Thursday, June 18, 2015

Choosing the Best Songs for Musical Theatre Auditions

by Lori Moran

So, you've got your vocal technique down - you've mastered diaphragmatic breathing, you've built a cohesive sound throughout your registers, developed great tone quality, control, power, yada yada yada...  Now what?  Are you really ready to put yourself in front of directors and casting agents in musical theatre auditions?  Well, that all depends on the songs you have chosen for your "book".  

Many singer/actors make the mistake of trying to learn a new song for each audition that comes up.  Thus, they are perpetually on the search for something that will be just perfect for the character they are auditioning for that particular time, and hope to find something obscure enough that not every other singer will walk through the door with the same song.  (Trust me, the directors are hoping that same thing.) 

However, it's impossible to get a new song "show ready" in a week, which is usually about how long you have between when you hear about the audition and when you stand in front of the directors.  Of course, you can learn a song in that short amount of time, but you are not going to have "lived with" that song long enough to bring your fullest and best rendition of the song, as you would with something that you've sung before in front of an audience. You only get about 30 seconds (16 - 32 bars) in the audition room.  Think about it.  Would you rather have the directors say to themselves, after hearing you sing, "Wow, that was a great song for this audition", or "Wow, that is a great actor/singer"?  Instead of always being on the hunt for yet another song for each new audition, why not build your audition book with a few well selected songs across a variety of styles that will serve you best, no matter what the role, and allow the confident performer in you shine through?

Here are a few tips for building the perfect audition book - one that will provide you with enough material to use for all your auditions because they will really showcase the YOU that directors want to see and hear. 

Collect songs that reflect your personality, type, and vocal abilities.  Try to find songs that match the character type that you are most likely to be considered for.  It's better to have 10 - 12 well-chosen songs that you know you could perform at the drop of a hat at any moment, than a vast collection of songs you've only "been working on" but haven't ever gotten up to performance level.  And you must keep these songs up to that level all the time, so it's important to continue singing them on a regular basis.  Anything that gets rusty or stops having relevance for you should be replaced.

Most directors DON'T want to hear songs from the show they are casting in auditions, because they will get sick of hearing the same songs all day.  If you have made good choices for the music you've included in your audition book, you will probably have more than one song that will work for most any audition that you are likely to attempt, so you won't need to run out and learn a new song for each audition.  And if you remember that the acting is really the key thing directors are looking at, and the singing, while important, is secondary, you'll make better choices for the songs you put in your book.  As vocal teachers, we like to think that the singing is the most important aspect of your audition.  But the truth is, acting will trump singing every time in the musical theatre world, so choose songs that allow you to show off your acting skills as well as your vocal prowess.  Know your "type" - what kind of roles you are most likely to be cast in - and choose songs that display those types.  Choose songs that you have a strong connection with and develop a deep understanding of the characters embodied in those songs. 

Uptempo & ballad:  Since most professional auditions require that you come prepared with both an uptempo (fast song) and a ballad (slow song), even though many times, you are likely going to get to sing only one selection, your audition book should contain an  uptempo and a ballad for each of the main styles/genres of musical theatre:
  • Classic or "Golden Age" Musical Theatre ("old school" shows, such as those composed by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Irving Berlin, etc.)
  • Contemporary Musical Theatre ( and for ideas and sheet music)
  • Rock/Pop (NOT something from a "rock/pop" musical, but actual rock or pop songs as you've heard them on the radio). 
After those three main categories are covered, you should add a novelty song, a country song, a comedic song, and possibly even a classical  or operatic song (if you can sing it well).  As you advance in your career, your audition book can change, too - but keep weeding out the songs you don't use regularly. Keep your book lean - stress quality over quantity.

Make your cuts.  Come prepared with the whole song, just in case they love you and want to hear more, but only expect to sing your best 16 bars (16-measures), or possibly 32-bars if the song is in cut time. 16-bars usually gives you about 30 seconds to show them what you can do, so you need to choose the BEST 16-bars of the song.  There is an art to choosing your best 16-bars.  For many songs, the last 16-bars of the song will be appropriate.  But not always.  You want to choose the 16 measures that delivers the "message" of the song, allows you to do some acting, hit the "high note", if there is one, and it needs to sound like it has a beginning and an end.  That's a tall order for a 16-bar cut.  Be especially sure to have your intros and cuts clearly marked for the accompanist.  (See also "How to prepare your music for the audition accompanist".)

