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. I myself have one of those lists from several years back that is still frequently referred to (FYI it needs updates). However, times change. People are getting so obsessed with these lists that they are spending more time and money pick songs than perfecting them. So we need to have a talk. 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 that 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 “Life I led” 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. We may be in a meeting and someone will say “I loved the young lady who sang ‘Life I never led'” to which the rest of us reply “which one?” 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 has passed and rep available 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 we are more lenient in rep from those years.
In any case, there will always be someone who walks in the room with a song that we have heard many times before and they nail it, which makes us all forget about the “rules.” But what exactly does it mean to nail it? That’s where the problem often begins. Let’s talk about what it actually means:
- First of all, it means perfect pitches and rhythms. If we have heard the song 1,000 times, we know exactly what it is supposed to sound like and we will catch any mistakes very quickly. You should never sing wrong notes and rhythms, but if you are prone to difficulty with that part of your craft, an overdone song is just going to put a spotlight on the mistakes.
- 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 men, I’m happy with a perfect E4, I don’t need to hear a pushed G4.
- There should be a clearly developed chest voice that allows the singer to have a speech-like mix in the middle and a solid mix-belt. Ideally, the head voice is well developed (females) and there is no residual air. This will, of course, vary student to student and we get that as long as the acting and dance are top-notch. Most importantly, there should be no obvious register breaks. If you have to transition/flip to head voice from chest-mix for a high note, it is not a good song for an audition. If you can only carry heavy-chest into your belt it is also not good. We want to see you developing the ability to transition into a solid chest-dominant mix since the vast majority of modern musicals live in mix land.
- 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 expect the same in a song.
- 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.
Now all that being said, it is important to know where I am coming from when you evaluate the content of this post. In fact with everything you read, you need to think about the source, the environment in which the author works, whether or not that is the kind of school/production you are targeting, and ultimately decide what does and does not apply to you. My point of view comes from working at a school where we see around 1,400 students for 18 slots. Last year we found well over 100 students who we wanted in those 18 slots – cutting them down was horribly difficult. So in the end, we had to be really picky. So all those little details matter to me. That’s just the state of the business right now for my institution and all the other “highly competitive” schools. Schools where there is less competition may be more lenient or hear different points of view.
Different points of view
There is a new 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 must devour its contents. It was put together through a series of interviews with program faculty from many of the highly competitive schools for musical theater along with the author’s own extensive experience as the head of a top-tier program. There is advice from faculty at Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Penn State, Ithaca, pace, Boston Conservatory, Texas State, Baldwin Wallace, Cincinnati Conservatory, Arizona State University, the Hartt School, Rider University, University of Arizona, Arizona State University, 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 an 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). So that is problem number one. Problem number two is because so many teachers turn to those books, you are more likely to sing a song that others are going to sing. Problem number three is that it does not necessarily show us your commitment to research and finding the best material for you. In some cases, the songs in those books are the best material for you, but in other cases, there are better songs that could’ve been found if you did more research. Now there are classic songs in those books that I never get tired of hearing. For instance. “If I loved you,” “On the street where you live,” “I’ll show him” just to name a few. Other faculty might have different opinions and you should pay attention to those as well. And that’s what makes this whole process tricky – we all have different opinions.
No Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown. This rule singles out those two composers because their accompaniments are so complex that even highly skilled piano players will sometimes struggle with them if they are sight-reading the song. Every school has a different arrangement for accompanists on audition days. Some schools have staff accompanists, others grad students, others undergrads. What I tell students is to ask 3-5 people to play through a questionable song with them. If they keep running into issues, then the song is 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 really good advice. If you are someone who has already been in a Broadway show or in the final callbacks for Broadway show, there might be a reasonable argument to be made for choosing something currently on Broadway. Otherwise, the songs are more likely to be overdone and/or more likely to be compared to the original performer. After all, we have probably been listening to the cast album on repeat and have it all memorized ourselves.
No operetta. This is a hard and fast rule. The only exceptions to this rule would be for schools where students perform in both operas and musicals or the school’s audition requirements specifically say that operetta is acceptable. Broadway singing standards have changed drastically, the way legit 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 this 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 yeah, its hard work, but you might as well get started now and you might just be surprised by how fun it is.
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