By Joyell Nevins
Local singer gets a shot on ‘The Voice’
Michael Sanchez has gone from being a hometown piano player to a nationwide name — thanks to a load of talent, a dose of gumption, and Alicia Keyes.
The La Mesa resident is part of Team Alicia on season 11 of NBC’s “The Voice,” the singing competition. Tune in this Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. to watch him in the Knockout round. This is the final phase before the show goes live.
“I get to sing songs in front of 15 million people,” Sanchez said, adding that whether he wins is not the focus — he’s just glad to have the opportunity. “You know some people see the glass half-empty, some see the glass half-full. Me, I’m just glad I’ve got a glass!”
He almost didn’t get that glass. The first audition for “The Voice” was back in January. Sanchez’s day job is actually his night job, as he plays piano for a living at restaurants such as Season 52, Trulucks and Brigantine. He is also well-known for his piano skills at weddings and worship leadership at The Chapel at Grossmont and Shadow Mountain Community Church.
One of his restaurant singing partners suggested he audition for “The Voice.” Sanchez made it through the first callback before the producers and then into the blind audition, which aired on television a few weeks ago.
The blind audition
The premise of the blind audition before the vocal coaches and superstars Blake Shelton, Alicia Keyes, Miley Cyrus and Adam Levine is that they all have their back turned to the performer so they only hear the voice. The coaches don’t get to see what the person looks until they press their button saying “I Want You,” which swivels their chair around. And if no one presses the button before the song ends, the singer goes back home.
Sanchez is a petite 25-year-old with square glasses and a studious look — Blake Shelton told him he looked like Rick Moranis. He chose for his audition the soulful song “Use Me” by Bill Withers.
“I play it a lot so I’m familiar with it, but it’s the most opposite of what I look like,” Sanchez said.
For the first part of the song, nobody was turning around; not even when he hit a high note. Then Sanchez realized that while the coaches couldn’t see him, they could see the audience. So he started to go all out, pointing at the audience and amping up his performance. The audience ate it up.
“I threw out all the stops,” he said. “I abandoned my safer route. It was one of those super crazy moments.”
And in the final line of the song, Keyes pushed her button — Sanchez was in.
“I just freaked out,” Sanchez said (in a YouTube video, he literally does a jump in midair). “I was so surprised and thankful.”
Especially to be with Alicia Keyes: As a piano player, Sanchez had listened to her music since he was “super young” and respected her skills as a pianist. He found out at the first rehearsal her genuine kindness as well.
“Alicia is so nice. I couldn’t get over how nice she is,” Sanchez said.
He was also amazed at how, even though her voice is quiet and her personality subdued, she commands a room.
“When she talks, everyone listens,” Sanchez said. “She is an amazing communicator in general.”
The battle round
The next phase of competition is the battle round, where the coaches pair up two singers on one song to sing it together, and one of the singers goes home at the end. Sanchez was paired with his teammate and friend Dave Moisan.
Moisan was the first person Sanchez bonded with when he got to “The Voice.” All of the contestants are housed in the same hotel, and being musicians, jam sessions are common. In fact, that’s been Sanchez’s favorite part of the whole competition, getting to know other contestants.
“We’re all a bunch of singers, we all love music, and we’re all from all over,” Sanchez said. “I loved meeting and learning from all the other contestants — everyone there is the best at something that you’re not.”
During the blinds (which actually last three weeks), Moisan was at the piano in the lobby and casually asked Sanchez if he wanted to play. As Sanchez started to press the keys, Moisan was impressed that “whoa, this guy can really play.” Other contestants started coming around and asking what songs he could play, and then they would sing with him. That pattern of jamming around the piano became a regular thing.
“I became like the resident piano player,” Sanchez said with a smile.
But Keyes didn’t know about these jam sessions, that they were already buds, or that they were piano players when rehearsals started. Nor did her guest coach, Charlie Puth, a piano player, singer and songwriter who has written and produced songs for artists such as Stevie Wonder and Meghan Trainor.
But once she found out, and heard them play well (later on the show she referred to Sanchez as a “killer piano player”), the singing battle turned into a tag-team duet with a keyboard in the middle.
“Alicia and Charlie told me when you’re behind the piano, you’re a whole ‘nother guy,” Sanchez said.
The song Keyes chose for them was “Valerie” by The Zutons. Moisan and Sanchez took turns playing the keyboard during the battle performance. While their families cheered them on (Sanchez is married to Maria and they have a 2-year-old son named Noah), the men plunked the keys, sang their hearts out and even put their arms around each other.
The performance got a standing ovation from Levine, who was already a fan of Moisan’s, and told Sanchez he blew him away with his rich soulful tone and how he carried himself. Cyrus called it more of a show or performance than a boxing fight. But Keyes had to pick a winner, and Sanchez was selected to stay on for another round.
Sanchez was elated, though, to hear that Moisan was “stolen” by coach Levine — giving his friend one more opportunity to stay on “The Voice.”
The next round of competition is the Knockouts. Again, two contestants are chosen to compete together, with one going home. This time, the contestants choose their own song and sing back to back instead of head to head.
Unfortunately, Moisan sang “Like I Can” against Simone Gundy’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” and was sent home. But if Sanchez makes it through his Knockout round, he will head into the live competition, where the American public does the elimination voting. And then, who knows?
“This is making me wonder, where do I want to go and what I do I want to do,” Sanchez said. “With whatever I do, I want to get to encourage people.”
—Freelance writer Joyell Nevins can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow her blog Small World, Big God at swblog.wordpress.com.