Special Thanks to Jonathan Flom for contributing to the blog! Check out his book on Amazon Get the Callback: The Art of Auditioning for Musical Theatre or his ebook at Sean Pratt Presents
As the head of Shenandoah Conservatory’s famed BFA Musical Theatre degree program, and as an alumnus of Penn State’s BFA and MFA Musical Theatre tracks, I have seen a lot of high school entrance auditions. Many of them have been quite good; some have been loaded with potential but misguided; and lots have been downright awful. Of course, some people just aren’t meant to pursue a life as a musical theatre performer, but I daresay that many of those terrible auditions could have been successful with the proper guidance.
Over the years, I have taught workshops for high school students (and their teachers), I have lectured on the subject, and I even dedicated a chapter of my book—Get the Callback—to the challenges of preparing for college. Here now, I offer you ten steps to bettering your college entrance auditions and increasing your odds of getting in.
1. Do Your Research
The first step on the road to higher education is to find the right match for you, your skills, and your ambitions. Forget what people have told you about where you “have to” go. Forget about name recognition and rankings (how does one rank musical theatre programs, anyway???). There are over 100 programs in the United States that offer degrees in musical theatre. These programs range from BFA conservatory-style approaches to BA liberal arts focuses to BS degrees with concentrations in performance. You need to begin by assessing what it is you want out of a program and then seek out the programs that fulfill those desires.
Do you want to be in a large school and have the “college experience” or would you prefer a small school? Is money a big consideration for you? Do you want to be in a small town or in a big city? Is there a particular region of the country in which you would like to reside? Do you want to be in a program that requires auditions to get in and/or includes a cut after the sophomore year? Do you want a program that is music-driven or dance-driven? Do you want a program that restricts underclassmen from performing? Do you want a program with strong ties to a particular city such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington D.C.?
These are all very important questions to consider. Use them as a starting point to whittle down the myriad choices that are available to you. Read the literature online and request further information from the schools that seem interesting to you. The application process can be lengthy and quite expensive so it’s important to narrow the field before you start sending in your scores and setting up auditions.
2. When Possible, Do Your Auditions On-Campus
I know that this can get quite expensive, especially when you are applying to a lot of programs or when your top-choice schools are far from your home. But I cannot emphasize the dual benefit to visiting the campuses for your auditions. First off, for the program directors, it shows a greater desire to attend their school if you are willing to make the trip rather than attending a regional audition or sending in a DVD. But more importantly, it allows you to see first-hand the campus, its facilities, and the surrounding area, as well as to attend classes and a performance or rehearsal. In short, you get to observe what it is that they do at that school and further determine if it’s the right match for you.
I tell students when they come to audition that they shouldn’t be nervous—they’re auditioning us as much as we’re auditioning them. We need to make a good impression too. I encourage you to talk to current students, sit in on anything you can, and really tour the campus to see if it feels like home. It doesn’t matter how good a program’s reputation is; if it isn’t the right fit for you, it’s not going to be a fruitful four-year experience.
3. Read the Audition Requirements Carefully
Of course the next seemingly logical part of this step is to follow these guidelines, but it always amazes me how many people do not. I cannot stress enough to you the importance of following the audition rules laid out by each program. When you set up an audition date, they will either have posted on their website or send you a list of requirements. This may include how much to sing (we require two contrasting 16-bar cuts), what is required in terms of a monologue (we require one piece, one minute in length), and what (if any) will be asked of you for a dance audition.
Do not…I repeat, DO NOT fly in the face of the requirements. No matter how talented you are, it is a major turn-off for schools when students do not follow the audition requirements. This might mean that you have to learn a different monologue for school “B” because they have your piece on a “do not do” list. It might mean that you need to have your song or monologue cut down to a shorter version because a school is asking for a cut rather than the entire piece. Whatever it is, do it. And time your monologue before you go to the school to make certain that it fits within the limits.
Coming in and auditioning with pieces outside of the prescribed guidelines make a very negative statement about you before we even assess your talent. With this field as competitive as it is, you want to have every advantage throughout the audition, so don’t put a bad taste in their mouths by not following the rules.
