Audition’s Lament

Knowing what to sing in an audition can be tricky.  Do you go with something funny or  something dramatic?  Do you go with something high and something loud?  So often I play for singers, or watch their audition, and I can tell they’re trying to second guess what the casting team behind the table wants to hear.  It can drive you crazy trying to guess what we want to hear.

A friend recently asked me: would I rather hear a song I know, or a song I don’t know?  I responded that I want to hear you sing something well, something that shows you off.  I realized that answer might be a bit vague to some, so hence this post.

What do we want to see in your audition?  Personally, I want to see you; I want to see the genuine article.  This business is full of bullsh*t, for lack of a better term.  Don’t try to be fake with us; we can smell it a mile away.  That said, you can be yourself while delivering the character in your song and/or scenes.

Finding the right audition song and cut of a song can be tough.  You don’t want something too long, nor do you want to cut something down so short that we lose the essence of the story and the character.  I love hearing a song I’ve not heard before; that keeps me more interested and I feel like I’ve learned something.  I also don’t mind a repeat of a familiar tune if you knock it out of the park.  There’s nothing better than hearing a new take on an old song.

I’ve had this debate with voice teachers, regarding audition material.  Some feel that songs in an audition should adhere to the gender for which they were written.  I disagree.  I played an audition for a woman singing “Being Alive” from Company, which is normally sung by a man.  It absolutely worked because she connected to the material.

No matter what you sing, you need to stand out.  In a line up of actors, you need to find something that makes you interesting and makes us want to hear more.  The last thing you want to do is second guess what you think we want to hear.  That’ll only distract from showing us your  best performance.

On The Radar

There is nothing worse than hearing a singer who is not confident in their performance.  If they are unsure of the pitch, or when to enter in the music, it can make for an uncomfortable situation.  This can result in one of my all-time pet peeves (and I hope I’m not alone in this) is what I like to call ‘doppler singing.’

I saw a performance recently that had this problem.  It is the sort of singing where the singer creeps into a pitch rather than singing fully at the beginning of the note.  I think of it like a doppler radar, or a police siren; the sound goes in and out of focus and volume.  It’s can be quite nauseating to listen to.

If you’re a singer you might have done this, or know someone who has.  It’s an easy habit to get in to; if you’re uncertain of a pitch you might think that by creeping into the note you’ll be safe.  There is a slight difference to this sort of approach to singing, and one where you shape the note or crescendo and decrescendo, getting louder or softer in dynamics.

Voice teachers can describe singing in this way.  You must shape the note, give it volume and color.  But if you approach every note the same way, by softly attacking it and then giving it more volume and air, it becomes predictable and monotonous.  Like a siren, the sound goes in and out, loud to soft and back to loud again.  That doesn’t make for a convincing, melodic line of music.

Sometimes I think singers find this approach to singing as a means of sounding more dramatic or exciting.  You really have to plan out the phrase, where you’re going to breathe and where the high point is.  Always be asking yourself how you want to shape the phrases, and what is the most important word in the phrase.  Then you will know how to shape the notes, and not just starting each phrase the same way.

Art In Spite Of Fear

It’s frustrating see and hear of the riots in Baltimore.  We cannot ignore what is going on;  I certainly would be neglectful if I didn’t at least acknowledge the ripple effects events like the deaths of Freddy Gray in Baltimore, or of Michael Brown in Ferguson.  I do not feel equipped to articulate what exactly is going on.  There is blame to spread around, and the media is not handling the situation as well as some would like.

What do we do as artists in times like these?  There are days like today where I’m not sure what to think, only that the current state of affairs is deeply troubling.  As President Obama stated earlier, regarding the outbreaks of violence in Baltimore: “If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could; it’s just that it would require everybody saying, ‘this is important; this is significant.’”  That gets to the heart of the issue.  Surely we can agree that racial tensions and violence are a problem in this country.  If only we could agree on doing something about it.

