How is your audition season shaping up?
Over the summer, the staff of the Weill Music Institute, Joyce DiDonato, and I have been compiling resources on Carnegie Hall’s interactive site Musical Exchange to help streamline the preparation process and create a framework that will enable us to provide you with feedback on your audition and application materials. Joyce recently shared this video offering stellar advice on audition preparation and presentation. She has a wealth of experience as both a singer and adjudicator to draw on, so do take her words to heart:
In this post, I’ll elaborate on several of Joyce’s points from my perspective as a voice teacher.
Make sure to be exceptionally well-prepared.
My role in preparing singers for auditions is to help them develop a well-coordinated instrument, solid vocal technique, a commitment to personal self-expression, and a keen awareness of their unique strengths. It is also my job to teach them how to infuse all of these skills and qualities into the presentation of their repertoire. While I’ll also give them a hand with the nuances of musical style and dramatic interpretation, I expect them to enlist the help of coaches who are specialists in these areas in order to achieve the level of polish necessary for professional success.
However, the regular support of a voice teacher and the input of expert coaches only go so far. Your preparation is primarily the result of what you do on your own in the practice room every day.
What I have observed over the years is that singers will often get very, very close to being exceptionally well-prepared but fall just shy of the degree of excellence that would make them stand out in an audition. This is usually not due to inadequate dedication or insufficient time in the studio but rather to the need for more balanced priorities where their preparation is concerned.
Most singers have an inherent preference for either technical prowess or musical/dramatic expression. Excellence requires the synergistic integration of both. Without self-awareness and discipline, your preference will dominate what you do in the practice room, and this will lead to uneven performances.
It’s tempting to prioritize technique above all else because where vocal technique is concerned, you’re never really “done”. Every time your flexibility, power and range expands by a notch, the experience reveals the new possibilities that await you. But technical prowess does not automatically transfer to your presentation of repertoire. Diligently work your best technique into your arias and devote equal time to musical and dramatic interpretation. Musical and dramatic intentions are what fuel your singing anyway – the passionate execution of intent will energize your technique and boost it to the next level.
If your native preference is for musical and dramatic expression, your practice sessions likely consist of quick warmups followed by hours of just singing through your repertoire, striving to forge an ever deeper and more personal connection to the character, text, and musical line. However, without balanced work on technique, you are likely to equate emotional intensity with physical effort. You must become capable of allowing tremendous musical and emotional intensity to flow through you with a feeling of effortlessness. Singing will always mean an incredible investment of focus and energy, but it ideally carries little or no sensation of tension or pressure. Your technical work must expose and alleviate any areas of resistance in your voice that create a sense of effort.
Dedicated but unbalanced preparation results in auditions that fall just shy of awesome. The closer you come to excellence, the more moments of inconsistency draw attention to themselves. If you are committed to what your character is saying and feeling 95% of the time but there’s a phrase where you’re not entirely clear on the text or your motivation, an audition panel will see you lose direction and then pick it back up again and it will undermine the magic you worked so hard to create. If your lip vowels do not meet the level of resonance and clarity of all your other vowels, each one is potentially the aural equivalent of a pothole.
Know yourself – be honest about what aspects of your preparation you are most likely to overemphasize or neglect – and make sure to bring balance to your preparation process. As Joyce put it, brilliance doesn’t happen in the audition. It happens in practice and rehearsal in the weeks and months leading up to the audition. You cannot count on raw passion to produce high notes you’re only occasionally able to let fly in the practice room, nor can you count on new-and-improved technical prowess to yield moving performances of arias where the text has received only cursory study.
The key is not more preparation, but more considered preparation.
Represent the best of what you can do today.
In guiding my students’ repertoire choices, my role often consists of giving them permission to not just sing the hardest, loudest, fastest repertoire ever written for their fach! Seek repertoire that takes full advantage of what you are able to do extremely well right now, rather than repertoire that theoretically suits the voice you expect to have at your disposal a month or a year from now.
The repertoire that will stretch you vocally and artistically may not be the same repertoire that will serve you best in auditions. As I mentioned in my Musical Exchange post on choosing audition repertoire, panels do not choose the singer who presents the most “difficult” repertoire – they choose the singer who moves them the most and who seems the best vocal fit for their casting needs. The repertoire that will show you off to the greatest advantage is that which makes you feel confident and allows you to fully invest the very best of your skills.
Keep working on the things you wish to improve, but celebrate what you do well now and do not feel as though you ever have something to apologize for in auditions. It is extraordinary that you have cultivated the ability to sing well enough to perform any aria beautifully! Perhaps your current aria package doesn’t feature the same high or low notes as the next guy, or you don’t yet have the stamina or flexibility to sing the repertoire that you know in your heart is your eventual destiny, but your audition panel doesn’t care one whit about that. They want you to show them what is wonderful about you right now.
Choose repertoire that allows your voice and personality to shine through and share what you most love about singing.
Your least brilliant moments will yield your greatest learning experiences.
The only way to get good at auditioning is to do a lot of it. No matter how skilled and well-prepared you are from the outset, you will have a learning curve. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to dealing with nerves, performing arias out of context, adjusting to the acoustics of unfamiliar rooms, and contending with the myriad unexpected things that can suddenly arise in an audition situation.
I can’t count the number of times a student has called me after an audition to report that something went spectacularly and surprisingly awry that had never been a problem in lessons or rehearsals: “I’ve never cracked on that high note before!” “I always sing that phrase on one breath!” “Why did I feel like I was choking all of a sudden?”
When the stakes are high, you may experience things that would never arise under calmer circumstances. While it’s humbling to feel as though you could have done better, these are invaluable opportunities to observe and contend with psychological and technical issues that might otherwise escape your notice but must be dealt with if you are to succeed as a performer. The cracked high note may be symptomatic of the way your breathing becomes high and shallow when you’re excited. Your phrases may be getting cut short because of a temptation to push in an acoustically dead room. A choking sensation could mean that nerves are causing you to focus more on the audition outcome than your artistry.
All of these experiences are valuable if they can show you what you most need to work on and where your skills become less secure when the stakes are raised.
The stakes are always high in opera. Great and varied forces assemble to prepare and present a precious handful of performances, and every member of the cast bears personal responsibility for the success of each one of them. Thriving under pressure is part of your job description, and your ability to express the best of what you can do in auditions proves that you can handle the heat. Few of you will be able to do that right out of the box. Greet the challenging moments along your learning curve with grace and equanimity and value the lessons they offer.
Auditions may seem like a “necessary evil” but they are primarily a means to share your passion and artistry with people who care enough about singing to have dedicated their lives to producing opera. Welcome the way auditions nudge you outside your comfort zone – that is where you’ll find the best opportunities for growth.
Get ready for a great audition season! Fine-tune your technique with me, either in the studio or over Skype, and visit The Singer’s Audition Handbook on Carnegie Hall Musical Exchange to receive professional feedback on your audition materials.