4. Choose Appropriate Material
I offer you several mini-steps to finding the right material for you:
A. Choose source material from published plays and musicals. Do not do self- written pieces nor monologues that come from a collection of contentless pieces, the Internet, film, literature, or TV. As for songs, most programs specify that they want to hear selections from the musical theatre canon. Some may even specify particular eras or styles that they want to hear. There may very well be some schools that are open to pop/rock songs since that style is so prevalent in the industry today, but I would avoid non-musical theatre material unless specifically told that other sources are okay.
B. Find material that is age-appropriate. This does not mean that you need to perform only roles of 17 or 18-year old high schoolers. We can age you up or down a bit. But avoid pieces that require you to be husbands, wives, parents, or grandparents.
C. Avoid “performance pieces.” So often, we see students trying to show us their “acting” with impassioned speeches about suicide, disease, and death, or we see the stand-up comedy routines. I suggest you avoid both. Instead, find pieces that allow you to be a character talking to another character with a clear objective and relationship.
D. Find pieces and cuts that show your strengths and do not expose your weaknesses. If you’ve got a great high or low note (and you have it all the time), you should show that off. If singing is not your strength, but you’re going to get in on your dancing and acting skills with potential for growth as a singer, then keep it simple. It’s not American Idol. We just need to hear what you do well so we can assess our ability to train you for the business. (One thing to keep in mind—even if the school only asks to hear 16 bars of a song; you must know the entire song. So don’t choose a song from which you are only able to sing a particular cut!)
5. Prepare Your Music Properly
Most schools will provide an accompanist at the auditions. It is your responsibility to make sure you present your music in an organized, professional way. This means no loose sheets that can fall off the piano, and no bound vocal selections or published collection books that won’t stay open. You need to photocopy each song in your repertoire and place the music into non-glare sheets in a three-ring binder. Before you put the music into the sheets, be sure to mark it for start and end points as well as any cuts you plan to take.
If you really want to be impressive, come in with several alternative selections prepared. Have all of your music in a binder with your go-to songs in front and a table of contents for ease of finding other songs.
6. Practice, Practice, Practice
You are going to be nervous. No matter how nice and relaxing the atmosphere of the audition room is, you are bound to experience butterflies at the very least. You must know all of your material inside and out, forward and backward. You must have played through your songs many times with a piano player, rather than a cast recording to make sure you know how it’s going to sound when played by an accompanist. You must have spoken your monologue out loud, preferably with a person standing in as your scene partner. Do not bring in material that you have not tried out before—I promise you it will fail.
The audition is a microcosm of a performance. You would never think of opening a show without ample rehearsal time so why would you ever give yourself any less for an audition. Rehearse it. Have someone watch it. And rehearse it some more.
7. Dress Appropriately for the Audition at Hand
If there is a dance component to your audition, you should have dance attire to change into. Dancewear is best (even if you have little or no dance experience, make the investment in proper dance clothing, since you’ll need it when you get to college), so that we can see the line and contours of your body as it moves through space. Women should bring both heels and flats and men can be in ballet or jazz shoes—no street sneakers or socks, guys.
For the singing and acting portions of the audition, you should dress “business casual.” Wear something that reflects who you are without being either sloppy or overly formal. Women should not wear cocktail or prom dresses, nor should they wear anything low-cut or too revealing. Dresses are fine, or pants or a skirt and blouse. If you wear a skirt or dress, just be sure that it extends at least to your knees. You should be able to move in your clothing, including going to the floor if asked. And for goodness sake don’t wear high heels if you can’t walk in them! Men may choose to wear nice jeans or slacks and a button-up shirt or a sweater. Tie and jacket are not necessary, as they may make you feel too stiff and formal. And dress shoes are preferable to sneakers or sandals.
We want to see your personality, so let that inform the choice of clothing.
And one other thing about dressing—make sure your hair is out of your face. For women, that may mean clipping back bangs and tying back long hair. For men, it might mean you need a haircut before you start your college auditions. But we do not want your eyes obscured or shadowed by hair.
