|This week I shared a Vocal Coach Reaction video of Sierra Boggess singing “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” Isn’t it a great performance?!|
As the associate coach on the Broadway production of PHANTOM, I have a bit of an inside scoop on how the music team likes that song to be sung. But if you think there is only one correct way to do it- you are wrong! There are as many ways to interpret a song as there are voices in the world.
Think of all the women who have played Christine in productions of PHANTOM across the world. Sarah Brightman is vastly different than Sierra Boggess and Sierra is vastly different from Ali Ewoldt, etc etc.
This is true for all musical interpretation. Listen to classical pianist Lang Lang’s recording of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” Now listen to amateur pianist Matt’s recording of the same piece. Totally different tempos and interpretations. Is there a right way or a wrong way? Chopin famously said “Put all your soul into it, play the way you feel!”
Particularly with musical theatre repertoire, there are some songs that are expected to be sung a certain way. For example, on a scale from one to ten, one being “legit classical singing” and ten being “heavy belting,” “Glitter and Be Gay” from CANDIDE lands somewhere around a one and “Defying Gravity” from WICKED is somewhere around a nine.
The thing I want to encourage my students to think about is this: what is the optimal placement/interpretation for your voice? Where and how does your voice live, soar, and come alive the most?
It’s truly not worth your time to try to interpret a song the exact same, cookie cutter way you heard your favorite performer sing it. Be inspired by them? Sure! Take some cues from their vocal choices? Absolutely.
But your instrument is NOT the same, and your optimal voice may feel and sound differently from theirs. In a voice lesson, find what feels the best and let your voice teacher be your ears- trust their feedback!
Find your optimal balanced voice and you’ll be on your way to vocal freedom.
One Take Wonder: Thoughts on Perfection
My friend Stephanie asked me to record a video performance of me singing any song of my choice for a virtual fall benefit program. I’m a mentor in her awesome organization, Women’s Artistic Leadership Initiative (womensali.org), and I was honored she asked me to perform.
I chose a song I’ve sung a lot in the past, “How Could I Ever Know” from THE SECRET GARDEN (a musical composed by two women, so it seemed fitting). The day Jordan and I were set to record the song (wow ya’ll, the perks of being married to a killer accompanist), I thoroughly warmed up and we rehearsed it a few times before hitting the record button.
In the past, I’ve spent hours on a self-tape project like this. It’s so easy to be hyper-critical of every sound and expression and want to record take after take in hopes of reaching perfection!
In my experience- perfection is never reached. Instead, what you get is diminishing returns. After a few good takes, each one after that gets a little worse as your voice wears out and your energy wanes.
In the case of my “How Could I Ever Know” self-tape- we ended up doing only two takes. And… we kept and submitted the first one.
What a breeze!
Don’t get me wrong- this is largely because I’ve spent years training, practicing and performing– even performing this exact piece. Without that kind of experience, I may not have had such a confident go of it right out of the gate.
But also – and here’s the point – I’ve learned to let go of my idea of perfection.
Should we always strive to do our best? Yes!
Doing your best is not reaching perfection. It’s doing your best in this moment under these circumstances. It’s not worth it to play the comparison game, particularly when you’re comparing yourself to a standard that doesn’t exist.
Here’s the final video if you’re interested in watching.
As a side note- I thought my performance was better in the second take, but the audio recording didn’t turn out as good. And to that I say, c’est la vie!
Spending and Saving: a Vocalist’s Guide to Thrifty Singing
You’ve arrived at the climax of the song- this is it! Here come the big, exciting notes everyone is waiting for! And…! You completely run out of steam, breath, or vocal stamina and you crack, gasp for air, or pass out (ok, hopefully not that last one).
Here’s a three-step process to give your best performance without blowing out your voice.
You have to learn the concept of saving and spending. This is an idea I teach to my professional (and aspiring professional!) singers, particularly those that are singing an athletic, acrobatic song.
You know, like “Chandelier” by SIA, “Defying Gravity” from WICKED, or anything sung by Brendon Urie, ever.
These kinds of songs require a singer to decide when to spend and when to save. Their voices, I mean.
