How to Build Your Book

The Street 1
David Sisco

Many of my clients have a hate/loathe relationship with their audition book. Either they’re burned out on performing the songs in their well-worn binder, or they have a book of songs that don’t represent their current abilities. They usually have no clue how to start putting together a book that will excite them (and the folks behind the table). Instead, they may avoid building their book altogether in favor of scrambling to learn a new piece for each audition (which may not make for a great performance) or singing the same two songs for everything (which doesn’t suggest they’re a very literate performer).

I whole-heartedly sympathize. Putting together a solid audition book is challenging. And yet, the work must be done. I’m happy to offer some thoughts as you build your book. Some of these points may seem obvious, but given that I see many young and established professionals make these same mistakes, I believe they’re worth noting.

I’m incredibly grateful to casting director Kate Lumpkin for sharing her insights, which I folded into this. 

Listen to everything.

Immerse yourself in all kinds of music, from obscure Golden Age shows to hip-hop. As someone who does rep coaching on a regular basis, it’s imperative I know as much repertoire as possible. Plus, I get inspired when I hear songs I didn’t know or find shows that have recently been penned. You should be singing what lights you ablaze, and chances are you’ll find it listening to Spotify or Apple Music daily. You’ll never be at a lack for underperformed songs that might be right for your book.

Liking a song is a great start, but it’s not enough.

Is the song age, race, and gender-appropriate? Does the song tell a clear story out of context? Can it be easily cut? Is the accompaniment reasonable for a sight-reading pianist? There are lots of hoops your audition rep has to jump through to make it into your book. You should absolutely love your audition songs, but they must also meet the above requirements. It’s also important to make sure each song lives up to the most important litmus test: “For what type of show would I sing this song?” This is where I see many students clients falter. Seek help from an industry professional who can teach you how to answer that question.

Know your strengths.

Start with genres that showcase your strengths as a singer. For instance, if you feel more at home with contemporary styles, start there. Building your book can take a while, so you want to make sure the genres you’re going to live in more frequently are covered first. Then you can fill out the other styles that might be a bit more on the fringe for you. 

Consider your “type.”

Next week, my amazing business partner and director Laura Josepher will spend an entire blog talking about type because there are many components to it. I feel it’s safe to say that what we have traditionally considered “type” in our industry is changing for the better as we more fully embrace diversity. For some, the idea of “type” brings up many negative feelings because it has been used as a tool to divide. Check back for more on this important topic later this week.

Show variety.

Make sure the repertoire in your audition book shows various colors and flavors of what you do well as a singing actor. If you feel you’re an ingenue, it might be tempting to see your audition material solely through that lens. But what about showing off your comedic chops if you have them? What if you also have a dark and brooding side? Some of the most fun auditions I’ve experienced are ones where performers were able to show other sides of their personality when asked “What else do you have in your book?”

Consider songs you can sing when you’re sick.

It can be very tempting to make sure every audition cut features your signature Q#. Two things about this: singing high is not always impressive and, on some days, that Q# may be out of your reach. We’re coming into a big audition season, which just so happens to also coincide with cold and flu season. Consider having a song or two in your back pocket that may stay a little more middle of the road in the event you need to sing when you’re not feeling 100%. While the people behind the table will almost certainly be understanding if you’re sick, choosing something slightly less vocally demanding will put you at ease and give you a better chance of navigating your illness. Also, make sure your audition songs aren’t causing you vocal issues in the first place. You should be able to sing everything in your book while being vocally healthy. 

Approaching pop/rock songs.

Obviously, you will need a healthy diet of pop/rock songs in your book covering the many different genres, from Motown to Contemporary Pop. It’s best to look at the musicals that fall under each genre, consider what roles you might be right for in those shows, and find a song that feels like it could fit in the world of those shows. Sometimes you might even find a song that feels as if it could be character-specific. That’s great, but it’s not necessary. The most important thing is that you’re able to communicate to the people behind the table that you understand the show’s musical style and prove through your performance you can inhabit the correct era. Sheri Sanders talks about this in her newly released second edition of Rock the Audition, which I highly recommend to you.

Remember some songs can be bendable.

Certain audition songs cross genre boundaries: some Linda Ronstadt is both 70’s pop and country. If you choose your material wisely, you’ll be able to bend it to other genres when the occasion calls for it. This is also something Sheri talks about in her book. To quote great advice from Kate Lumpkin: “I think every type of music can be bendable. It is the acting that changes tone and interpretation of a song. I challenge every singer to figure out a way to approach all of their material differently to serve each project that they are walking into. You don’t need 30 songs in a book. You can do great with 10 — if you know how to change your material through your choices.”

No audition book will cover everything.

Even if you put together the most brilliant audition book, there will be times you might decide to learn something new because it’s marvelously specific for the audition. One of my clients was looking for a song for her Mean Girls audition. I suggested a cut of “Good Person” (the clean version!) from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Even though it meant she had to learn the song quickly, she chose to do it because it perfectly matched the role she was going in for. The song earned her a callback. So, spend time preparing a great audition book, but also know that there will be times when choosing something outside your book will be the stronger option. 

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As I said, putting together your audition book can be a lot of hard work. I hope you’ve found this helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to get back to you as soon as I am able.

And be sure and check back later this week for Laura’s blog on knowing your type.


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

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 600+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

One thought on “How to Build Your Book

  1. Fantastic advice and perfect timing David! This, along with Laura’s upcoming post will be the Holiday gifts to my students.
    Best wishes for a Festive season filled with love, happiness and friends.
    Craig

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