Category Archives: Performing

Behind the Judges’ Table

What are those adjudicators thinking? Don’t you wish you knew? Well, I can give you a good idea. First of all, they’re human and frequently distracted. If they yawn, they may be thinking, “I really need another cup of coffee,” or, “These things are always so long. I wonder what time it is.” But if you’re lucky, they may be thinking, “I love hearing new people. Let’s see what this one has to offer.” And that may very well be the case. These are teachers, agents or conductors who truly enjoy singers and vocal music.

If you’re listening in on their thoughts you may also hear, “What in the world was he thinking, singing that piece. He’s not ready for it. I wish I could hear him sing something he’s good at.” Or perhaps, “She sings it pretty well, but I can’t see her doing that part.” So always sing what suits you.

If you seem a little “green” and inexperienced, that’s not the end of the world. But do thank the judges and be pleasant and appreciative to your accompanist. This will not go unnoticed. Opera managers have been known to ask the stage manager just how singers behaved backstage. Snooty prima donnas who can only appear nice onstage are cut.

Excuses and complaints will not be appreciated. If you have a cold and want to sing anyway, don’t tell them about it unless they ask.

What to Wear

The visual impression you make can be very important, so think carefully about your clothing. What you wear can telegraph a message you are unaware of, like: “I really don’t know anything about the world of opera,” or “I don’t care what you think of me.” The last thing you want to do is offend them!

Let’s start with what is expected at something like the district NATS auditions. At this level you are learning all about singing for judges, including the unspoken rules about attire. Judges may write comments about your clothing because it’s an opportunity for you to learn what is expected.

One thing to always keep in mind is that what you wear should show respect for the person listening. This is not the time to “make a statement” or to “be edgy” or “look really hot.” Don’t try to be noticed by wearing an extreme or bizarre outfit. If people can only think “That’s outrageous/punk/ugly” the whole time you’re singing, that’s all they’ll remember about you. This is like a job interview, and you should be demonstrating that you respect the auditioner and appreciate their time.

In general, judges absolutely do not want to see:

  • Your tattoos
  • Jeans
  • T-shirts
  • Clothing with words
  • Tennis shoes
  • Sweats
  • “Goth” makeup
  • Belly button
  • Flip-flops
  • Piercings (More than one per ear)

Men should think in terms of dress pants with a button-down shirt and a tie. Jacket is optional. Closed-toe dress shoes, not sandals. When auditioning for an opera company or conductor you should wear that jacket.

Ladies, since you have so many style choices, you can go wrong in many more ways. Ideally you should choose a dress no shorter than 2 inches above the knee. Pantyhose are preferable to bare legs and leggings are out. Heels look nice but don’t go too high, especially if you’re not very comfortable walking in them. Don’t show too much skin, like spaghetti straps. Some singers feel that looking sexy will get the judges’ attention, but judges can be very turned off by it, perhaps even offended that you would try it. You want to go for elegant and sophisticated.

Formal wear is appropriate for some elite competitions. Basically, if it’s the finals of something like the Metropolitan Auditions or if it happens in the evening in a concert hall with an audience, a tuxedo or gown is probably expected. Ladies, you can go one degree more revealing, like a V-neck or leg slit.

Communicating the Song’s Meaning

Here are some questions to ask when preparing a song. They will help you act or just put the right kind of energy and emotion behind your singing. You should be able to answer the first three for any song you sing, and the other two are good to think about, too. If the song does not come from a show or an opera, you get to use your imagination and
make up your answers.

Who am I? This will involve time period, place, station
(in life), age and outlook.

Who am I singing to? This may not be the most obvious
person. Go with whoever generates the strongest emotional response from you. You may be addressing yourself, but perhaps a side of yourself that does not normally show.

What do I want from him/her? A tender reply? Understanding? Someone to listen while you pour out your heart?

What will I do to get it? What are you planning, and how much further would you be willing to go?

What is in the way of getting it? His stubbornness?
Tradition? Your timidity?

It may seem like these do not fit your song, and possibly there is no answer for some of them. But don’t give up too quickly. Even if you do not know who is singing, think up a character (good for classical songs) or sing it as yourself (works in pop songs, but your stage persona does not have to be the same as the real you). The more detail you have in
your answers, the better your performance will be.

Here is an example. Let’s assume there is no background information on the character or story, so the lyrics are all you have to go on.

