Over the last year and a half, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Sheri Sanders through her work as an author and master teacher. She is the vivacious creator of “Rock the Audition,” a book that I can not recommend more highly to anyone looking to be an active participant in the Broadway community (including performers, teachers, audition pianists and yes, writers, there’s something in there for you too). “Rock the Audition” meticulously yet playfully outlines how to audition for pop/rock musicals. This includes how to properly cut a song, communicate with the accompanist and how to deliver a pop/rock song.
Did you know that every decade has its own incredibly specific vocal styling? It does, and Sheri beautifully demonstrates these differences on a DVD that accompanies the book.
Am I making a hard sell? Perhaps. Please understand this praise comes from someone who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing clothing with any kind of logo on it. I’m not a billboard. But when I see a good thing – and “Rock the Audition” certainly is – I have no problem spreading the word.
After watching Sheri in action a couple weeks ago in one of her many classes, I interviewed her via e-mail, as she’s currently performing on the west coast. Below is a transcript of our chat.
Hi Sheri! As you read above, I’m a big fan of the work you do. Please tell us a little more about it.
Well…. I teach musical theatre performers how to pick, cut, arrange, vocally style, interpret and ACT Motown, 70s folk/rock, Disco, 80s pop/rock, contemporary pop/rock, punk and alternative rock music for the purpose of successfully auditioning for rock musicals.
And now I get to go to musical theatre programs at colleges, universities and private musical theatre programs and teach the voice and acting teachers and the performance coaches how to teach their students. I feel so strongly about empowering teachers. What’s great about it is they love it, and they get it. They just needed someone to show them where to look and how to look at it.
How did you come to this work?
I have had a very diverse musical theatre career for (gasp!) 20 years. I mean, you name it, I’ve done it. I can do anything anyone puts in front of me. All I ever needed was time to research, and practice. So along with that freedom and ability as a performer, I also I grew up listening to and singing tons of popular music. But it was always a separate joy for me. I thought maybe I’d create the soundtracks to movies or something because I had great taste in music. I had no idea that popular music was going to DOMINATE Broadway. But when I noticed it start to happen, I saw all my friends struggling. No one teaches you how to act a song that was never supposed to be acted. Anywhere. So I created a class, which at the time I called “Pop, Rock and R&B Musical Theatre Audition Technique”. I just took the songs I always knew and loved, put them on people whose voices sounded good on the songs, and then class blew up. I became the world’s only popular music repertoire coach. Then I was invited by Hal Leonard to write the first book on auditioning for rock musicals. I will tell you I had NO IDEA I’d be doing this. But it feels so good to facilitate hope and inspiration and growth in a time where theatre feels, at times, hopeless for performers.
While the Broadway landscape covers a lot of different musical genres, why do you think pop/rock shows are so en vogue?
Thanks for using the words “En Vogue”. They were a great girl group! This is a personal opinion, but I think 9/11 put the theatre community into a crisis and no one wanted to take any risks anymore. It was about it being safe. Actors who are movie stars were playing roles on stage with no stage experience. An appeal came from jukebox musicals which gave people familiar music that was safe and that producers knew audiences would enjoy. That trend grew into a necessity. It went from musical theatre writers writing rock musicals like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, GODSPELL and RENT, to pop artists writing musicals. Elton John, wrote AIDA. Phil Collins wrote TARZAN. This was appealing to the adult audiences who were buying tickets. But now, Regina Spektor, The Barenaked Ladies, Sting, Cyndi Lauper, Sheryl Crow and The Scissor Sisters are bringing what MTV was to me when I was a kid to the theatre. Will they write great musicals even though they were never taught to move a plot in a song? Hopefully. But we love them, and the kids, who are the target audience, will make their parents buy tickets.
Take us through what a regular series of “Rock the Audition” masterclasses covers.
Well, I have several different workshops depending on whether I’m in a big city, or at a college. I have a teacher training program, a student training program, and a one-day workshop. But here’s what the big city one looks like
I separate the classes into 4 weeks – 4 different styles. I listen to the performer sing before class, determine their marketability and expressiveness, and then pick out 4 songs in the following styles:week 1: Motown or 70s folk/rock week 2: Disco or 80s pop/rock week 3: Contemporary pop/rock week 4: Alternative rock, punk, or what I call faeries (i.e. Regina Spektor, Damien Rice)
At the beginning of every cIass, I do a lecture on the history of each style of music, what was happening socially and politically at that time, how those things effected the music, and how the music created change. Then I ask them, based on the history, what do you think you would be like as a person if you were alive during these different time periods? What would your point of view on life be and how would that effect the way you sing, use your body and express yourself emotionally?