I’m also reminded of what Leonard Bernstein once said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”  In the face of violence, fear and destruction, we must work even harder to make art more beautiful.  All the emotions tied in with the recent events must be put into creating positive works of art.

It’s no small thing to continue with life in face of violence.  Talking with others today, it’s as if places like Baltimore are brought to a standstill.  People are afraid of what might happen in light of what has happened.  We mustn’t allow fear to dictate our actions.  We must continue to live.  And if you’re an artist, keep making art.  Make music and perform.

Something For Nothin’

Ever hear of a deal too good to be true?  Well, mostly like it is.  When we’re searching for opportunities and ways to get our art seen and heard, it’s easy to agree to deals that would otherwise seem nearly impossible.  It’s as if we get drunk on the possibilities someone is trying to sell in a deal; always read the fine print.

I spoke with an actor recently who was trying to get a deal made for his music.  He is a songwriter, among many other occupations, and found a company that could potentially license his music.  I was curious, so I checked it all out.  From the looks of it, it appeared to be another place to spend his money.  The company would take his music and put it along side all the other artists who had paid their fees to get their music submitted.

There are no guarantees.  This deal did not suggest that his music would be heard or approved or optioned by any licensing companies.  Many other licensing companies I’ve read about or checked out, don’t have this fee attached to their submissions.  It seemed a little sketchy to me; but perhaps this actor knew something which I did not.

This makes me think of all the actors I know who have found themselves on the hook for fees they did not realize were attached.  There are so many performances in which performers are required to buy tickets to resell.  If they don’t sell the tickets, they eat the costs. In a culture where performing is at a premium, so many performers rush to the opportunities without realizing everything about them.

We need to be able to make investments in our work and ourselves.  If you need to spend a little money to get your art seen and heard, by all means spend it.  While we must spend time and money to make opportunities happen, we need to also be aware, fully aware of the deals we strike and the places we spend our money.  Always ask questions and know what you’re getting in return.  We don’t get something for nothing.

Just Get Better

Many students look to their teachers for approval.  As students we often think that the word of the teacher is law.  Sometimes we give our teachers too much power; sometimes teachers take advantage of students who are unsure of themselves.  In the performing arts, many of our teachers are performers; I would hope that they are.  But not all performers make for good teachers.

I played a class recently and I observed this dynamic between the teacher and the students.  The teacher, being a performer, knew how to be a performer, but when it came to diagnosing a problem within the students’ performances, was utterly inarticulate.  Many times I heard him say, “I’m not a voice teacher,” or “I don’t really read music.”  While those are not prerequisites for being a performer, it is part of what goes into being a solid teacher, particularly with voices and music.  And I wouldn’t suggest telling a group of (paying) students what you’re not good at, but rather what you are good at.

On the other side of this issue, the students were so eager to hear from the teacher what he had to say, that it didn’t matter.  I’ll say this to anyone looking for guidance from other performers or teachers: listen to what they are actually saying.  When a teacher says to you “just get better,” or “next time make it sound pretty,” they’re not helping you.  Anyone with a set of eyes and ears can tell you to get better or sound prettier.  That kind of advice is useless.

I would advocate a more practical approach when looking for a teacher.  Teachers need to be able to articulate what they are hearing, and suggest alternative approaches to a problem, in order to discover a solution.  Because singing is such a personal event, you need a teacher who can speak to you in a way you understand.  Some teachers use imagery, some use mechanics of the vocal apparatus, some use drinking straws and bouncy balls; every voice student I talk with has a different preference.

If you haven’t figured out by now, this was a frustrating experience to be a part of.  Yet, I was amazed at the teacher/performer and how these students hung on his every word.  This performer had a long list of impressive credentials, but all I could think about was that that didn’t make him a good teacher.  And because there are so many young, eager students in the city, dying to perform, it really doesn’t matter if he’s a good teacher or not.  I don’t know if they were truly listening to him, or were simply starstruck.

