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.
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; any pianist should be glad to offer this very small favor.
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.