Why asks my fair one if I love?
Those eyes so piercing bright
Can ev’ry doubt of that remove
And need no other light.
Those eyes fullwell do know my heart
And all its workings see
E’r since they played the conq’rors part
And I no more was free.

Who am I? A 20-year-old man in England, about 1860. I was confident and cynical until I saw Sylvia. Now I have surrendered all my pride and humbled myself before her.

Who am I singing to? The beautiful red-haired Sylvia, who calls me a fool and enjoys testing me to see if I will stay faithful, even when she is cruel.

What do I want? I want Sylvia to acknowledge that I love her as no one else. Then she would smile and speak to me and see me as worthy of her. How can she think I will be untrue? I can’t stand the thought that I might lose her.

What will I do to get it? I will profess my love as strongly as I know how, but I would be willing to die for her, or do anything she asks, to prove my fidelity.

What gets in the way? Her cold and proud demeanor. She wants to see
me grovel, and I’ll grovel all she wants, just to win her.

Your answers might differ quite a bit from mine. The important thing is to think them through and decide on one solution for your performance. Change it later if you want.

Preparing for a Singing Career (Classical)

  1. See the article, “Do I Have What It Takes?”
  2. Study languages, particularly Italian, German and French. Other
    languages, such as Spanish and Russian, can also be an asset.
  3. Read all you can about composers, singers and styles. Get a feel
    for what a “heavy” role is, and why you should wait to do them. How
    does French song style differ from German? What sort of voice fits
    Baroque chamber music best? Who was Maria Callas?
  4. Attend as many concerts as you can, watching and listening –
    absorbing as much as possible. You thought “Vedrai, carino” was too
    simple to program on a recital, but it worked for that soprano, and
    the audience loved it. Was it her acting? Don’t forget that you can
    learn from instrumentalists, too.
  5. See some music theater.
  6. Take acting lessons. Even better, get on stage as much as
    possible, in musicals, operas, straight shows and concerts.
  7. Read the stories of the most familiar operas. (Do you know which
    ones those are?) Then read the stories of the unfamiliar.
  8. Stay in shape physically.
  9. Practice daily. Do allow yourself a break, once in a while,
  10. Keep taking voice lessons, even if you have to scrimp to do it.
    Don’t hop from one teacher to another, but you should be convinced
    that your teacher is doing you some good.
  11. Learn entire operatic roles, not just the big arias. Concentrate
    on the ones you think are too simple or not very showy. Those will
    be your bread-and-butter for a few years.
  12. Learn all you can ababout competitions and d auditions. Read
    magazines, search websites, attend some as an audience member and
    talk to people who have done them.
  13. Do every audition you can get into. The experience helps, even
    if they don’t accept you.
  14. Research apprenticeship programs. Try to get into a small one.
    It may not pay, but it goes on your resume and gets you contacts.
  15. When you have a singing engagement (paid or unpaid), be
    professional – prompt, polite and prepared. Never talk badly of a
    fellow singer, a conductor or an accompanist.
  16. Make your own opportunities: Set up a performance for up a performance for a nursing
    home. Sing at church. Rent the sanctuary and do a recital. Get
    together with some friends for a chamber music concert. Send out
    business cards to organists and church music directors (who can get
    you Easter services, weddings and funerals to sing).
  17. Spend a little on some good “head shots”, the black and white 8
    x 10 glossy publicity photos you will need to have on hand.
  18. And take care of your voice!


Knocking Knees Syndrome

Stage fright is a bewildering affliction that makes it difficult to perform your best. When the adrenaline is pumping through your system your breath is short, the brain won’t concentrate and you are no longer at ease to express the character and the music.

Most of you have probably heard of some cures for stage fright. I say go with anything that works. One old favorite is imagining the audience naked. I think it would be even more effective to see them all in their pajamas. That way they look ridiculous. This reminds you that they are not superior or all-powerful, no matter who they are. Instead,
you are in the position of power. You are, after all, the expert in the room, as far as your songs are concerned. If you were a teacher or a world-renowned expert, you would feel comfortable talking about your subject and no one could intimidate you. That’s the frame of mind you want.

Some other things to try:

Before you actually get up in front of the audience, breathe slowly and deeply. This is very relaxing and gets you off to a good start for deep breaths, which tend to desert you when you’re nervous.

