“TIPS ON HOW TO ACE YOUR AUDITION - FROM THE LEAST-EXPECTED SOURCE”
By Robert Graham
Some people just stare at me blankly when I tell them I am an audition pianist. Everyone knows what a “pianist” is. They know what an “audition” is. But an “audition pianist”?
Why would they know really? Not everyone is intimately involved in the world of music theatre after all. And it certainly isn’t a highly- esteemed occupation, like a lawyer or doctor. It’s something I sometimes have to explain: “ Well.......you know how people have to audition for Broadway-type shows, you know......musicals right? Well, they obviously have to sing a number or two in an audition right? So, I am the schmuck in the corner who plays piano for them.”
I don’t always use the term “schmuck”. I guess it is an attempt to be self-deprecating. I shouldn’t really - because in actuality the job is a highly specialized one. Not everyone can do it. It’s quite hard. Not a lot of pianists will do it. You have to be able to instantly play whatever is put in front of you by the person auditioning. There is no practice time, no time to even “run-through” it. You just get handed a piece of music and you are expected to not only play the notes and rhythms accurately, but also follow a singer and support their unique musical choices (or accidents), despite having never heard them sing the song (or any song) before, or even met them before. When you think about it, it is a pretty risky endeavor, with a lot of potential for failure. Which is why this is the first time I have ever really seriously thought about it!
I think the reason I have used the word “schmuck” in the past may have something to do with another interesting part of being an audition pianist. You are not the one auditioning obviously. And you are also usually not part of the “panel” - the people who are casting the show - either. Yet you are in the same room with both of these people - for hours and hours - sometimes over several days. Your role is crucial in some ways and also ultimately unimportant. Hence the self-deprecation. I mean in that precise moment when the singer is singing you are obviously the most important person in that singer’s life - for however long it takes them to sing 16 bars, or 32 bars - or the whole song if they are lucky. As soon as the song is over though you are no longer important at all - you could be a painting on the wall or an extra chair. The singer’s focus immediately shifts elsewhere once the song is over - to the panel - who will be deciding their fate.
Likewise, you are a little bit important to the people on the panel. They could be the director of the show, the producer, the music director, or the choreographer - some or all of them. Why are you important to them - at least a little? I mean people could sing without a pianist right? They could just sing a-capella i.e. without accompaniment, no?
Well, they could show off their voices without the need for a pianist for sure. But how does the panel know they are starting in the right key? Some might be able to hear if the singer “migrates” to another key unintentionally during the song - but not all. Some might not know if the singer is coming in at the right time at the beginning of a song, or waiting for the correct amount of time when there are rests in the music. You kind of need to know if a singer can do this stuff if you are going to cast them.
You can always tell when people are singing their song with a pianist for the first time. It’s a really bad idea for a singer to choose to have this unique experience in their actual audition. Often they will have only practiced by singing out loud - in front of a mirror - or for their parents or roommates - and they have no idea what the actual key of the song is. So they start the song too high, or too low, or worse, maybe they don’t even know when to even start singing at the beginning of the song because they have never heard the piano part before. It is often disastrous.
Panels can sometimes be very cruel with people like this - I’ve seen it. When they leave the room of course - never to their faces. Which is good of them I guess but also gutless in a way. It’s a class thing usually. They are usually poor - either financially - so they can’t afford a pianist to work with them, or they are “knowledge-poor”. For whatever reason they are not part of the “system”, so they simply don’t know that they were expected to be singing with a pianist. People in the “system” either went to theatre school or have had some vocal training. Almost everyone who auditions is in the “system”. Not everyone though. Those that are not stick out almost as soon as they enter the room. Maybe I am being a bit harsh - some of them may just be “green” but it is not always young people.
They are often the same ones that bring in their songs all “loose” - like not in a book or binder. So they may have a 10-page song and they hand it to you all in a big clump, like a short story they have just finished writing that morning. Problem is the average music stand on a piano can only hold maybe 3 or 4 pages, and sooner or later the vibrations of the piano are going to make some of those pages slip off and float to the ground. Unless they are in a book - which they always should be. Again, I think it’s a class difference. Someone who is not in the “system” may not have spent enough, or any, time near a piano to know these things. So it’s not their fault.
