Paul Mirkovich's job as band director on NBC's vocal competition show "The Voice" is as much about hugs and high fives as it is about piano keys and perfect pitch. Mirkovich and his in-house band provide live accompaniment for the singers competing on the reality talent show's third season, which premiered on Sept. 10.
"When the contestants walk into our rehearsal, I want them to feel like we're their band," Mirkovich said. "I've made my career out of working with singers and taking care of them, basically."
Mirkovich, 49, grew up in Studio City, only a couple miles away from Universal Studios, where "The Voice" is taped.
Before he ever took his first piano lesson, he astonished his mother by watching the cartoon "Casper the Friendly Ghost," then playing the theme song on the piano.
"I have eleven brothers and sisters," he said. "If I started playing scales really loudly and obnoxiously, everybody would leave the room. Then I would have a room to myself for hours, and I could play whatever I wanted to."
After high school, he attended the now-defunct L.A.-based Dick Grove School of Music, where he studied with composers like Henry Mancini and Clare Fischer. He was hired to tour with R&B singer Jeffrey Osborne in 1986, and he's performed as a keyboardist for the bands Nelson and Whitesnake. He also does musical directing for Cher and Pink.
In 2004, Mirkovich auditioned to be the band director for CBS' "Rock Star," executive produced by Mark Burnett. Mirkovich would later work with Burnett on MTV's "StarMaker."
"[For the 'Rock Star' audition] my band and I did 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' the entire thing, with all the background vocals, '' he said, referring to the classic song from British rock band Queen. "And at the end of us playing it, Mark Burnett basically got up and said, 'Why are we seeing anybody else?'"
When Burnett's "The Voice" needed a band, Mirkovich and his band -- bassist Sasha Krivtsov, drummer Nate Morton, guitarist Rafael Moreira and keyboardist Eric Daniels – got the gig.
Ninety percent perspiration: Mirkovich attributes his band's success to a simple philosophy, which comes in handy while working a 16- to 18-hour gig, seven days a week. "I don't think I'm the most naturally gifted musician, but I don't know anybody who works as hard as I do, or who works as hard as these guys," he said. "When I started, I always said, 'If I know someone's going to work an hour on something, I'm going to work three.' If I don't play my part perfectly, then I'm not doing my job."
Turn Up the Volume: For the first three seasons of "The Voice," the band has learned at least 800 songs. "I like the unpredictability," said Mirkovich. "You go out on the road with a band, you're going to play the same 20 songs for two years. On 'The Voice,' we've done as many as 20 to 22 songs in a day. There are only so many songs left! They're not writing fast enough to keep up with what we're doing."
Last Minute Arrangements: Mirkovich and the band always have to be willing to change their tune. "We never know what the contestant is going to want to do with the song until they walk in," he said. "Sometimes they say, I want to do 'We Are the Champions,' but I want to do it as a ska/reggae version. We do it cold. We all look at each other and make up the arrangement on the spot. And we do that all the time."
A Familiar Note: Mirkovich has perfect pitch — which is not always an ideal situation. "When people are out of pitch, it drives me a little nuts," he said. "I mean, I hear pitch in everything. I can tell you what notes the (room) fan's going at — there's an A and a low C. And there's a note when you drop your glass. When I'm going to play music, it's useful in that when you go to play a chord, I can hear what the notes of the chord are supposed to be, or I hear a part and know what it is pretty much instantly. But most guys can hear that [with enough practice]. My guys — we'll hear a song, and by the time the song is done playing, we'll all know the song."
Psychic Friends: Mirkovich is also a little psychic — at least when it comes to what his band will play next. "There will be moments in the song where we'll play exactly the same thing together at the same moment, and it wasn't planned," he said. "So there's a psychic connection that happens when you play with guys for a long time. It's pretty amazing." We know what the other guy's going to do before he does it."