I think that I speak for all of us when I say that, to a singer, the auditions and the audition process are probably one of the least pleasant elements of our career. This is due, in large part, to the fact that many of us have a tendency to be perfectionists.
Our generation is both blessed and cursed to live in the world of media recordings. Our blessing is our access to an unprecedented amount of archival material documenting the careers of some of the most extraordinary singers of the twentieth century; from Caruso to Kraus. Past generations could only rely on anecdotal descriptions of a singer’s voice or their particular technique. We can now listen to live and studio recordings, which prove to be very enlightening.
A Curated Experience
There is a curse that comes paired with this particular blessing. Often, such recordings (especially in the case of twentieth-century performers) provide a very curated experience for consumption by audiences. Thus, it is not necessarily an accurate one. Here are some examples:
Studio recordings often show Montserrat Caballé to be an almost technically flawless singing machine. Yet, many bootleg recordings of live operas show that the soprano had a tendency for serious memory problems. Another such bootleg shows Nicolai Gedda, one of the most respected tenors of his generation, suffer from a horrible crack at the ending high B natural of “La Donna è Mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Elinor Ross, a soprano with an enormous career, was once heard in a pirate recording to be suffering from a cold. A cold so debilitating, after singing the role of Donna Anna, her “Non Mi Dir” was cruelly dubbed “Mozart’s Alarm Clock” by a listener. Her swollen vocal cords made the ending of the aria sound, unfortunately, like a rooster crowing.
The expectation that we as singers have built in our minds is often that of the fantasy created by the recording studio rather than the reality of a live stage. The recording studio is antiseptic, though, and we are messy.
We Are Biological Beings
We are biological beings. Even the most technically proficient of us are subject to the inconveniences that come with having an embedded instrument. Our throat and vocal cords exist at the mercy of our biological idiosyncrasies. Every time we sing in a live performance (even auditions), we must work with what we have. No matter the weather, the early onset of a cold, the acoustics of the room, or a thousand other variables the show goes on. It is important to understand that nothing there will create the perfect and protected conditions of a recording studio. And, should our instrument feel ‘distempered’ one particular day, we can’t take it out and trade it for another. It’s part of us, for better or worse.
Going through auditions is hard because in our minds we hold the Platonic Ideal of what our voice ‘Really Sounds Like’. These are the rare moments when everything worked out just right with our bodies and our minds were free to concern themselves with making art instead of deploying safeguards.
Daily Reality of Auditions and Some Tips
Most of the time, however, that simply isn’t our daily reality. Going into auditions with the mentality that only perfection is acceptable is self-sabotage. Many of us do self-sabotage when it comes to performances in general and auditions in particular. Before you prepare to head out to your next audition, I would like to share a few musings on the subject:
1 – Art and technical perfection are not synonymous.
No, really. It is easy for us to listen to a recording by Alfredo Kraus and marvel at his superhuman technical mastery. His voice flows with relative effortlessness, the artistry with which he spins a phrase, the range of expression available to him; this is surely the standard by which all tenors are to be measured.
Yes, and also, no. Exemplars such as Kraus are masters of their craft who have reached a certain stage of development. That does not necessarily mean that any other singer who is not at that level is worthless. For instance, we can point towards Maria Callas and her infamous wobble and many vocal problems. Yet nobody can deny that within her flaws, she authored some of the most riveting performances of the twentieth century.
Creating something artistic and beautiful is always possible within your current constraints. It doesn’t matter what your current stage of development is. If you are learning “Sebben Crudele” for the first time, or you’re ready to tackle “Ah, Mes Amis”, great performances (and auditions) are possible. This segues into my next point:
2 – Everybody is at a different stage.
Technique is important, and a healthy technique will ensure that you have a long career ahead of you (provided you choose your repertoire carefully). However, you must be careful that your assumptions about technique do not turn into artificial gatekeepers.
Do not fall into the mental trap of thinking that you should not sing in public before reaching a specific milestone. If you can sing healthily make sure you choose appropriate repertoire for your current technical stage and find appropriate opportunities to sing that will challenge you without proving unhealthy.
Comparing Yourself To Others
Do not look at people who are more advanced than you and let it discourage you. They may have overcome challenges that are particularly difficult for you. But I guarantee you that they have their own set of challenges as well. Perhaps the areas where you have a natural gift are particularly challenging to others.
Singing is not a matter of straight progression where all areas of the discipline (interpretation, technique, languages, stagecraft, etc) ‘level up’ at the same steady pace, like some characters in early video games. As I said before, we are messy human begins and our development is seldom anything but a messy organic landscape.
The takeaway lesson is that everybody has a mountain to climb. The only difference is that the mountain looks different for each person.
3 – The mind is a vital and essential tool, and its home is in the practice room.
You know the feeling. Anxiety inducing auditions are coming up. These gigs are a great opportunity for you, and you want to make sure the auditions go down perfectly.
