Put On A Happy Face

I am constantly reminded of how important attitude is.  It’s everything; the way we interact on a gig, in our professional and personal life.  They all depends upon our attitude.  And even when I think I’m easy going and positive, I find there’s always room for improvement.

A colleague made this abundantly clear to me by his example.  This friend is upbeat and truly a positive person.  In hindsight, I wonder if I appeared to be a grouse by comparison.  He reminded me to see the positive, and I should hope to return the favor if ever he needs it.

The sobering reality in the performing arts is: anyone can do your job.  In a city of millions, there are thousands who can dance, sing, act and play instruments in circles around you.  At the end of the day, it’s not your playing that will get you the job, although you need to be excellent at that.  Your attitude makes up the difference between you and the next person.

I’ve sat in theatre auditions, where the casting team discusses the actor’s attitude more than his audition.  And whenever a role is between two actors it almost certainly goes to the person with a more agreeable attitude.

This does not suggest that you put on a fake grin, and start kissing everyone’s ass. The more genuine you can be, the more you can choose to make the positive choice in your outlook.  This can have the ripple-effect in recommendations for gigs, auditions, and in general make you fun to be around.  And that’s really what the work comes down to: working with a group of performers who are fun to be around.  It’s not always the case, but I think for a lot of people that is the goal.


Auditions are not the time to play it safe.  You need to stick out from the crowd; hopefully being memorable by doing something completely positive, and not being remembered for being terrible.  That said, the last thing you want to be is completely forgettable.

I had to prepare for an audition where the requirements read something like, “play something that shows off your abilities.”  Well, that could be anything in the repertoire; so what piece to pick?  After thinking for a while on what was technically difficult, or bombastic, or ‘showy,’ I finally realized that I needed to play something I enjoyed.

So often we get assigned a piece of music or a scene that we really don’t care to play.  When you’re given the opportunity of five minutes in an audition to do whatever you want, do whatever you want.  As impressive as Mozart or Chekov might be, if it doesn’t move you, the casting team will pick up on that.  If you’re not connected to the material it will show.

The chances of not booking the audition are high in most cases.  And while I’ve dealt with the nerves like every human who has ever walked into an audition room, I have to remember why I am auditioning (duh, I need a job).  In truth, you need to audition for yourself.  Learning a piece of music that I wanted to play, was something I wanted to do regardless of the audition.  Auditions are like little deadlines, that allow us to learn the material we really want to perform; unless of course it’s a callback with material from the show, in which case I hope you like the show.  But when the requirements are open for your choosing, choose what you want.

For many actors, making bold risky choices are best.  Even if you take the character in a different direction than what the director had in mind, at least you took the character in a direction.  Too often actors are afraid of not being liked, that the choices they make are small and safe.  Do not play it safe, and make them remember you.

I Never Do Anything Twice

It’s hard to know what a casting director wants in an audition. You can second guess yourself and end up playing it safe, not really showing all you can do as an actor. What’s even worse is being asked to repeat something over and over again, not knowing why.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice, expecting different results. A friend of mine had an audition where he had to repeat the monologue four times; the director didn’t make any adjustments, or offer any notes to the actor. The actor was at a loss, wondering what do differently each time, if anything.
It’s extremely frustrating as a performer to be asked to repeat something, with no specific direction. Sometimes a director needs to see something or hear something a second time; that’s acceptable, but tell your actors. No one is a mind reader, yet I’ve come across situations like my friend’s audition all too often.
I played some auditions for a theatre company where this happened constantly. The theatre’s producer kept asking for the actors to sing it again. This was an audition with many young, inexperienced actors. They didn’t know what to do differently, and the producer was frustrated that he wasn’t seeing what he wanted.
Audition material can be interpreted differently depending on the actor; that’s why it’s helpful to get a little direction from your director.

Fry No More, Lady, Fry No More

I am grateful for the attention voice teachers and other industry professionals are giving to vocal fry.  It is one of the worst habits people can get into when speaking or singing; it’s most prevalent among young women.

Vocal fry occurs when someone speaks with an unsupported breath, and with little to no tone.  It sounds to me like sand paper rubbing together.  I notice it particularly in tv and film actors.  I imagine with the microphones so close off camera, and the close-up shots, many actors speak very softly.  If they’re not careful, this becomes habit.  Then teenage girls (and boys) watch this, and imitate it because it’s cool.  If you don’t believe me, just watch five minutes of Twilight.  There, I said it.

It is a pet peeve of mine, and I assume others, when we hear singers ‘frying’ their voices.  A great number of pop artists use vocal fry for inflection.  I cringe at hearing them scoop in and out of pitches, like revving up the engine of a car.  While it might sound cool, or emotional, they’re rubbing their vocal chords dry, leading to vocal damage, lesions, and bad muscle memory.

