If you are an actor without a music background, creating a book of audition songs can be intimidating. Music is a language all its own—and if you don’t speak it, you can inadvertently put yourself at a disadvantage in a singing audition. A difficult-to-read piece of sheet music will make it harder for the accompanist to do their job well. Below, I’ve outlined eight common mistakes actors make when choosing and preparing sheet music. Avoid them and your audition pianist will love you!
1. Avoid oversimplified sheet music.
When buying sheet music, be sure that the version you are purchasing is not oversimplified. If the piano part is too basic, the pianist has to fill it in with more notes (which you may not be used to) or the song just ends up sounding lame. On Musicnotes, there is a category of sheet music called “Singer Pro”; these versions are usually a safe bet for auditions.
2. Find a version without cues.
In some musical theater vocal scores, the pianist’s line also includes what are called “cues.” These are orchestral lines included for the conductor’s information. The problem with cues—besides being visually messy—is that the pianist doesn’t know what line you want her to play. You may be waiting for that one particular note that happens on beat three, but she may have decided to play the oboe line instead. Next thing you know, you and the pianist are no longer in sync. Find a version that is reduced for piano—“The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology” or Musicnotes are good places to look.
3. Make sure the bottom or top staff isn’t cut off.
In musical theater songs, there is generally one staff (line of music) for the singer and two for the pianist. Because sheet music books are larger than the standard sheet of paper, people forget to reduce the size of the page when copying music, and the bottom staff of the piano line often gets cut off. Also make sure the chord symbols are not cut off at the top of the page above the vocal line. When I play pop-rock charts, I’m usually not playing what’s on the page, so I need to see the chords. Therefore, recopy the music at a reduced size—I use 93 percent as a setting.
4. Double-check your sheet music if you use transcription software.
Sheet music websites are amazing resources for transposing songs. However, if you are using the Scorch plug-in, there can be a program glitch that causes crazy accidentals (sharps and flats), and our musician brains will freeze. Even if you don’t read music, here’s an easy way to tell if your song is correct: If you see flats (♭) in the key signature and tons of sharps (#) in the body of the music (or vice versa), it’s probably wrong. Instead, transpose your song into C major (no sharps or flats) and then transpose to the key you need. This resets the sharps and flats in Scorch and makes the transposition correct. If this is confusing, ask a friend who understands music to help.
5. Don’t buy a chord chart.
Most audition pianists would prefer not to read from a chord chart (a vocal line with chord symbols above it). This puts pressure on us to create an entire accompaniment on the spot and leaves the performer at the mercy of whatever we decide to play. Instead, buy a copy that has an actual piano part (called a piano-vocal version).
6. Be careful using pop-rock songs.
Many of the best pop-rock songs have laughably bad sheet music that hasn’t been notated to work with a piano-voice combo (I’m looking at you, “Black Velvet”). When you’re trying to find a new pop-rock tune, look at writers who use piano in their compositions (i.e., Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, Billy Joel); try to imagine the song working with just a piano; or work with someone who can arrange it for piano and notate it in computer software.
7. Don’t include too many ledger lines.
Ledger lines in music are when a note goes above or below the staff; they are little horizontal lines you will see on extremely low or high notes. If you’re transposing a song and see a whole lot of them in the piano part, the pianist is going to struggle; we’re used to reading things on the staff, and the farther we have to look down or up, the greater chance there is of us screwing up. When transposing a song on musicnotes.com, look at the first page of music. If you see lots of super high or super low notes in the piano part, move the notes an octave up or down until most of the notes are on or near the staff.
8. Don’t over-copy sheet music.
If you have music that is a copy of a copy of a copy—or even an old fax!—spring for a new one. If there is no commercially available copy, have someone transcribe the song for you on computer software.
Finally—as a songwriter myself, I strongly encourage you to support the composers you love by purchasing sheet music rather than downloading it illegally. Sites such as NewMusicalTheatre.com and ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com are great resources.
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