So You’re Auditioning For a Musical

A significant portion of my storied career has been devoted to the service of providing piano accompaniment to singers who are auditioning for a part in a musical production. Repeated exposure to these situations has led me to mentally index a series of “Dos” and “Don’ts”. The following is my helpful attempt to articulate these observations for the world to see, and will take the viewpoint of me speaking directly to the implied singer. Recognize and enjoy.

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So you’re auditioning for a musical? The producers have spared no expense in enlisting my services to assist you in this regard, so it looks like you and I will be making beautiful music together. The smoother things go for me, the better you’re going to sound. Trust me, we’re going to get through this thing together–yes, we are–if you’re willing to help me help you.

So what are you going to sing? First, I don’t recommend that you sing a capella. I shouldn’t be saying this, because for every song that I don’t play my per-song rate increases. That notwithstanding, the Creative Team wants to hear you sing with accompaniment because their show will probably have some kind of accompaniment (i.e. a band). This is not “American Idol”. If you choose to sing alone–even with an accompanist present–the Creatives will subconsciously put you in the category of “Does Not Play Well With Others”, and that, my friend, goes on your permanent record.

So now you need to start thumbing the sheet music for the 750 songs that you know. What? You only know 675 songs? Well, then I have one word of advice: learn more songs.  In what style is the score of the show for which you hope to land that big part? Hint: if the show is Carousel, don’t sing a song by Radiohead. If the show is Rent, don’t sing a song from Naughty Marietta. Oh, you’d be surprised. Or not. Your song doesn’t have to be from the show, or even by the same composer; just in a similar style. That way, the Creatives can more easily decide whether you’re a good fit for the style of show that they’ll be doing.

Ok, you’ve got it down to two songs that you think are perfect, and you’re only supposed to sing one. Let me help you decide: Look at the music for each song. Which one has more ink on it? Choose the other one. More ink=more notes. More notes means more chances for me to mess up. Play the odds. Also, chances are that the notier piece of music is also trickier for you to sing. The Creatives aren’t looking to hear how tricky a song you can navigate; they want to hear you sing in an uncluttered setting. Another factor: look in the upper left corner of the music. See those things that look lower-case b’s or tic-tac-toe signs? Those are flats and sharps, and they indicate the key signature, or what key your song is in. Any more than four or five of these automatically puts it into the category of “Pain in the Toochus.” One exception with this “More ink vs. less ink” approach: a lead sheet will certainly have less ink than another piece of music. But don’t bring in a lead sheet. A lead sheet just has the melody and chord symbols written out. If your pianist has a jazz, pop or rock background, you’ll probably be ok. But if the pianist comes from a classical or theater background, he/she will have a hard time interpreting a lead sheet and will quietly seethe resentful-flavored vibes.  Make sure that the accompaniment is written out, preferably with the lyrics written in. If you’re still in doubt, find a pianist some time before your audition to see which one will be easier to navigate. You shouldn’t have to pay money to get this information; a small sexual favor will suffice. Or just call me.

All-righty: You’ve picked the perfect song. Let’s talk about what these pieces of paper should look like: road map feng shui. The easiest thing for me to read is something that starts at the beginning and keeps going straight to the end. Logical, right? Much easier on the eyes (and brain) than “Start here, go to there, then go back to here, then jump two pages and play to here, then go back to here and take the coda.” Seriously? Do me a favor: copy, cut and paste your song so that it just reads straight down. That’ll make me happy. I ask so little. If you can’t avoid all of this jumping around (which you can, but never mind), then marking the various landmarks in color or with stickies will help things substantially. Also, highlighting landmarks like tempo changes and key changes is very helpful. A confession: I know ahead of time that I’ll likely not absorb every single marking on your music, so I decide (on the fly) the ones on which to concentrate or ignore. My eye will naturally be drawn in by the allure of another color. I’m easily amused.

Can you feel the excitement building? We’re almost at the part where you actually get to audition. Just a few little tidbits: The best way to present your music is in a binder. Loose sheets of paper tend to collapse and fall off the piano at the worst moments. And take a look at this paper. Did your copy cut off the notes at the bottom of the page (thanks, Shawn Stengel)? You may not like the ones that I guess. Is it a fifth-generation copy so that the ink is all washed out and barely legible? If so, is that good or bad: what do you think? Has it been all wadded up? Are there huge scratched-out sections? Are there several different sets of indications based on whether it’s a 32-bar cut or an extended version? If you hand me music that looks like a dog’s breakfast, you are opening yourself up for a world of pain.

The moment of truth has arrived and you’ve walked into the scary room, trying to establish a memorable, positive first impression. Here is my only piece of non-musical advice: Don’t be a Hand Shaker. It adds unnecessary time to the process, and the Creatives have a lot of people to see and hear. Do you see that big bottle of Purell on the table? That will be used after the Hand Shaker has left the room.

