Prepare Your Sheet Music Carefully and Maximize Your Audition Success
So, you’ve picked the perfect song (using MusicalTheaterSongs.com, of course) and worked on it with your vocal and acting coaches — and now it sounds wonderful. The next step toward audition success is properly preparing your sheet music for a sight-reading accompanist.
Unfortunately, singers often forget this step and end up making their accompanist’s job harder. This can lead to confusion and errors during the audition. Even more important, it conveys a poor image to the creative team, which wants to gauge what it’s like to work with you.
In a recent episode of “The Ensemblist,” a backstage musical theater podcast, composer-lyricist Lynn Ahrens described what she looks for when she auditions actors. She said it’s “hard to separate the vocal from the person and the actor.” In other words, the energy the actor brings into the room — and what that tells the creative team about the actor as a co-worker and collaborator — is every bit as important as skill and talent. And one of the ways Lynn judges this is by checking whether “they’re organized and have their book in order.”
In other words, your audition book and the preparation of the sheet music it holds demonstrates the level of professionalism the creative team can expect you to bring to the production process.
Below are some best practices when for preparing your audition binder and sheet music. I chose methods that I think will work in most cases, but always remember to research the preferences of the people you’re meeting and use common sense.
Your binder: Limit the number of songs you carry on any given day. I often see actors come in with thick binders filled with sheet music. An audition book is not a repertoire book. You don’t need to carry every song you’ve ever sung. I seriously question whether actors with overstuffed books are actually prepared to sing all of those songs at a professional level. I’ve heard some casting directors and creative teams say that it also conveys desperation: “I can sing anything you could possibly want, I swear!”
Over-filling your audition binder also makes the pages hard to turn for your pianist. And while we’re talking about page-turns, please don’t bring your music on a tablet. Sure, it’s convenient. You can have as many songs as you want. It’s not practical or appropriate for an audition. Using an iPad is a different experience for your pianist, and it takes some adjusting when you’ve been playing from printed music all day. Do you want your 16-bar audition to be the pianist’s adjustment period? Page-turns can also be problematic on an iPad.
To me, the perfect audition binder is no wider than an inch and is not filled with music past the point of easy page-turns. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but let’s two inches is definitely too thick.
The condition of the binder also matters. If the teeth on the rings aren’t flush, it’s time for a new binder. Otherwise, pages can fall out as your pianist attempts to turn the page.
When you take songs in or out of your binder, always double check to make sure every page gets added or removed. You’d be shocked at how many times I’ve played an audition for someone who had pages missing. (I had to improv on the spot, with varying degrees of success).
Your pages: I’m about to tackle one of the most divisive issues in auditioning: sheet protectors. Some people swear by them. Some detest them. But here’s the thing: I have yet to meet anyone who totally hates bare paper. After all, no commercially produced sheet music is published in sheet protectors. You’re better off not using them.
That’s said, make sure your paper is clean. It shouldn’t be folded or torn, and the holes for the binder rings should be in good shape. Reinforcement stickers will help, but when all holes start to wear out, a quick trip to the copy machine will give you a clean page for a few pennies.
If you must use sheet protectors, for the love of all that is holy, please get the anti-glare kind. Many auditions are held in rooms that feature harsh fluorescent lighting, and if you don’t have anti-glare sheet protectors, your music can be difficult to read.
Your pages should be double-sided, with music on the front and back of each page. Copying or printing songs single-sided forces your pianist to make twice as many page turns and doubles the opportunities for error.
Your copies: Clean is the name of the game. Find the best-quality edition of the song that’s available. You might be able to find a free PDF of the song online, but those copies are often extremely poor in quality, in addition to being illegal.
If your music is faint, distorted, cut off, covered in rehearsal marks or annotated by hand, seek a better option. There are websites that make downloading single songs easy and inexpensive (musicnotes.com, sheetmusicdirect.com, newmusicaltheatre.com). Physical copies of scores, vocal selections and song collections are available from a number of sources (Amazon.com is a good one) and are a good investment for anyone making performance a profession. Libraries are also a good place to find books of sheet music and scores. I promise it’s worth the effort and money to get the best-available edition of your music. It will make your audition more successful.
When photocopying published sheet music, reduce it to fit 8½ x 11 paper. With most published books, a 93-percent reduction will do the trick. Make sure that you have captured all of the music on the copied page. If the left hand is missing at the bottom of the piano part, it’s going to be a real problem for your accompanist.
Be sure your sheet music is in the key in which you want to sing. You shouldn’t expect your accompanist to be able to transpose on sight. Many of the online sheet music sources I listed above can transpose the song for you before printing, and there are many musicians who will transpose songs for you for a fee. If you are going to transpose a song more than a whole step in either direction, it is advisable to hire someone to generate a new arrangement for you. The online sheet music sources mentioned above are ideal for many things, but don’t have the technology to make the necessary musical adjustments for a larger transposition. It’s also a good idea to avoid lead sheets (sheet music that provides just a melody line and chord symbols) unless the audition notice specifically allows for them.
Your cuts: Chances are you’re preparing a cut off the full-length song, and cleanliness is important here too. I have seen a lot of crazy ways of marking cuts, but the best approach is to physically cut out any music you don’t want played. “Extra” music, even if it has been crossed or scribbled out, can be just as distracting to your pianist as unnecessary marks and writing can be.
If you’re making cuts to your music, make a copy of the song that is single-sided. Physically cut out the pages, systems or measures that you don’t want played. Remember to include key and time signatures. If you have several smaller bits of music that need to be combined, grab a sheet of blank white paper and some tape. Tape your music to the sheet of paper (taking care to make it neat and straight, of course), then make a new copy of this page.
If your cut starts in the middle of the song, make sure the title and any tempo information are visible at the top of the first page. I also think it’s a good idea to always have the lyric you will actually be singing printed in your music. Sometimes actors elect to sing a different verse or version of the printed lyric, and this can lead to your pianist getting out of sync with you.
If you don’t play piano, find a friend who does and have him look over your music while you prepare. He’ll be able to point out anything a pianist would need that you may have missed.
You can’t control everything at an audition. Focusing ahead of time on the things you can control will help audition confidently. Making your music clean and clear gives you the best shot at being perfectly in sync with your audition accompanist, and that’s going to help you give the kind of audition that’s will book you the job.
Logan Culwell is a NYC-based musical director, vocal coach and audition accompanist, with experience playing for many Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional and film auditions. He is also the manager of PlaybillVault.com. For more information, visit www.LoganCulwell.com.