By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Caroline Dingwall has her game face on. Perched before the piano in a mirrored practice room, the 12-year-old's intent gaze hides her inexperience as a performer. She stretches her fingers gently across the keys, playing the opening notes to John Lennon's "Imagine." You'd be forgiven if you suppress a cringe: Bubbly pre-teens simply were not meant to sing about having no possessions, no need for greed or hunger and no religion too.
But amazingly, as Caroline churns through the plodding chords, the song comes to life. The yellow-blond girl closes her eyes while she sings and instinctively makes eye contact when emphasizing key phrases. She shakes her head slightly at the chorus. Watching her, you'd believe this little girl could tell you, in all seriousness, that you may say she's a dreamer, but she's not the only one.
Across the room, her vocal coach, Linda Septien, smiles approvingly. Caroline has successfully "sold" the song. It's a skill she's honed during more than a year and a half of intensive training at the Septien Vocal Studio in Addison, where she's learned the elements of commercial pop performance: using delicate vocal inflections and slipping in timed gestures to turn every song into a show.
Does Caroline think she'll make it big?
"Of course I do. There's no doubt," she says.
And mentor Linda Septien stands behind her product. She's spent the past six years developing a "master class" vocal performance and artist development program for kids like Caroline--an exclusive star factory where, each year, 15 kids ages 9 to 17 will learn to sing, dance, play instruments and perform anywhere that will have them. Placing these raw talents on her assembly line, Septien, a classically trained singer, molds and shapes them into marketable musical product. She claims 100 percent success in getting her master-class students signed to song-publishing contracts or development deals, and her young charges--such as 13-year-old Paige Velasquez--routinely blow away the competition in local talent showcases.
"If you had somebody all day long telling you how to be onstage," says Septien, in her Louisiana-infused accent, "how to sing, how to songwrite...you'd be pretty good too." Reclining in front of tens of thousands of dollars worth of vocal recording equipment in her Addison studio, she laughs a little. "You'd be pretty dumb if you weren't."
Septien will tell you, in fact, that anyone can make it in music. All it takes is a million dollars. And she ought to know. She spent years grooming Jessica Simpson for stardom, teaching her voice lessons and corraling investors to fund her promotion. After Ryan Cabrera trained in her program, Septien sent him to Jessica's father and manager, Joe Simpson, who turned him into an overnight success. Septien's program is geared toward commercial success any way you can get it, no apologies offered. Her students value Septien for her honesty, her acknowledgment that music is a business; they're here to make it big, not toil for years in basement bands.
She's comfortable talking about the flaws of former students Ashlee and Jessica Simpson. Ashlee, she says, "can't sing." And Jessica, she adds, shouldn't have gone for the sexy look to sell more records. Septien also acknowledges that parents need a significant amount of money to keep their kids in her master class, which can cost up to $1,500 a month.
More than anything else, though, Linda Septien speaks bluntly about the fact that each student is a product to be sold in the increasingly commercial market of the music industry.
"If they have talent, if they do have a product to sell...then they become merchandise," she says.
That merchandise is packaged for sale according to formula--and the good news for her students, Septien says, is that she's cracked it. From the basics of style for singing rock, pop and R&B to the right photos and endless live performances at festivals, fairs and venues like the Hard Rock Café, Septien's "complete turn-key operation" offers anyone with enough funding and dedication all the essentials to launch a career.
Master-class students spend hours each week with Septien, perfecting their future pop persona. At the end of their program, they'll face 24 judges in a showcase at Maximedia Studios in North Dallas. Most of them will perform original songs, live, with a backing band or on their own instruments.
By that time--if they follow just a few simple rules--they'll be on their way to the prestigious world of E! True Hollywood Story, tabloid covers and, hope of all hopes, a reality television show to seal the deal.
Christina Aguilera didn't become a pop star and then become a total babe; she was able to become a pop star because she was a total babe. If that's kind of obvious, it does put an important qualification on Septien's million-dollar assertion.
"You like pretty people onstage that work perfectly," she says. "That's the sad part about our industry."
Any kind of physical oddity will kill a career before it ever gets off the ground. It's hard enough to get people to appreciate a new singer without having to battle issues about appearance--particularly if the issue is one that isn't going to change, like having a missing limb. One girl, in fact, who auditioned for Septien's classes had only one arm--something that will prevent her from achieving national success. "Her voice is incredible," Septien says. "But the likelihood of her getting a deal is zero, probably. Truth is, unfortunately, she would become more about her one arm than her music. It would overshadow."