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. 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!

Do Skype Lessons Really Work?

Don’t take my word for it!

I was worried starting Skype lessons. Are they really possible? And if so, are they as good as in-person lessons? And the answer is YES! The sound quality is a lot better than you would think and Chelsea is more than capable of hearing what’s going on in my voice. Besides the very occasional technical difficulty, Skype lessons are just as effective as in-person lessons. And as someone who lives across the country from Chelsea, it’s totally worth it. AND I can do it in my pajamas! Total win.  – Hannah Bayles. Singer & Voice Teacher in Provo, UT

I would highly recommend taking Skype lessons with Chelsea. When you’re on the road singing the same material eight times a week, it is very easy to become complacent with your technique. I find Skype lessons incredibly useful because they reinforce my work ethic, and keep me striving to improve my voice in areas I may not sing in every day. Even through the computer, Chelsea’s ear is stellar in recognizing tension in my voice and diagnosing the cause of it, and giving me exercises to free up my cords.  It doesn’t feel like we’re in different time zones at all! – Isabelle McCalla. Currently traveling the country as Jasmine in the National Tour of Aladdin the Musical. 

My 12 year old daughter has loved taking voice lessons via Skype from Chelsea. At first I wasn’t sure if lessons through this medium would be as effective as in person, but I have been proven wrong. Not only has my daughter’s singing range and tone improved, but her confidence in herself and her voice have increased dramatically in just a few months of lessons. As a busy mom I appreciate the convenience of not having to travel and drive to yet another one of my children’s many activities, and my daughter actually prefers singing from the comfort of her own bedroom. It’s familiar ground for her and she is able to relax and let loose. It has been a great experience all around for us. – Amanda Neilson. Westchester County, NY

The advantages to Skype lessons include schedule flexibility. It’s easier to find time in the day for a lesson when you’re taking a lesson at home. I also like to practice what I learned right after class. By saving time traveling to and from the studio, I have an extra hour of my day that I can devote to singing or to whatever I choose. The primary advantage of studio lessons is the nice, friendly atmosphere and I also feel slightly more focused in-person.  Nevertheless, I feel I can get 95% to 100% of what I can get in studio on Skype. Even if I’m slouching while I’m on Skype, Chelsea can tell. Normally, there’s a slight delay so she won’t play the notes of the scale as I sing- she’ll just give a chord to indicate when and where to start. One word of caution- If you are an absolute beginner like I was many years ago and have trouble singing a scale without somebody playing the notes along with you, then Skype lessons will be difficult.  However, right now I have no problem singing a scale or an arpeggio after given a chord so I have no trouble using Skype. As a result I end up using it the majority of the time. –Zev Aber. Singer, guitarist, and tutor in New York, NY.

Tips for a successful Skype lesson: 

Find a quiet place with minimal distractions. A keyboard nearby may be helpful but is not necessary! Check that you have a strong and fast internet connection BEFORE your first lesson. Make a test call to a friend beforehand to check that everything will go smoothly the day of your lesson.

It is a good idea to play any backing tracks you want to use during your lesson on a different device than the device you are using for your Skype connection. If not, whatever audio you play on that device may cancel out all sound for your teacher on the other end!

In which case, you will need:

  1. A device to connect to Skype on
  2. External speakers to play backing tracks through
  3. An additional device to record your lesson on OR Call Recorder- a desktop application you can download that allows you to record your Skype calls.

You may also want to listen to this scale, and this scale beforehand- we’ll use them in our lesson!

The Case for High Notes

Are you trying to get in shape? Lose a few pounds perhaps? Feel a bit more svelte and slim? I’ve got the perfect workout plan for you!

Squats.

Yep, squats! Just that. No need for any other exercises or cardio, just squats!

Just kidding. You knew I was kidding, right?

While squats are GREAT for you, if you’re looking for a total body makeover and improved health, squats are only going to get you so far. Same thing if you only ever did bicep curls and ignored the triceps on the opposite side of your arm. Likely you’ll look and feel quite unbalanced.

Guess where I’m going with this- it’s the same with your voice. I’ve met a fair amount of singers who only want, or really ‘need’, to sing in quite a small range, perhaps an octave and a half. For men, this means they could quite possibly stay in chest voice that entire time. And when that’s the case, issues arise.

That’s because our voice is made up of two major muscle groups, chest voice muscles that keep our vocal folds thick and short, and head voice muscles that stretch and thin our folds*. The thinning and stretching process allows our voices to ascend in pitch. At any given time, both of these muscle groups are working to some degree (otherwise we couldn’t change pitch at all) but often one group is doing most of the work.

