A Musical Director's Audition Tips

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Auditioning is possibly the world's quickest job interview. In as little as 16 bars, you need to convey that you're a great singer, a great actor, and a responsible professional. The musical preparation for those 30 or so seconds needs to be well considered and executed. As a voice teacher, I've helped many students prepare for this critical moment, but I recently spoke with Boko Suzuki, currently the musical director for the first national tour of Wicked, to get his insight as well. Suzuki has spent many hours not only helping singers prepare but sitting behind the audition table himself.

Selecting Your Songs

Choose the songs for your audition book wisely, and make sure you're ready to sing everything in your book. "I've seen people with thick audition books with 17 songs, and they're really only solid on two of them," Suzuki says. He suggests that a book have at least three songs: one traditional musical theater song, one contemporary musical theater song, and a pop song you'd hear on the radio. And be sure one is up-tempo and one is a ballad.

"That covers a lot of your bases," Suzuki says. Even with just a few songs, you'll be ready for most auditions. "Sometimes you don't have a song that's perfect for the audition, but you're so much better doing a song you know really well rather than what you think they want."

The next step is to perfectly master each song technically. Suzuki suggests regularly working all the material in your audition book with a vocal coach: "You want to have sung it recently and know it inside and out."

Breaking Them Down

Now it's time to really learn your songs—beyond just the melody and words. Go over each one carefully to locate all the technical issues. Dynamics, musical climaxes, problem notes, tempo changes, and even where to breathe all need to be worked out thoroughly.

Singers should take a page from instrumentalists and learn to slow down. Instrumentalists will isolate a tricky passage and work it very slowly, so that as they program their muscle memory to eventually play it fast, they can be sure it's technically correct. Isolate any difficult areas and sing through them slowly. There's software that can slow down backing tracks without changing the key; Amazing Slow Downer (www.ronimusic.com) is one I highly recommend.

Where to breathe is an obvious step that singers often overlook. Long vocal lines without rests become very tricky if you don't plan ahead. Even in a busy line, you can usually insert a quick breath wherever there's a comma or period in the text. Don't get stuck breathing in the middle of syllables or where there wouldn't be a natural pause in speech. Make little comma marks above the text to remind you.

And always make sure your music is in the right key. "You need to invest the money to have someone transpose it for you," Suzuki says. "Maybe one in every three audition pianists is good at transposing on sight, so do you really want to take that chance?"

Working the High Notes

Controlling the vowels of the high notes is one of the quickest ways to conquer them. Place a finger on your larynx (the bump in your neck that moves up and down with swallowing) and say the words bat and book, noting the height of the larynx on both. The larynx should feel slightly higher on bat and lower on book. The higher larynx on wider or more-open vowels, such as ah, causes a range of problems on higher notes, from strain to cracking to singing out of tune.

The key is to adjust problem vowels from wide to narrow. For example, most singers struggle on the national anthem when singing "and the rahkets rad glare." By adjusting the vowels and singing "and the ruhkets rid glere," the singer should notice a greater ease on the high notes, as the adjusted vowels help stabilize the larynx.

Go through your songs and isolate the problem high notes, paying close attention to the vowels. Small changes here can make a big difference.

A Note on the Big Notes

It's often tempting to go for the high money notes at auditions in order to show your range. If after working your song with a vocal coach and practicing on your own, there are still notes you can't hit, consider either changing the key or finding another song. As Suzuki points out, high notes don't always get you the job. "People are cast for so many other, much more important reasons," he says. "Can they act the role? Are they right for the role? Do they have the right vocal quality? The high notes can always be coached later."

Acting the Part

While prepping yourself vocally, don't forget your acting. "I think it's almost the most important part," says Suzuki. "I've seen singers go in on a bad vocal day and still get the job." Do your research. Understand the material and the character and Suzuki says you can overcome slight vocal flaws: "If you show that you can get inside the material and really deliver it, the other stuff can always be worked on."