Larger-than-life characters will give you something to concentrate on and a vehicle for getting your energy out of you and aimed at the audience. Or try working out a lot of big gestures for your next performance. Most of them will be left in the practice room, but if you’re used to being physically free and moving around, you’re less likely to freeze up
when performing.

And if the nerves are just making you shake, let your knees shake as much as they want. Fighting it (stiffening up) will only make it continue and even get worse. If you do this just before the performance, you can generally get rid of f some of the jitters.

Fretting over every little slip will make the performance go downhill, whereas concentrating on what is happening now (rather than what you did two phrases ago) will keep things going smoothly.

Finally, preparation is key to feeling good when you’re in the spotlight. Know your music and know what it is that you want to put across.


Emotion and Subtext

In everyday conversation, a huge percentage of the message someone receives from you is not in your words, but in your facial expression, posture, voice inflection, speed of delivery and an infinite number of other unidentifiable factors. Anything that makes up your personality or that expresses emotion could be included. If your words were written down and read by a third person, he or she would have only a fraction of the clues to your
personality. (The transcript of most everyday conversations would be very dry and uninteresting, even though the participants may be fun people.) Behind those elements of personality is your particular way of seeing things and the thought patterns that are unique to you.When you sing a song, the audience wants to see and hear a three-dimensional character with personality, emotions, concerns and goals. If you the performer do not explore the character’s thoughts, your rendition will be no more interesting than if the audience read the text. (Perhaps less interesting, since they have turned off their imaginations in order to see what you will do with the song.)An excellent way to build your character’s personality is to write subtext in your music, along with the translation, if necessary. Subtext is what’s going on in his mind – his train of thought. If someone says, “I don’t want to,” there are many things he could be thinking, such as “No way! Not with you,” or “I’m really tired,” or “She’s trying to get her way
again, just like always.” By writing phrases like these underneath the song text and keeping them in mind as you sing, you will be helping flesh out the character.Note that there usually is no “right” subtext. There are generally several choices available. One person may see the character as spiteful, while another would rather play hurt. If it fits the text and story and works well for you, then it’s right – for now. You may decide to
change you mind later. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If acting is still new and uncomfortable to you, keep each song rather uncomplicated. Limit the subtext to things associated with only one mood, or progress from one to a second during the song. Later you can add a lot of depth to the character by employing subtext that includes thoughts and emotions unlike the surface meaning of the lyric, or even opposed to it, as in sarcasm.

Changes are also very exciting dramatically. Use changes in subtext during interludes and wherever the music seems to change. Put the new subtext before the new phrase so the audience sees the thought in your eyes first, just as people think or feel things before speaking.

Always choose an active or dynamic feeling. “I’m sad,” is hardly ever a good choice, but despair, as in, “I will kill myself since she rejected me,” is much more interesting. Rage, madness, hatred and ecstasy are emotions that will make an impression. You will probably need to use something stronger than the effect you want, at least until your acting skills develop.

Do I Have What It Takes?

So you want to be the next big thing, the singer everyone’s talking about. Or maybe you just want to improve your chances of being able to make a living doing what you love – singing. There are three basic areas where you will need to evaluate yourself and set some goals. They are musical ability, personality and opportunities.The first musical element to consider is Voice. Do you really have the range and kind of sound that your style of music calls for? If you have a pleasing folk sound and want to be an opera singer, then you have to ask yourself (and your teacher) if it’s possible for you to get from point A to point B. Quality of voice is very important for the classical singer, as is volume, since they generally sing without amplification. If you have a classical sound and want to sing heavy metal, we may have a problem.Do you have the truly special, one of a kind voice that gets noticed? It’s very possible that you sing jazz quite nicely, but if there isn’t something unique about your voice, you may have a strike against you. That’s okay, though. Forge ahead through the other  considerations. It may be that good-but-not-unique will work for you in the right place and time.

Another musical element is Musicality. It encompasses the shapes of phrases and the putting across of a style correctly, as well as Expressiveness, or the ability to act with your voice. Do people notice what you’re saying and feeling, or do they just notice your voice
(or mannerisms, or something else)? Do you touch them with your singing? There
are different ways to do this, depending on the musical style, but it is most important, of course, to the musical theater actor/singer.

What are the elements of personality that relate to making a career in performing? You must have a Presence which commands the stage, that says, “I’m the soloist and I really know what I’m doing. You don’t want to miss a thing I sing or do.” You also need a Look, especially in popular music. If you sing rock, it’s best to develop a “Notice me” style
that’s sort of outrageous. There’s the wild hair and the funky outfit to consider, and maybe a walk, a dance move or a pose. Which isn’t to say that a producer somewhere along the way won’t want to change it all. But at least you got noticed.

