It is that time of the year again, the time when high school seniors are frantically scrambling to pick their audition songs. They are scouring the internet to find the perfect song, and along the way are finding list after list after list of songs they should not sing. While these lists can be helpful, they usually don’t tell you why people do not want to hear those songs. So lets clarify that a bit.
For those of you who don’t know me, I am the coordinator of musical theatre voice training at Shenandoah Conservatory. I’m part of the audition team that watches over 1,000 auditions a year. I also frequently teach workshops at other musical theatre programs and have gotten to know what other faculty are looking for during the audition process. Let’s begin by discussing why it matters if the song you choose is overdone.
Why it matters
The problem with an overdone song isn’t that we are tired of hearing the song, but rather so many people sing it that you are going to end up being compared to others. I can almost guarantee I will hear at least a dozen (probably more) versions of “When he sees me” this year. It happens to be a song that I love. However, the more people that sing the song, the harder it is going to be for your version to stick out. Now there are always exceptions to the rule and there are some songs people never seem to get tired of, for instance “If I loved you.” But that is in part because the Golden Age is a historical period and the rep we have to choose from is permanently limited. A lot of songs from that era aren’t used regularly and are hard to find because they’re just not that good. So there is only so much you can do and everyone on the other side of the table gets that too.
There will always be someone who walks in the room with a song that we have heard many times before and they will nail it, which will make us all forget about the “rules.” In fact, regardless of whether its over done or not, you should nail every song you sing. But what exactly does it mean to nail it?
- First of all, it means perfect pitches and rhythms. If we have heard the song a hundred times, we know exactly what it is supposed to sound like and we will catch any mistakes very quickly. You can take artistic liberties with the rhythm to some extent, for example back phrasing/forward phrasing, stretching, pushing forward, lagging behind, etc. But you need to make sure it is connected to your acting and you can sing exactly what is on the page if asked.
- Every note must be well within your ability. That means no notes that you can almost sing. We know you are 18 years old and that your voice will grow with age. I would rather hear a solid D5 belt (not pushed) than a screlted F#5. For tenors, baritones, and basses, I’m happy with a perfect F4, I don’t need to hear a pushed A4. If the notes are easy for you, sing up into the stratosphere, but know that we more interested in how you tell the story than the notes you can sing.
- The registers should be coordinated in a way that allows you to have a speech-like mix as your default. There will be excursions to belting, but the belt should not sound like shouting (aka “screlting”). Whether you call it a chest-mix, mix belt, or belt, it should sound sustainable; like you could do it eight shows a week. If you are not a belter and you feel like you need to belt for some of your auditions, make sure you are not attempting to belt so high in your range that you have to flip into head voice for the upper-most notes. Instead, find songs that allow you show off what you can do now, not what you hope to be able to do in a few years. If you are a soprano, mezzo, or alto and you are going to use your head voice, that part of your voice should ideally be clear and not breathy. Some schools will ask for a head-dominant piece and even if that’s not your thing, you will have to come up with something. If that’s the case for you, then try to find a song that shows you at your best and don’t worry about how high it goes in your range. Some schools are looking for “classical technique” but most are not, they just want to hear how coordinated your instrument is and use that info to assess whether or not they think they can help you develop into the best version of you possible.
- Come up with lots of actor-driven dynamic and timbre variations. People talk with a variety of dynamics and colors in their voice, our ear expects the same in a song. Make vocal choices that compliment and bring the story to life.
- Make strong phrasing choices. Observe all musical markings, all punctuation, and make choices about phrase weighting.
- And in every choice you make, the actor should lead the singer. Every word must be motivated with clear choices of objectives and tactics to overcome the obstacles within the given circumstances.
Some schools are going to be more picky than others when it comes to following these guidelines. Highly competitive schools (those seeing 750+ applicants a year) are going to be looking for different things than schools that are less competitive. Schools that emphasize dance are likely going to be more lenient than schools that emphasize voice. You never know what they are looking for, all you can do is put your best foot forward. Share what you love to do, what you are really good at, and do it with the highest level of artistry you are capable of today.
There is a book called “The Ultimate Musical Theater College Audition Guide” by Amy Rogers Schwartzreich. If you are auditioning for musical theater, this book must be on your shelf and you should devour its contents. It was put together through a series of interviews with faculty from many of the highly competitive schools for musical theater including Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Penn State, Ithaca, Boston Conservatory, Texas State, Baldwin Wallace, Cincinnati Conservatory, Arizona State University, the Hartt School, Rider University, University of Arizona, and Shenandoah Conservatory. Here is a taste of her advice on choosing songs:
“Choose songs that:
- You love and connect to
- You are really, really good at right now
- Are bulletproof
- Are in the sweet spot of your voice
- Are in your dramatic range
- Allow you to be in your body
Song types that work well:
- Songs that are immediately actable
- Songs that you connect to personally
- Songs that sit in the sweet spot of your voice
- Songs that make you feel powerful and grounded
- Songs that are written for people your age
- Songs that exude joy
- Songs that can teach us about you in someway
- Songs that are about change or embarking on something new
- Songs that have an epiphany in them
- Songs about helping other people in some way
Song types that do not work as well:
- Songs that have repetitive lyrics and notes
- Songs about an experience that you cannot relate to
- Songs that are a pity party or tell us that you suck
- Songs that are out of your range your vocal style
- Songs that don’t have a dramatic narrative
- Songs that have non-words in them
- Songs that are classical arias or from an operetta
- The newest coolest song that no one has heard
- Songs that need you to have a lisp or accent
- Songs that identify you as crazy
- Songs that tell me you are a star
- Songs that are overly sexual”
The information above comes from pages 31 through 58; each bullet point has additional information in the book. Here is the link if you want to order it: https://amzn.to/2HYJbSO
You will hear a lot of other rules about picking songs. You will hear that you should never choose songs from the musical theater anthologies. For the most part, I agree with that statement. A lot of the songs in those anthologies are not for performers the age of high school students. (Click here for a list of age-appropriate songs from the anthologies). The second problem is because so many teachers turn to those books, you are more likely to sing a song that others are going to sing. Instead, try doing your own research, and find a song that fits you like a glove.
Avoid songs with accompaniments that are difficult to play. Every school has a different arrangement for accompanists on audition days. Some schools have staff accompanists, others grad students, others undergrads. If you think your song may be difficult to play, ask 3-5 people to play through it with you. If most of them run into issues, then the song is probably too hard to play. If everyone is able to make it through, you are probably safe.
Do not sing anything currently on Broadway. In general, I think this is good advice. These songs are usually performed a lot and many times we’ve been listening to the cast recording and have certain ideas in our heads. If the song is PERFECT for you and you can nail it, then its a reasonable choice. But if you can find something else that you like just as much, that’s probably the better option.
No operetta. These songs usually come off as too operatic. The only exception to this rule would be for schools where students perform in both operas and musicals or the school’s audition requirements specifically say operetta is acceptable. Broadway singing standards have changed drastically and therefore the way Golden Age musicals are sung today is completely different than the way they were sung in the pre-microphone era. See this video to hear what I’m talking about. Operettas were also written in the time period before Stanislavski and his work with truthful acting, so they often lack the storytelling components we are looking for in an audition.
No one denies picking rep is one of the hardest parts of the process, but that’s never going to change once you begin your career. You are always going to be looking for the ideal audition song and avoiding those that are overdone. So you might as well get started now and you might just be surprised by how fun it can be to go treasure hunting!
Good luck! ~ Matt
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com
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