You walk into an audition and head to the pianist to give them your music. You set your tempo and walk out to the middle of the room to perform your song. You nod to the accompanist—you’re ready to nail this! And suddenly an unrecognizable cacophony of sounds comes pouring out of the piano. You have no idea what they’re playing or where you’re supposed to be singing.
Chances are you’re familiar with this tale.
Yes, there will always be the odd audition where the accompanist is less than stellar, but the person playing the piano is almost always a highly skilled professional. So what gives? And how can you avoid this happening to you in the future?
The short answer is to make sure your sheet music is exquisite!
It’s important to remember that your audition accompanist is sight-reading your music. Even if they’re a pro and have played the song a million times before, there are variations in sheet music—different editions, scores vs. vocal selections, alternate keys—that can lead to trouble. The accompanist is working like a detective in the audition, scanning your sheet music for visual clues to help provide you with the performance you want. Make it easy for them!
Here are some sheet music tips to ensure you get the best accompanist performance every time:
1. The first page of your music is where the accompanist gets the majority of the information he or she needs. Make sure the following are clearly indicated on the first page of every (yes, EVERY) cut you use:
- Song title
- Time signature
- Key signature
- Where the pianist should begin the intro (or a clearly marked bell tone)
- Where you will begin singing
2. Use a highlighter and mark the key musical moments: key changes, meter changes, tempo shifts, important fermatas, etc. You’re making a roadmap for the accompanist to follow so be sure it’s clean and clear.
3. If you have a handwritten “chicken scratch” score, see if there’s a better version available or pay a copyist (or a friend with Finale skills) to put it in the computer and clean it up for you.
4. Rather than just crossing out the things you don’t want the accompanist to play, make a copy of your song with a piece of white paper over the music you’d like to omit so all that’s left is the music you’re actually using. It’s easier for an accompanist to simply play everything on the page than to follow arrows and scribbled markings.
5. Think like a piano player and order your pages in such a way as to optimize page turns. If you have a two-page cut, align it in your book with the pages facing each other so there’s no page turn. If there’s a big key-time signature-tempo change at the top of a page, it’s always easier for an accompanist to navigate those things when they see them coming. Don’t put a page turn right in front of it!
6. In nearly every case, particularly with songs that have a groove, a two-bar intro is advisable. Let the accompanist set the feel and join in at the top of your lyric. Often in auditions, singers won’t ask for an intro and it takes a few measures to synch up with the pianist. In a 16-bar cut you might get a third of the way through your audition before things “click,” and that’s a waste of valuable time!
Now for some terms you should know relating to your sheet music. All of the musical terms below are very useful for helping an accompanist follow you. You should be comfortable enough speaking about them that you can walk the accompanist through your cuts.
Bell Tone: A single note played by the pianist to give you your starting pitch.
Caesura ( // ): Or “railroad tracks,” a complete stop in the voice and accompaniment, usually for dramatic effect. Most often you, the singer, will bring the accompanist back in after a caesura.
Colla Voce (see also: Ad Lib, Freely): “With the voice,” indicates an out of tempo section in which you want the accompanist to follow you.
Fermata: A sustained note or rest. Can be used to elongate an important lyric, musical passage, or rest.
Intro: A musical passage played by the accompanist that sets the groove of the song and “brings you in.”
Rallentando (rall.): A tempo and feel shift which includes slowing down and (often) swelling or changing of the dynamic.
Ritardando (rit.): A gradual decrease in tempo.
Ride out: What the pianist plays after/as you hold your last note. Always make it clear on your sheet music where the accompanist should stop playing!
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