Imagine that you are singing “Waving Through A Window” from DEAR EVAN HANSEN. You only have $1 of vocal energy to spend on that song, and once you’ve spent it- you’re done! You cannot keep singing!
First off, identify which notes are the “big spender” notes or phrases.
Probably that final “Waving! Waving! Whoa-oah!!” section is a 25 cent phrase, and that’s just the last 10 seconds of the song. What other notes or passages throughout the song require an extra dose of energy, power, stamina, or stylistic effort? Identify those passages right off the bat.
Second, be judicious on where you can save.
What are the penny notes or phrases? Not every word, phrase, or melody is equally important in your storytelling or your technical effort. So, find the places in the song where you can hold back a bit.
Lastly, sing through the whole piece and adjust your budget as necessary.
You may find that once you put the whole song together, your interpretation of the song requires certain phrases to be highlighted with more (or less) volume, power, or effort than you initially planned.
This concept also applies to entire roles you might play in a show, or your band set or concert tour.
If you are playing Evan in DEAR EVAN HANSEN, tell yourself you only have $10 to spend on the entire show! Which songs and scenes get allotted what amount of your total vocal energy?
As singers, there will always be songs, roles, or performances that require a LOT of our energy, and even for us to leave “vocal balance” for a time in order for our interpretation and stylistic choices to come through how we want. That’s ok! By allotting a vocal ‘budget’ to each song you perform, you can save your voice and stay stylistically true to the music.
What to sing at your next Musical Theatre Audition
Follow the directions
Find out what you are being asked to prepare, and stick to it! 16 or 32 bar requests should be observed as closely as possible. If they ask for a ‘short song,’ that usually means a verse and a chorus of something. There’s no reason to sing all 7 minutes of “Meadowlark”, in fact I guarantee you will get cut off before getting through most of it. Find a cut of a song that shows your voice, tells a story, and adheres to the audition posting.
Do your research
Are you auditioning for a 1970s pop musical? A contemporary folk show? Choose a song that is similar to the show you are auditioning for. It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the other work of the composer/lyricist and often a safe bet to choose an audition piece by them or their contemporaries. Unless expressly asked, don’t sing from the show you are auditioning for. Also, when possible find out who will be attending the audition- will it be the director, musical director, producer? What projects have they recently worked on? Maybe avoid material from those shows to avoid a direct comparison.
Choose a real pop song
More and more shows are Jukebox musicals (meaning the score pulls directly from certain artists’ catalogues like ABBA’s MAMMA MIA and The Four Seasons’ JERSEY BOYS) or are written by pop/rock artists (like Cindy Lauper’s KINKY BOOTS, and Sara Bareilles’ WAITRESS). These shows almost always will ask that you bring in a real pop/rock/country/folk/disco song, in which case- do! Don’t choose a pop song or arrangement that is found in another musical (like the various 80’s classics arranged in the musical ROCK OF AGES). Choose something by a favorite artist of yours that is authentic to the period the show you are auditioning for is set in. Check out my friend Sheri Sanders’ site for everything you need to succeed at a pop audition. http://www.rock-the-audition.com
Avoid signature songs
These are songs associated with a particular famous artist. For example, “Over the Rainbow” is Judy Garland’s signature song. “People” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” are Barbra Streisand’s. It is best to steer clear of songs where you will be directly compared to legends. I’d also avoid anything that is currently on, or has been on Broadway in the last 3 years, as well as the huge juggernauts WICKED, LES MISERABLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and whatever the new hot show is. At the moment in New York, those are HAMILTON and DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Do yourself a favor, and sing something that ten other people won’t also be bringing in.
Prepare your sheet music!
We’ll go into this in more detail in a later blog post, but suffice it to say- have a clean and clearly marked copy of your sheet music three-hole punched and in a binder. Give your accompanist all the information they need to make it a successful audition for you.
There are exceptions to the rules-
Like if the audition call clearly asks for any of the above pieces, or if you are preparing music from the show at the request of the creative team. Also, the ‘rules’ are more loose or strict depending on whether you are auditioning for your grade school play, community theatre, or a Broadway production. No matter what, it will only help to be as prepared and professional as possible!
