Guest Blogger – James Cunningham: A Loving Note from Your Friendly Audition Pianist

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

We are thrilled to have James Cunnigham as our guest blogger this month. James is a brilliant pianist who, in addition to musical directing, plays LOTS of auditions. He shares some great advice for how to help your accompanist help you when bringing in contemporary musical theatre songs to an audition.


James Cunningham

I’ve had a lyric stuck in my head for the past few weeks as I’ve been writing this post. It’s from “Climbing Uphill” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.  The character, Cathy, sings:

“Why is this pianist playing so loud?
Should I sing louder?
I’ll sing louder.”

She later sings (and this is the one that’s been stuck in my head):

 “Why does this pianist hate me?” 

The fact of the matter is that the pianist, most likely, does not hate you. He or she, and everyone in the audition room, is on your side, hoping you do your absolute best.

While sadly, you don’t have any control over who plays your audition, you do have a tremendous amount of control over how prepared you are to have a successful audition. This is the key to turning what could be a bad relationship with your audition pianist into one of love and mutual respect – AND you booking the job!

New Music: New Challenges

Auditioning for new musicals – especially if it’s the first time they’re being produced –  presents a specific set of challenges to the actor as they prepare. There may not be a recording of the show, the script may not be available for you to read before hand and you’ve only got a casting breakdown and sides to work off of while you research the story, the writers, the style, the characters, and everything else you need to know to inform your song choice. There’s so much to do that it’s very easy to overlook one of the most important parts of auditioning with a contemporary musical theater song:  communicating with the pianist.

I love when people bring new songs into the room, but playing a day of auditions for a contemporary show can be difficult. When I play auditions for…let’s say…a production of My Fair Lady, I have a good idea of what I’m going to be playing that day. Most of it I’ll know and have played before. That’s not always true with auditions for a new show.  With contemporary repertoire it’s possible that the pianist you are about to perform with has never played the song you’re about to sing. And you have no rehearsal to figure it out with them.

That’s why it’s crucial to practice what you’re going to say when you approach the piano and have your music clearly marked. Make this part of your audition just as important as executing your own performance. I make all my clients practice this with me because nerves get the better of them and the first few moments in the room are critical.  Be clear about what you need and keep it quick. This is your first impression, so make it a good one!

So What Should I Say?

Here are some things you should be talking about with the pianist:

Tempo: This is a make or break moment in the audition. I prefer when people sing a little bit of the vocal line to communicate tempo. I’ve found that folks are more accurate when they sing a phrase of the vocal line because they’ve been practicing it and it’s in their body and voice more than the accompaniment. Pick a part of the melody that has some movement to it, not a phrase that has long sustained notes because that doesn’t do either of us any good.

Also, consider singing the ‘hook’ of the song (usually the chorus), especially with pop/rock tunes that we’ve all heard on the radio. There have been many times when someone sings the verse of a pop song to set the tempo and we start and when we get to the chorus I go, “Oh I know this song!”  That’s the hook!

The incredible Sheri Sanders has written a terrific book called Rock The Audition. It is one of the single best tools, aside from working with her directly, for successfully preparing a pop/rock audition. (Believe it or not there are even more specific requirements for pop/rock tunes.) Sheri talks a lot about this and others topics, such as how to express tempo in your body, repertoire, marking your music and much, much, more!  Go buy it, read it and apply it to your life!

One last point about communicating tempo: please don’t snap. It’s just rude. It’s great to put the tempo in your body but better to tap the tempo on your leg if you feel like you have to.

Cuts, Key Changes and Musicality: You can knock these out pretty quickly in the room if your music is marked properly.  Unmarked music can easily lead to disaster.

If there’s a cut in your song, best to cover up those measures completely with blank paper.  If the notes aren’t there, we won’t play them!

If your song has a ton of key changes, feel free to highlight them.  We’re processing a lot of information on the fly and we’re human. Sometimes we miss things.

Mark any tempo changes, fermatas, or other musical information clearly and kindly point those out to us on the page.

