Auditioning 101: Five Songs In Your Back Pocket

As a musical theatre performer, you want to be prepared for any audition, but the one mistake many young performers make is trying to “find a song” rather, “the perfect audition song” at the last minute.

So they scramble around, asking everyone’s advice until they finally find the 16 or 32 bars (“thanks, grandma!”) that they must learn, memorize and perform brilliantly in two or three days. And, unsurprisingly, the audition goes about as well as all the other times they found the perfect audition song at the last minute – which is, not very.

As singers, we should know and be able to sing hundreds, if not thousands, of songs. In a nightclub setting, I can sing for four hours without repeating a song.

But in an audition setting, we need to carefully choose quality over quantity. We need “tried and true” over the new. It is through trial and error that we find five songs for our audition toolkit that pretty much guarantee a callback if we are even remotely right for a part. This can’t happen if we’re always learning a new song for every audition.

Basic: For your auditions, have an uptempo song and a ballad that you know like your DNA. You don’t even have to try to remember the lyrics as they are a living part of you. Make sure these songs represent positivity – that you’re a winner or at least a person who sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t sing a song about how disappointed you are or what a big loser you are as you will run the risk of us sharing that dim opinion of yourself.

Advanced: Five songs in your back pocket. You know them backwards and forwards and you’ve sung them for a very long time. You could read a magazine, practice yoga and still sing them without missing a note. Every song has a “money” note in it. Something that absolutely shows off your best high note. Have an uptempo and a ballad from shows in the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Have an uptempo and a ballad from shows in the 1990’s to the 2020’s. Have a high-energy rock or pop song that is fun and shows off your range. In an audition, you and the song are one. Show us you’re a winner.

Singing 101: Whether Pop Style or Legit, Your Technique Stays The Same

Here is an example of me singing “Musical Theatre Legit” style:

Words and Music by Geoff Levin & Chris Many

And here’s an example of me singing in more of a pop style:

From Musical Beans: Animal Songs For Children

In both instances, these were three to four hour recording sessions. Actually, for “Follow The Dream,” I really didn’t like my vocal performance from the first session, so I called Geoff and offered to come back to get it right the next day. That took another couple of hours, but we all were much happier about the result.

Bottom line is, recording sessions can take hours, days, weeks, months. Whether you choose to sing in a big belt, legit or pop style is up to you, your instrument (meaning your entire body) and your artistic inclination. However, if the vocal instrument breaks down, the session ends right there. You don’t finish because the vocal sound is different than the sound you started with. In other words, you don’t want to start off with a clean sound only to end up all scratchy-sounding.

In both tracks, I sang with the exact same technique because as singers, we need to make sure we last for the entire session, whether it’s four minutes or four hours. The only thing I changed was the quality of sound I was going for. “Follow The Dream” required a much more Josh Grobin-type approach. With “I Wish We Didn’t Have To Say Goodnight,” I was the voice of a Teddy Bear.

Performance 101: Creative (Empty) Space In Your Brain

Great performers are like race car drivers; the idea being that, in order to win the race, one needs to stay in the moment, assume a calculated amount of risk and operate instinctively and creatively when the opportunity arises.

The simple goal of a pro race car driver is to win the race.

What are some of the “simple” goals of a singer in a performance?

Get all the words right?

Sing all the notes right?

Make a beautiful sound?

Truth is, those are the initial rehearsal goals achieved with hours of practice. “Getting the song into your body.” While these goals provide the basis of performance, if that is all you intend to give your audience, it’s definitely time to upgrade your approach.

Performance Goal: Creative Open Space In Your Brain

Basic: Be able to say the lyrics as fast as you can say the ABC’s – without thinking about the order of the letters and without singing the song. Say them in a monotone very quickly, do not accent or stretch out the words. Move your lips and mouth in an animated/exaggerated way. Be able to plunk out the melody – one note at a time – on a keyboard. Be able to use the same vocal tone (dark, warm, brassy, bright, light, etc.) throughout the entirety of the song. If you have to change your tonal quality to hit a high note or rumble a lower note, chances are you need to find a more suitable key for your song.

Advanced: Having set the muscle memory (remember, race car drivers drive in a circle for hours), now we let go of the worry and practice creative risk. Creative risk involves letting go of anxiousness, trusting that you have drilled the basics and are ready to live in the moment on stage. Thoughts and thought impulses beget words (for some, it’s the other way around, but we call those folks thoughtless anway). Your goal now is to live within the thoughts of the lyric and having/experiencing/expressing each thought before actually singing the lyric. Now your brain is full again, but it is focused and there is no room for anxiety. It takes energy, concentration and a whole lot of pretending to stay there, but by upgrading your performance approach, you can enjoy sharing a song as much as your audience can enjoy receiving it.

Singing 101: Jobs For Singers

For many years, I’ve had a running joke with my kids. At random inopportune moments I would ask them, “Hey, would you like a free song? I’m a professional singer. No charge.”

To which they’d respond, “No, Dad, I don’t want a song right now.”

“But it’s a really good song and I’m a great singer. And it’s free.”

“No. Go away.”

“It’s FREE – other people would have to pay to hear me sing. This won’t cost you a dime! This is a great offer!”

“No thanks.”

But, feeling generous, I’d usually launch into a song anyway. Typically, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” a terrifically catchy song in my opinion, and they’d keep playing their video game…Win/Win.