Being a good performer does not, by default, make you a good teacher.  Just because I can drive a car doesn’t make me an auto-mechanic.  Just because I like to eat doesn’t make me a baker.  You get the idea.  But I strongly urge singers to be judicious when looking for a teacher, and don’t pick one solely on their own performing career.

Money Makes The World Go Around

Chances are if you’re a performing artist, work can be unpredictable. In fact, it can be like that for a lot of professions these days; it sometimes feels like work is either ‘feast or famine.’ Regardless of your profession, having a financial plan is a good idea, especially if you work in the arts.

You never know when a show will close or a project will get delayed or cancelled. You never know what may happen to your work; you might be busy one month and bored the next. Having money set aside will get you through the dry spells.

More than once I’ve had to rely on my savings between work. And I’ve been reminded by others that not everyone has a savings account when trying to pay their bills. It is hard enough making a living in the arts let alone the extra cash to save for a rainy day.

I’d like to think a good rule of thumb is never to live beyond your means. If you can get by on a certain amount of money, put whatever you can in a separate bank account. Having just a little out aside every month can add up. Whether it’s an IRA retirement plan, or an investment portfolio, having something saved is better than nothing. You never know when you might need it.

I’m Not Afraid 

Fear is a strong motivating force in our lives.  We’re afraid we’ll lose our jobs, we’re afraid we won’t be liked by others, or favored in our personal and professional lives.  This can motivate us to act; if we allow our lives to be lived in fear the fear becomes irrational.  To make a point, I once asked a room of high school students who said: “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”?  The answers I received were Gandalf and Spiderman.  I fear for the education of the next generation.  Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best.  If we allow fear to take hold in our hearts and minds, we can react in a panic.

I talked with a colleague recently about this.  We were sharing our ‘war stories’ of working with the plethora of personalities in the theatre world.  People are crazy; we shared moments where we both had interacted with other professionals who behaved less than professional.  I may seem naive, but it struck me how many times people in the professional world have behaved so incredibly badly to one another.

My friend made an observation that seemed to sum it all up: everyone is afraid.  Whether they are willing to admit it or not, they are fearful of something.  This explains so many situations that both of us had experienced.

People can be so easily threatened by others.  If you’re assisting someone and you do too well at the position, they can feel threatened that you will take their job.  This may be obvious to so many people in the workplace, where people are competing for jobs, promotions and recommendations.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve experienced my share of the run-around that people play, thinking that by manipulation and mind games, they can get ahead.

I want to ask them: “What are you afraid of?”  If you are good at your job, competent and confident, why waste the energy on playing mind games?  And rather than fearing the competition, why not embrace collaboration, or new ideas?  I’ve seen people shut off and insulate themselves rather than embrace the people around them.

We’ve all experienced the irrational behavior of people who are afraid of something.  I could point a finger at what the cause of their fear may be, but I don’t know.  It’s irrational fear.  The question in my mind is what to do when you feel that tinge of fear?  And how do you handle it and yourself around others?

The Moment In Question

There are no stupid questions, right? But aren’t we all a little afraid of asking a stupid question, or appearing stupid? And when we’re a part of a performance we always want to look like we know what’s going on.

I was coaching a singer recently, and I had a lot of questions. A concert producer wanted her to sing in his concert. As she told me more about him, more and more questions popped in my head. She didn’t know the venue or the accompanist. That’s not uncommon, except that he wanted her to sing very specific arrangements of two songs, and did not provide her with the music.

On the surface, this all appears fairly normal. Singers want to sing, and being asked to perform is enticing for a lot of performers seeking opportunities.

The music we did find for the performance was not the same as the recordings this producer sent her (not surprising). We spent some time figuring out in what keys she would sing the songs. But the questions remained: would the accompanist have different music? Was there a sound system or sound check?

