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Improve Your Competition Image

by Susan Johnston

Competitions give young artists the opportunity to develop their performance skills, gain valuable feedback, and connect with other singers from around the country. Judges from the Auditions Plus Vocal Competition share what comments came up most often in their feedback. Whether you’re preparing for next year’s competition or an upcoming college entrance audition, or simply want to improve your competitive edge, these insights should help boost your confidence and hone your own musical and performance skills.

1: Sing material that’s in your comfort zone.

Although many singers chose arias that showcased vocal acrobatics or sustained high notes, several judges noted the most impressive performers were those who chose repertoire that was appropriate to their age and ability. As Joseph Evans, coordinator of vocal studies at Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, notes, “the young tenor who was a high school division winner sang a Tosti song. It was not particularly flashy, but he nailed it vocally and musically, and his acting presentation was superior.”

As several judges noted, singing arias that are too heavy or technically difficult can backfire for both high school and college singers. “Singers were taking on repertoire that was too big for them and then trying to sound like the 40-something singers in all the recordings,” says Michael Meraw, a professor of voice at New England Conservatory. “As a result, they push and spread to try to make the sound bigger which adversely affects everything about the tone, including the pitch.”

Jim Demler, assistant professor of voice at Boston University, agreed, saying, “I felt that the majority of singers I heard were singing repertoire that was unsuited for them due to the fact that their technique was not holding up.”

In addition to compromising pitch, complicated melismas or trills can also take away from your performance if you’re too focused on technique to think about the text. Margaret Dehning, director of vocal studies at the College of Performing Arts at Chapman University in California, says, “It’s best to perform something that is less ‘showy’ but that they could sing on their worst day. I’d rather hear an Italian art song sung beautifully than an aria that ties them in knots. . . . High school students shouldn’t sing ‘Queen of the Night’ arias.”

2: Set yourself up for success before you start singing.

While most singers focus on what happens when they open their mouths to sing, the performance actually begins as soon as they step in front of the judges. Patty Thom, chair of voice and opera at the Boston Conservatory, says some of the singers she saw at both the high school and college division “need to think about how they’re going to introduce themselves and their piece, and how they’re going to interact with the pianist and start the piece.”

To avoid “up-speak” or otherwise wimpy introductions, Thom rec-ommends that singers practice introductions during voice lessons, reciting “their name and the title of each piece that they sing, each time they sing it, just so that introduction of the self and piece is not such a strange experience.” Voice teachers should offer feedback so the introduction is performance ready.

Judges also notice how you interact with the accompanist. “Almost all of the singers took way too much time after entering the room to show the accompanist their music, exactly where to begin if they were cutting part of the intro, and also giving their tempo correctly,” notes Jane Christeson, who teaches at Stetson University in Florida and judged the high school division.

She adds that when speaking with the accompanist before singing “almost everyone stood in front of the pianist with their backsides stuck out to the judges.” In those brief moments conversing with the accompanist, it’s best to position yourself so that both the judges and your accompanist see your face and not your behind.

3: Study the text.

Several judges cited issues with diction and dramatic interpretation in both the high school and college divisions. Barbara Steinhaus, chair of the music department at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, noted that in the high school division, “diction was uneven—their familiarity with foreign languages is yet universally underdeveloped.”

Mark Crayton, a countertenor on the voice faculty at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, added, “When preparing for a competition, one must work with someone who speaks the language or has a very good working knowledge of the language. It was obvious when the person did not know what they were singing about.”

Crayton’s recommendations? “Study language every day,” he urged. “Read poetry in the original language out loud to learn pacing and spoken cadence rhythm. If nothing else, buy Rosetta Stone. It is a start.”

In addition to noticing diction that’s clear and accurate (or sloppy and uneven), judges also noticed when singers weren’t emotionally connected to their pieces. “In many cases, there were fine voices with nicely developing techniques, but no connection to the text or the poetry or the character of the piece,” says Paul Houghtaling, assistant professor of voice and director of opera theatre at the University of Alabama.

Rebecca Turner, associate professor of voice and director of opera in the Petrie School of Music at Converse College, Spartanburg, South Carolina, says many competitors would benefit from a deeper study of text and characters. “Developing a subtext for a character is crucial, regardless of whether this character is a named persona in an opera or a perceived one in a poem,” she explains. To develop this subtext, Turner suggests asking questions like “What is my character’s name and age?” and “What happened right before the opera/scene began to cause the action?”

As Turner adds, focusing on character and storytelling enhances the performance and helps singers avoid worries like “I hope my high/low notes work” or “I hope I don’t run out of breath.”

4: Be conscious of your movements.

While judges noted that most of the competitors had beautiful voices, several also noticed excessive or awkward movement. Christeson says that some of the high school singers she saw had difficulty figuring out when and how to use gestures. She adds that it’s often more effective to convey emotion through facial expression and body attitude. “Too many gestures—or ‘opera for the deaf’ type gestures, such as touching one’s sternum when singing the word ‘heart’—can be really overdone, hackneyed, or just distracting,” explains Christeson.

Many high school singers are used to flashier styles of performance like show choir or musical theatre, so some make acting choices that are less appropriate for art songs or arias. As Karen Brunssen, associate professor of music and coordinator of voice and opera at Northwestern University, says, “I often notice that high school students tend to either lean forward and be overly animated in their efforts to be dramatic or they are awkward and tend to do nothing. Neither is good or bad, but rather it is a reflection of different personalities and different rates of emerging as performers, and it is not necessarily a predictor for their vocal future.”

How can singers hone their acting and movement skills? According to Christine Anderson, associate professor of vocal studies at Temple University, “There are many ways to work on dramatic skills. . . . At the high school level, the voice teacher should be able to guide the student’s work in this area. There are also performance opportunities and training through both the music and drama departments at school. Students at the university level often have access to acting and opera workshop courses.”

5: Dress to impress.

Several judges pointed out that competition attire should be formal but not too flashy. “One young man came in with a casual shirt, no tie, no coat,” notes Steinhaus. “Of the young ladies, most were modest and sincere. . . . One young college-age singer took her shoes off to sing because she had worn uncomfortable shoes. We wanted her comfortable, but it speaks to a degree of ‘Not Ready for Primetime.’”

Thom says she noticed “too many party dresses and gowns!” She explains that dressing too casually or too flamboyantly sends “a first impression of lack of professional aspiration or understanding of the event.”

Overall, the judges agreed that it was the artists who showed them the whole package—strong musical and dramatic skill, appropriate material, and professional attire—who fared best in competition. As Robert Swensen, a voice professor at the Eastman School of Music, puts it, “What will always impress an adjudicator at this level will be the student’s ability to sing his or her chosen repertoire with technical surety and artistic distinction.”

Susan Johnston is a freelance writer in Boston. Writing and researching this article brought back fond memories of college music auditions and NATS competitions.

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