Songs to avoid:  As a general rule, there are some song types you may want to avoid:
  • "Victim" or "angst" songs (unless the character you are going for is specifically a victim or angry)
  • Overdone songs (i.e., anything from "Wicked", "Frozen", etc. - shows that absolutely everyone knows)
  • Songs that are so obscure that NOBODY knows them. (There may be a good reason for their obscurity, and you don't want the directors to be focused so much on your odd song choice that they forget about YOU)
  • Songs from the show in question (unless specifically asked to sing something from the show)

Life is too short to sing songs we don't love.  With such a plethora of music from which to choose, there is no reason to sing songs that you don't just LOVE, and feel a strong connection to in some way.  Whether you just love the music, the lyrics speak to you, or if you feel you could just "live in the skin" of that particular character, those are the songs you should sing because there is a reason why you love those songs.  There is something magical about the way that certain stories and songs move us in a way that we can't explain.  The songs that touch you are the same ones that are most likely to touch others when you perform them.  Take advantage of that connection and use it to land your next role! 

Don't shoot the piano player.  Consider the difficulty level of the accompaniment for the songs you choose.  Remember, unless you bring your own accompanist, the person who will be sitting behind the piano may have never seen your music before, and you take a huge risk of having a catastrophe if you bring something that is really complicated to play.   (See "How to prepare your music for the audition accompanist".)


Get it in your key.  When downloading sheet music online, you must be careful to get the song in the key that is right for you.  This is referred to as "transposition".   But if you don't know anything about music theory and how key signatures work, you'll need to get assistance from someone who does.  And by all means, once you have your sheet music printed out, take it to an accompanist or vocal coach to make sure that the music reflects the tempo and cuts as you want them for your audition, and that it looks right.  Online sheet music providers have come a long way, but sometimes the transposed music has strange symbols and and excessive sharps and flats, making it very complicated for an accompanist to read.  Many songs, particularly from the "Golden Age", are strongly associated with their original key, and should NOT be transposed to suit your voice.  If you have to transpose a song from this style to make it work in your voice, it may be better to choose a different song.

So, that's all great advice, but... what if you're still working on your "book" and you have no idea what to sing for a particular audition that is coming up, like in 3 days?  Ok, since we know that, for musical theatre auditions, it really is the acting that is of primary importance, try to find something that portrays a similar character AND is from a similar style of show AND has a similar vocal range.  Even better, you may be able to find a similar character in a show written by the same composer &/or lyricist as the show for which you are auditioning.  But be sure to keep it in the same vocal range as the character you're going for.  If the character is a belter, you don't want to come in with a legit soprano song.  And if the role calls for a tenor with a high C, you don't want to choose a baritone ballad.   

All of this can take a lot of research, especially if you are new to the auditioning world, and if you aren't a particularly big theatre buff.  A good vocal coach can help evaluate your voice, recommend appropriate songs, and help you polish your audition songs to get them performance ready.  If you are serious about pursuing a career in musical theatre, regular sessions with a trusted vocal coach are the best investment you can make.

See also 8 Tips for Successful Singer-Actor Auditions

Monday, June 15, 2015

8 Tips for Successful Singer-Actor Auditions

by Lori Moran

For anyone in the business that is "show", auditions are an ugly necessity of life.  We'd all like to think that one day, we'll be so well known that auditions are no longer needed, but for the 99.9% of  working actors who tread the boards, auditions are here to stay.  Here are a few tips to help make them less painful, and ultimately, more successful.

Pre-audition preparation is key.  Needless to say, you want to go into any audition with your material show-ready.  Using songs &/or monologues you have actually performed for an audience will provide you with a confidence level you don't get with material you've just learned the week before.  Too often, performers are so busy worrying about goofing up the lyrics, singing a wrong note, or suffering a memory lapse that they lose focus and derail their audition.  (See "Choosing the Best Songs for Musical Theatre Auditions".)  For this reason, you need to get in front of an audience - whether in a workshop, recital, open mic night - as often as possible to get your audition songs performance-ready.  If you can't use something you've previously performed and feel really confident singing, take the time and book a few sessions with a vocal coach &/or acting coach to work through your song(s)/monologues ahead of time (which you should be doing anyway).