What can be done?  First of all: don’t do it!  Take a voice lesson, see a speech therapist or an ENT, if you’re struggling with your voice.  Support your breath and when you speak, speak with tone; get all the gravel out of your voice.  I realize for a great number of people, fitting in means sounding like everyone around you, and copying what you hear.  But just because other people are damaging their chords, doesn’t give you a good reason to do it too.

This is a short overview; to all my voice teacher friends, I know you can speak more on this and I would love love love, to hear from you and your techniques in helping students.

Check out this video for more info:


Not While I’m Around

Has this ever happened for you: you get hired for a gig, then the minute you’re there, the client (employer) starts tasking you with work that was not a part of your agreement?  It has for so many musicians and artists.  It is entirely inappropriate that people paying artists for their time and efforts should assume that asking for additional work from them should not require additional compensation to them.

Tis the season for weddings.  So many people are getting married; congratulations, and good luck.  It seems that in weddings lies many of the grievances I hear about, and have personally experienced.  One friend in particular, played a wedding; the fee was agreed upon and the number of songs, amount of time needed to play was also agreed upon.

The service ended extremely early.  The music coordinator asked this musician and others if they would kindly play for more time; they played for over an hour more than what was initially agreed upon.  My friend obliged, hoping that they would be compensated.  It was doubtful that they would ever see the extra money for their extra work.

As my friend explained all this to me, I could tell it was weighing on him: had he made the right call in the moment?

There’s nothing wrong with being asked to play more, give more time, etc.  However, with anything of any worth in life, it comes with a price.  “Yes, we’d be happy to play for you; here is our hourly fee.”  If you’re a musician, in the heat of the moment at the wedding or whatever the event may be, always know what your rates are.  If someone approaches you, expecting more for the same amount, kindly remind them you need to discuss your fee.  If they expect you to start playing instantly, then kindly ask them to instantly pull out their checkbook, smart-phone or cash, and write a check, click on their Venmo, or Paypal app, and put that money in your hands.

I do love playing music, and getting paid to do so.  But just because you’re at a gig, does not mean you are, or should be made to feel like a hostage.  Situations like these can always be handled with a smile, but never lose sight of your bottom line.  Otherwise, you’re playing on hopes and dreams of being paid; and as nice as they are, you still gotta eat.

Penny For Your Thoughts

Pretty much no one like discussing money.  Artists in particular find it difficult to put a price tag on their work.  Enter: the agents.  We need other people to negotiate, play hard-ball, whatever it takes.  But when we don’t have the agent or lawyer fighting for every nickel and dime, we sometimes have to face the music ourselves and talk money.

I had to address a financial situation recently.  I find it tricky, but when handled delicately, it can be mutually beneficial.  I was working with other artists, and we had not discussed money.

I will suggest to any independent artist, this is not the way to do business.  Normally I like to get the question of budget, fees, payment, out of the way as soon as possible; that allows me to focus on the work, and make music without worrying about compensation.

This particular situation was special; I was working with people I knew, and I was not doing the gig to make money.  That said, we needed to understand one another.  When I brought up the discussion of money, there was a mutual sigh of relief.  Apparently the other people involved were also not keen on talking about money.  It was a case of apprehension on both sides.

This apprehension happens too often.  The more we talked, the more I realized we wanted the same thing: equality and respect.  Respect is so important in dealing with money for a gig.  You don’t want to be disrespected, i.e. undervalued.  Likewise, the people or person paying you doesn’t want to feel taken advantage of.  I came to learn that some of the people involved had previously taken gigs, without ever discussing their fee.  They hoped they would be compensated fairly; they were then surprised by what they got paid.  This is not a good business model.  A business person doesn’t open a department store, hoping you’ll pay him/her for the items in the store; the items are clearly marked with a price tag.

No surprises.  If you do not feel comfortable talking about money right away, or worried you’ll frighten your client, I find it helpful to learn as much as possible, then suggest we can discuss the fee at a later date.  I cannot emphasize this enough: know what you’re getting yourself into, and know what the situation is.  If it’s a high-profile gig, the fee should be higher.  If it’s a low-stress, low-profile gig, have fun, and realize the fee might be lower.  Either way, be in the know.

Well, What’dya Know?

Ignorance is no excuse.  If you break the law, you cannot plead ignorance; you need to know what the rules are.  Likewise, the last thing a director wants to hear is “I didn’t know I had to learn my lines.”  When has that ever worked?

I played some auditions recently.  An actor came in not knowing the material that he was given.  The excuse was: his agent gave him the wrong information.  If I had a nickel for every time i’ve heard that.  And perhaps it’s true.  Agents, get your act together.  I do not understand not doing your job, and still yet still have it.  If there are discrepancies here, I would love to hear from actors and agents both.

Regardless of who is at fault, find out what you need to know.  On numerous occasions I’ve been handed a song, with only part of it marked to play.  When I’ve gone to the audition, I come to find out that they are having the actors sing the other part of the song.  Confusion is a regular occurrence at an audition; be prepared for anything.