I try to be kind with someone who brings in a song which is not in a book. I do my best to play the song, which usually involves me setting the ten pages (say) up in order - from page one to ten, and then pulling them away and letting them fall on the ground as the song continues. Fluttering papers falling away. A little free-form dance that no one gets to see because it is happening behind the piano. Sometimes more than one page falls and I have to shove one in my mouth and put it back somehow in the right spot. That is why you need a binder. The potential for disaster is huge. You could sabotage your whole audition - just because you didn’t put it in a binder. The whole thing could ground to a halt because all the music is on the floor. It happens quite a bit.
Like I said, I try to be kind. I usually do my best and when the singer comes over at the end to collect their music I will usually whisper “maybe next time put these in a book ok? It makes it easier for someone like me to turn the pages”. I whisper so they are not embarrassed. After all, it is not their fault completely - they just don’t know the system. I have heard of other pianists who don’t care. They will ridicule the person in front of the panel for not bringing a binder: “How do you expect me to play this?” That’s just mean. Time to retire when you do stuff like that.
Anyway, I got sidetracked with the whole binder thing. The point I was trying to make is that being an audition pianist means you are “in the middle”. Like I said the singers need you - but only while they are singing. Then they need the panel. The panel needs you - but only so they can hear if the singer is any good. They don’t need you to be great - just competent. The singer, however, wants you to be great - because if you are a great accompanist they will sound better - the performance will be better. They still probably forget you a millisecond after they finish the song of course. And the panel? They don’t want to notice you - they want to notice the singer. If the panel notices you it probably means you won’t be invited back next time they hold auditions. So your whole role is to be unnoticeable by some of the people in the room, and to be noticably amazing and talented as possible for the other person in the room - both for a very short period of time. Then you are forgotten about immediately by both parties. I’m okay with that by the way.
In fact, I like being in the middle actually. I wouldn’t want to be the one auditioning. Too much pressure. Too much rejection. I also wouldn’t want to be on the panel either - too much responsibility. It’s nice to be part of the process and then just walk away at the end of the day without worrying.....”Did I get the part?” How did I blow that high note? I practiced so hard!” Or “I wonder if she has the right look to match up with the leading man...she sounds great but is she a good match? Stuff like that. I can leave it all behind and go home.
By the way, if anyone ever asks my opinion, which does happen sometimes I am happy to say - like a singing teacher or a vocal student, I always offer the most important piece of advice I can think of. It relates to what to do when you first walk in the room. If you get this right it has the potential to REALLY help your audition be a lot more successful.
As you walk in, obviously greet the panel, establish and maintain eye contact as you walk to their table. They are usually at the end of the room of course which forces you to “walk the walk” i.e. you need to come and greet them, meet them if you don’t already know them, etc, and do the obligatory “chit-chat”. Sometimes there will be a greeter who calls your name in the waiting room, walks in with you and facilitates these introductions. There is a whole other article I could write about how to enter a room, the “aura” you may wish to project, the thin line between “friendly” and “familiar”, the other thin line between overconfidence and self-deprecation. It all starts from the moment you enter the room and it lasts through the song, the monologue and all the small talk that happens before and after. I feel so stressed for singers having to negotiate that stuff - I would find it very hard. I often see singers who I actually know personally walk into a room and suddenly appear to be a completely different person from the one I know. Rightly or wrongly they are making a choice to be something other than who they are. No judgment from me. Like I said it’s a challenging thing to negotiate. What I really want to talk about is “the walk” itself.
Here’s my big tip. Something you may not have thought of. When you are walking, make sure you "visit "the audition pianist on the way. That’s right. Drop in on them - just for a moment. It sounds so simple but there is a good reason to do it. Just arc the direction of your walk over to the pianist, even while maintaining eye contact (and any ongoing verbal communication) with the panel as you do so, and then - for the briefest possible moment - look at the pianist and hand them your music. Important: do not thrust the music at them without looking at them or acknowledging them, because that is mean. No-one wants to be treated like that. But just a quick: “Hi, how ya doin?” as you hand the music (hopefully in a binder) to the pianist. That’s it. Then immediately focus your attention back on the panel and the “chit-chat”. Believe me it will pay off for you - maybe not every time - but it will one day.