So now it’s time for our little meeting. You’ll have a few seconds to pass along any verbal info that you deem important. Obviously, it helps me to know about any dramatic tempo changes or strange cuts. But it can also be helpful for you to be able to succinctly describe the overall feel of the song. It doesn’t even have to be in musical terms: aggressive, bouncy, introspective, somber, etc. Adjectives are your friend, particularly in a song that might lend itself to a variety of treatments.

I’ll likely ask you for your tempo if you don’t give it to me. This is sometimes trickier than it seems. What I don’t want is to hear the first melodic phrase compressed to quadruple-speed. Think of the wordiest phrase in your song, and then sing it to me (softly) as though you were performing it. This is very helpful to me, and I think that it helps you in putting away any jitters and concentrating on the task at hand.

Ok….it’s Magic Time! Hopefully, you have heeded my advice and taken steps to maximize our musical rapport. I will try like hell to follow you all over the page and make you sound like a million bucks.  Much as I’d like to, though, I cannot promise perfection. Mistakes, by one or both of us, may happen. It would be great, if you hear something that you weren’t expecting, if you could be a trouper and keep moving forward. As a matter of fact, the Creatives will be impressed that you were able to handle a curveball and keep your poise. If they even notice, that is. It’s a sure bet that they will notice if you get all vibey by shooting a dirty look at me or stomp your foot in your desired tempo.

There: we did it! You did it! Now you’re done, and will soon come back to the piano to collect your music. And, when you do, make your grandmother proud: a simple “thank you” to the piano player is appreciated more than you know.

I’ll see you next time.

Comments

  1. Ben Johnson says:

    Jeremy,

    Thanks for writing this – now we just have to get them to read it!

    Right on!

    Ben

  2. Ronald Keaton says:

    Listen to this man, kids. He knows whereof he speaks.

  3. As one of these so called Creatives you encounter, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am posting this link on my facebook page.

    Mmmwah!

    • Thanks to you and Ron Keaton; I was hoping to hear from some actors who understood what I was trying to accomplish.

  4. Sarah Allen says:

    inspiring! makes me almost wish I could sing, so that I could audition for something with the Kahnman. (almost)

  5. Jeremy – can you fake “Everbody’s Fucking But Me” in seven sharps? Wait…..maybe 7 flats …. Well, can you?

    • Song stylist to pianist: “Can you play my song in the key of B?”

      (Pianist rolls his eyes and grunts)

      Song stylist: “Oh, I’m sorry. is ‘B’ too fast?”

  6. I just LOVE it! Bravo! Remember not to snap your tempo at the pianist either. That just drives me batty!

  7. Okay – I get it and mostly agree. Except – I have auditioned and music directed both – only on the professional level. I have taught students and coached singers for auditions. Not all accompanists/directors can say that. I have one serious complaint about the advice. If the accompanist is not qualified to sight read a couple thousand songs – fire them now! I am tired of bad audition accompanists. And, as for hard music – too bad. I sing songs that show off what I do and the accompaniments might be hard. That includes Sondheim. I won a job because I had the balls to sing it regardless of the accompanists skills – who won? Me. Deal with it because I am auditioning – not you.
    All the other advice Jeremy – well said and I agree!
    By the way, go to a few opera auditions. The accompanists play everything from Mozart to Wagner and back and everyone gets to sing a whole aria. Let’s be fair, the musical theater listeners are stingy and often don’t set the stage for people to feel comfortable.
    And let’s address the ridiculous rules about 18 bars – 22 bars – 32 bars. What is that? Don’t tell me you can hear in 5 seconds if I’m good or if you want me. I want every singer to get a chance to show their best. Give me 5 minutes – if you can’t, you’re too good for your own britches.
    Lastly. I auditioned years ago for Theater Under the Stars in Houston. I had a classical piece on my rep list and that’s what they asked for. I made the cut. Moral? Learn how to sing legitimately – be prepared to prove you can because there is no better way than serious vocal training!

    • You make some good points. I consider myself to be a pretty good sight-reader; not the best ever, but pretty good. So, all other things being equal, I stand by my advice to pick a less complicated song because the odds are better that the pianist will come closer to perfection. There just aren’t that many pianists who can read fly shit and also play in a compelling pop/jazz/rock style, if needed.

      I completely agree about the auditions that limit the number of measures. 32 bars in one song can take three times longer than in another song. Plus, some auditioners get so freaked out about not going over the limit that they’ll end their song in the middle of a phrase. The length of the singing should be measured in minutes (or seconds, if it’s a cattle call), not bar lines.