As you’re communicating all of this great information and introducing yourself and your song to the folks behind the table, I’m giving the song my own quick scan for things I need to know, especially if it’s a song I’m seeing for the first time. This all happens in a matter of seconds and I certainly have missed things during this process so that’s even more reason for you to have clearly marked music in a binder or taped together with easy page turns.

True story – I once had someone hand me a lead sheet of a new song with two sets of chord changes in different keys scribbled on top of the vocal line in multiple colored pencils and sizes… I kid you not! To say the least, my level of confidence about our performance at that point was pretty low and we hadn’t even started.  I’m pretty sure I got the look of “why does this pianist hate me?” from the person. Asking an audition pianist to create an accompaniment and/or transpose a song puts your success at risk.

James accompanying Maria Chacon at a Contemporary Musical Theatre Masterclass

Get Help

Working with a vocal coach is one of the best ways to avoid audition disaster if you’re singing something new. You want to know what the song is going to sound like played on the piano. You need to know if the song is notated clearly and how difficult it is to sight-read. So many new theater songs are bass, drum and guitar driven that they don’t always translate well on the piano. This is especially true of pop/rock songs downloaded from sites like

Many published pop/rock songs have the vocal line doubled in the piano. But, you’re not going to want the piano doubling your melody while you’re trying to phrase your way through the song and sing on top of the groove. This is important information for you to communicate with the pianist. Mark it on the page and simply ask them not to play the melody.

It’s always fun to discover new, great material, and is an incredible resource for anyone looking to expand their book or search for a new song from a specific show. Composers want you to sing their songs well so they work hard at notating them as clearly as possible. But writers are busy, they’re creating something new and that process is messy and amazing. I’m always grateful to composers who are specific as possible in their notation but sometimes, without standard performance practice in place, certain things are hard to notate. If you’re singing a new song don’t assume that something is on the page just because you heard it done that way on the YouTube clip of some fantastic Broadway star premiering the song at a Joe’s Pub concert.

Strong Choices for Success

Your success in auditioning has everything to do with confidence and making smart choices. It’s impossible to present yourself in the best light when you’re struggling with the pianist because you haven’t properly communicated what you need.  If the pianist is bad, it’s not your fault. It happens, and everyone in the room knows what’s going on. So, do everything you can to make strong choices. You can communicate with us even while your standing in the middle of the room singing. We’re listening for breath speed, volume and diction…all the things that inform our performance together.

Happy auditioning!


James Cunningham is a music director, vocal coach and pianist currently living in New York City.  He is an active audition pianist for many new musicals and works extensively as a music director and pianist for concerts, readings and workshops of new shows.   Most recent projects include Small Town Story (NY Theatre Barn), Queen Mother (Goodspeed) and Clinton: The Musical.  His NY credits include Avenue Q (conductor), music director for Bunnicula (TheaterworksUSA/Daryl Roth and original cast recording), Hot Mess In Manhattan (The Araca Project) and Happy Birthday (TACT) for which he also provided original music.  National Tour credits as pianist/conductor include:  Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Spamalot, Evita and Cats.  Regionally he has conducted productions of Always…Patsy Cline (Casa Mañana), I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (Engeman), Damn Yankees (Paper Mill), A Wonderful Life (Engeman), Little Shop of Horrors (The MUNY), Cats (The MUNY & Casa Mañana), Maury Yeston’s Phantom (NCT), Singin’ in the Rain (Cape Fear Regional Theatre) and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Tarrytown Music Hall).  Aside from keeping an active coaching studio in NYC, James spent several years as a staff pianist and music director for the Program in Vocal Performance at NYU where he music directed productions of Urinetown, 29 and The Boys from Syracuse.  He holds degrees from Manhattan School of Music and New York University.


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One thought on “Guest Blogger – James Cunningham: A Loving Note from Your Friendly Audition Pianist

  1. This should have been titled “don’t shoot the accompanist…get your stuff together instead.” Super helpful – printing this for all the folks who come through my studio for audition coaching.

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