If you get stuck in the mentality that you only sing low notes and therefore only need to exercise low notes, you are doing your voice a total disservice and may even cause unnecessary harm and distress. Just like the rest of our body, our voices are made up of opposing muscle groups- both need to be worked to have a HEALTHY voice! Without weekly, nay, DAILY working of both low and high registers, you will be left struggling to transition from chest to head voice, with funky bumps in the road all the way up and down. Your sound may even completely cut out or be very breathy in your middle or top registers. And I promise even your low notes will lack the vibrancy and flexibility that you could achieve with daily work in your upper register.

What to do? Get studying with a voice teacher who encourages you to sing through two+ octaves if you are a male (a high C is a VERY reasonable goal to vocalize to!) and three+ octaves if you are female. On your own, try semi-occluded vocal exercises like a tongue or lip trill on longer scales throughout your range. Try some headier vowels like EE and OO. You may need to take some time just stretching our your head voice before you can start blending it with your chest. That’s fine, but move towards connecting the registers as quickly as possible. Isolating one register or another is not a good long-term goal.

GET SINGING! And singing HIGH!

 

*If you want to get science-y, those muscles are called the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid, respectively.

Technique is about Choices

The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.
-La Meri-

The best feeling in the world is feeling completely limitless when singing a song- no obstacle in your way, no note out of reach, no melody too tricky to master. The worst is feeling like you’re barely scraping by in the piece, unable to make choices regarding interpretation or style because you are limited by what your voice can physically produce.

Mastering vocal technique gives you options, it gives you choices. It expands the realm of what is possible. Working on technique does not mean you lose that original sound only you are blessed with- it expands what your God-given voice is capable of!

One other thought on the topic of choices: developing good technique is understanding what variables took you from point A to point Z. Good technique is the sum of so many small things- the shape of your vowels, the looseness of your jaw, the relaxation or engagement of certain muscles, the balance of air flow and vocal fold resistance. What allowed you to get the full, released sound on the word “Love” on a high F? Can you identify the small choices that got you there? Eventually, it becomes intuitive.

Work to technically improve your voice, like a ballerina or basketball player might improve their body and game. You’ll find a world of possibility open to you!

Who’s On Your Team? Find an ENT!

Want to be a professional singer? It’s time to get the right professionals on your team. In addition to working regularly with a voice teacher, I recommend developing a relationship with a Laryngologist – an Ear Nose and Throat doctor who specializes in the voice. I recommend going in and getting a ‘base-line’ scope- the doctor will take video and pictures of your vocal folds ideally when you are feeling your most healthy. Then, if any future vocal issues arise, you and your doctor can refer back to your ‘base-line’ exam and really see what the difference is.

Shouldn’t a voice teacher be able to fix anything that’s wrong in my voice? My friend and mentor, Guy Babusek, shared the following thoughts:

“I have witnessed voice teachers in the past saying things like “I don’t hear any nodules, so you’re fine,” “I can give you some therapeutic exercises that will heal your vocal damage,” or “My diagnosis is you have a polyp and need some vocal rest.” These kinds of comments are always quite concerning to me.

While a voice teacher may have some medical knowledge, a voice teacher (unless otherwise licensed) is not a doctor, and therefore is not qualified to diagnose or treat any medical condition, including that of the voice.

While it’s true certain vocal exercises can have amazing therapeutic effects, I recognize I am not a therapist, I am a voice teacher. Only within the confines of the protocol a doctor has outlined, am I able to recommend vocal exercises to a student who has been suffering with a disorder of the voice.

Please remember, a voice teacher who suggests any type of diagnosis or treatment of a voice disorder is NOT qualified to do so (unless they happen to also be a licensed physician). Any student who is worried they have a disorder of the voice,  should get him or herself to a laryngologist’s office.” …read more here

Looking for an ENT in the NY area? Contact me- I have some great docs I highly recommend! Having issues with your speaking voice or need vocal therapy? I’d love to refer you to a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) I trust.

Just Give it Time (+ Practice + Dedication + Lessons + Practice + Dedic…)

I guarantee you all of your favorite singers worked for years to get the voice they have today. Whether it was formal training with a teacher, or practicing along to Whitney’s riffs and runs in their bedroom for years on end, no one just #wokeuplikethis.

Guy Babusek said it well in a recent blog post:

“Some students will only book lessons when they have auditions or important gigs coming up. When there are no performances on the horizon, I never see them. This is not a wise way of working with a voice teacher at all. In these cases, there is no time to actually build a solid technique. These singers are trying to cram in years of training into small spurts sporadically. While this is better than no training at all, it is a very ineffective way of working. Solid singing technique is built over time, by taking weekly lessons and vocalizing daily in a systematic manner.”

I can’t agree with Guy more! The best time to start your vocal training was three years ago, but the second best time is NOW. Right this minute! Don’t wait until your dream role audition comes up, or you go into record your debut album next week. A great voice takes REAL time to train.

