The voice cracks at such a high pitch, and this could harm their voice in the long run too. Proper pitch selection is something that contestants must keep in mind while performing.

As a judge, the most exciting part of the show is the constant challenges we throw at the participants. This enables the participants to explore their musical potential fully and many hidden talents come out in the open during these challenges. Sometimes, the show itself has a “Challenge Round”, where the participant chooses a song he/ she finds particularly challenging. In one such round, I made it more interesting by asking one of the contestants to change the rhythm of the song from a 3 beat cycle to a 4 beat cycle and sing it without changing the basic tune. On another occasion, the contestant had chosen a happy and peppy song. I asked him to sing the same song, but in a sad voice and conveying a melancholic vibe. Once I sang the song for a contestant and had him mime the song along with me. Such impromptu challenges and activities serve greatly to lighten up the atmosphere on the sets and they are great fun for the contestants, judges and audience. At the same time, they bring out subtle aspects of expression and performance aesthetics in a fun and interesting way, and enable the contestants to greatly improve the overall impact of their performance.

Another very important factor that affects the performance is the selection of songs. I realized that many times, the director and creative unit of the show decide on the songs to be sung. It is extremely important to give a list of very good songs to the contestants, so that whatever is chosen is definitely good. A good song selection definitely helps lead to an excellent set of performances, and a bad song selection could bring down the overall impact.

Contestants would also greatly benefit by learning songs from various languages and genres, so that they have more platforms and shows accessible for their participation. It also helps them understand music more holistically, which will inspire them to come up with new ideas for their presentations.

In conclusion, I feel that through such reality shows, the participant is made aware of many interesting features of a professional musician, like how to decide what pitch to sing a song in based on aesthetics and personal voice range, how to overcome nervousness and deliver a good performance, stage etiquettes, creating an impact using the voice quality modulation and so on.

Such platforms also greatly help in identifying exceptional talent, and allow them to reach out to a lot of people owing to their popularity and widespread viewership. These competitions/ reality shows create an ecosystem where the participants get great value addition, whilst also providing excellent entertainment and musical awareness to the masses. 

Shankar Mahadevan Academy provides specific coaching to prepare for a contest. Contact info@shankarmahadevanacademy.com for more details