“I started because I needed to make a living,” says Zack Werner of his “Idol school,” the two-hour group singing classes he offers to young singers who come to him, mostly through word of mouth. Fans of Canadian Idol will know Werner from his days as a judge on the show; he was our version of Simon Cowell. These days, five years after CTV cancelled the singing competition, a still suave but now grey-haired Werner spends his nights in the basement of a downtown Toronto restaurant, running his school for singers who want to be stars, most of whom were babies or toddlers when Idol was on air. “I want them to learn to be artists as opposed to someone who just sings,” he says.
Werner admits it was tough when Idol ended. “My notoriety got in the way of running my music business,” he says. And the industry had changed. “People thought I was a multi-millionaire because I was on television, which was definitely not the case. It was a bit of a shock from signing autographs every day to being virtually unemployable.” But now he has a plan. “There’s no better way of not making money than teaching kids to sing,” he laughs. “I don’t want to be a singing teacher for the rest of my life. I want to find the elite of the elite, the who’s who of the best eight- to 20-year-olds. I’m only attracted to the real deal.”
And the real deal is attracted to him. One dad drives two and a half hours each way to take his daughter to Werner’s Thursday-night lessons. “I love his way with kids,” says Becky Isenberg, whose daughter, Lauren, 10, has been attending the school once a week for a year. “It’s sort of like a co-op music program,” she says. “He’ll make them get real experience, like taking them into the middle of a street and making them sing.”
On a recent Tuesday night, five eight- to 10-year-olds were in his class. Werner keeps the groups small and only uses a guitar as accompaniment. “It’s amazing,” he said. “They are like 85-year-old Mississippi soul singers stuck in nine-year-old bodies!” His methods are unusual. He made the girls (his students are mostly girls) sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star “as if it’s the most romantic song in the world.” He had them sing Summertime while pretending to swim around the room, in order to teach them what to do with their arms when they’re using microphones. Michelle Neinstein, whose eight-year-old, Aja, has been with Werner for a year and a half, says her daughter has developed stage presence. “She’s learned to move when she’s singing. He’ll make her sing in a laundromat, or at Starbucks.”
“The whole school is a greater plan of launching their careers,” said Werner. “I’m trying to create a world for them where they are not just singers, but understand the music machinery.” Werner would know about that. He has worked with musicians like the Black Eyed Peas, Ron Sexsmith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I’ve also had my own journey in a rock band, sleeping in cars and opening for Alice in Chains, for example.” He’s also an entertainment lawyer and is president of Venus Records. “And as a judge for Idol,” he says, “I sat for thousands of hours staring into the faces of singers when they auditioned. I found that if I just asked them to lift their left arm while singing, or their upper lip, it radically changed what they were doing.”
He trains his kids not to be shy, which doesn’t seem to be a problem. The students, even at such a young age, are diva-ish already. Recently, Werner arranged for Aja to sing at a hospital charity event. She performed for 3,000 people.
He charges $300 for six lessons. “A few of my students I teach for free because they are that good,” he says. “I’m not going to get in the way of someone who is so talented because they don’t have the money to pay.”
In the past few months, he says he has had a number of talent scouts check out his students. He has also started an all-girl singing group, Sparkle. “They’re between 11 and 13 and they are five of the best that I’ve ever heard in that age group.” As for his old image as Idol’s curmudgeonly judge? Well, the humour is still there. But these days, his proteges call him Zacky.