6 Tips for a Successful Song Audition (as opposed to opera)

Happy summer, but audition season is fast approaching. May this offer some helpful insights to anyone auditioning for song festivals and programs.

6 Tips for a Successful Song Audition

There have been a few wonderfully written tips for successful opera auditions that have circulated on the internet recently thanks to many smart and savvy sources such as Kim Witman at Wolf Trap Opera.

It occurred to me on my third year of hearing SongFest auditions across the country, that just as art song is a slightly different animal than opera, auditioning for art song is a slightly different animal than auditioning for opera, and so perhaps these “6 Tips for a Successful Art Song Audition” might be a helpful addendum cousin to the great opera audition resources that are already out there.

1) Know who you are auditioning for

Just like some opera companies focus on certain repertoire, or the music director hates Menotti and will scream at you if you offer it, not all song presenters, competitions, programs are alike. Do your homework. If it’s a Liszt Society, perhaps consider focusing on Liszt. If the judges on the other side of the table are from the world of opera, perhaps focus on repertoire that showcases your art song singing at its most operatic (maybe more orchestrally thought out Strauss and Mahler) rather than at its most esoteric and ephemeral/a-tonal (less George Perlman, Kurtag, or late period Fauré). Alternatively, if you are singing for a presenter of new music by living composers, don’t bring a list of all art song from Romantic era (read dead) composers. And even more gold stars for new music organizations, look at who is on the faculty/board, or what composers the organization presents: if the organization is doing an Elliott Carter tribute, perhaps program an Elliott Carter piece.

2) Love thy pianist!

Pianists are always the gods that make singers’ lives function, but in art song their contribution is ever more of utmost importance: song must be an equal partnership between singer and pianist. In order to have the most successful collaboration with your pianist, here are three suggestions:
Bring your own pianist. Even though many places provide a pianist, the art song repertoire is so vast, and the partnership so intimate, that if you can afford it, it will always behoove you to have a true artistic partner with whom you have rehearsed and even better, performed the repertoire before. These collaborations take time to develop and there is no time like the present to find your pianistic soul mate! (It’s also one of the greatest joys of art song)
If you must use the provided pianist, be sure to select repertoire that is sight-readable. (Particularly avoid shape-shifting enharmonics like Fauré’s “Bonne Chanson” or complicated rhythms that make the page look like one big black dot à la Ives’ “General William Booth Enters into Heaven”). Ask for the name and contact info of the provided pianist and reach out with a nice message describing your repertoire choices, saying how much you look forward to making music soon, and asking if these pieces are okay and if the pianist has time to rehearse.
In the audition, provide clean, clearly marked, organized copies of your music in a binder. No loose sheets. Since art songs may have more dynamic or tempo markings per capita than a standard aria, consider circling or highlighting important markings. Share your tempo with the pianist, kindly point out important markings if you feel it necessary, and do your best to follow them. Take clear breaths so your pianist knows how to find you, never conduct or beat the tempo, and don’t stand too far away from the piano. They are your friend and collaborator…you are not alone. Make music with them! Unlike an opera audition, your pianist is not “standing in” for an orchestra, they are in fact the other musical partner on stage. Feel free to look at them and include them in your music-making. Finally, say thank you on the way out for their Herculean efforts of sight-reading this rich and mind-bogglingly varied repertoire!

3) Don’t start with an aria

Some competitions or programs like SongFest, ask for you to bring an aria. It is helpful for us to hear you sing an aria for several reasons:
for many singers it is what they sing most often, and it can be helpful to hear you sing at your most comfortable.
In general, it is possible to pick art song repertoire where you are never required to sing “full out”, but more difficult to pick an aria where it is appropriate to never sing “full out”, so in the scenario where you have three delicate, soft songs, hearing your aria can give us an idea of what your voice can do when it is fully released.
Sometimes we program arias or song composers who wrote opera as well. All of that being said, however, DON’T START WITH THE ARIA, and don’t pick the longest aria you have either. (“Oh quante volte” I’m looking at you.) We are a song festival first and foremost and want to hear song. Besides not being the most efficient use of time in your audition for us to hear what you can do with song and how we could best cast you, it also says something about the kind of artist and person you are (perhaps you don’t care about our repertoire, perhaps you didn’t do your homework and don’t know who you are auditioning for, etc.). It would be like starting an audition for an opera company with Schubert’s “Heidenröslein”. Lovely piece, but not the most helpful for the purpose of your audition and therefore a waste of time!