Why is this so important? Why not just walk up to the panel, greet them, hear what they have to say, etc and then when it is time to sing, walk over to the pianist and hand them the music then. Let me tell you why......you may have already figured it out.
Personally, as soon as you give me your music I instantly become a man-in-motion. I am scanning your music as quickly as possible. The first thing I look at obviously is the title of the song. Have I played it before? Have I heard it before at least? If the answer is “yes” then I always feel a big sense of relief for obvious reasons, but also for some not-so-obvious-ones. More about that later.
After the title, what else am I looking for? I’m looking for musical “minefields”. What are “musical minefields”? Things like weird key signatures, weird time signatures, tempo changes, fermatas, repeats, codas - things like that. Do I have to flip back two pages at some point in the song and then flip ahead a few pages later? Sometimes singers write things down - instructions for me. I have to read them too, things like: “skip to bar 47 here” or “singing alternate lyrics here”. After that my eyes go straight to the “hardest-looking” parts - which are most likely the ones that look like what I call ‘spider’ writing - fast passages with lots of 16th or 32nd notes, or big chords with lots of close notes, ledger lines, double sharps and things like that. A singer may not even know what these things are, or why they are hard, but they are in their music nevertheless. Then, once I have "scoped" all that, I begin silently playing all these hard parts on the keys - without pressing the notes. Then I may re-check the opening tempo - and again “silently” play that - because I know a solid opening can really help put the singer at ease quickly. If the chit-chat is ongoing I may have time to grab a pencil and write a chord name above an exotic looking chord - giving me a better chance at least play the "flavour" of the chord when it pops up during the performance at 132 beats per minute. I might not play the exact voicing of the chord as written but no-one will notice - not even the singer usually. This last point is part of what I call the art of "fake" piano - a beautiful and fluid art - which could easily be the subject of a whole other article.
I do all these things - with your music - while you are hearing or saying things like “Roger! I haven’t seen you since “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at (insert playhouse) here! How ARE you? Why thanks - you look great too! No-no real plans for the summer......I’m WIDE open”. Etc, etc.
It may only be 30 or 40 seconds of time that I have access to your music. But you would be surprised at the “cramming’ a good audition pianist can do in 35 seconds. But, if you walk over to the panel, music in hand, and talk to them for 35 seconds with your song in your hands, that is 35 seconds during which I don’t even know what song you are going to be singing - which COULD make a lot of difference to you. Not always but sometimes.
By the way, more often or not musical theatre auditioners are asked to prepare a song AND a monologue. And usually, at the end of the chit-chat, the question comes: “So, would you like to start with your song or your monologue?”
This is up to you of course. You have the ultimate call on where your strengths are and how and how you want the “flow” of your audition to go. But if it were MY call (which it never is - and quite rightly) I would say start with your monologue - particularly if you are singing a piece of music which has a challenging piano part or is ‘structurally” unusual - with lots of “page flips, etc. The reason, of course, is simple. On top of that 35 seconds, I now get a further 3 or 4 minutes to go over your music, silently practice it and have it ready - while you spout your Shakespeare or “edgy” contemporary monologue. Use this extra time to your advantage if you can.
Then, of course, most panels (if they are nice) will offer you the chance to “go over and talk to Robert” - meaning they will give you a chance to come and talk with me about your song - what you want from me - the tempo - the markings that you may have made, how many verses you are singing, any “minefields” you think I should know about it. This may happen right after the chit-chat or after the monologue. If you have followed my advice and given me the music during your “walk” then I usually will know what you are going to say - which makes the conversation happen a lot quicker. This is good for a panel (and thus for you) who are almost always behind schedule - usually because of the excess chit-chat. Not that there's anything wrong with the chit-chat - it is part of them making the singer feel comfortable, and if they are nice people, it is usually genuine.