On audition day:  Warm up your voice AND your body before you go to the audition with a good 20-30 minute vocal warmup and several overall body stretches.  This will help calm your nerves and allow you to perform at your best.  Be sure to eat a light meal for energy - not right before you sing, but 2-3 hours prior to the audition.  Steer clear of dairy and carbonated drinks, though. 

In the audition waiting room:  Don't engage in small talk with other auditioners in the waiting area.  Be cordial and certainly not unfriendly, but you need to stay focused, and you can get sabotaged by those you meet in the waiting room.  Some of these people are likely going to be your competition, so don't give them the edge by allowing them to drain your mental energy or derail your confidence just before you walk in.

Just before you go in:  A few moments before you go into the audition room, stand up, walk around, and even jump up and down in place several times - just enough to help you loosen up, get your breath flowing and blood moving. You never want to sit waiting for an hour or more at those dreaded open calls, then stand up and immediately walk in and sing.  Also, you can do lip trills just before entering the audition room.  This will get your low, diaphragmatic breath control engaged, ensuring that your first note will be "on the breath".

In the audition room:  When you walk into the audition room, your greeting to the directors should be a brief "hello" that is cheerful, energized, confident, and relaxed.  Don't babble on or make excuses about being sick, etc...  They are already judging the type of cast member you might be, based on that greeting.  Don't give them any reason to think that you are unsure of yourself, or worse, a whiner or complainer.  They want you to succeed, but they are looking for people who can do the job with the least amount of hand-holding...NOT someone who is potentially"high maintenance".

Accompanist etiquette:  Give your music to the accompanist, and briefly go over the tempo and any
important markings in your music. (See "How to prepare your music for the audition accompanist".)  Be nice to the accompanist, and please DON'T snap or clap the beat for them.  This is considered rude.  Just softly sing a bit of the first phrase in tempo.  He/She can be your best pal or your worst enemy when you are baring your soul and your voice in an audition.  And after you sing, be sure to thank the accompanist, when you walk over to pick up your music.  Don't make the mistake of assuming the accompanist is just a hired pianist for the day, and therefore, not worth the extra thoughtfulness.  Sometimes the audition accompanist will turn out to be the musical director or the pianist for the show.  It's also acceptable, and sometimes preferable, to bring your own accompanist, particularly if you are planning to sing something that is tricky to play, since the audition accompanist may not be familiar with your song. 

Before you leave:  This is one tip that so many overlook.  Make sure you find out before you leave the audition (ask the monitor, if you aren't sure) the names of the people for whom you sang.  If it's an Equity audition, it should be listed on the audition notice, but sometimes an additional casting person is attending who may not be listed.  Be sure to ask so that you can follow up after the audition with a  hand-written thank-you note to each of person for whom you auditioned. Yes, it's old-fashioned, but it shows you have respect for them and the time and consideration they gave you.  Whether or not you get the part, they will remember you for the thoughtfulness, and chances are, eventfully, if you continue in this business, you will stand in front of these same people again.  Directors and casting agents see so many people, so anything you can do to make yourself stand out (in a good way) is worth doing.  You may have to do some investigating to find a mailing address for them.  If you can't find a physical address, email, while not as personal, is an acceptable alternative.

Post audition celebration:  Finally, have something fun planned for yourself to do just after the audition.  This is especially important for kids in the biz, but also applies to adults.  Let's face it, most performers are hyper-critical of themselves.  We are perfectionists, and we obsess about every little aspect of the audition after the fact.  "Why did I wear that stupid dress?"  "I should have sung the other song I had prepared."  And on, and on....  These thoughts play over and over in your head like a broken record immediately after a big audition.  If, however, you plan something fun to do post-audition, i.e., lunch with a friend, go to see a good movie, even simple retail therapy - you may not completely stop obsessing over your auditions,  but at least changing your focus can help you deal with the nerve-wracking aftermath.  :-)