American Voices Festival’s “Pop/Rock Master Session” with Renée Fleming, Ben Folds, and Sara Bareilles by Marlene Hall

Renée Fleming, host.
Renée Fleming, host.

For the first time ever, The Kennedy Center along with world renowned soprano singer Renée Fleming with partial sponsorship by Ann and Tom Friedman put together the American Voices Festival.  American Voices is Master Sessions with top musical artists of many of the American genres and also featuring a concert with all the top musical artists. Some of the artists involved were:  Eric Owens (Classical Music), Dianne Reeves (Jazz), Alison Krauss with Dr. Thomas Cleveland (Country), Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles (Pop), Sutton Foster (Musical Theater), and Kim Burrell (Gospel).

I attended the Pop/Rock Master Sessions with Ben Folds and surprise guest Sara Bareilles with hosts Renée Fleming and Chris Sampson. Folds and Bareilles were on the NBC show The Sing Off. They have great chemistry and I loved the rapport between them. Folds is as witty when he is talking as he is in his songs. An example of Folds’ wittiness is when during the Q&A with the audience there was a question about the use of mics during performances. Folds stepped away from the mike (audience laughter) and shared in his natural voice, “I think we need to get away from the mics as they are just used for sound reinforcement purposes.”

There were four pre-selected young artists and Folds and Bareilles gave feedback to all four. First was Jake Ohlbaum, a second year student at The Berklee College of Music, who played piano and sang Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” Folds critiqued, “To make the song your own. One technique is bring the song to a whisper.” Folds had Ohlbaum sing without the piano and then just sing while playing with his right hand. Bareilles agreed with Folds to “inject your personality into the song, make the song much more you.”

Next was the only 19 year old singer Lissi Lafontaine, a first year student at The Berklee College of Music who sang a Christina Aguilera song “Lost Me.” Boy could she sing!! Bareilles told Lafontaine, “You already have a beautiful name!” Bareilles wanted to see an emotional performance with eyes closed sometimes. She stressed finding the emotion in the song. “Get pissed! I want you to growl a bit. Take each performance with absolute incense. Leave some sparseness.” Folds shared, “Don’t always give the audience what they want.”

Next was the singer and songwriter Nina Grollman of Moorhead, Minnesota who sang “Creep” by Radiohead. Bareilles shared, “You have a beautiful instrument with range.” The piano overtook the song and she wanted to hear more space in the song. Folds encouraged her to “Work the hell out of what you have with your voice.” He urged her to simplify as “a lot of notes being recruited weren’t helping.”

Nina Grollman shares, “I got here through the YoungArts organization, which has given me so many wonderful performance opportunities that I could never dream of until now. The feedback was extremely helpful and opened my eyes to habits that I wasn’t even aware I was exercising in performance. Currently, I’m in my first year at Juilliard pursuing a BFA in Acting, and I’m not entirely sure what the future holds. Music and acting are both huge parts of my life, and hopefully I’ll be able to do both in the future!”

Next was singer-songwrite Lara Johnston who has toured as opening act for artists such as KISS and Heart. She sang an Etta James song about heartbreak called “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Folds critiqued, “Your vocal technique overcame diction. You have a great deep, rich voice. Strip the song. Overall, your performance was amazing.” Bareilles feedback was, “You have a beautiful voice with serious chops. Add some simplicity to the song.”

I got to talk with some of the young artists after the show.

Ohlbaum shared, “I got picked by some faculty at Berklee College of Music and I feel SO lucky to have been selected. It’s really just the most amazing and rewarding opportunity a music student could have. Ben and Sara are heroes of mine, so having them share with me areas in which I could improve was just a dream. They talked a lot about dynamics – something I always think about, but they opened my eyes to a whole new window of how to make that song my own. I couldn’t have asked for a cooler experience.

Ben Folds.
Ben Folds.

As for my future, it’s back the grind. I’m so juiced and re-engergized from this, so I’m excited to get back to work. My band is finishing up our first album, we’ve got a couple shows soon and we’re writing a lot. It’ll all be really challenging, but it’s all for love so there’s no other way to go.”

After the critiques and feedback by Folds and Bareilles, they did a quick Q&A with the crowd. Folds shared he thought he was going to be a drummer and he also studied music theory. Bareilles wasn’t trained in music and is self-taught. Bareilles is afraid the intricacies of music is being lost. Folds and Bareilles usually write the music first before the lyrics.

The next part of the show featured four music industry types interviewed by Chris Sampson, Vice Dean for the Music at the University of Southern California, where they gave their insight into the music industry. Interviewed were:Kristen Foster, Executive Vice President and Head of the Music Department at PMK*BNC, the world’s largest entertainment PR firm.

Peter Mensch, a music manager and co-owner of music management company Q Prime. He has managed such bands as: ACDC, Def Leppard, the Scorpions, Metallica, Madonna, and Smashing Pumpkins.

Don Was, record producer, artist, and President of jazz label Blue Note Records. He has worked with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Rait, Iggy Pop, and Elton John.

William Riley is a world renowned voice trainer of singers like Celine Dion and Liza Minelli.

Foster and Mensch agreed that after the age of 25 it is hard to market a singer in today’s world. Twenty-five years of age is past your prime. Was disagreed and said he had his first hit record when he was 38. He said you can keep making a living at music if that’s what you want to do. He said he would have been happy just playing at a local bar every night. Mensch said (to laughter), “As your manager I would be worried about you!”

Foster’s PR strategy usually involves listening to the music first and she says a lot of people find that baffling which she doesn’t understand.

Mensch believes the music industry is destroyed these days and it is extremely difficult to have a career in music.

Riley was quite fascinating. He shared how his client Celine Dion has 14 brothers and sister and she felt obligated to call them every day. He finally told her to stop as that is bad on your vocal chords and they need a rest. He and Mensch both agreed that singers need to do scales before singing and cool down scales after singing.

Mensch said lead singers give this image as hard partiers/ rock ‘n rollers, but in fact are disciplined people. He would insist they go to bed by 11pm and not drink or party or go out after the shows to rest their vocal chords. If a lead singer has to start seeing a doctor with problems with his or her vocal chords that is extremely bad news.

Sara Bareilles.
Sara Bareilles.

My favorite speaker was Was though as he is down to earth and humble.  He preached to do what you love and go for it. He gave people hope.

One of the most fascinating things I’ve attended was the “Pop/Rock Master Sessions” with Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles. It is enlightening to see the true masters at work giving artists insightful advice to help them advance in their artistry.

American Voices Festival’s “Pop/Rock Master Session with Renée Fleming, Ben Folds, and Sara Bareilles played for one afternoon only on November 23, 2013, at 330 PM at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater— 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, go to their Calendar of Events.


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Marlene Hall
Marlene Hall grew up an army brat and has lived all over the world and in Washington, DC where she was constantly exposed to theater and music. Marlene graduated from the University of Virginia where she wrote for the Cavalier Daily interviewing musicians. Commissioned as an Air Force officer, she served 8 years. She now works as a realtor with eXp Realty. In addition, Marlene dabbles in improvisational comedy and has taken classes at the famed iO Theater in Chicago and the DC Improv. She is very active in the DC charity and social scene and contributes her time to veterans’ organizations Team Rubicon and Team Red, White, and Blue. She also was a supernumerary in the Washington National Opera’s Carmen with opera singer Denyce Graves. She loves the music and theater scene in DC and goes to as many concerts and shows as possible.


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