Student Spotlight: What Paola learned from THE WOLVES
Being in a successful Off-Broadway play for a few months is equally exciting and tiring, but then add the fact that you are playing a teenage soccer player- yelling, running and stretching all over the stage and you have a recipe for utter exhaustion! Amazingly though, Paola handled it all with ease and grace. Check out what CWVS student Paola Abreu learned from her experience in the cast of THE WOLVES at Lincoln Center.
What did you learn about yourself and what your body needs over the course of rehearsals and performances?
It’s funny. I think that every time I do a show I relearn preparation skills. So I’d say that I was reminded that every day is different; some days my body felt warm already, and all I needed was a quick foam rollout and lip trills and I was ready to go, other days I would need a solid 20 minutes to reset, breath, and get juicy. But everyday asked me to tune in to what was necessary to be present for the work to be done. Same goes with the cool-down (which we performers often forget to do). After some shows, icing and self massage was super necessary, some shows a hot tea and a warm bath, some shows I just needed to go out and dance.
How did your vocal and physical training/preparation support you in the run of THE WOLVES?
Oh well vocal and physical training is acting training. There is no way that I would have been able to efficiently, wholly, and generously tell this story without the gifts training taught me. The voice and body work together. After all, your voice is in your body! When your body is warm and ready, often so is your voice. Learning how to tune in and bring myself to relaxed, attentive openness allowed me to be a vessel for the words and the story to come through me, rather than forcing things to happen the way I think they should. If you have been blessed with a solid piece of writing, the way that Sarah DeLappe blessed this script, then the work is already done. You just need to be able to get your body, heart, and brain to a place where the work can easily move through you and shape you throughout the rehearsal process. Then when the play starts running, the rest of the work is being present, open, generous, and trusting that the story already lives in you, and nothing more need be done.
Read the review of THE WOLVES here.
Musicianship and the Singer
Have you ever heard that singers are often the worst musicians? I’d hate to say that generalization is true, but I have experienced what it’s like to realize my musicianship needed to level up.
When I was a junior in college, I gave a concert in my hometown as part of an ongoing Christmas concert series at a beautiful and esteemed venue downtown. It was a one night event put on by me; I chose the program, and asked a few friends to duet with me on two numbers.
I was rushed in my preparation- final exams and performances at school kept me occupied until what was probably just a week or two before this concert I was going to give. But at the time, I thought, “No big deal! I’m a music major, I can pull this off. Most of the songs I’m singing I know already.” That was in fact the case, or so I thought. You know when you’ve heard a song so many times, you just assume you ‘know’ it?
I asked a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a tremendous singer and voice teacher himself, to duet with me on “The Prayer,” an epic ballad with a passage in Italian I was pretty sure I could just breeze through.
He’d sung it many times and in our one rehearsal before the actual performance, he coached me on the pronunciation and rhythm of the section. On top of that, the melody was tricky and I was unsure of what was correct versus what I thought I had heard Celine sing on the recording. I started to feel a little nervous at this point.
“But! I’m a musical theatre major! And I’ve been studying singing all my life! I’ll wow them with charisma and personality, there’s no doubt I can just wing it,” I continued to tell myself.
The concert came. There were a few great moments, there were many decent moments, and then “The Prayer” came and it all went to hell.
I’m sure my mother has video footage of this that I could share here, but I won’t because honestly it would be so embarrassing.
The point is, there is no substitute for preparation. There is no substitute for time spent rehearsing something so many times, there’s no other option but to do it right. You may be a great singer, but a great voice won’t disguise wrong notes, off-kilter rhythm, and Italian pronunciation that totally sucks.
The fact is, I’m still working on becoming an excellent musician. As I’ve studied, listened, and learned more, I realize my very favorite singers are equally talented musicians- dedicated to their songwriting, or arrangements, or musical storytelling.
The very best aren’t lazy in their preparation, nor do they rely on their natural talent or pretty voice to get them through a song. They know they are one piece of a larger musical ensemble- whether they have an orchestra of 50 or a single piano accompanying them.
