The audition interview is frequently overlooked by singers trying to make a good impression. Vocal programs tend to be small, and the faculty will be making a big investment of time and energy in every student they admit. They are wondering if you are good natured and malleable, and are very much on the lookout for any warning signs, or “red flags” as to your personality. One bad apple in a department can have a highly toxic effect. So what are some potential red flags? Any behavior or attitude that would indicate that you are one of the dreaded character types – the Diva, the Backstabber, the Sloth, the Know-It-All, and the Basket Case.
The Diva: It’s certainly important to appear confident, and Lord knows we all need a healthy ego to survive this business. However, “The Diva” takes this to an extreme, and comes off in the interview as a little TOO impressed with their own overall awesomeness. The Diva, who can be male or female by the way, is simply a narcissistic singer, who feels that the world revolves around them. This singer feels that they are naturally entitled to preferential treatment, extra time, lead roles, etc. Such a “diva” type can cause a great deal of headache for their teacher, stage director, and colleagues. In their minds, all of these are just supporting players, and it’s really “all about me”.
The Backstabber: A singer who comes off as overly intense and competitive in their interview may prove to be a poor colleague or a “backstabber”. The arts, and any other enterprise for that matter, are just a lot more fun when folks can work together collegially.
The Sloth: On the other hand, a singer who is TOO laid back and nonchalant may not have the level of discipline and preparation that top programs require. There are always talented students who can’t be bothered to practice, and their lack of preparation will frequently take a toll on their colleagues and fellow cast members, who end up picking up the slack.
The Know-it-All: If you appear argumentative, don’t respond well to constructive criticism, or are over-the-top in showing off your knowledge to the committee, you may come off as a know-it-all. This is typically a student who has had a lot of success in their academic subjects. They simply don’t realize that singing isn’t purely a cerebral exercise. Great performers do not achieve greatness merely by understanding the concepts in a theoretical way from a book. They spend countless hours practicing and learning to embody the concepts. They trust their teachers, and let the teachers help them. Not so with the know-it-all. This singer already knows everything – and isn’t afraid to tell you so. Obviously, the can be rather aggravating for this singer’s teachers, and rarely do singers with this attitude develop their talent to any significant extent.
The Basket Case: Finally, there is the emotionally unstable singer, incapable of hearing even the gentlest criticism without being reduced to tears. Singing involves breathing and emotion. Let’s face it – performing is a highly vulnerable and exposed activity. As we learn the craft of singing, we learn to release patterns of tension and holding in our bodies – patterns that are often associated with deep seated emotions. To effectively portray other characters, we must learn to cultivate a kind of empathy, an emotional flexibility within us. Not all students can handle this. A student who might be able to hold it together in an economics or chemistry class may have a very different reaction in the voice studio or on stage. We all come from different backgrounds, and each of us brings our own unique set of emotional baggage and trauma with us into our adult lives. However, it’s important to work through these issues, in therapy or elsewhere, so they don’t hamper our work in the studio. Working with an emotionally unstable singer can be very challenging for a voice teacher, who is all too frequently called upon to “play therapist”.
As cliche as it sounds, the best approach to audition interviews is to "just be yourself". Too often, singers come off their worst when they are overcompensating, or “trying to hard”. Do some thinking in advance about your goals and aspirations, and be prepared to articulate with conviction why you have chosen this particular course of study. And, whatever you do, try to avoid raising any of the aforementioned red flags!
Warm-ups and vocal exercises are not-one-size-fits-all. Group warm-ups, much beloved by choral conductors, music directors, and others in our field, typically take singers to their highest note in rapid succession over a period of 5 minutes. Since singers can’t really hear themselves in group warm-ups, they will be prone to try to sing louder than the singer next to them – which will lead them to push. In turn, this will frequently cause vocal fatigue set up a tight vocal mechanism for the rest of the day. Rather than warming the voice UP, group warm-ups all-too-often simply blow the voice OUT, constricting rather than loosening, and limiting range rather than expanding it! Beware the group warm-up!
As a serious voice student, you’ll be doing yourself a big favor if you get to know your individual voice and how it likes to warm up. One key for everyone is to be patient. Take your time. A proper warm-up should last 20 minutes, and should keep you in the comfortable middle of your range until about 12-15 minutes into the session. Sing for a few minutes and then take a break. Get some water, take a walk down the hall. Look at your diction homework for a few minutes. But don’t rush. Most importantly, remember to practice mindfully. In other words, know exactly WHY you are doing each exercise. Make sure you clearly understand what you are trying to accomplish with each scale or arpeggio. A good voice teacher will be able to help you understand the technical basis for each exercise.
There is an art to warming up. Don’t just "make noise for the sake of making noise". And watch out for those group warm-ups...
I recently had a student audition for the highly regarded musical theater program at Manhattan-Marymount. Based on her retelling, the audition experience at MM was unconventional, to say the least. It left me thinking that other college-bound musical theater students should have this information going into their auditions.
Singers were brought into the audition room for 3 hours. There was no place to warm up, and all that was done was a group vocal warm-up. Then they were asked to dance. And FINALLY sing. This was hours after that original group warm-up in the morning! My student was towards the end, and had been sitting “cold” for 3 hours when she then had to get up and start her audition. Imagine the nerves building as the clock was ticking!
Another challenging aspect to this audition process was that singers were asked to audition in front of each other. Some were told that they were finished after their first song. Others were asked to present their second song and their monologue. Many of the singers were “worked with” master-class style. Taking direction in front of the audition panel can be difficult enough, but add to that the fact that the eyes of your competition are right there upon you, and you've got one heck of a challenging audition scenario.
How to prepare for a rigorous audition like this? Call each school in advance and ask detailed questions about the process. Are there practice rooms to warm up in? Will I have a chance to warm up with the accompanist or not? Will I sing, dance or act first? Mentally going through each stage of the day helps nerves. Even if you are expected to present 2 pieces, always have a third “in your back pocket” just in case the panel wants something contrasting or different from what you have.
Be ready to receive “notes” (feedback) and to be worked with on the spot - even in front of your peers. This means repeated practice runs at a program or in a master class where you get to perform your audition, get critiqued, and then do it again. High school students generally don’t acquire this skill anywhere and it’s an important one to have. If you do not understand the direction that you are being given, be sure to ask for clarification. If the professor says, "do it again, this time from the ground up" and you don’t know what that means -- ask! Our profession is all about having tons of conviction in a performance, but also being able to drop what you think is the right way and try what a director or conductor might ask of you- that is how we work in the professional world.
Vocal Audition Advantage (VAA)
Helping young classical and musical theater singers develop their talent and polish their craft.