In The Room: Helpful Audition Tips, Part I

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.

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In the last week or so, Laura Josepher and I sat through over 30 hours of auditions for the NYMF show we’re casting. That’s a lot of high belt-mixers, believe us! When our eyes weren’t glazing over, it proved a very instructive experience. As you would expect, we saw some fantastic auditions and others that left us speechless (and not in a good way).

More books have been written about how to audition than we could possibly list. Everyone has their own take: casting directors, music directors, audition accompanists… they’re all valuable in their own way. Given our varied backgrounds, we’d like to add our two cents over the course of the next two posts (yes, there’s really that much to tell you…). I’ll address some music issues as a voice teacher and coach and Laura will talk about presentation, given her background as a director. So, here goes…

List Your Voice Type

Please list your voice type at the top of your résumé along with your height, hair color, etc… It’s really helpful for us to know how you see yourself as a singer. Even before you sing a note we can begin to match you up with possible characters we’re casting. If someone’s voice type isn’t listed, I inevitably end up spending less time listening to them and more time sleuthing on my own, especially if an audition cut doesn’t illuminate anything. And if I’m listening to decide what voice part someone is, I’m not fully taking in their performance.

Of course, listing your voice type means you have to know what your voice type is. I was shocked by how many women wrote things like “Soprano legit – mezzo belter.” In every case that was a confusing (not to mention completely inaccurate) label and pulled my focus from the performer. We can’t be “All Things to One (Wo)Man,” to paraphrase the wonderful Larry Grossman song. Show us you know what your voice type is by listing it on your résumé and singing an appropriate audition selection. Yes, it may mean that you don’t get called back for a certain role, but wouldn’t you rather let us know you’re a smart actor? Trust me, that’s far more important.

In some cases, it’s even nice to include your range (follow instructions found here or ask your voice teacher or vocal coach for help), though it’s not absolutely necessary.

Practice Talking to the Pianist & Slating

Give a poor tempo, give a poor audition. The pianist in our room one day was literally there for 9 hours and 45 minutes of the 10 hour day. I have no clue how he played everything from “You Can Always Count on Me” to Aretha Franklin’s “Freedom” without being a hot mess by the end. I was just sitting there and I was delirious! Still, there were several times when the singer wasn’t clear about what they wanted from him and they suffered the consequences.

Not surprisingly, the folks who gave successful auditions had their music clearly marked and knew how to talk to the pianist: they gave a clear tempo, showed the beginning and ending of each cut and thanked him.

Practice talking to the pianist as much as you practice your audition cut. Try your spiel out on a voice teacher, coach or actor friend. Practicing these little items will help ensure a good audition. And if you don’t know how to talk to a pianist about a pop/rock song (yes, it’s a completely different process than outlining a musical theatre cut), get thee to Sheri Sanders’ Rock The Audition immediately!

Never doubt that we’re watching folks from the minute they walk in the door. How they work with the pianist tells us whether or not we want to work with them.

Likewise, practice your slate. I was shocked by how many people didn’t introduce themselves or their song. Why wouldn’t they want to talk to us? We’re nice (if somewhat overwhelmed) people! We didn’t call back anyone who didn’t say hello to us – they seemed unfriendly.

And when you slate, please speak clearly on your instrument. Many that did slate mumbled something completely unintelligible.

Let’s face it: chances are you’ve been standing in line for God-only-knows-how-long and your warm-up buzz is long gone. Use your slate to get back on your breath and voice. My Marymount students will tell you I obsessively make them practice their slate in preparation for juries. It may drive them nuts, but come jury time, they look and sound very professional.

Here are a couple helpful suggestions as you practice your slate:

    • Speak from a resonant, supported place. You don’t need to sound like an opera singer, but really get hooked up to your instrument. Besides, a good slate gets my attention. And if I pay attention to a slate, chances are I’ll listen and watch the performer more.
    • Breathe after your name and enunciate. As mentioned above, those who did slate often times jumbled it. It made me think, “You’re singing what from what?!” Sorry, but after the fifth hour of auditions it’s really hard to care enough to translate what someone said. Instead, we end up tuning out. If you breathe after your name, it will help ensure you don’t rush. And enunciation… well, that’s obvious.
    • Don’t apologize for your existence. It may not seem like we’re watching or listening, but we are. Our focus is constantly being “Pulled in a new direction…” (sorry – I heard that song way too many times the other day. I adore Andrew Lippa with every fiber of my being, but that song is overdone. Don’t sing it!). When someone apologizes for being in the room, it’s very easy to tune them out. If they don’t take themselves seriously, why should we? Practice your slate, finding the balance between confidence and authenticity and you’ll set yourself up for success.