I’ve learned through personal failures and triumphs of preparation that the only vocalist worth being is one who is a musician as well.
How to Audition for a Musical
Auditioning for a musical can be both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. As actors it’s important not to let our nerves get the best of us! Remember that the people in the audition are rooting for you to be at your best. They want you to be the perfect fit for their show! Here are six essential tips for nailing your next musical audition.
1. Come prepared
A wise teacher once told me, “Your first line of defense at any audition is preparation, second is concentration.” It’s normal and expected to be nervous when auditioning. The adrenaline and anxiety while waiting your turn and the thrill of the opportunity is natural. But nerves and fear are not synonymous. We are only fearful when we don’t know what we’re doing.
Check and double-check the audition requirements before showing up. Are they asking for a legit ballad, a comedic, up-tempo number? Will they possibly ask some people to stay and dance afterward? How many copies of your headshot and resume are they asking for? The more information you know the better. Once you’ve made your audition selections, practice! Work with a pianist so the first time you sing through your piece with accompaniment isn’t in the audition room.
2. Be yourself
Casting directors want to get to know YOU. Really, truly! If they are going to cast you in a show where you’ll be rehearsing and performing with the same group of people for an extended period of time, you better be likeable. Don’t waste their time with some persona of whom you think they want to see, just be yourself! Dress nicely, but in clothes you would wear in your real life. Choose material that shows a glimpse of your personality. Reputation is everything in this business, so present the best version of you.
3. Sing what you sing best
Choosing what to sing for an audition is often the most stressful part of preparation. Be aware of what the audition notice asks for – if you’re going in for the ‘80s rock musical ROCK OF AGES, your favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein piece is not going to cut it. Within the parameters of the genre asked for, sing what you sing best. Sing what you love, you’ll feel confident and perform your best. It’s in your best interest to have a full audition “book” of songs you sing, but staying up the night before to learn what you think is the absolute perfect song for the audition often works against you. Don’t chance forgetting the lyrics or cracking on the high notes because you chose to sing a brand-new piece.
4. Give the pianist the information they need
Make sure your music is clearly marked and includes the following information either in the music or written in by you: the song title and who wrote it, key, time signature, tempo, introduction, end point, and any cuts you’ve made. The pianist is your friend! Always assume they know the piece you are asking them to play, there’s no need to ask if they do. Clearly give them your tempo by singing the first line of the song- not by snapping or counting. Also, it’s not a secret what you’re talking about over there, so don’t whisper it like it is! Speak clearly and confidently, and be as concise as possible.
5. Be courteous
As a general rule in the audition room, speak when spoken to. The folks behind the table (often the casting director, a musical director, the actual director, and other various production personnel) have seen a lot of people that day and usually want to get straight to the point. Certainly say ‘hello’ when coming in, but striking up a long conversation about the new trick your dog learned over the weekend will be met with boredom and/or annoyance. They may ask you what you are singing, in which case, tell them! But there’s never any need to announce what you’ll be performing as if you were in an elementary school production. More than likely they’re familiar with your song. Thank those behind the table, and most importantly, the pianist, before leaving the room!
6. Leave it in the room
An actor’s life is primarily made up of auditioning. The best skill you can develop is to leave your audition in the room. Don’t dwell, fret, or obsess over it once you leave. Make a log of the audition in your audition journal (consisting of what the audition was for, what you sang and wore, and who was there), and then leave it be. Casting is 100% out of your control, and the sooner you learn that the happier you will be. We often forget that things like height, hair color, age, and costume size might be playing into the casting director’s decision. Our job as actors is to be prepared and to be our best selves. Leave the stressful job of casting to the professionals.
Don’t let inexperience be your excuse for not auditioning. Auditioning is a skill just like riding a bike, so you need to practice. Go to all kinds of auditions, and go often. The more auditions you go to, the more confident you’ll be and the better you’ll do, not to mention the more opportunities you’ll have to get cast. Remember these tips, be prepared, and most of all, have fun in the audition room!