This conversation - between the singer and the pianist - can sometimes be very weird, especially if the singer is stressed. Stressed or not there are some things to remember to make the most out of this very important time - which again is rarely more than 30 seconds. First of all, please don’t stride over to the piano and dive right in with “Ok, I am leaving out verse two and I cut the bridge here..... oh, and also here.......just follow me here..... and I am taking this repeat at half the speed”. Instead walk over, give me a smile, a nod, ask me how I am, or something like that, anything really that lets me know that you are aware I am more than a vehicle for you to land a role - I am actually a person first. It sounds so obvious to point this out, but you would be surprised how many people forget this. No-one wants to be treated like somebody’s stepping stone. And sometimes an observant panel member will notice this type of behavior and file it away for later - which could count against you. I know it is often only done because of nerves, but remember - you can always practice this. It may sound weird but if you are new to the game you should actually practice how you give the music to the pianist, and how you talk with the pianist and interact with them. Work out in your mind the most important information you want to let them know and practice giving them that information. Practice showing them the tempo you want. This is really important, especially for younger or nervous singers. You would not believe the tempos I have been given for songs which are completely wrong - either because the singer does not know how to give a tempo, or because they are so nervous that they can’t “hear” their own tempo in their head before they relay it - because their heart is racing so fast. I’ve had people come in with a slow ballad and the tempo they give is just so wack! I have to bite my tongue before I say something like “Oh.... so you are doing the polka version of Don’t Cry Out Loud”?
When you give a tempo there are three ways to do it effectively (in my mind anyway) Some pianists prefer one or the other and I have my preference. But here are the three ways to respond to my question: “What tempo do you like?
1. Sing a bit of the song.
2. Tap or clap the tempo.
3. Conduct the tempo in the air.
4. Sing while you do 2 or 3.
I know audition pianists who go ballistic when someone taps the tempo on the piano or “conducts” them. I am not sure why - I think they might feel it degrades them somehow. As for me, I don’t care really, I just want to be very clear what you want tempo-wise. If you choose option 1 though, remember that you shouldn't necessarily sing the opening of your song. Often, especially in the classic repertoire of musical theatre and jazz, the introductions are very slow, with lots of rubato, and maybe even fermatas. Singing that won’t help me. Sing where the song “starts”. Think of a song like “It’s a Perfect Relationship” from “Bells Are Ringing". I don’t need the tempo for “It’s Crazy.......ridiculous.... it doesn’t make sense. That’s true but what can I do?” I don’t need to know that tempo because I only play a solitary chord before you sing and I don’t play again until after you’ve sung the word “crazy”. By that point, you have already sung three beats and thus set your own tempo. But after that “intro’ you sing “I’m in love......with a man...."etc and I have to play with you from the word “love”. This gives me only one beat to hear your tempo. In other words, the song “proper” has started. That’s the tempo I need to hear - not just whatever happens to be sung at the very beginning. Have a look at that song, or youtube it and all that will make more sense.
My preference, by the way, is for you to use method 4. It gives me an aural AND visual clue as to what you want. It helps me. But that’s just me.
By the way, I want to let you in on a little secret. No doubt you are nervous about your audition. But guess what? So am I! That might surprise you. I am nervous for you but also for myself. I genuinely want to do a good job for you. You seem so nice! That’s why I am telling you all this stuff! I have never met an audition pianist (or a panel member for that matter) who ever wanted an auditioner to suck.
But I also want you to do well, and communicate effectively with me before you sing (using all these tips) for my own selfish reasons. I am just like you. I also want to do well in front of the panel! I don’t want to botch an accompaniment and look bad. It may sabotage your audition, which is the greater tragedy, but it also may sabotage my future employment with that theatre company - either as an audition pianist or even as a potential future musical director or pit musician. Maybe I am new to a city and trying to create a reputation. I can’t afford to make mistakes. Or maybe I am just a perfectionist. No-one wants to look bad in front of their peers or future employers. That is the selfish reason why I would like you to consider applying some of the advice I have given you. It helps create a win-win situation for both of us.
