American Idol’s back. That means it’s melisma season again. Melisma is when singers like Mariah Carey (and her wannabes) take one syllable and stretch it out into a run of many notes.

Here’s what Anthony Heilbut, music producer and author of “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times,” says about the way melisma is used in pop music these days:

Often, there isn’t any musical justification of what they are doing. [Their runs] interfere with the flow of the melody, of the lyric, of the harmonies, sometimes of the rhythm itself. It’s frequently a very vulgar and ugly display. [That’s] the style of American Idol singers, most of whom are amateurs.

Sounds a lot like writers who think that big words will make up for a lack of ideas (or designers who think fancy images are an adequate substitute for meaningful content).

What’s the right way to get a song across? Check out this video of a master class [via MF] conducted by Broadway legend Barbara Cook (her bio).

It’s fascinating for a few reasons. For one thing, the amount of growth she gets from students in just a few minutes is really amazing. (It’s about 20 minutes per student, just watch the first girl if you only want a taste.)

There’s also insight here for writers, presenters, or anyone else who has to communicate with an audience. Some pointers from the class:

1. Communicate directly, be human, and make a real connection with your audience.
2. Merely regurgitating your training is boring and lifeless.
3. Truly be yourself — if you do that, there is no competition.
4. Speak plainly, say it the way you would say it “at the poker table.”
5. Know when to be “faithful to the page” and when to forge your own path.

My favorite part of the Cook video: Around 44:30 in, she whispers in the ear of a student what Irving Berlin really means when he uses the word “kissing” in the lyrics to “What’ll I Do.”