Here’s the thing: Singers Are Their Own CEOs.

As a singer, you are your own Chief Executive Officer from the very start. If you’re “hired” by a theme park, cruise line, restaurant, Broadway show or tour, record label, video game company, animation house, Film/TV production house, chances are that even if you deliver a great/fantastic/amazing job as a singer, you won’t end up being named the president of that theme park, cruise line, restaurant, record label, etc. Corporate upward mobility is not a thing for singers. We create our business. We drive our business. We are the CEOs of Singing, Inc.

Basic (Paying/Post-Covid) Jobs For Singers: Church gigs (include weddings and funerals), theme parks, cruises, live corporate industrials, restaurants/karaoke bars, rest homes, Christmas caroling groups

In-Between: Produce music, play music, write/compose music, read music, record music and appreciate ALL music. And while you’re adding these skills to your toolkit, practice singing, stay in shape and never turn down an opportunity to sing, even for no money. Get the work in until the day arrives when you don’t need the work.

Advanced (Better Paying/Post-Covid) Jobs For Singers: Recording (anything and everything including Voiceover work), Anything contracted via SAG/AFTRA/Equity/Musician’s Union, Animation, Film/TV, Broadway and tours, video games.

Summary: Writers write. Dancers dance. Singers sing.

Singing 101: Smoke, Fires, Vocal Irritation and Preventative Measures

Ah, 2020…a pandemic, social injustice, a recession, climate change, a divisive fool in the White House, no live music or performance since mid-March and now the West Coast is on fire. I hesitate to ask what else could be thrown our way in case a meteor is currently considering the Los Angeles Basin a fun landing spot in the next few months. Don’t wanna jinx anything.

Heavenly bodies aside, let’s discuss toxic air and how to deal with it as a singer.

Basic: When faced with smoke and air pollution, your body will create all kinds of defenses, but our immune systems can only do so much, so stay out of it. If you don’t need to go outside, don’t go outside. Get an air purifier with a decent filter. Fires aren’t just burning trees in the forest, they’re burning cars, buildings – anything that will feed the flame. Dioxins – the byproduct of these fires – are incredibly dangerous to our lungs, hearts and overall health. However, indoor pollution from these fires is just as bad – if not worse – so make sure the air conditioner in your apartment or house has a clean filter and that the windows and doors in your place are properly sealed. Your pets will thank you, too.

Advanced: Once in your lungs, PM10 and PM2.5 (microscopic particulate matter sizes) remain resident. You can’t cough them out. N95 and N99 masks have proven helpful in the reduction of particulate matter taken into the body via mouth and nose, but remember that your skin – your largest organ – can also absorb pollutants, so, along with your mask, cover up with long sleeves, pants, etc. There’s no such thing as healthy smoke. Be aware that hanging around the barbecue on the weekends ain’t doing you any favors, either.

Summary: As singers, our performance spaces can be hot, cold, dusty, moldy, dry, damp, odd places. There’s no need to act like a germophobe, but we have plenty of reasons to reduce the risk of bacterial infections, lowered immunity by being proactive. After all, we are living instruments.

Singing 101: “But What Do I Do With My Hands?!”

Truth is; not much. Hands are great for puppets, sign language and clapping, but those things at the ends of your arms aren’t really that helpful in communicating a lyric. Frankly, overusing your hands in a song could pretty much sabotage what you’re trying to do on stage – which is connect with your audience.

Okay, so I’ll grant that “waving” at the audience is a fine way to connect, but after they wave back, ya still got nothin’…

Basic: My favorite guiding principle of hands is “keep them below your waist.” If you don’t know what to do with your hands, don’t do anything. If you feel like moving your hands, move them one at a time — below the waist. Stay away from emphasizing with both hands at once (parallel motion) or you’ll risk looking like a spokesperson for an infomercial.

Advanced: Moving a hand above your waist requires finding the best time to also bring it back down below your waist. If you absolutely must move a hand, move it during the last word of a sung phrase and then re-move it on the last word of the next sung phrase. Subtle – not slashing – motion required.

Summary: When singing a song, what’s going on in your eyes is far more important that what’s going on with your hands…

Singing 101: If It Hurts, You’re Doing It Wrong

Imagine having to lift a moderately heavy box. It’s on the floor, ready to be moved. Suddenly you get a phone call and you decide that you could probably carry on a conversation and lift that moderately heavy box with one arm. So, with the phone in one hand, you cheerily chat away, lean over, bend your knees a little bit, get that arm around the box and use your lower back and neck muscles to lift up. At that point, you realize that you may have misjudged this particular moderately heavy box and that it required more than one arm, it required two. That little bend in your knee should’ve been both thighs stretching and flexing. Not only that, but you probably should have used your glutes, back and chest to do the job properly.

And, just as suddenly, something is not right with your body and you are injured.

I’ve rehabbed a lot of singers’ voices. A Broadway/Pop Belt requires concentration, focus, trust and athleticism. After all, we’re talking eight shows a week on Broadway or six shows a day at a theme park or a four-hour minimum SAG/AFTRA recording session. What we do sounds difficult, but with concentration, focus, trust and athleticism, it is a relatively simple operation. All it requires is daily practice.

So, if you lift that same box incorrectly every day, you do not necessarily get stronger, you only risk further harm. Like that misjudged moderately heavy box, you don’t develop an unbreakable voice by breaking it every day. If it hurts when you sing, you’re doing it wrong.