Let me admit something else to you. As you walk toward me with your music there is a part of me dying inside. Part of me that is praying that I know your song, or if I don’t, that it is easy enough to sightread. Like I said at the beginning, this job is not for the faint-of-heart. Who would choose to put their reputation as a pianist, their future employment as a pianist, on the line, maybe 30-50 times in one day, in a situation where they have no previous chance to learn, or even look, at the music? It’s insanity when you really stop to think about it!
If, God forbid, your pianist does make a mistake in your audition, big or small, please resist the temptation to react with frustration - at least until you are out of the room. Whatever you do don’t do what one singer did with me, which was to raise her hands skyward, as if appealing to the heavens, then glare at me, and then roll her eyes at the panel. None of which I saw of course because I was performing miracles with a microscopic, barely legible, previously never heard, written by her composer friend, musical “suite” complete with ten different cuts and tempo changes. I played on in blissful ignorance. The first words out of the director’s mouth when she stormed out of the room were “Oh my God, I will NEVER hire her”. And she sang well!
I know I have sometimes let a singer down when it WAS my fault. I can easily recall a couple of examples and I STILL feel bad about them. I have apologized to singers for it. The mistakes I made in those moments related to being over-tired, or just not concentrating sufficiently. The days can be long sometimes and the concentration required is unrelenting. It's a lot of pressure. So if I ever do that to you, by all means feel free to ream me out once you leave the building, call your friend and cuss my name on the streetcar all you want, but do not ever let any of that show in the room. Not just out of respect for a fellow artist doing their best (i.e.me), but because by doing that it makes you look like a selfish entitled prat - which you may well actually be. Either way, it will not usually get you the role - regardless of how well you sing.
It IS a hard job as I have said more than once now. I once heard a singer complain to a panel that in their previous audition they were given a brand new song to learn and they were asked to come back for a call-back - the next day! “How unfair,” they said! I had a good internal chuckle over that as I eyed-off his binder, which he held in his hands (as opposed to giving to me) while he complained about this impossible feat, before, sermon completed, he handed me the music to sight-read, in real-time, at his actual audition, a song I had never seen before in my life - with exactly 0 seconds to learn it. 24 hours? Luxury!
As I said, how you approach and talk to a panel could be a whole other article in itself. But nevertheless, there is one more important point. Don’t assume everyone on the panel wants to shake hands with you at the beginning or end of the audition. I know people on panels who are very grossed out by this, while some don’t care at all. Some people just don't want to shake 40 hand in a day and who can blame them? More probably care about it nowadays for obvious reasons. There are ways to greet people without shaking their hands. Practice that too - with a friend or family member - so it doesn't look like something out of a Monty Python sketch.
Some other things you might find funny and instructive: Please keep your headshots up-to-date. I am bad for this too and should practice what I preach, but I am not auditioning for things. I know it is expensive to get new headshots. But don’t be the person who had this said about them after they left the audition room (and yes I DID hear this!):
Director: “Wow, she was quite good!”
Choreographer: “Yeah. Too bad she used her daughter’s headshot”.
Catty I know, but it was kind of true.
In conclusion, I have to admit I have no idea why I wrote this article. I used to write a lot when I was younger - a child and a teen - but haven’t for years. I am not sure why I picked this topic. But I am really happy I wrote SOMETHING and I hope you found it useful. I should also say that in all truthfulness, I love being an audition pianist. l love living on the edge. It’s challenging and fun. And as I said, I can walk away at the end of the day having responsibility for only my own feelings about how I played on that particular day. I don’t have to cast anyone. But the best part is: How wonderful is it to be able to perform with 30-40 singers in one day? I really mean that. 30-40 opportunities to enter another world, soar out of the everyday, with someone I may not even know - together. It is a moment in time with another human during which we get to communicate on a very real and immediate level. Just for a few minutes. And then I get to do it again with a brand new person. How lucky am I?
See you at your next audition!
I sincerely hoped you enjoyed reading this blog - I am grateful to you for doing so. Please check out my other blogs here.
I would love you to hear some of my songs here.
Thank you so much!