by Alan Hicks
I am a former singer. During my short singing career, I auditioned for 10 to 15 Young Artist Programs every year, and I was hired more than once. A few years ago I moved into stage direction, and I am the recently appointed director of a professional Young Artist Program. I have now been on both sides of the auditioning table. Having sung auditions myself puts me in a unique position of empathy for singers in the audition process—I have been there. It also, however, puts me in a position of disbelief at how ill prepared many singers are for the requirements of auditioning. Singers, mostly between the ages of 21 and 32 (and at all experience levels) do questionable things before, during, and after auditioning. Most of these transgressions have nothing to do with the notes or words on the page.
Auditioning is selling yourself. Auditioners can tell much about a singer before he or she sings a note (or even introduces themselves). The voice may be the most important of the singer’s assets on display in an audition, but there are many pieces to the casting puzzle that singers may not be aware of.
During the course of our prescreening auditions, media auditions, and live auditions for this season, I found myself making a list of the dos and (mostly) don’ts of auditioning for Young Artist Programs. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it is not meant to be. It is meant only to address some of the items that I feel are not covered in our universities and conservatories and may not be considered as important as they actually are.
Before we get to the actual audition, I would like to discuss the audition before the audition—prescreening audio and video recordings. During our application process, many good singers made bad choices when it came to the quality of the materials they submitted, most of which had nothing to do with the quality of their singing and yet still had an impact on our choices. Remember, you must get through prescreening before you sing a live audition. Prescreening recordings cannot be simply “thrown together.”
Here are suggestions to address some of the more egregious errors made by young singers:
First and foremost, send a good-quality recording. Either invest in a good recording device or borrow one. If your recording is barely audible or it sounds like it was recorded on wax cylinder, I move on and you don’t get to sing live.
Don’t send old recordings, no matter how great you think they are. Make new recordings every year.
Don’t try to learn something new and record it based on the company’s season. Just as in live auditions, sing (and record) what you do best.
Record in a semi-dry room with the recording device about 15 feet away.
Check your sound levels to find the sweet spot between easily audible and distortion. The auditioner should have to turn the volume up only to 3 or 4 out of 10 to hear you easily and clearly.
Links to YouTube recordings are perfectly acceptable and, for my money, preferable. Sending links to preexisting recordings (if the company allows it) means you will never run into the problem of a sound file that is too large to send via e-mail or upload on YAP Tracker. However, there are many free audio conversion tools on the Internet that will reduce the size of your recording while maintaining the quality (within acceptable parameters).
I personally like live recordings as long as they meet the above criteria and are not prohibited by the application. I think they show a singer’s command of an audience and ability to perform under the kind of pressure they will experience in my program.
Your Résumé (Note: I Did Not Say “Your CV”)
There is one (and only one) accepted format for a singing résumé. A sample can be found on the OPERA America website. Find it and use it.
When you find the sample résumé, you may notice that there is no “Masterclass” section. This is because no one cares what masterclasses you have attended or even in which masterclasses you have sung. Save that information for your teaching résumé or curriculum vitae where it might actually matter.
Proofread your résumé. Actual mistakes I have seen on résumés include misspelled directors’ names, misspelled composers’ names or show titles, misspelled languages (e.g., “I speak French and Check ”—seriously, this happened!). If you are auditioning for a company in a country in which the primary language is not your first language, have a native speaker proofread your résumé. Never rely on translation software or websites.
Learn to use tabs. Things on your résumé should line up. There are “left,” “center,” and “right” tabs. Use them all.
Lastly, if you have symbols on your résumé, you must also have a legend or key. When I see an asterisk next to a role on your résumé and no footnote or key explaining that symbol’s meaning, I wonder why.
My biggest problem with photos is not with the photos themselves, but with the people standing in front of me who do not look like their photos—at all. Many singers take a lovely photo, having put on makeup and used product in their hair, but then come to an audition looking homeless from the shoulders up. If you don’t bother to do something with your hair or makeup, you literally look like a different person than the one in the photo—and later, when I am going through those photos, I can’t remember you. I have, in the past, spent hours looking at someone’s photo thinking, I don’t know who this girl is!
Though I am speaking specifically about makeup and hair, it should not be assumed that this is a women’s only issue. Though it happens less with male applicants, there have been photos that have come across my desk of men with long or short hair or a mustache, but when I see them, they have completely changed their look. If you change your look, get a new picture.
Your Repertoire List
I cannot count the number of times I was handed a rep list with the following header: “Repertoire List for Opera Company ‘A’ Opera Company ‘B’” (the change written in pen, of course). You can’t find a printer and reprint your list with the actual name of the company for which you are auditioning? There is a simple solution: don’t put the company name on your rep list at all. We know who we are.
Don’t give us a rep list and then not have the music for something on the list. Many times we have asked for things on rep lists only to be told, “Oh, I didn’t bring that; I brought this instead.” This is pretty self-explanatory.
The reason rep lists exist is to update us on changes made to your original aria package. Things should not be struck through. It is better to just tell us what you brought as opposed to giving us a record of what you won’t sing for us.
Trust me, no matter how long your day has been, our day has been longer. Leave your attitude at the door—we are looking for more than just the voice.
You never know who is opening the door for you or playing your audition, so don’t be rude. Many artistic directors or music directors will play auditions if the pianist has to leave the room or take a break (or sometimes, just because they like doing it). It is important that you treat everyone in the room (and outside the room) with respect.
An anecdote in furtherance of this point: A few years before I was appointed to my current position, I was asked by an artistic director to sit in on auditions for a young artist show that I was to direct. As we did not have an audition monitor that day and I was sitting closest to the door, I volunteered to open the door and bring the singers’ materials to the table. Assuming I was just the monitor, one soprano was particularly rude to me. I could see the panic on her face when I sat down at the table, was introduced as the stage director, and started taking notes. She was not hired—not entirely because of that incident, but it certainly didn’t help.
There are many companies that have a reputation of being rude to young singers and, no matter how nice you are or how well you sing, some auditioners will appear disinterested (e.g., while you sing your audition, they don’t look up from their lunch, will talk loudly to each other, or will pack up their bags and put on their coats, etc.). As hard as it is to stay positive in the face of what seems like disinterest, you must forge forward and be pleasant. Their perceived disinterest does not warrant a reaction. Focus on why you are there, if nothing else, use the experience to better your own audition prowess.
There are two simple truths about auditioning: (1) You are asking a company for a job and presenting your credentials, and (2) you must get over that hurdle before you can prove yourself on stage. Crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s will not change how you sing in an audition—but maximizing your chances before, during, and after auditioning does help (and certainly can’t hurt). Auditioners are the gatekeepers, and you must convince them to open the door.
There are many good singers who have never been offered a young artist contract. The dos and don’ts listed above are an important starting point in assessing why.