4) Sing for the space you want to be performing in

If you’re auditioning for an opera company that has a hall which seats 3000 people, then it makes sense to imagine you are singing in a 3000 seat hall when you audition, even if the audition room is tiny. Similarly, if you are singing for a song presenter that has a hall which seats 100 people, then it makes sense to imagine you are singing in a 100 person room. Perhaps the audition room is the same size as the 100 seat hall. Feel free to explore the intimacy that allows you in your performance. In a song audition, rarely do you have to do the hard work of acting like your singing for a bigger space than you are in!

5) Don’t treat song like opera

Just as you wouldn’t sing an aria like a song, don’t do the reverse and sing a song like an aria, even though most of us are more used to singing opera and arias. What do we mean by that?
In song more than opera, dynamic markings are of utmost importance and not to be thought of as “just colors” as they are often referred to in opera, where one has to always produce enough sound to carry over an orchestra to the back of a large hall, and a “ppp” needs to be quite loud in decibel levels. In song you have the luxury of collaborating with a piano and singing to an audience that is often only twenty feet away, so pay attention to dynamics and really challenge yourself to find a fully supported “ppp” for a recital hall with piano.
In general, song is poetry set to music (or sometimes music with poetry tacked on afterwards). While some songs may resemble operatic arias in that they have a definite character who goes on a journey from point A to point B encountering an obstacle and overcoming it or not, many songs are much more about capturing a single moment in time ( “Leaf, moon, me…YOU”) or about creating drama with the music itself rather than the character or words (Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”), and can leave the singer who looks for a “character to play” either completely lost, over-cooking the goose, or forcing a square peg into a round hole. As a rule of thumb, remember that the word recital comes from the same place as “recitation”, and song recitals were birthed out of poetry recitations. Therefore, in practicing for your art song performance (which is the same as your audition for art song!) practice reciting your song text from memory, as a poem to the audience. This is the core of your performance. Adding the composer’s interpretation of the poem (the music) to your reading should feel like giving the most artistically inspired recitation of the poem you could have ever imagined, not like another animal all together.
In an opera audition, you are trying to transcend your beautiful audition clothes and pianistic partner to conjure up the full operatic experience: costume, set, orchestra, and other people on stage. In a song audition, however, the audition room is in general, the EXACT same scenario as your performance. The bare bones of the audition room is in fact the tools you have for your performance. Rather than acting like you have a ball-gown or saber on, or singing “over the orchestra”, or walking around the make-believe “set”, your job here is to stand next to the piano in the beautiful audition clothes you are wearing, and with the help of your pianist partner in crime to conjure a song to life through your use of text, musical phrasing, and for the most part, facial expressivity (a few gestures or a step or two are not out of place, but that’s a topic for another day).

6) You be you.com

I phrase this as a playful mnemonic, but also literally:
ubu.com is a fascinating website that among other resources, features great thinkers and writers speaking their own texts: you can hear Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Charles Bukowski, Paul Celan, and many more all reading their own work. It is a must visit for the student of song and poetry recitation.
But on the “you be you” side of the message, the point is that in song, the fach system doesn’t really exist. We’re not looking to find a kavalier baritone, or a high lyric coloratura soprano so that we can cast him or her in a specific role. The operatic audition way of thinking about repertoire is not so important here: that you must sing piece A in order to show us your legato, piece B in order to show your coloratura, etc. Only a few pieces work in the language you need for your voice type in an audition, so you better singe “Bella siccome un angelo” even though you hate it! In song, the repertoire is so vast and varied, that you can find a piece that fits your voice so well you feel like Nellie Melba reborn; you can find another song where the poem perfectly captures an important moment in your life or something you care about deeply that you want to share with the world. You can find a song where a harmonic progression gives you shivers. We want to see those songs, not some set list of “accepted audition songs” in our head. We want to see you digging deep to find who you are artistically, what poems and songs speak to you, and sharing what you have discovered and are passionate about. From Schubert, to Purcell, to Noel Coward and George Crumb, it’s all good if it comes from you and your artistry: not from a teacher, not from a coach, from you.

I hope this gives you some helpful ideas to play with on your next song audition. Please send any questions you may have and continue singing and playing this beautiful and varied repertoire.

As I like to say “truth on the downbeat”,