At this last round of auditions, I received the music for the invited calls.  These are the auditions for a selected group of actors the casting office and the production wants to see.  These are actors they probably know, and can count on to learn the material.  My score was not marked at all; I learned the entire piece of music.  Most of it is easy to read, but to go through it all insures I won’t have any surprises in the audition.  And if there are surprises, you make the best of it.

Actors need to trust their agents.  But they also need the correct information.  I would think it would benefit the actor to be diligent in collecting all the information about the audition, from their agent, audition postings, casting calls, etc.  And when you get the material, listen to recordings, meet with your vocal coach, so that you can hear the music before you hear it in the audition.  We don’t have time to teach you the music for the callback.  There are so many ways to get the information you need to have a successful audition, that making excuses doesn’t really help.

Button, Button, Who’s Got The Button?

We sure love applause.  “Yes, I did something right” says the voice in my head.  We hear the applause and think “Victory!  Success!” Sometimes audiences applaud in the middle of a song, if something is truly spectacular (please don’t do that in the middle of a cadenza).  When telling the audience to applaud, nothing works better than a good old-fashioned button.

No, not the kind you wear.  It’s that strong, staccato beat at the end of a musical number.  It is the very last note you hear; the ‘Bump’ at the end that tells us: it’s the end, applaud, please.

Needing a button seems to me to be the band-aid on any situation you’re not sure about.  How do we finish this musical number?  Give it a button.  I played a gig where the musical number was soft and contemplative.  The music ended with a suspended chord; I didn’t want to break the mood, and allowed the music to dissipate into the air.  Sure enough the audience applauded.  The actor performing actually said, while turning away from the microphone: “No button?”

First of all, I cannot believe someone would actually speak their inner-most thoughts, thus breaking the mood we just worked so hard to create, into a microphone, particularly when the audience already had shown their acceptance by applauding.  Second, it shows a great deal of distrust in the material, and to the supporting ensemble.

No harm was meant by it, and I doubt the performer was aware of how it might have be interpreted.  A rookie mistake to be sure.  There are numerous musical numbers where the performers strike a pose, or give a look, that is simultaneous with a musical hit, or button.  This was not one of those cases.  The next time you watch a performance, take note of how the numbers end.  Realizing too, that not every number needs a button; sometimes we have to just simply let the music float away.

One, Singular Sensation

People can spend a lifetime swinging the bat and never hit a home run.  Likewise, people can spend a lifetime singing and never feel like they’ve ‘arrived.’  As one friend reminded me recently, we work so hard on our craft and skills; all it takes is that one event to make all the difference.

Creating a career in the arts is a lot like throwing seeds across a large plot of land; you never know what will grow where or when.  A lot of times we work incredibly hard on one area, be it performing, writing, or producing.  We put all our eggs in one basket and think that’s the career-making event in our lives.  It hardly ever happens that way.

Whenever we see a performer at the top of their abilities, there’s more to them than meets the eye.  A writer may get a book on the best-seller’s list, a performer could win an award; there’s often a body of work, perhaps even a lifetime of work, that they’ve already put out in the world.  This latest output of work is just another day in the office for them.

I’ve caught myself thinking a performance is going to change everything in my career.  And most of the times it doesn’t.  I know I’m not alone in daydreaming about that “one day when…” as if we can sit and wait to be discovered, doing nothing because that miraculous day hasn’t arrived yet.

While there is waiting involved in careers, there’s also doing.  When I talk to other artists, there is a familiar sense of the work that’s been done; a lot of it is recalled, like an old friend they forgot about: “Oh, yeah, I did that show years ago… I completely forgot about that.”

That’s not to say that work doesn’t matter, or doesn’t hold value.  On the contrary, all the little (and big) projects, performances, productions that have gone unnoticed help influence and inform the work that does get notice.

While we’re waiting for that big break to come, it’s important to keep doing.

My Life

We are all fascinated with celebrities. A friend made the observation recently that in this country we do not have royalty. Instead we have celebrities; the people we put high on a pedal tool. Those few who we read about in magazines, and try to get a little closer to their flame.

Fame is tricky. You want the attention, but then there are complete strangers who will write about you as if they are your friend. Anonymity seems to be the new power; those faceless individuals who can tweet, or send Facebook messages to the world, without revealing themselves.

Another performer, with a Twitter following, received personalized notes from someone she didn’t know. It’s messages like “I’m worried about her, is she ok?” People who feign concern, hoping to get closer to the star in question, need to feel like they are a part of their lives. She’s doing just fine.

I’ve never followed celebrities, or really cared who’s dating who. I am fascinated by the people who follow the stars; where do they find the time and energy to be so concerned with people they’ve never met? Or if they have met, it was not an intimate encounter. Love the stars and celebrities, but also love your own life.