8. Own the Room
Remember, this is your audition. One of the things colleges look for in prospective students is confidence. So when you walk into the room, don’t be meek and shy. Enter confidently and say hello to the people behind the table. Show them your personality. Be open to carrying on conversation if they should start it; otherwise, simply move to the piano and get the audition performance going.
If you need a chair and there’s one in the room, go ahead and use it rather than asking permission. When you’re ready and you have their attention, begin your audition instead of asking if you should start. Don’t wait to be invited to command the room—just do it.
The only warning I must include as a caveat to this step is DO NOT GO FOR A HANDSHAKE. If the person behind the table stands up and offers his or her hand to you, you may approach, otherwise, stay away from the table. In fact, you should be sure to stand at least 6-8 feet from the table throughout the entire audition, unless they invite you closer than that. Believe me, they will appreciate you respecting their space.
9. Make the Strongest Acting Choices Possible
That goes for each song you sing and each monologue you speak. You should be able to answer the following questions (which, believe me, are asked of young performers in the audition room all the time!): Who are you? To whom are you speaking? What is the specific nature of the relationship? What do you want from that person?
Even if you are performing a soliloquy, you must be prepared to answer that you are speaking to yourself (your conscience), to God, or to some other confidant and be able to say I want him/her to _________. If you don’t have the answers to these questions ready at the drop of a hat, then you have not fully prepared. Sometimes this can be hard work, but that’s your job—you must prove that you are willing to do the hard work that acting requires, and you’re not just doing this for a lark.
When you begin each piece, make sure to establish your focus on the imaginary partner (don’t talk down to a chair or to the floor, and don’t speak directly to the people behind the table), and begin with an inhalation. Breathing in will empower you, while starting with an exhale will weaken you from the get-go.
As you finish each piece, make sure you let the last words land (button the piece), and hold for just a beat before coming out of the character and either moving on to the next character or coming back to yourself. Do not say “scene” when you’re done either. We’ll know you’re through when we can see that the character has said what he/she has come to say and either achieved the objective or stopped trying. In the end, a simple “thank you” will suffice to indicate that your audition is done.
10. Practice Interview Skills
The final piece of the puzzle is mastering the interview. I suggest you give some serious thought as to why you want to do musical theatre and why you want to study at the particular school where you’re auditioning, because those questions are almost guaranteed. Don’t talk about how you love the sound of applause and you want to be on Broadway—those are big turn-offs. And when you are asked about why you want to study at a school, it helps if you have some really specific reasons for choosing it (review step one in this list!).
You should also come in prepared to ask some questions of them. Remember what I said earlier: You’re auditioning them as much as they’re auditioning you. If you come to campus with a handful of questions, even if they answer many of them in a pre-audition discussion, you may find that there are a few that you can ask in the audition room. This is just another way of looking more professional and prepared, and it will give you an edge.
Most importantly, let your personality shine through in the interview process. You may be the most talented person in the world, but if they don’t detect a personality or if they don’t feel like you are going to be compatible with them for the next four years, you will find yourself rejected. Believe it or not, personality and energy count for a lot. Often times, the personality even helps weigh an otherwise less-than-perfect audition. So be yourself and try to enjoy the process.
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The process of college auditions is exciting and challenging on both sides of the table. You are looking for a school that will accept you and train you for a future in a very difficult business; we are looking for the best class to educate to carry forth our reputation in the industry and also to fulfill our production seasons. You are the consumer deciding where to spend your money and your next four years; we must compete for your talents with other schools that may have different qualities to offer.
Go forth with joy and patience as you endeavor to find the best training program for you. Weigh all the pros and cons of each choice and make the decision that is best suited to your goals and your personality. And be sure to have fun along the way!
Jonathan Flom is the head of Musical Theatre at Shenandoah Conservatory. He is also the author of GET THE CALLBACK: The Art of Auditioning for Musical Theatre. He teaches workshops on auditioning around the country and does private coaching as well. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.jonathanflom.com