Now that I’ve said all that, let me qualify it with this: read the room and use your judgment. Some rooms will be warm while others will be a sea of foreheads. If a casting director introduces you to the room, you don’t need to introduce yourself again. That’s weird. I personally find it helpful knowing what you’re going to sing, but then again I’m a voice teacher – of course I want to know.

In discussing this with perennially classy casting director Cindi Rush, she suggested those auditioning make flash cards for the major casting directors and their associates as they audition for them so they remember how the room runs and feels. Is it a friendly environment or is it all business? Is there a door monitor or will the casting director greet you? What are some specific details from your audition that might be helpful to remember for next time?  Taking the time to do this work will ensure you’ll be well-equipped next time.

You only have control over certain things in an audition. Why not take the reigns on things you can control? Knowledge is indeed power.

A Special Word for Belters

Oh belters. There are so, so many of you. And there are so many lovely studios with hardwood floors. I can’t help but think of one of my favorite Police songs when you open your mouth: “Don’t Stand So Close to Me!”

I won’t speak to the growing phenomenon of belting, even though it often seems to be a poor substitute for emotional depth on the part of a song or performer. I will, however, say something completely unoriginal that clearly needs to be repeated: DON’T SHOUT AT US!! We can hear you just fine, thank you!

I’m never impressed by how loud someone can sing. In fact, it’s always a turn-off. Anyone can sing loudly, but very few people sing expressively. If someone sings their entire song at one dynamic, I will inevitably check out. It’s like really loud white noise. But if someone shapes a phrase and sings with more vocal colors, then I’ll drop my pen and pay attention. It’s not surprising that those who shaped the phrases of their song were almost always the better actors.

I was disturbed by how many young singers would go for broke at the beginning of their cut only to have nothing left at the end. I talk to my students about “keeping it in the beauty box.” If they can’t sing something effectively (meaning with support and clarity of tone) at mezzo-piano (medium soft), they won’t be able to do it at forte.

The largest reason people experience epic fails with their belt, says the voice teacher, is because they stop the flow of air. They become human bagpipes, squeezing a small amount of air through very adducted (tightly closed) vocal chords that often can’t handle the pressure. Those who kept the belt “open” and on the breath maintained better control of their instrument.

It’s disappointing when a singer belts their face off throughout an audition cut and tries to end on a vulnerable note by completely singing off their voice. If your cut ends with a quiet moment, support it just as much (if not more) as the belt. When my students have a cut like this, I make them sing the entire cut at the final dynamic with good support so they feel where they need to end up while staying “in the pocket.” Then when they go back to their belt mix they can better navigate the transition.

In short, belt is not an emotion. Use it wisely.

Some Other Important Tidbits

    • Open your eyes. You’re not auditioning for American Idol! When people close their eyes for extended periods of time while they sing I think: “Wow, they really like themselves! Maybe a bit too much….” Not only does it seem indulgent, those individuals are shutting out the folks who want to cast them.
    • Make sure your cut doesn’t end on a strange cadence. Ever go out on a really bad blind date. What was it like saying goodbye to that person? That’s exactly how we feel when a song ends on a weird chord or when someone stops in the middle of a phrase. Every time this happened in the audition room, the person auditioning and the those casting engaged in some uncomfortable laughter. There’s no need to abruptly or awkwardly end your audition. Have an experienced voice teacher or vocal coach help you pick out a good cut. And if it’s a measure or two over 16 or 32 bars, it’s really OK. Finish the thought – that’s the general rule.
    • Know where you’re going to breathe. If the composer has does their job, you won’t be forced to breathe in the middle of a thought. Help the room make sense of your song by breathing in smart places, both to support your voice and effectively communicate your story.
    • Leave us wanting more. You don’t have to show off your entire vocal, dramatic and/or comedic range in one song. Those who knew how to best showcase themselves and did it in a short window of time often got to sing something else for us because our interest was piqued.

I hope these suggestions are helpful as you prepare or help your students ready themselves for auditions. There are plenty of people with talent in this world. Those who are most successful know how to harness that talent in an audition by reading the room and trusting who they are as singing actors.

Next week, look for some great suggestions from Laura on how to round out your audition experience. I can’t wait to read what she has to say – she’s a smart cookie, that one!

Happy auditioning!

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Mastering College Musical Theatre AuditionsCheck out our new book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent” now available on Amazon.

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