Vocal coach and Burnt Hills native sends students to both ‘The Voice’ and ‘Idol’

Lesley O’Donnell works with Moriah Formica and Madison VanDenburg
Lesley O'Donnell is flanked by Moriah Formica, left, and Madison VanDenburg.
Lesley O'Donnell is flanked by Moriah Formica, left, and Madison VanDenburg.

There just might be something in the water in upstate New York, as Katy Perry said on a recent episode of “American Idol.”

Or maybe it has something to do with Lesley O’Donnell, the vocal coach for both Moriah Formica and Madison VanDenburg. 

Formica, a 2018 Shaker High School graduate and powerhouse vocalist, was a contestant on NBC’s “The Voice,” in 2017 and auditioned for ABC’s “American Idol” last year.

VanDenburg, a current student at Shaker and talented vocalist, is currently in the top 40 contestants on “American Idol.”

Before auditioning, they got the same advice from O’Donnell, “To rely on the talent that’s there, and always has been and always will be and to enjoy the experience.”

O’Donnell, a Burnt Hills native, has worked with Formica and VanDenburg for several years and has seen both their voices and careers grow. 

Her own singing career started at an early age. 

“My mom says I started singing at two at my doctor’s appointment. I guess I just sang for the doctors,” O’Donnell said, “But every kid sings, it’s just in you.”

Even as she grew up, her voice and her love for singing never left her—if anything it intensified. She studied music and specialized in musical theater in college before going on to perform in the national touring productions of “Camelot” and “School House Rock.” She spent about five years touring before moving to Ballston Spa in 2009 and diving into teaching full time. 

She teaches at her home studio but also at Modern Day Music in Clifton Park, where she met both VanDenburg and Formica. 

“Their voices were just above the rest from the get-go,” O’Donnell said.  

When they started taking lessons at the Modern Day Music School at 11 or 12 years old, they both had high goals in mind. They wanted to audition for shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol.”  

“I can’t take credit for that,” O’Donnell said. 

Formica worked with O’Donnell before auditioning for “The Voice” two years ago, running through techniques and different songs, just as VanDenburg worked with O’Donnell for her “American Idol,” audition in 2018 when she sang “Speechless” by Dan and Shay. 

“Being able to perform and be confident is so important. And telling the story of a song is so important because if you’re singing a song and it has no feeling behind it than the story just doesn’t get across,” O’Donnell said. 

She’s seen VanDenburg bring out the story of a song time and time again both in the studio and on “American Idol,” especially with her rendition of “All I Ask” by Adele, which aired on Monday and was one of her best so far, said O’Donnell. 

“She just nails it with Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan all sitting there and with cameras [everywhere],” O’Donnell said. 

Many remember Formica’s powerful performances on “The Voice” in 2017, as well as from recent gigs around the Capital Region. Earlier this week, Formica announced that she went to audition for “American Idol,” along with VanDenburg back in 2018. She made it through a group audition, which fans can view on YouTube, however, her solo audition was not aired. In an Instagram post on Tuesday, she wrote “We all have our own thoughts as to why they didn’t put me through. Right now, none of that matters.” She went on to thank

O’Donnell and everyone at the Modern Day Music and asked people to cheer on VanDenburg.

“For them to have each other to lean on and lift each other up has been really nice because it’s a competitive business and it’s not always kind,” O’Donnell said. 

Formica is working on her own music, which isn’t something she could do if she was on “American Idol.” According to O’Donnell, Formica is a prolific songwriter and has already worked with musicians in Nashville on new material. 

Since VanDenburg got home from taping the first round of “American Idol,” episodes in Los Angeles, she’s been working with O’Donnell to maintain her vocal health.

“Just working on techniques that will carry her through the competition and beyond,” O’Donnell said. 

Even though the first few episodes of “American Idol” were taped last year, there are live rounds that VanDenburg has to prepare for in the upcoming weeks.

Watching both VanDenburg and Formica on national television has been a surreal experience, but one that’s made O’Donnell beyond proud. 

“Just hearing these powerhouse voices in these little girls and then to know what their dreams are and to see them realize their dreams is a reward for me,” O’Donnell said. 

Between her home studio and Modern Day Music School, O’Donnell teaches about 25 students from around the Capital Region a week. Several are hoping to audition for “The Voice” or “American Idol” and they have a serious shot at getting on either show, said “O’Donnell. 

“I have a couple [of] other students from Shaker and they’re also excellent singers and more and more I notice, there’s so much talent. I wonder if it’s more of an interest in singing or if there is something in the water and people are just better singers these days,” O’Donnell said. 

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