Depending on the ability of the performer, a lot of these questions can be overlooked or can be irrelevant. As she told me, and I could tell she was anxious about it, I felt that anxiety as well. She wanted to back out of the performance. I encouraged her to do it, but not to be afraid to ask the pertinent questions.

Over time and many mistakes I’ve come to realize that asking questions is a very good and necessary part of taking a gig. I hate agreeing to something and then find out the particulars of the gig. If you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to ask.

Performance Ready

It’s easy to think that when you’re going in for an audition, you don’t have to be ready to perform the material.  It’s just an audition right?  Wrong.  Often casting directors look to see a performance in the actors auditioning.  They need to see someone who can take the role they’re given and be ready to perform it that day if they were called to.

I was playing auditions recently where all this became so clear.  I’m sure I’ve written about this before; I feel the need to keep writing about audition mistakes to hopefully help actors to stop making them.

A well-known actor came in one day to audition.  This is my musical theatre Dragnet: the names are made up, but the problems are real.  To protect the innocent I try not to name names; this was an actor who was familiar to the casting team.  Whether this was his reasoning, or he was sick, or whatever the case was, he didn’t know the material as well as he should have.

He asked me to play along with his melody, and stood by the piano, rather than act the song.  I felt for this guy.  I liked him and he was charming enough; of all the actors we saw that day, this was the most unprepared.  He did alright, but at the end of it he stated “Well, I’ll have it learned by opening.”

Wrong response, I thought.  When you come to an audition you’re showing us your final performance.  It should be as nearly realized as you can be without the director’s notes or casting ideas.  You don’t know what direction the show is going, or what design concepts the director may have in mind, but that is no excuse for not being fully prepared.

We need to see all the performance choices made.  You need to be clear and direct.  In the case of callbacks, or sides that are given to you, memorize them.  Or at the very least have them so familiar in your mind, that you don’t need to rely on the paper in your hand.

Too often actors come in thinking they can fall back on their technique.  Technique is a necessary, valuable asset, but not the only element involved in your audition.  In this case, I’m not sure if the actor was hoping his resume would suffice for his audition.  Some actors, who’ve reached a certain level of status, only accept offers and do not audition.  Lucky to be them.  For the rest of us mere mortals, we must make the pilgrimage to the studios and audition.  And you must be ready to perform.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Casting?

Too often actors are afraid of auditions.  I hear it a lot.  I see it in the audition room.  They nervously get their music out, or stumble over themselves.  It’s so easy to get in your own way when auditioning.  It’s nerve-wracking at best.  I feel like it’s easy for me to say, if I’m sitting at the piano or behind the table.  I’ve also been extremely terrified when playing auditions for big name stars, or composers and directors who are in the room.

How do we get past our own fears about standing in front of a group of people who are judging us?  It’s nearly impossible at times.  And yet the big secret to auditioning is that they people behind the table want you to succeed.

The casting team has a big problem: they need to cast their show and do not have a cast yet.  Every person who walks through the door is potentially a solution to their problem.  And it is with this attitude that they hope for you to be the answer.

If we can argue with ourselves, and talk ourselves into fears and doubts, it should stand to reason that we can logically do the opposite.  Realizing that you might be the answer to a casting team’s dilemma, you should arm yourself with the confidence to show your best when you walk in the room.  Even when you make a mistake or don’t feel you’ve done everything perfectly, that’s truly ok.  It’s when actors freak out, or comment on themselves in front of the group that they lose their focus.

The casting team’s job is to determine if you’re right for the show.  Your job is to show them your abilities as a performer.  It’s a hard balance for some actors coming in to audition; they think if they can predict how the casting team wants to see them, they;ll have a better shot at landing the part in the show.  They act over eager to please, and try to be all things to all people in the room.  If they cannot make strong choices or define their performance, they appear vanilla and unsure.  I think for performers, they need to worry less about pleasing the casting team, and more about presenting themselves genuinely.  They want to see you and get to know you.  They also want to solve their casting problems, and hope you’ll be the solution.