“But My Piece is 19 Bars!” What Does (And Does Not) Matter When Choosing Audition Material

All conscientious theatre and voice educators aim to promote mindfulness in their students, especially as a grounding device in the midst of potentially stressful situations (read: auditions). As teachers are sadly neither omniscient nor capable of cloning, the best tool we have to help students audition better lies within the student’s ability to objectively assess their own performance. Guided by an accurate account, teachers can then help students form a game plan for the next round.

However, auditions are not governed by empirical guidelines. When coaching students for competitions, we are able to look up the “rules.” Auditions are a bit trickier, because there is rarely concrete feedback to be had beyond “good” (possibly suggesting further callbacks or casting calls) and “thank you very much” (an ironic platitude only in our industry).

An audition may literally end up an evaluation of your appearance, personality, age, attitude, accent, or even these variables in relation to another actor. I quasi-joke to my voice students about how I transform from an all-loving-hippie-type to a ruthless, judgmental tyrant at cattle calls, where in interest of time I might label candidates “anemic” or “nail-bitingly obnoxious” in my notes, or simply scrawl “Hallelujah!” so I remember why the essence of the candidate was right or wrong.

Unfortunately, in an effort to appear supportive, teachers inadvertently encourage students to project emotionally on a situation that may or may not be outside of their control rather than help them to tell the difference. After all, what kind of monster would say, “You know why you weren’t called back, dear? Because a lot of other girls were better for the part than you yesterday.” Instead, out of kindness, we state with authority that they have “too legit a sound,” that the director in question will only tall brunettes, and they should forget and move on.

Then, armed only with our well-intentioned sympathy, this student trudges out to have a Frappuccino with theater friends to identify the REAL reason she’s constantly overlooked… because, of course, the director plays favorites, four other girls sang the same song (and all of the blogs say this is certain death), or because she wore boring black Capezios instead of the LaDucas that clearly won her friend the part.

Urban Audition Legends

Perhaps a savvy friend, in an effort to be helpful, then posts a link to the first friend’s Facebook wall to with “top 6 things they are doing to totally screw up their audition.” Some of my favorite “Urban Audition Legends,” which I see in some manifestation almost every day on the Internet:

The exact number of measures matters. Audition proctors care about overall time; sixteen bars equates roughly forty-five seconds, thirty-two bars about sixty seconds, but even this guideline is approximate. Like the adage “if you’re looking at their shoes, they’re not acting”- if they notice that the student’s selection is two bars too long and cut them off before a climatic high note that would have added three seconds of time, there is a more pressing problem.

The exact song choice is of critical importance. The song is merely to put the actor’s talents, emotions, physical presence, and preparation on display. If it’s the right range, genre, and feel, it should be a contender for the “right” song.  Look to sources like MusicalTheaterSongs.com as valuable resources to search for the right song, right now.

There is a definitive of body songs/composers to avoid. I would happily hear the best “On My Own” in the world when casting a Wedding Singer than an obscure work in the wrong style. Casting directors have so much to consider that they would prefer not to be distracted by an unfamiliar piece; besides, familiar songs that we know the melody to help inform us of the student’s musical skills.

Students can outsmart trial and error by following any particular school of advice. The best auditoners I know have spent years if not decades honing skills; you simply must go out there and see what works for you. If it gets you callbacks, it’s a good piece for your book, period. If it doesn’t after many attempts, despite how the song seems like it SHOULD work for you, look for a better fit.

Although it can be a bitter pill to swallow, an actor just simply is or isn’t the right contender for a role. The right person walks in, the team is paying attention. The right sound comes out of their mouth, they will write something down. They capture the essence of what we need on some level, they usually get a callback. They capture our imagination, they get the gig.

I am well renowned among my students for (surprise, surprise) giving out long, wordy handouts. However, I have found the best solution to this quandary requires only four lines:

  1. Learn lots of different types of songs
  2. Learn what you sing better than anyone else through careful study, trial and error
  3. Follow directions to help make strong educated guesses
  4. Be prepared

We over complicate this process for students, giving them pages and pages of instructions on how “industry” vets audition selections, when the truth is that there is no secret rulebook. Not even being the best necessarily guarantees you the role. Recall Michael Shurtleff’s rather painful retelling of Bette Midler’s audition for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where her layered, mature reading of Mary Magdalene would simply not be an organic fit with the rest of the ensemble, whereas Barbara Streisand’s famous, rule-defying antics won her international stardom at the “Funny Girl” call. The painful truth is that the conventional rules don’t always apply…unless, as in the latter case, you were born to play the role.

