Audition Song Selection, What to Expect, Tips, and More!
How To Break Into Audition Pianist Work In NYC
Even though so much of our daily interactions and communications currently take place via our computers and smartphones, there is still so much of this business that is built on face-to-face meetings, or at least voice-to-voice conversations. One of the keys to breaking into the audition pianist circuit is knowing how to use digital resources to set up analog meetings. Thankfully, most digital resources are accessible for free via your computer and/or your smartphone - just like this BWW column that you are reading right now.
Be Where The Actors Are
One very easy way to get a handle on the Who?, What?, Where?, When? and How? of the audition circuit is to read audition notices. Thankfully, gone are the days of rushing down to the newsstand each Thursday morning, or looking anxiously and hopefully into your mailbox for the latest issue of Backstage. Many auditions are now posted online, and while some may be behind a paywall, there are many that are posted in forums that don't require you to enter your credit card number. (Have you ever clicked on the "Jobs" tab here on BWW?) As you read through them, notice some of the standard information that is listed.
The Types Of Auditions
Acquaint yourself with the various types of audition calls, and the givens and requirements for each of them. Actors' Equity has different types - Equity Chorus Call (ECC), Equity Principal Audition (EPA), etc. - and non-union calls will use similar language and procedures. Some require actors to sign up in advance or make an appointment, while others are "show up, sign up, and wait." Actors will be asked to prepare anything from a 16-bar cut to a full song to two contrasting songs. Recognize the potential number of songs and different styles you could encounter at the piano over the course of even just one day of auditions.
The names of the various casting agencies and casting directors who work in those offices are another good thing to familiarize yourself with. Those agencies and names are not only listed in audition notices, but also in playbills and online databases such as the one here on BWW or the IBDB (Internet Broadway Database). Many have a social media presence as well on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. -And, when all else fails, Google will be your friend.
Unless someone on a show's music staff requests a specific pianist, it will usually be up to the casting agency to hire the pianist for a set of auditions. Put yourself on file with them by dropping off, sending in, and/or emailing them your resume and business card to their offices. Note that some casting offices have a preferred protocol on how to reach out them, so research and read up as much you can.
As you read and study playbills and audition notices, you may very well start to notice that certain casting agencies may be associated with certain creative teams (directors, composers, etc.), regional theatres, and entertainment companies. They have a business and creative relationship. Always be aware of the potential circle of contacts that you could be entering when called in by a casting agency to play a set of auditions.
There are also companies that have their own in-house casting directors. Another good thing to keep track of.
While there is a concentration of rehearsal studios a few blocks north of Penn Station along 8th Avenue, there are many others in other parts of town that are also used for auditions. New studios also seem to be opening every couple of months, and existing studios keep adding new spaces to their portfolios as well. Map them out in your smartphone, check them out in person when you have the time. Be sure to note which subway stop - and which subway entrance/exit! - is closest to each building entrance. And because some studios now have multiple locations, it never hurts to double- and triple-check which building as well as which floor you should be showing up at. Location, Location, Location!
Networking For Pianists
Routinely touch base with other pianist, music directors, conductors, and composers(!) who are familiar with your playing and sight-reading. You never know when they might need someone to play or cover a set of auditions for them, or get asked for names of other pianists.
If you have friends who are actors - and if you're in NYC and in this biz, you most likely do - get familiar with their routines and the projects that they are working on. There is no shortage of stories of a director asking a room full of actors, "Does anyone know a pianist?"
If you went to a college with an active musical theatre, theatre, and/or music program... Does your college have an alumni association that routinely gets together in NYC? Do you know anyone from your college who has already managed to get that the proverbial break into the biz? If your college presents a showcase in NYC, have you checked to see if you could play for their next one? Or even just attend it.
While networking does require some effort, realize that there are times when the opportunity to network just happens. You could be sitting in the hallway outside of a rehearsal room, or in an elevator at Pearl or Ripley with another pianist. You could be in line at the Starbucks at 35th & 8th. You just attended a reading of a new musical, and want to compliment the music director and/or pianist on their work.
Some (Of My) Givens
-You're a good sight-reader, and you can state that confidently and matter-of-factly.
-You have no fear about sight-reading. While you don't have to be capable of reading 100% of the notes and rhythms correctly at first sight, you should not be hesitant to successfully and effectively and supportively(!) play less-than-100% of them correctly.
-Most importantly, you approach sight-reading in an audition room for an actor in front of a production team as a responsibility, as a duty, as part of your job. You become a part of that team for those couple of hours or days during the casting process.
-While you may not be a "people person" in real life, you can play one in the audition room. Auditions days can be full of fun and laughs and mini-reunions, but they can also be filled with moments calling for a deep breath (or two), patience, discretion, and empathy. Playing the piano is the easy part. Your technique and sight-reading ability are what got you into the room. Your disposition and professionalism are what will keep you there.
-You listen to music on a regular basis. All types of music. While you might want to concentrate on and study "show tunes" from all eras, there is an increasing requirement to be familiar with the different genres of popular music (rock & roll, jazz, R&B, country, etc. And don't ignore some of those Classical songs you may have played in college since they can come back from time to time as well.
-Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown don't scare you. They may require you to take an extra second or two to look them over before you start playing, but they should not prevent you from doing what you were hired to do. And if they currently do scare you, then do some proper listening, study, and practice. -And to reference something I mentioned in a previous column: The advice to singers of "Don't bring in Sondheim or JRB to an audition" is essentially a moot point now.
Finally, while this column is labeled a "How To" guide, it is more like a "How To 'How To'" guide. Each of us has different backgrounds, different tools to use. We also have different personalities, and different degrees of focus and drive. While it has started to sound cliché, you will need to "Find your own path". Actors sort of have it easier in a way since they have the whole process and structure of auditions. As audition pianists, we don't necessarily - if rarely, if ever - have to audition ourselves. It's about making and maintaining connections. It's about being in the right place at the right time. It's about answering that call from a phone number which you may not recognize. It's about being the first one to respond to an email. It's about having "it" always in our fingers and brain. It's about being at ease even when those around you may not be.