Preparing Students for Auditions
Three Areas to Consider
By NAfME Member Tom Sabatino
This article was originally published on “Cued In,” the J.W. Pepper blog.
It never failed. Late November into December, when my performing groups were approaching the final stages of concert preparation, one or more students would ask me, “Can you help me prepare a piece for my audition?” Most of the time it was for an early college audition, or an audition for a musical. “When is your audition, and what are you planning to sing?” were my first questions. The answer was predictable: “I’m not sure when it is, and I was hoping you could help me choose a song!”
As I began to think about it, how much time did I actually spend teaching my students about the process of preparing for an audition? Perhaps it’s one of those skills we don’t spend enough time talking about. I always talked to my all-state and honor choir students, but often, the audition process was merely an afterthought. What might it look like if we actually approached the process of preparing students to audition in the same way we prepare them for a concert, or learn a new instrumental or vocal skill?
Nothing can strike fear into the hearts of many a musician more than the thought of an audition or a solo performance. While it is virtually impossible to alleviate all stressors for an audition or performance, much can be reduced by one simple action: PRACTICE. Practicing for an audition can be as simple as small groups or individuals playing or singing in front of the rest of the class. With the appropriate discussion and parameters set for the students, class time can be a wonderful laboratory for rehearsing the audition. Students can even be guided to offer direct peer-to-peer feedback of what went well, what went wrong, how would the “judge” offering comments perform it differently?
What are the practical considerations when discussing preparation and execution of a successful audition? In my mind, there are three areas to consider: Planning, Preparation, and The Audition.
Planning for the audition is an important part of the process that is often skipped. Usually it’s: jump right into preparation and then figure out the planning part later, if at all! Start with the facts first:
- What are the dates and times for the audition?
- What are the music requirements for the audition?
- Will sight singing be part of the audition?
- Where is the audition being held?
- Will an accompanist be provided?
- Who is doing the auditioning?
There are typically three types of auditions students will encounter: honor bands, orchestras and choirs, musicals, and college acceptance. They all publish dates and times to either schedule in advance or just show up. The music requirements can be quite different, though. Choosing music appropriate for the specific audition is not to be taken lightly. Is the audition in a music room or on a stage? Blind or in front of the judges? You’ll need to know these answers in advance so that there are no surprises.
Remember, you want to limit any stressors to maximize the performance. Knowing who the judges are is helpful; are they trained teachers, directors, or casting agents? How many judges should you expect? Again, will the audition be blind so the judges will hear only the student’s voice, or will it be a visual audition as well? Many honor choirs have moved to blind auditions to assess the voice only, but expect a full visual for stage or collegiate auditions. When all of these initial questions are answered as completely as possible, you can then begin choosing music and preparing for the audition.
Honor bands, orchestras and choirs usually have specific pieces that must be learned for them, often directly related to the level of skill required to participate in that group. Musicals may or may not have specific music chosen. If song choice is left open, you’ll want to audition using a song in the style of that specific show and understand the story surrounding the song to display that you have done your homework.
Auditions for colleges can be a mixed bag, and they often require more rigorous preparation. Generally, it is expected that the candidate sings two songs: one in a foreign language and one in English. Many students chose either a Latin or an Italian art song, as these are the most common and tend to be the simplest to prepare. Here are some resources for song selections.
It’s worth noting here that a student should never at any time walk into an audition with photocopies of music. Respect copyright law—always use original copies. Sometimes soloists and entire choirs have been disqualified over the use of photocopied music. Make sure you do not fall victim to this easily remedied problem.
There is really no substitute for a student learning and practicing the music. Having a trained instrumental or vocal teacher to assist the student is essential. However, the student MUST incur the initial work of learning the piece. The teacher can then assist with presentation and artistry. Once the piece is well prepared, the interpretation and artistry components can come into play. Then, the student can rehearse performing and auditioning many times over.