The audition itself is the critical step in the life cycle of a new piece; we must try it several if not several dozen times to see if a given excerpt takes on the same life at Ripley-Grier as it does in the lesson studio. A callback? A clue you are on the right track. Within a few repetitions, the “bugs” should be worked out and a student should be able to feel if they are successfully able to enter the zone with the piece in audition condition.

If ten or twenty auditions go by without that feeling- the piece is not serving the student and needs to be re-considered. And this, my friends, is where our power as actors actually begins: setting our sights on being the most skilled, most interesting, most unique creature they’ve seen in years. But that lesson is for the next installment!

Preparing for your TYA Audition

TYA or Theatre for Young Audiences is full of misconceptions. Understanding what you are auditioning for is key for is key to a successful experience. So, as with any audition, do your homework. Make sure you clearly understand the following:

  1. Roles: What character(s) are you auditioning for? a 4 year old? a sloth? the keeper of nightmares? Does that track play multiple parts? TYA is often done with small casts which means the list may get long!
  2. Venue: TYA companies perform in many venues from tiny blackbox theaters, to school cafegymatoriums, to thousand plus seat amphitheaters. Inside, outside, mic-ed, or not.
  3. Type of Contract: While some TYA may be amateur opportunities (and possibly even worthwhile ones), there are a surprising number of professional TYA contracts available and many may offer one of the HUNDREDS of TYA Equity contracts available each year.
  4. Type of Performance: Even within the same company, some contracts are for in-house performances, some for national tours, some for small local tours.
  5. Hours of Rehearsal/Performance: Most TYA rehearses and performs during the day. Don’t be the one who auditions and then realizes you can’t also have a day job.
  6. Terms of the Contract: Some contracts, especially in TYA, may have additional requirements you weren’t expecting. Daily setup/strike, running your own tech, lifting heavy equipment, 5am call times, daily audience talkbacks, four-show days, etc. It’s not for everyone, so make sure you know what is expected and that the theatre knows you’re aware.
  7. Target Audience: While most TYA is happy to perform for the whole family, TYA usually is targeted to a specific age group. Knowing this can greatly help you decide how to approach your audition. DO audition like you’re performing for that age, but DO NOT belittle them, the top TYA companies never talk down to their audience. And PLEASE don’t treat the audition panel like kids.
  8. You must be trusted: The largest factor in getting cast in a TYA show is TRUST. Even more than adult theatre, you are more likely to get cast when the company knows and trusts you. Not just because of the morning call times, and cast morale, but because there are LOTS OF KIDS around. I get sick of hearing, “TYA is a boys club, I’ll never get in.” The truth is, it’s not exclusive, it just requires a lot of trust. Someone in the company will have to vouch for you, so you might have to get to know a few people in the company to get your “in.”

TYA auditions don’t have to use TYA specific songs.  I always stress to performers, it’s better to pick a song you know that doesn’t fit the character, than to go into an audition unsure you know every note and word of a song. BUT, if you have time to learn something new check out my list of TYA Audition Songs or do a quick search on MusicalTheaterSongs.com!

TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) Audition Songs

It’s really unfortunate that so many great TYA shows don’t have sheet music easily available. Of course MusicalTheaterSongs.com is a great resource to find places where songs are available. I’ve included links below to the songs found in the database on this site. Still, there is so much out there and yet even many of the most popular appear to only offer sheet music through a fully licensed production. If you’ve seen a TYA show you loved, I encourage you to find contact information and ask the writing team for hard to find sheet music. Some of my all time favorites aren’t on this list because the sheet music isn’t easily available.

This list is some suggestions of great TYA songs that ARE easily available. Don’t stop here though, there’s so much good stuff out there. Take a look at other works by these composers. Reach out for that unpublished sheet music. Find something you love!

And remember, you can also just sing your normal audition songs at a TYA audition, as long as the content would be ok to sing in front of your 7 year old niece. But just in case your entire book is pulled from Oh! Calcutta:

All for You” from Seussical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

The Age of Not Believing” from Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

My Party Dress” from Henry & Mudge by Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan 

“Captain Louie” from Captain Louie by Stephen Schwartz 

“Play With Your Food” from Honk! by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

“Madness of King Scar” from The Lion King by Elton John and Tim Rice

Middle of a Moment” from James and the Giant Peach by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Sing Your Own Song” from Dear Edwina by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler