In three months' time, Jordan Smith has evolved from an unknown collegian singing at a small liberal arts school to a nationally known pop artist expected to be crowned winner of "The Voice" tonight.
"It's an amazing thing to watch when you think about it," says Ron Brendel, associate professor of music at Lee University. "Here's a 21-year-old kid from Harlan, Ky., that nobody knew who he was and now he's bumped Adele out of No. 1 on the iTunes chart. The producers at 'The Voice' have really created a phenomenon.
"But the bottom line is: He's just gifted. You can't teach all that stuff that is just stylistically in him."
Brendel should know. He has been Smith's voice teacher at Lee University for 2 1/2 years, helping Smith harness the power of the high notes that have made him famous.
"If he wins, I'm going to move to Los Angeles," Brendel jokes.
On a serious note, though, he calls Smith "the most innately gifted student I've ever dealt with, and I've been in higher education for 25 years."
Smith's high register, which in his younger years made him the brunt of jokes and teasing, is now his claim to fame. That near-three-octave range is what has separated him from this season's contestants as much as his backstory of the self-esteem issues it caused.
Lee junior Courtney Blackwell, who is in the Lee Singers with Smith, isn't surprised at his success on NBC's talent show.
"Ever since I heard him sing, I wondered why he had not been on TV; more people should hear his voice. He never messes up," she says.
"Jordan has one of those voices that, even if you haven't heard him sing, you hear other people talking about his singing," says Alex Ubieran, a senior at Lee. "He got in Lee Singers before I did, so I was constantly hearing about him. That was one of the draws of joining Singers to me, because they had people like Jordan."
As a studio instructor at Lee, Brendel says he taught Smith vocal technique through classical music literature. He trained the singer in breathing technique, tone production, intonation - basic fundamentals that enable a singer to cross over into any genre. Just watch Smith's video of last Monday's iTunes chart-topping performance of Queen's "Somebody to Love" to see proof it works.
"That's not even remotely in our literature!" laughs Brendel of the song. "You just bank on the fact that technique is technique. If you learn how to use the instrument, it doesn't' matter what genre you sing.
"What's so amazing is that Jordan gets up there, does this amazing work, then comes back into himself and stands there with his own smile." And the audience goes wild.
Another issue in becoming a crossover artist is how Smith handles the transition to higher notes, Brendel says.
"He knows how to manage the top in more ways than one, and I think that's part of the fascination. His uncanny ability to shift into the top is that freaks people out so much."
If he's taught Smith anything that the singer didn't already have as part of his arsenal, Brendel says, it might be the work ethic required to become a star.
"My dealings with him - besides vocally and musically - have been work ethic, those life lessons that a professor deals with a student," Brendel says. "I think those lessons - making choices, managing time - are really helping him now, when he has two days to learn a song and rehearse. You can't just skate from week to week even if you are the most talented voice in the group."
The professor believes the television audience relates to Smith "because he is as true as what you see on those interviews after he sings. There is not a bit of fakery about him."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
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