  8. David Girolmo says:

    Dear Jeremy,
    Here’s a little hint for the guy or gal behind the piano: You’ve already got the job, I don’t. The snarky attitude in this note isn’t going to help me get the job , either. And guess what – most of the people I’m auditioning for are friends, or acquaintances at least, and it would be rude not to acknowledge that relationship with a handshake – big bottle of Purell notwithstanding.
    I’m never anything but respectful, and kind to the accompanist. Most of you, I know, and am very happy to see when I walk in the room. (And I shake your hands, too. Should I stop ?) VERY happy. You are amazing artists, and you perform the impossible regularly (impossible to me, at least). But here’s another little nugget for you: Know, or be familiar with the music from the show that’s being auditioned. Sounds pretty basic doesn’t it? A lot like the basics you described in your note. But you’d be surprised – or maybe not – how many accompanists are not quite as familiar as they should be with the actual musicals being auditioned by the producer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suggested a song from the show and seen the accompanist struggle. I know, I know, it’s got a bunch of sharps and other incidentals… but it’s from the friggin’ show, in the original key!!!!!
    And believe me I won’t throw you under the bus if things go wrong. I won’t have to. Most of those folks on the other side of the table have been where I am, and are sympathetic to my plight. If it sounds like you have mittens on while you’re playing my chosen piece, I may just glance your way. Tough. I have two minutes to change my life. You’ll be here all day.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for weighing in. Don’t sugar-coat it next time 😉 Let me address some of what you said:

      Regarding the hand-shaking thing, if you have a previous relationship with folks in the room, then you’re absolutely entitled to greet them in any way you see fit: handshake, bear-hug, neck-rub…..maybe I should just stop there. My advice was intended for someone who thinks that a handshake somehow increases their chances to get hired in the eyes of folks they’ve never met. But the number of times that I’ve heard a Producer express annoyance after a handshake: many, many. The number of times I’ve heard a Producer express gladness after being asked to shake someone’s hand: never.

      And you are absolutely within your rights to expect that an accompanist should be familiar with the score in question. That’s a great suggestion. But consider this scenario: Pianist is hired to play auditions at the last minute, with no opportunity to see a score ahead of time. Singer wants to do a tricky song (although not required) from the show and it doesn’t go well. Whose fault? You could make an argument to place blame on Singer, Pianist or Producer. But does it really matter who is at fault?

      Let me say that my remarks were mainly meant for folks who may be new to this experience, not for grizzled showbiz veterans like yourself. And the spirit of my remarks was intended to address how to maximize the chances that your song will go well. I’m far from perfect, but each time I get rehired by a Producer to play for auditions, I figure that I don’t suck too badly. And it wasn’t my intention to come off as snarky or kahn-descending. My admiration for what you guys go through knows no bounds. To put yourself on the line, only to face the inevitably and cruelly high rejection rate is something that I’m not sure I could do.

      In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for you. You’ll be the guy with the song written in E-sharp and a time signature of 23/16, right?

  9. David Girolmo says:

    HA! 23/16? I’ll look for that number and work it up for the next time we meet! You’re so right on about how little we know about the accompanist’s plight, and I’m very grateful for the behind the scenes tips. The more we all share of our needs/wishes/wants/and desires, the better we’ll all be in those crucial two minutes.
    Now, can we talk about people who come in costume to the audition…? 🙂
    Fondest regards,
    David

    • Hi David,
      I was your pianist today….your blog buddy. I hung in there okay for a piece that I’d never seen before. You have a great voice. I saw ‘Sweeney” at DLOB and hope that you get to play the title role someday because you’d kill it. As a matter of fact, that would be a great vehicle for you and the missus.
      Jeremy

  10. Awesome post. Keep up the great work – you have a new reader! – ~The Funny Shirt Guy~

    • Thanks. Exactly how funny are your shirts?

      • Barbara Robertson says:

        I tell my students to think of the musical audition like a three-legged race with the accompanist. The auditors will watch an actor perform in tandem with another musician. To create not in response to another but in sync with another. The better prepared an actor is, and the more clearly she/he communicates, the more likely the audition will go well. Personally, I know too well what nervousness can destroy, so being brave enough to risk singing a difficult song is important, but treating the accompanist as a fellow artist and collaborator and
        graciously communicating your needs is most important.

        • Very well-put, Barb. Sometimes we’re so concerned with covering our own butts that we forsake the “Plays Well With Others” aspect.

  11. I am hosting auditions. Could i hire u to accompany the contenders?

  12. Jeremy,
    Thanks for sharing your “insider” comments. We always tell our students that they have to take charge of their audition. They do that by 1. being prepared 2. choosing the right material 3. being very clear and professional with the accompanist and 4.having a strong point of view. I will share your thoughtful blog with our students.

  13. I just want to say to any singers who think the pianist is obligated to know the songs and be able to play those songs on the spot, because he’s a pianist etc. Obviously if they are saying something like this, they have never played the piano before. Playing that piece (especially on the spot) would be several times harder than singing. And yes, I’ve done both, and singing requires skill, but you’re just using your voice; with the piano: it’s 10 fingers, and each is doing something different. So usually that guy playing the piano is working much harder than you are.

  14. An cool post there mate . Cheers for it .

  15. Christina says:

    Thank you for this, I am a bit rusty and thinking of auditioning again this week. I have been out of the game for a bit so I have been googling my little fingers away trying to see what is still considered classical 32 bar musical theater songs, what is the easiest way to present the music and etc.. Loved this advice from 4 years ago, I am hoping it still holds true 🙂

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