The structure of the class is the coolest to me because the first 2 weeks are about playing with style and capturing the essence of different eras – like being an authentic hippie during the Vietnam Era or a Disco queen. Then when we hit contemporary pop/ rock, it all of a sudden becomes very personal because there’s no time period, no history. Well there is history, but it’s the history of who you are, and what you have to share with others about how you feel about it. By the time faerie class comes along, its not even about you anymore – it’s how to evoke emotions in other people. It’s pretty magical.
What do you find is the most consistent challenge for singing actors coming into your classes or private studio?
Aside from the fundamental terror of an actor not knowing what their doing, and how vulnerable that is? Most musical theatre singers didn’t grow up listening to popular music. So even if you give them a great tune, they’ll sound like a musical theatre performer on it. Unless they grew up in a house that played a lot of rock music, there is little to no exposure to the ways recording artists sing songs. It’s about how their feelings travel on their voices. Not how high they sing or how loud. So its deconstructing what a rock sound is. It’s about dynamics, textures, colors, and emotions.
How do you think voice teachers can help their students or clients in this regard?
The only way a musical theatre singer can grow into a rock singer is to listen to popular music religiously. The teachers need to study it as much as the students. A voice teacher once asked me, “How to I get my students to sound more edgy?” I thought, well, when I’m edgy, its because i have anxiety, I’m in emotional pain, I feel raw and wild. Singers, when they are expressing themselves emotionally, create those sounds. It’s not outside in, its inside out. Yes, using vocal fry, glottal onsets and using the vibrato in much different parts of the phrase than in legit musical theatre help a WHOLE LOT. But to take the time to listen to how singers express themselves, that is the best and ONLY way to learn how to sound like you’ve been singing rock. Listening is the best training, and I encourage teachers and students alike to use the great free gifts of Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube to learn.
Sheri, I have a confession to make: while I’m a pretty open minded voice teacher, the thought of trying to get a female student to sound like Christina Aguilera makes my teeth ache. What would you say to other teachers who are leery of incorporating this kind of work into their studio?
Well here’s the misconception I’m happy to shift for our voice teacher friends. Yes, Christina Aguilera is a pop/rock singer and she screams and riffs the daylights out of everything. But what about all the other great singers who are not as outrageous and crazy that are still considered pop/rock? Aretha Franklin, Pink, Sia, Adele, Demi Lovato, Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, Olivia Newton John, Tina Turner, Tori Amos. I mean, my god. Rock does not mean screaming. None of these people are actually screaming anything. So, if everyone understands that Broadway Musical Directors want to hear in a singer’s voice that they listen to different styles of music, and that it gives they’re voice flavor, and the “high note” is almost irrelevant, and no one wants to be screamed at, then i think were in good shape!
Is it OK for an actor to perform a song that was sung by a person of the opposite sex (i.e. – a guy singing Pink’s “Who Knew”)? Would that be frowned upon in an audition?
I have mixed feelings about this. Men and women are very different emotional creatures. And if a guy is singing a girl’s song to show off how high he can sing, that is irrelevant in an audition. They’ll tell the singer to go sing at the Duplex. Guy’s songs put into girls keys don’t work very well because you can really lose the energy that’s in an original key.
But if there is something in the story that’s appealing – a sentiment so simple in a guy’s song that a girl can fill or a boy who’s emotions are overflowing – of course. Flip the script. But don’t do it to vocally masturbate. That’s gross!
Have you been able to balance your work as a singing actor with promoting the book and teaching?
I am working on that. It’s been challenging to put acting on the back burner because I love it so much. This is an incredible train I’m on and it would be so dumb to jump off the train because it’s fast, furious and fabulous. But I have kept a toe in, working with my friend Bobby Cronin on his workshops; right now I’m doing a concert series with Transcendance Theatre Company in Sonoma, then I’m doing a production of I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD, playing Heather Jones at the prestigious O’neill Theatre Center, and I’m squeezing in 2 recordings and a reading of an experimental theatre piece called IN MY BODY in Philly, which is directed by one of my favorite directors, Sheryl Kaller. All in the month and a half I have free till I hit about 6 colleges in Sept and October. Now that the book is a big success and it’s helping so many people, I have my teacher training programs here in NYC in the fall. I promised myself I would take time to fill my tank. I need it. I’m pooped!
I was very touched by your “Final Thoughts for the Actor” in your book. Can you share the gist of it with us?
I’m so glad you liked my final thoughts. I was a saboteur. I was so scared of all of this talent and inventiveness I have because I didn’t know where to put it and how to use it. It felt like a big scary monster. I only knew how to act…. and when I didn’t get cast in a show and had nowhere to put it, I destroyed myself. It’s very common for an actor to do that. But sometimes I think it was REALLY bad for me because I had it in me to do something this colossal. So I took this “colossal monster” that continued to take me down and used it to heal other people of the same behavior. And it healed me, too. Now I love how big it is and it keeps getting bigger
Thanks so much Sheri! Keep rockin’ on!
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