Opportunities may be the area you can influence the least. Boldness helps, as you will need to approach people and create your own opportunities. A Tough Skin and Persistence are essential, or you won’t go through with that 37th audition. Location is important, so you’d better be willing to move. If no one in your town likes the music you
are committed to doing, you may not get those all-important first gigs, which give you experience and connections. And if you’re not Willing to Travel, you limit your possibilities later on, when a tour would be just the thing to get your career charged up. A positive Attitude that’s easy to work with is one way to get someone to recommend you, and believe me, the people with hiring power do talk to each other. And hopefully you’ll have a lot of Luck, but there’s no way to know that at the beginning. Better plan on making your

Auditioning for Musical Theater

When participating in the fun of a music theater audition, expect to sing your prepared song, then read some sections of the script, and dance. Study the audition announcement closely for any information that may help you. To choose an appropriate song, you should have some idea of the characters that interest you. To read from the script well, you should know the story and understand what this character is like, so when preparing for a
musical audition, research the show.You may be tempted to think you know a show because you have seen the movie, but it could be significantly different from the script. Sometimes a whole character is cut, or reduced to nothing, or the keys have been changed. Occasionally your favorite song from the film is not in the stage show. So it is best to see the show done live, or to read the script. Unfortunately, scripts for musicals, unlike those for most “straight” shows, are
rarely available. You might find a summary in Best Plays, a yearly collection of theatrical works.

Note: I am writing about auditioning for amateur and high school productions. Standards for your dance audition at a professional theater may be much higher.

The Song

  • Your song should be a musical theater piece, and fairly energetic. Slow ballads don’t make as good an impression as something you can act. But an old song that’s comfortable and strong for you is a better choice than a new one, even if it is slow and romantic.
  • If you are auditioning for the part of the Reverend Mother in The Sound of Music, you shouldn’t be singing “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no”! Remember you have to show the directors that you look and sound like that character you want to play.
  • The song may be from the show being done, unless the directors have specified otherwise.
  • There is usually an accompanist at the audition, ready to sight read your music. Have everything clearly marked. (Ritards, cuts, etc.) Real music is much preferred over copies. It’s permissible to take a moment before you start to give the accompanist a tempo. And do thank him/her when you’re done.
  • You may be cut short. If there are many people auditioning, the directors may only want to hear 16 measures from each person. (Very likely when auditioning for a professional production.)
  • Have the piece memorized. Lee piece memorized. Learn it well in advance and
    do some staging.
  • In community theater you can sometimes see the other auditioners perform, a very educational experience. You should be considerate of others. Be quiet when they sing, applaud if it is allowed. (Sometimes applause is frowned on, because an audition is not a concert.)
  • Don’t be one of the people who walks in and says, “I didn’t prepare a song. Umm, can I just sing Happy Birthday?” This makes a terrible impression, and usually these people sing poorly. The bosses listening to you will not want to work with someone who doesn’t work, doesn’t prepare, doesn’t seem to care.



After singing your song you will be asked to read from the script. Read through the script before the audition, if at all possible, but if you haven’t been able to read it, you may ask who this character is that you’ve been assigned to read. You may also ask about the context of the excerpt – what came before it. Read LOUDLY and slowly enough to be understood. Think about how that character would say it. Read with conviction and
. Your audition will come across as flat and uninteresting if you don’t take a chance and really go for the extreme side of the person you’re portraying, especially if it’s a
wonderful wacky crazy, like Miss Hannigan in Annie, or Ado Annie in Oklahoma. Really go off the deep end on these, because you look silly if you don’t.


Some musical auditions include dancing. The audition announcement should say whether or not you will have to dance. A few steps will be taught to the auditioning actors in groups, and the directors will watch to see who learns it quickly, and who looks graceful. Be aware that singing and reading are often much more important, and having trouble on the dance will not necessarily put you out of consideration for a part, unless it is a heavily
dance role. Obviously, you should be a confident dancer before setting your sights on such a part.

For more information on the audition process and preparation for it, look for the book Auditioning for the Musical Theatre, by Fred Silver. It has a lot of good suggestions, and a wonderful list of unusual audition pieces.