I would also try to run through some basics of remaining calm with each student. For example:
- Breathe. It may seem simple, but this is often forgotten when we are nervous. Breathing slowly and deeply a few times will oxygenate the blood and help calm the nerves. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth gives the air a chance to warm and moisturize before contacting the larynx and lungs. I would often ask my students to sit or stand comfortably and breathe in and out slowly for 30 seconds while focusing their attention only on their breath.
- In cool weather, stay warm. There’s a reason a concert pianist wears gloves before playing. Singers might wish to wear a scarf around their neck.
- Instrumentalists might want to keep their hands warm and keep warm air cycling through their instrument while waiting to audition.
- Never underestimate the power of self-talk—both positive and negative. Just as we tend to talk ourselves outof something, we can talk ourselves into I would tell students to repeat these or similar phrases to themselves while awaiting an audition:
- I am calm. I am prepared.
- I know this piece. I can do this.
- I will sing/play exactly the way I practiced this piece.
- I am confident. I am calm.
- I am professional.
It’s unfortunate, but if your students are like some of mine, they can be filled with a lot of self-doubt. Many adolescents haven’t heard the news that they are quite possibly really cool and totally awesome people! It’s okay to tell them so, and they can, in turn, begin to internalize it as well. Perhaps this sounds disingenuous, but truthfully, I have found many students in the arts needed to hear this—especially from us as their teachers.
“Get plenty of rest! Go to bed early!” I am sure this advice was often ignored by my high school students, but I had to say it on the off chance that someone who needed to hear it would actually take me seriously! Getting enough sleep the night before an audition can form the foundation of a successful day. Here’s more to add to the checklist:
- Drink plenty of water—especially, but not exclusively, for vocalists. Just as your instrument needs cork grease and valve oil to function correctly, your body needs appropriate food and water.
- Dress appropriately. Dress professionally. No need to overdress, simply make sure you are groomed well and your clothes are neatly pressed. Torn jeans, short skirts, or low-cut shirts or blouses are probably NOT a good idea. Avoid wearing perfume or cologne. Do shower and wear deodorant; simply skip the foo-foo juice!
- Warm up before you arrive or immediately upon your arrival to the audition site.
- Arrive early!And when you arrive at the audition site, be sure to check in. If you signed up, they need to know you are there!
- While waiting after warming up, review your self-talk script.
- Rehearse the piece in your mind. Believe it or not, this can be just as effective as physically singing or playing the piece. Studies have shown that the act of mentally rehearsing can have similar positive benefits.
- During the audition, breathe! Remain calm. A little bit of nervous energy is okay.
- If you make a mistake, don’t stop! Keep calm and recover. Don’t wince or roll your eyes. It’s okay. Keep going!
- Expect the unexpected. Just because you prepared the entire piece doesn’t mean the judges will want to hear it all. They might stop you. Don’t get rattled.
- Don’t worry if it doesn’t go perfectly. If you’ve done your best, that’s great!
- When the audition is over, say “thank you!” and smile at the adjudicators. Good manners are always appreciated.
- Last, but certainly not least, have fun! Making and performing music should be fun. If you can relax and enjoy the process because all the hard work has been put into the preparation, the audition can be a wonderful artistic moment.
While this is not an exhaustive list of considerations, perhaps it’s a good start. We welcome your input—give us your thoughts and ideas, tips and techniques for preparing students for the audition process! [NAfME members, you can share tips and questions on Amplify.]
J.W. Pepper is a corporate member of NAfME.
About the author:
Tom Sabatino works as the Manager of Choral Product Sales for J.W. Pepper & Son. Prior to working with Pepper, Tom taught general, instrumental, and vocal music in Delaware public schools for 31 years. He was active in the Delaware Music Educators Association where he served as President and All-State Chorus Chair, and ACDA where he served as chair for High School Standards and Repertoire. Tom is also the Director of Music for Covenant Presbyterian Church in Malvern, PA, and serves as a Performing Arts Supervisor at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA.
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Catherina Hurlburt, Marketing Communications Manager. July 30, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)