If you want to be a professional singer, or even just a good amateur singer, take RESPONSIBILITY for the time and effort it takes to accomplish something worthwhile. Recognize you won’t get their on your own. If you value something, give it the time, energy, and even money it deserves. In the case of your voice- book regular lessons and practice every day.

 

Voice Teacher or Vocal Coach?

You’re looking for a voice teacher/singing teacher/vocal coach/performance coach/accompanist/piano player. Are these all the same person? Are they different? Does it matter? To help me answer this question, I asked two of my friends and colleagues to help me out with this post.

Here’s a secret for you: I’m not a great pianist! My students already know this about me. If there aren’t chord symbols in their sheet music (I’m a top notch pop music faker!), we’ll use an instrumental track or I’ll play the melody line. But fortunately for me, and for them, this doesn’t limit my ability to teach rock solid vocal technique, play through all of our exercises, and get through most all of the music we look at in lessons.

What should a voice teacher do?

As a singing/voice teacher, my primary goal is to improve my client’s actual singing ability, or their vocal technique. This means that in lessons we are working to increase range, stamina, strength, and quality of tone. We go through exercises and then apply that technique to music. While this often includes artistry and interpretation, audition preparation, and learning new music, the first focus is always on proper singing technique.

However, if a client of mine has a lot of new music they need to simply learn, or sheet music cuts to prepare for an upcoming audition next week (or tomorrow), I send them to one of my friends, Jeremiah Ginn or Bronwyn Tarboton.

Jeremiah and Bronwyn are both talented accompanists and vocal coaches, along with being talented actors and singers themselves. This, combined with their musicianship and piano playing ability make them excellent vocal coaches. “As a vocal coach I usually work with people to prepare for specific upcoming auditions…. I make sure they are as prepped as possible for all aspects of the audition including teaching them their music, getting them familiar with the accompaniment, cutting and marking their music, communicating with the pianist, interpreting the music and lyrics, and bringing out different vocal styles etc.” says Bronwyn.

What makes a good vocal coach?

So, what makes a great vocal coach? Jeremiah suggests: “You need to be great musician first and foremost. Since my primary job is to help you learn music, the ability to sight read, to have great piano technique… Apart from that I think you also need experience as a teacher, and as a storyteller. Other than helping you musically, I’m there to help you tell a story with your music. So it’s important to be trained in acting, and hopefully have some experience on stage.”

Bronwyn adds, “Instead of working on new vocal skills, it’s about taking the skills and abilities they [singers] already have and honing them for a certain audition. In a day or even a couple days there isn’t much time to develop new abilities, but I can help them showcase their strengths and highlight what they have to offer in the audition.”

I asked each of them when they might recommend that their clients work with a voice teacher. Brownyn said, “In order to actually become a better singer it’s important to work with a voice teacher and have time to practice and internalize new concepts, so that by the time you get to the coach or audition, the things you worked on with your voice teacher are second nature.” 

Jeremiah agrees. He states “a voice teacher is there to be a technician. The voice teacher should be able to help the student master their vocal technique, solve problems with their voice, and help them to become the best singer they can be. I think that the vocal coach then comes in after the work with the vocal teacher has been done to refine and polish the performance. But without the solid base in technique, the vocal coach cannot do their job.” 

Can a teacher be both?

Some voice teachers happen to be great coaches and pianists, and some coaches have enough vocal technique experience to be good voice teachers. However, this is the exception and not the rule. In my experience, a person is almost always more suited to one thing or another. I’ve had a few young singers begin lessons with me recently who have been amazed at the significant difference in their voices, even after just one or two lessons. If a voice teacher is able to implement correct vocal technique, students should be able to immediately recognize significant vocal progress. And not just audible progress, but they should physically feel the difference. They’ve often said something like, “I realize now that the lessons I was having with my previous teacher were mostly about learning new music. We didn’t actually work on any vocal technique.” It is an unfortunate circumstance when teachers with some singing experience and the ability to play piano claim to be voice teachers, and their students don’t know that they aren’t reaping the full benefits they would receive by working with an actual vocal technician.

How can you work with both a coach and teacher?

How can you reap the benefits of working with both a coach and a teacher? Recently, Jeremiah has been joining me in lessons with one of my current students who is preparing for a tricky role in Sondheim’s COMPANY. With both of us working together, the singer gets immediate vocal direction from me, and musical and performance direction from Jeremiah, who also provides full accompaniment as we go along.

Whether they call themselves a voice teacher, singing teacher, vocal coach, or accompanist, now you know the difference! Do your research when looking for a voice teacher, as well as when working with a vocal coach.  In order to truly improve your singing ability, make sure you’re working with an actual voice teacher who can make a real difference in your voice, and a vocal coach who is skilled at teaching music and getting a great performance out of you.