Tag Archives: musical theater

“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!