Audition Song Selection, What to Expect, Tips, and More!
How To Prepare Your Audition Book: Working With Accompanists
When BWW asked me to come up with a guide on "How To Prepare Your Audition Book," I was more than happy to oblige. The following bits of advice and at-the-piano and behind-the-table wisdom have been distilled from my 30+ years of playing auditions. While I make no claim stating that "my way" is "the only way," "the right way," I can safely say that much of what I share below has been discussed with many other audition pianists over the years, and we are all in agreement on many of the topics.
While I have written a lot of words, a lot of prose, one thing to keep in mind is that auditioning is essentially a simple, three-step process:
1) You walk into the audition room.
2) You perform your song and/or monologue.
3) You leave the audition room.
Everything beyond those three actions is what can be "not simple." One of those possibly "not simple" things is the physical preparation and presentation of your sheet music, and that is the focus of this guide.
I will not go into the very individual and personal process of finding "the right" audition song for you, nor of building your book and expanding your repertoire. That is all best left to face-to-face, one-on-one sessions with a teacher and a coach.
Here we go...
What To Do If You Make A Mistake With Your Music
If your audition starts with an apology regarding the condition of your sheet music...
"I'm sorry this is a bad copy."
"I'm sorry it's wrinkled."
"I'm sorry I didn't have time to 3-hole punch it."
"I'm sorry it's falling out of my binder."
"I'm sorry this is hard to read."
For the most part, these are all simple fixes: Just take the time to fix them now so that you don't and won't have to make same apology again the next time.
How To Introduce Your Song At Auditions
When possible-and it is always possible-include the original title page of your song in your book. The following bits of information can and do provide more than 'just the facts' for your pianist:
-Title of the Song
-Title of the Musical
Additionally, there are usually some musical markings and indications presented on the first page that may still apply to the musical material on the second or third page:
You may not need some of that information during the course of your audition, but your pianist definitely will.
How To Keep Sheet Music Together
Handing your sheet music over to the pianist in the form of loose, single sheets of paper is always a gamble. Always. The piano's music ledge may not be engineered to securely hold single sheets of paper. There may be a draft in the room which could cause one or all of the pieces of paper to fall off of the piano. The vibrations and motion caused by the pianist's playing could cause your pages to fall off the piano. The paper could bend in on itself, and then fall off the piano. After you retrieve your pages from the printer or copier, take the time-and it really doesn't take that much more time-to prepare and present them properly for the pianist.
Personally, I am a fan of using 3-ring binders, but the tried-and-true method of affixing pages to a manila folder or pieces of cardboard is still tried-and-true for many reasons, especially when used for cattle-call types of auditions (UPTA, SETC, Unifieds, etc.).
Format Music Like A Book
Music has been published in books for years. With the advent of digital publishing and PDFs, the point of reference for many people in regards to sheet music is single sheets of paper coming out of a printer (see above). If you haven't held an actual music book in your hands in a while, take a few moments-well, more than a few moments-to sit down with a book of published vocal selections or a vocal score, and take notice of a few things:
-Where the page numbers are placed on each page, in each corner.
-How the layout is such that it positions page turns at points in the music making it possible for the pianist to lift one of their hands from the piano for a split second to turn that page, minimally disrupting the flow of the music (if at all).
Bring Clean Copy
When you copy a piece of sheet music, your ultimate goal is to achieve an exact replica of your original pages (with the proviso that your original is itself a good copy in the first place).
-The notes and lyrics should be clean and clear against the white background of the paper. No grayscale. No faded print. No lines and waves from a fax machine or a misaligned inkjet printer.
-When you copy a piece of music from a book, retain the pagination of the original. Keep the "left" pages on the "left," and the "right" pages on the "right" (see my mention of the placement of page numbers above). There are some exceptions to this rule, but common sense should guide you through those exceptions.
-Make sure that all of the notes that you wish pianist to play-all the music that you want and need to hear of your accompaniment-make it onto the page. We can only play a bass line if the bass line is there to read.
Formatting Page Turns For Auditions
If your song is just two pages long, arrange those pages side-by-side for the pianist. There are still many instances where a two-page cut has been copied back-to-back on a single piece of paper thus adding a page-turn where there never had to be a page-turn in the first place. Spend the extra minimal amount of time and money to make another copy.
If your song is three pages long, setting it up so that all three pages are placed side-by-side is always appreciated, however, it isn't always necessary. One page turn isn't going to ruin your audition, and trying to minimize the possibility of page-turns in your sheet music should not be a source of stress and worry for you. But, again, if your song is just two pages long...
If you're not sure how to arrange your copy of "My Perfect Audition Song" that you have printed out, then try to find a copy of the vocal selections or the vocal score of the "The Musical That Contains My Perfect Audition Song," and use that original layout as a guide for arranging your singe-sided, unbound pages.
Note: Reducing the size of your originals in order to make your song take up fewer pages only ends making already small print even smaller, and, thus, harder to read for the pianist.
How To Prepare Music For Accompanists
One of the primary things I need to see when you place your sheet music in front of me is where you wish to start and where you wish to end. That can be done with something as simple as a point of your finger, a pencil mark, or a Post-It note. If all I have to do is read it from the beginning to the end, from the top left corner to the bottom right corner, then no additional marks may be required at all.
