On the heels of my last blog, I’ve been meaning to write down the sort of advice that I learned from some of the best, and advice that some of you already know.
As an accompanist and musical director, these are the things that make me cringe for you if you miss them or celebrate if you nail them:
FAQ 1: Can you help me pick a song? It’s great if you pick a perfect song that goes along with the style of the song you’re auditioning for. If it’s an 80s jukebox musical, do an 80s song by all means. Recently I had several girls audition for Shrek’s Fiona with “Shy” from Once Upon A Mattress. It was a great choice because of the similarity in the two characters.
You can also go with the style of a vocalist. For instance, if you’re auditioning for Adam in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it makes sense to sing a Howard Keel song. Another example from the Shrek audition: A singer auditioned for the part of Shrek with “If I Can’t Love Her” from Beauty and the Beast. Both characters are hulks with surprising tenor solos; it was a good choice.
Although I don’t think it’s unforgivable in the high school or community theatre world, it seems a bit presumptuous to me if you come into an audition and sing something from the show we are doing.
FAQ 2: I’m not a professional. I’m a high school student or I’m auditioning for community theatre. What if I don’t know songs that fit the style? Then pick a song that shows off your voice, a song that you love to sing, a song that you are confident singing. If you can nail “I Will Survive,” or “Amazing Grace,” then by all means sing it. I just want to hear your voice.
FAQ 3: What about that awesome song from the brand new musical everyone knows? Sure, if it satisfies the requirements I listed above, but if I’m not familiar with the song you’re asking me to learn something completely new in 90 seconds. (See my advice below on complicated music.) If you audition for the lead in Hamilton, then you’re smart to use Usnavi’s songs from In the Heights, as I mentioned in FAQ 1. If you’re not auditioning for a musical that uses lots of rapping, then Lin-Manuel Miranda is not your friend.
FAQ 3: What about that awesome song from THE musical everyone knows? I’m not the only musical director I know who never, ever wants to hear “Gimme, Gimme” or anything from Phantom in an audition again. Figure out if you’re singing the equivalent of playing “Stairway to Heaven” in a guitar store. (My advice about Hamilton is also applicable here.)
FAQ 4: It’s just a 16 bar/30 second cut. What part of the song should I sing? Sing the part that’s the most fun to sing. Duh.
FAQ 5: Can you transpose it for me? Sure I can. Sometimes I can do it at the push of a button, or sometimes I’m using an acoustic piano. You’re running a risk, though, and I’m more likely to think that you’re not very well prepared if you ask me to do this for you without some sort of compelling reason.
FAQ 6: Fine. I’ll purchase a transposed version. Can you play in 6 sharps? Of course I can. Do you really want me to sight read in 6 sharps, though?
FAQ 7: Why can’t I sing a cappella? For one thing, this is not American Idol, and that should be a relief to you. Mainly, though, it’s because I have no objective frame of reference for what you’re singing. I don’t know if you’re singing in the key the music is written in. I don’t know if you have any sense of rhythm. If I’m not familiar with your song, I don’t even know if you’re in the ballpark.
Here are a few other general words of advice:
- Be prepared! If you pick a song to learn the day before the audition, you will sound like you picked a song the day before the audition, I promise. You are singing for a bunch of people who know what rehearsed music sounds like and what unrehearsed music sounds like. Unrehearsed auditions tell us that 1) you are not disciplined enough to practice, and 2) you did not care enough to start early.
- If you’ve provided an excerpt, note the name of the song, show, and composer(s) on the page. I only have a few seconds to figure this out, and if you’re starting in the middle of a song I may not realize that this is a song I’ve already played. If I know that up front, I’m going to play it better.
- Tell me where to start and stop.
- Tell me how to bring you in. Do you want an intro of some sort, a chord, or just your starting pitch?
- Take me through YOUR tempo. I like to play Jason Robert Brown really fast; you may not want to sing it as fast as I like to play it.
- If I play your intro too fast, do not sing my tempo. As soon as you start singing, I will be listening for YOUR tempo. You sing; I’ll accompany.
- Be sure I can read your music. A copy of a copy of a copy may be rough on my poor eyes. Don’t make me guess. If in doubt, show it to a pianist and ask if it’s legible.
- Be sure your music is complete. A vocal libretto is not complete music. A vocal libretto only has the melody. You don’t want me to play just the melody.
- If you bring me a book, make sure that it will stay open by itself. I need both hands on the keys.
- If you have more than 3 pages, put it in a binder. If I’m playing a keyboard or a grand piano, my music rack is only wide enough for 2 pages. If I have a stack of loose pages, there is a better chance that a page will go flying.
- If you don’t have 2-sided copies, make them 2-sided, even if you just tape pages together back-to-back. This reduces page turns and keeps my hands on the keys.
- If you’re using a photocopy, be sure you did not cut off the bottom of the page. Most music is larger than 8 ½” by 11”; if you copy it at that size, I am probably going to have to guess what to play in the left hand at the bottom of the page. You don’t want me guessing.
- As I said before, I can play in difficult keys, but do you really want me to do that? I only have a few seconds to learn your piece. If you’re ordering it from a website, check the key signature. (If you don’t know what that means, ask a pianist. Ask me.)
- If at all possible, rehearse your audition with a live musician. Otherwise, you are learning to wait on the accompaniment. That’s not how this works, and it will show in your audition.
- Be sure that you are rehearsing your piece in the correct key. If you are rehearsing a cappella, you are running a risk. Again, consult a musician. It breaks my heart to play a piece and hear the singer singing it in a different key.
- Avoid really complicated piano music. Remember you are singing alone in a room with a piano, not with a Broadway pit orchestra. Even the best pianist is limited to just one piano for these things. As for really tough piano music, remember what you’re asking the pianist to do. Most of us can play Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown, but we are going to wing a lot of it.
- Avoid really complicated vocal music. We want to hear if you have good vocal sound, good technique, a good sense of rhythm, and a decent range. If you choose something that’s over-the-top quirky and unconventional, you’re making us look too hard for those things.
Most of these are from my own experiences and they reflect my own opinion. You may find other accompanists and MDs who disagree with me on some points. I welcome all comments and feedback (as long as everyone behaves.) Make friends with pianists. Make friends with me. I love to help singers whenever I can. Make friends with someone you know who plays well. We need more good accompanists, and you may give your friend the accompanying bug.
Break legs, not hearts!