Being so worried about that first high note, you keep thinking about it. The mind is now getting in the way of your body. You forget to prepare for it correctly and what comes out isn’t pretty, at all. Your mind starts working overtime: there’s another high note coming up. It *has* to be perfect. You can’t trust yourself (you think) so you need to exert more control.
You tense up. Sure, you hit the note, but it lacks spin and vibrancy and now there’s a tickle at the back of your throat. You’re short of breath. One of the judges is looking at you with a worried expression he is barely trying to hide. You are about to go down in flames- WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Cerebral singers have the worst time of all. We think our way through everything. We feel like we can control anything to the most minute detail. The vulnerable and unpredictable side of our biological nature can positively scare us.
Surrender to the Visceral Nature of the Art Form
In my experience, I have found out that singing is best when we surrender to the visceral nature of the art form as performers. That doesn’t mean disregarding technique, interpretation, or style. Rather, my imaginary singer has not managed to fully integrate the balance of thinking and doing into singing.
When we prepare to go into the practice room, we must be at our most cerebral. We must analyze the work that we are to perform, make decisions concerning interpretation choices, check that they are stylistically appropriate for the historical period in question, plan the technical approach to difficult passages, and begin the memorization process.
This is the skeleton of the performance, where the mind is at its most active and the singer attempts to both glean the intentions of the composer and also find ways in which they can make a particular performance their own. This is a process that will occur many times throughout the life of the singer for every piece. New insights and maturity change the schema over many years.
The singer then transitions into memorization and, finally, puts the theory to practice. Difficult passages are given special attention if they are technically challenging.
Emotionally Inhabiting the Piece
Ideally, with enough time, once a work is technically comfortable the singer can begin the process of emotionally inhabiting the piece. This is the point where the intellectual work is put aside and the singer begins to connect with the piece on an emotional level. Here they experience the drama, melodic contours, and the harmonic colors not as students, but performers.
This is a step that a lot of us miss! Often, even by the time the performance comes around, we are still hovering around our own performance. We are continuing to constrain it tightly within our intellectual cages. Our minds have gotten us this far, we reason, therefore there is no reason why we should surrender this tight control.
Except that there is: at the very core of great singing, there is an element of emotional vulnerability; of nakedness. Our intellects do not like it when we are laid bare, especially in front of complete strangers. What if we crack? What if the sound that comes out of us isn’t pretty? We hold back. We want to be at our best, but unfortunately, the act of classical singing involves an element of primal sound that does not sound at its best when held back.
The proper role of our mind in singing is analogous to the role that it plays in the field of martial arts or any other combat-related sport. Our intellect absorbs the material, memorizes the katas, and checks for balance, alignment, etcetera. Over time the movements are drilled into our muscle memory. Our intellect begins to ‘let go’ as the information now becomes so familiar to us that we barely need to refresh it. Our subconscious and our bodies become so well-trained that we are capable of performing several combinations of movements in a sparring situation in response to changing conditions and the tactics of our opponent. If we tried to actively think step-by-step in the middle of a spar, our backs would be landing on the mat over and over again due to our slow reaction time.
Hitting the Mat
And this is precisely what we do when we don’t transition out of intellectual control when singing: we hit the mat. We tense up. Our voices can’t be free.
Trust that the work you do in the practice room and the library is enough to sustain you. When it is time to begin performing, shift into that zen-like state where you are living every moment of the music. Here your mind is actively experiencing, not controlling. You must trust the muscle memory you have built will carry you through. Your intellectual communion with the poetry and the music is now informing your performing choices on a visceral level.
Let yourself be and aim to be nothing more than a simple creature experiencing the moment-to-moment journey of the music. It is the intellectual effort that you have made before this point that will allow you the freedom to not have to ‘think’ onstage.
4 – Why are you doing this again?
Finally, one of the best ways to get over audition fear is to remember why you do what you do. Singers are an incredibly privileged group of people when you think about the fact that we get to perform this music. No matter how long the day job or other mundane distractions that get in our way, we live for the moment that someone sits at the piano and hits the first chord and we get to unleash our voices.
There is no such thing as a singer who is beloved or wanted by all. Throughout your career, you will find many rejections. You also need to remember that a rejection doesn’t mean that you weren’t good enough. It means that you weren’t what they were looking for.
And how do you know what a particular panel is looking for?
Unfortunately, telepathy isn’t something that we have been able to develop just yet. Your best guess is still as good as anybody else’s who hasn’t had a chance to pick a particular panelist’s brain. With the potential of so many of your auditions resulting in situations where you are just not a good fit for the upcoming production how can you best utilize the brief moment that is given to you?
A Tiny Recital
Well, a performance is still a performance, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you are singing for six people or six hundred, every opportunity to perform should be treated as a gift. It doesn’t matter if you are auditioning for a community theater or the audition board of a prestigious opera company. You are wearing the gown, the piano plays for you.
You aren’t auditioning, but giving a tiny recital.
Aren’t you lucky?
Well, those are the things I have to say concerning the topic of auditions. I hope that some part of it may have proven useful to you. Have a blast at your next audition!