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Backstage Experts

3 Things to Mark (and 1 to Remove) from Your Sheet Music

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3 Things to Mark (and 1 to Remove) from Your Sheet Music

When I play musical theater auditions, my memory is approximately five seconds long. As a pianist in the room, I spend the day taking in so much information that my retention level drops significantly. If an actor tells me to skip a few bars of their song, I may well have forgotten that instruction by the time we get to that point in the tune. Therefore, your audition music must be thoroughly and clearly marked. The cleaner and more explicit the written directions are in your sheet music, the better chance you have of staying on track with your pianist. There are a few elements that should always be indicated, and you can follow this link for an example of properly marked music.

Starting/ending points. You should have the starting measure of your song marked with the text “Start Here” and a bracket that encompasses the piano and vocal staffs. Be sure you decide whether you want an intro or not. If you are not using a musical intro, I recommend that you take a bell-tone (a simple octave that the pianist plays to give you your starting pitch). If your melody starts on the pitch G, simply write “Bell-tone G” above the vocal line on the starting measure.  You should also clearly mark the end of your audition cut, with the text “End” and a bracket that faces the opposite way.  

Key/meter/tempo changes. For an audition pianist, the most challenging moments in a song are variations in tempo or key. Once we have settled into a rhythmic groove with you, it can be tricky to catch a new feel in a different section of the piece. Also, our musician brain gets comfortable in a certain key, and a modulation means that we have to recalibrate. When these shifts occur, your highlighter is your best friend. If you highlight these changes, we are much more likely to be alert to them. In terms of key changes, I think you should write what key we’re going into as well (i.e. “To F Major”).  

If you plan to do a lot of back-phrasing (singing behind the beat), you should write that into the music; simply write, “Keep tempo here—I will back-phrase.” A pianist relies on you to conduct them through your song with the rhythm of your vocal line, and if you sing behind the beat, they may think that you are trying to slow them down; next thing you know, funeral-dirge-city...

To indicate a gradual slowing or speeding up of tempo, the musical terms are “ritard.” (slower) and “accel.” (faster).  To go back the original feel, write “a tempo.” Highlight these terms, and point them out to your pianist when you talk them through your song.  And as a personal favor, please don’t spell the word “ritard.” with an “e” instead of an “i”; I see this mistake so often, and it’s really distracting (and just wrong).

Song title/composer. If youre starting at the beginning of your song, the title and composer will most likely be listed there. However, if youre singing a 16-bar cut, youre probably beginning two pages from the end. In these cases, I think its best to write the song title/show title/composer on the top of the page where you are starting your cut. If you are singing a pop/rock song, write the song title and author, but also write, “Performed by” and the original artist’s name, if different from the author. This practice helps a pianist recognize the song more quickly, and they can then pay more close attention to your verbal instructions. 

What to get rid of. Any music that is not to be played by your pianist should be removed from the page (covered with a blank sheet of paper), not just scribbled out. Any musical markings that you don’t want us to follow should be whited out as well. An example is the end of “I Could Have Danced All Night”; if you don’t want to observe the held notes on “I only know if he...”, make sure you remove those fermatas (they look like bird’s eyes) from the page.  

Again, to see a correct example of these markings, please follow this link.

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Andrew Byrne is a voice teacher and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Byrne’s full bio!

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