If you have had to make a cut or two in your song, err on the side of simple and succinct when marking your cuts. A pencil and a straight-edge (a ruler or your ID card) is usually all you need. If more extensive road-mapping is needed-and sheet music is essentially a map of the melody and harmony of your song-it always best to run it by a pianist before and after your mark up you music, but always before you bring it into an audition.
While highlighters and BIG ARROWS can be helpful, do know that sometimes those markings can actually be a distraction, especially in cases where any sort of cutting has been minimal or non-existent. That block of highlighting and that BIG ARROW that was meant to help the pianist at a particular point - "DON'T MISS THIS!!!" - can end up continuing to draw the eyes of the pianist even once they play past that point - "KEEP LOOKING AT ME!!!". There are also times when the fluorescent yellow or green ink is applied in a such a way that it ends up obscuring the very details it was meant to highlight such as the key signature, accidentals, and tempo changes. (Notice how your eyes are still going back to "KEEP LOOKING AT ME!!!"?)
Should I Use Sheet Protectors?
All I will say about this matter is this: Personally, I don't care either way. And I really don't. If you wish to stir quite the debate, then just bring the topic up in a forum such as a Facebook Group filled with audition pianists, and, trust me, you will get many a hard-headed opinion on both sides of the binder. Do know that those products labeled as "non-glare" don't always end up functioning as such in the audition room. But, again, I have no preference either way. And if the copy of your sheet music is hard-to-read outside of a sheet protector, placing it one ain't gone miraculously clean it up.
Going back to my mention of auditioning being a simple, three-step process, preparing your sheet music is essentially a simple, two-step process:
-You print out a legible copy of the sheet music for your song.
-You place that copy in a 3-ring binder.
When building your "book", that "book" usually takes the form of a 3-ring binder filled with clean and legible copies of each of your songs. It is always a good idea to periodically go through your book to check that your copies have remained clean and legible. Sometimes scribbles can accumulate over time. A hole-punch may start to fray causing it to fall out of your binder. A page turn made somewhat over-zealously could have resulted in a big crease or wrinkle. Evidence of your last Starbucks order may have blotted out that important key change.
While I appreciate a piece of sheet music that has been presented to me in the form of a flawless 'arts and crafts project' or a beautiful custom-printed cut, know that many times that what is already on the page is all you need to present to the audition pianist. I would rather a singer spend more time practicing and honing the performance of their song rather than literally cutting and pasting the pages of their sheet music.
As you re-read what I've written above, note how it all comes down to having your sheet music prepared and presented in a manner that it is easily readable, and will not fall off the piano. While a perfectly legible copy of your sheet music won't guarantee that you'll book the gig, it can help to ensure that your initial interaction with the pianist will be a good one, a productive one.... And that can lead to a good audition experience for both you and the pianist. And maybe even a callback.
What Should I Not Sing At Auditions?
ONE FINAL NOTE: I stated at the beginning of this guide that I would not concentrate on the process of choosing repertoire. However, I would like to speak out on one bit of 'advice' that has continued to be doled out over the years: "Don't sing Sondheim. Don't bring in Sondheim to an audition because it it too hard for the accompanist."
From what I can tell, that bit of so-called advice has been around ever since songs in the Sondheim canon came into publication. Nowadays, it seems that that 'warning' has been extended to other composers with Jason Robert Brown bearing quite a bit of the brunt of it.
If one were to take that piece of advice to heart, theatre companies would avoid producing shows such as Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Songs For A New World, and The Last Five Years simply due to the fact that they would never be able to find a pianist to play Sondheim and JRB in their auditions. However, we all know that those shows do get produced quite regularly, and theatre companies do manage to find pianists who are able to cover their auditions and callbacks for those shows, as well as play for rehearsals and in their pits. There are pianists out there who, in fact, enjoy sight-reading and playing that repertoire without a hint of grumbling, anxiety, heavy sighs, or dirty looks.
Do some of the piano accompaniments of songs by Sondheim and JRB present some technical and musical challenges? Yes, of course, they do. That's part of what catches our ears and hearts, that's what makes them worthy of study and performance. But there are also some "not easy" piano accompaniments written by Andrew Lippa, Pasek and Paul, Adam Guettel, Tom Kitt, Stephen Schwartz, Jerry Bock, Harvey Schmidt, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, Frederick Loewe... And, yes, even Richard Rodgers!
While I and my audition pianist colleagues do appreciate you trying to ease our stress during the course of your audition, presenting us with songs with easy and easy-to-sightread accompaniments doesn't really do either of us any good. While there are definitely some songs out there that present challenges for the pianist - and many of them have NOT been written by Mssrs. Sondheim and Brown - there is so much "standard repertoire" out there right now, and singers should not refrain from, nor be scared of selecting, studying, and bringing them into an audition when appropriate. Key words: when appropriate. Producers should do their best to find and hire the best pianists for their auditions.
In turn, pianists who want to break into the audition pianist circuit should strive to become one of those "best pianists"... And that's a topic for another column. Stay tuned!