For his new book The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle visited nine of the planet’s greatest talent hotbeds: tiny places that produce Everest-size amounts of talent. Places like a ramshackle tennis court in Moscow, a music academy in New York’s Adirondacks, and a baseball-mad island in the Caribbean. While these places seem different on the surface, when he looked closer, he saw they shared strikingly similar methods that had to do with the fundamental ways we acquire skill. They shared a pattern—especially when it came to coaches. In this excerpt, the voice teacher who trained Jessica Simpson, Beyoncé, and a slew of American Idol finalists shares some of her secrets.
The Talent Whisperers
When most of us think of a master coach, we think of a Great Leader, a person of steadfast vision, battle-tested savvy, and commanding eloquence. Like a ship’s captain, or a preacher on the pulpit, their core ability lies in knowing a special something that the rest of us don’t, and sharing that special knowledge with us in a motivating way—people like legendary football coach Vince Lombardi or General George Patton or Queen Elizabeth I. But when I visited the talent hotbeds, I didn’t find many Lombardis or Pattons, or Queen Elizabeths for that matter.
“They said Kelly Clarkson was a waitress, like she never sang before. Waitress? Excuse me? Kelly Clarkson was a singer… She had training, and she worked her tail off like anybody else does. She didn’t come from nowhere any more than Jessica came from nowhere. It’s not magic, you know.”
Instead, the teachers and coaches I met were quieter, even reserved. They were mostly older; many had been teaching 30 or 40 years. They possessed the same sort of gaze: steady, deep, unblinking. They listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality. After meeting a dozen of these people, I started to suspect that they were all secretly related. They were talent whisperers. They were people like Linda Septien.
Septien is a tanned, youthful 54-year-old who tends toward skin-tight tracksuits and metallic sneakers, and who possesses a steady exuberance that allows her to move past obstacles that would discourage most people. This energy shows itself in the way she talks (quickly, candidly, italicizing key words) and drives her BMW (only 17 speeding tickets last year, she informs me).
A former opera singer, at first Septien taught pop the same way she’d learned classical, by teaching students to follow universal principles of technique. But that didn’t work. “Really quickly I switched and became more artist-focused,” she said. “I realized my job was to find out what worked for somebody and connect it to what worked in pop music. There was no system for doing that, so I had to invent my own.”
Septien mined Whitney Houston vocals for scale exercises. She developed programs for diaphragm exercises, ear training, and scat singing. Over the years the matrix of her knowledge expanded. That expansion accelerated in 1991, when an 11-year-old named Jessica Simpson showed up at Septien’s studio for a lesson.
“She sang ‘Amazing Grace,’” Septien recalled. “Jessica had an infectious personality—real sweet, but she was painfully shy on stage. Plus, her voice needed a lot of work. It was beautiful, but it was churchy, which made sense because her dad was a minister. She had a big vibrato.” Septien demonstrates, filling her office with pulsating sound. “You can’t sing pop music with a vibrato. You ever seen a pair of vocal cords? They’re pink and shaped like a V—they’re muscles, basically. The vibrato meant that Jessica wasn’t controlling her cords properly, so we had to work at tightening them up, like you would a guitar string.
“The other thing with Jessica was that she had no feel, no expression, no connection to the emotion of the music, the same as I was when I started out. So we had to work a lot on that, on gestures, movement, connection to the audience, which is a whole skill in itself. The audience is like a big animal out there; you’ve got to learn to control it, connect to it, and make it breathe hard for more. Your voice can be incredible, but if you can’t connect, it doesn’t matter. But Jessica was a hard, hard worker. She really dove in.”
It took two years to fix the vibrato, and a few more to learn stagecraft. By the time she was 16, after five years of working with Septien, Simpson had a record deal; three years later, she had a 3.5 million-selling album and a platinum single, “I Wanna Love You Forever.” Simpson was hailed as an overnight success, a term that continues to entertain Septien.
“Everybody said Jessica was a Texas girl who’d been singing in her church choir. That’s ridiculous—that girl worked to become the singer she was. They said [ American Idol winner] Kelly Clarkson was a waitress, like she never sang before. Waitress? Excuse me? Kelly Clarkson was a singer—we all knew Kelly Clarkson. She had training, and she worked her tail off like anybody else does. She didn’t come from nowhere any more than Jessica came from nowhere. It’s not magic, you know.”
After Simpson, one thing led to another. Septien briefly worked with a rising Houston-area singer named Beyoncé Knowles, then used her ever-growing skills to develop and launch Ryan Cabrera, Demi Lovato, and several future American Idol finalists; her small studio became known as a star factory. On the day I was there, I heard singers from High School Musical and Barney and Friends, and a half-dozen pint-size Christina Aguileras. Septien was embarking on a roadshow for investors, seeking $100 million to expand the school to what her financial adviser called “the Gap of music schools.”
Like all master coaches, Septien’s teaching consists of a series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts. She never begins sentences with “Please, would you” or “Do you think” or “What about”; instead she speaks in short imperatives. “Now do X” is the most common construction; the “you will” was implied. The directions weren’t dictatorial in tone (usually) but were delivered in a way that sounded clinical and urgent, as if they were being emitted by a particularly compelling GPS unit navigating through a maze of city streets: turn left, turn right, go straight, arrival complete.
For example, here is a transcript of three minutes of Septien working with 11-year-old singer Kacie Lynch on a song called “Mirror, Mirror.” On the page, it reads as a monologue, but like any coaching, it was actually a conversation: Kacie ’s part was sung, Septien’s was spoken.
Linda: OK, it’s a dance song, it’s not pretty, it’s not a power ballad. It moves quick, so be quick. Sing it like a trumpet.
L: Add a scat on each of the ends—sing it like this: “You know how much he caa-aaares.”
L: Fade the ending—it should be like a balloon running out of air.
L: Use your diaphragm, not your face. Hold your tongue tighter there for a clearer sound.
L: Get your cheeks back on the scats... almost... almost... there it is.
L: Use your yawn muscles—you’re using wimpy muscles there. There it is.
K: (finishes song)
L: That was OK, but I think you’ve got a better one in you.
K (nodding): Uh-huh.
L: Now you gotta go practice that a bunch bunch bunch bunch bunch.
This is Septien’s master-coaching GPS in action, producing a linked series of vivid, just-in-time directives that zap the student’s skill circuit, guiding it in the right direction. Septien was concise, locating mistakes and their solutions in the same vivid stroke. She highlighted the crucial moments when Kacie hit the desired mark. (“ There it is.”) Septien’s skill is not only her matrix of knowledge but also the lightning-fast connections she makes between that matrix and Kacie’s efforts, linking where Kacie is now with actions that will take her where she ought to go. (It must have worked: A few months after this rehearsal, Kacie signed a recording contract with Universal Records.)
“People see all the glitter and stage stuff, and they forget that vocal cords are just muscles,” Septien said. “ They... are... just... muscles. What I do for myself as a teacher is no different from what I ask my students to do. I know what I’m doing because I put a lot of work into it. I’m no different from them. If you spend years and years trying hard to do something, you’d better get better at it. How dumb would I have to be if I didn’t?”
Extracted from The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle © 2009. With permission from the publisher, Bantam.
Daniel Coyle is the author of the bestseller Lance Armstrong’s War and Hardball: A Season in the Projects , and is a contributing editor for Outside magazine. He lives with his wife and four children in Homer, Alaska, where he coaches a rapidly improving Little League team.