Tips for singers

So lately, I’ve been to several different churches, where I’ve had the opportunity to view different cantors/choirs and how they sing. And I’ve come up with a few tips for singers (ALL singers, not just church ones).

And yes, some of these are pretty basic. But bear with me.

  1. Breathe from your diaphragm. As my first voice teacher told me: “Imagine there’s an inner tube around your middle, and you have to breathe out to touch it.” Do not move your shoulders! You should inhale, deeply, from your diaphragm and fill your lungs from the bottom up. This allows for more air!
  2. Open your mouth! Form the vowels with your mouth. If you just sort of open it, there’s no place for the sound to resonate. This affects pitch, tone–basically everything. Nice, round “O”s, please! (Or whatever) Another trick from my high school choir director: Sing like there’s a Hershey’s Kiss on your tongue and you don’t want to touch the tip of it.
  3. Raise your eyebrows! This also helps with pitch and resonance.
  4. Along with three: Have a pleasant expression on your face. Look like you enjoy what you’re doing, as opposed to looking as if you are about to face the rack.
  5. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, knees relaxed. Shoulders back for maximum breath allowance! Also–good posture, stand up straight!
  6. Remember your ending consonants. Vowels are super-important, but without the beginning and ending consonants, we’re not going to know what you’re saying. Help us out. 🙂

These are tips that are, like I said, basic. But they make the sound and experience so much better, for both singer and listener.


More P&B thoughts

More thoughts from yesterday’s Porgy and Bess post: one of the complaints from the creative team and some of the actors is that there isn’t any back story for the characters, thus they seem one-dimensional. So the creative team is adding back story.

Back story is something actors do on their own, in order to more fully flesh out the character once they are onstage. You don’t depend on the script to give you everything about your character–some things you decide on your own. Yes, the actor needs a back story of some sort to bring a character to life, but that doesn’t mean the author has to provide you with it. Some of it is your own work! That’s one of the fun things about acting!

Normally, hints of back story are evident in shows, usually in the “I Want” song, where a character express what s/he “wants”. Some examples: Belle’s “Belle” in Beauty and the Beast; Elphaba’s “The Wizard and I” from Wicked; “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair; “Where Is Love?” from Oliver. In Les Miz, we understand Fantine’s history from “I Dreamed A Dream”; we get Christine’s back story in Phantom of the Opera from “Angel of Music” (and the accompanying dialogue). In plays, you’ll get it too, like Abigail’s relationship with John Proctor in The Crucible. So I would guess most shows provide you a structure that you can base your back story on, as an actor. But if you want more, you have to come up with it, as you study the character, and then find ways to communicate that onstage. Theater would be mighty boring if every character’s entire life story was introduced before the plot could get underway!


How do you solve a problem like…

Porgy and Bess?

The American Repertory Theater in Connecticut is putting on a new version of the Gershwin American opera classic. And some people–most notably Stephen Sondheim–are not happy with it.

Why isn’t Mr. Sondheim happy? Because it’s much more of a “rewrite” than a “revival.” The director is adding “back story” which, apparently, isn’t in the original P&B. Audra McDonald, who’s playing Bess, sees her character as one-dimensional. So the powers that be are changing that. The highly-praised ending, Porgy’s “I’m On My Way”, is being tampered with in (some say) unacceptable ways.

The crux of the debate is: When is it re-staging–bringing a fresh eye to an older work–and when is it against the composer’s intentions? Sondheim states that he’s overseen several re-stagings of his works–most notably with Company and Sweeney Todd–and that he approves the changes those directors have made. Obviously he’s not against new ideas, per se. The big difference, however, is that Sondheim is alive, and able to give a thumbs up or down to what directors do to his pieces. The Gershwins aren’t. Whose to say, as the director does, that they would have changed Porgy and Bess eventually? (I think that’s a bit presumptuous–what, is she having seances with the Gershwins on a regular basis?)

Obviously, directors have a vision for their pieces. Sometimes they set Macbeth in the 1940s, and sometimes Hamlet is a modern-day retelling. These can be very brilliant. They can also be awful. But what the current production is doing is fundamentally changing the show as written. This is equivalent to what people used to do to the end of Lear–Cordelia lives! Lear lives! All is well! But that fundamentally changes what the story is about, and what the audience is meant to take from it.

One of the biggest problems I have with this is the way the director talks down to the audience. Apparently, she thinks we have the attention span of gnats. (She’s quoted in the link above.)

There is a fundamental difference between reinterpreting, and rewriting. For example: The recent production of Earnest that I was in moved up the story period to the Edwardian era, instead of the end of the Victorian era, where Wilde originally placed his story. This happens all the time in opera. Some people actually have fits about this. But really, sometimes it works. And again, sometimes it doesn’t. But we didn’t change the characters, or add extra speeches for Earnest, or anything like that. We stuck with what Wilde wrote and made our interpretations based on that.

Opera, especially, is where people tend to be very sensitive on this subject. Audiences boo interpretations and directors they don’t like. Mary Zimmerman’s La Sonambula is one example of this. It sounds like what’s happening at the A.R.T is a director taking original material and then adding/subtracting to serve her own needs and what she thinks “today’s audience” wants.  As an audience member, I find that insulting. As an actress, I’d be sort of horrified. Not that a play is a SACRED TEXT, but messing with authorial intention? Not something I’d be really keen to do. I’ve been very lucky to work with directors that haven’t done this.

Bottom line: if you want to gut something, write your own version.

(And a note: In the case of Zimmerman–I have to say I like what I’ve seen of her opera direction. She gives her actors/actresses something to do, and I love her version of Armida)

Auditioning II: Plays

Like I said in Part I, I think auditioning for plays is easier. 🙂 But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare! Here are some tips:

1) Read the play! (obvious, I know). My Tips for Actors says to read it AT LEAST three times before you audition. That way you know your character’s interaction with the others, you have a sense of character, the plot is firmly in the brain.

2) Learn the accent. Auditioning with an accent is a huge thing. I find watching dependable movies to help. BBC films for British, The Secret Lives of Bees, Gone With the Wind, etc. for Southern. Or listen to snippets of speech online.

3) If you have to have a monologue, select it, and then memorize it. Try to pick something that shows why you are right for this character/play.

4) “Block” your monologue. Figure out hand movements, if you want to sit, gestures, etc.

5) Do some research on the play. Who’s the author? What’s the performance history? The more preparation you do now, the better you will be prepared for the audition.

6) Dress to channel the character you want. That doesn’t mean be totally in costume, but try to suggest the character/era/situation in your clothing.

7) Be polite! Say thank you!

8) If you have to read with others, play nice. Don’t be standoffish.

9) bring a resume and head shot, if you have them. Bring copies (I usually bring between 3-5, just in case)

10) Be confident! Own that stage.


Auditioning Part I: For musicals

In general, I find musical auditions to be more angst-inducing than for plays. For a play, you’re either reading from the script, or you’re preparing a monologue. There are many good monologue books out there, so finding material is not so difficult. Practice it, get it memorized (if required), read the play AT LEAST three times through, and then go do your thing.

But musicals? Yeah. You need, um, music. And maybe dancing. And possibly reading.


So I’m going to focus on the music part.

Things to bring to a musical audition: WATER. Your resume (if you have one). Head shot (again, if you have one). MUSIC, with copies for everyone who needs it. Mark the music. (More on this below) Throat drops. A pencil/pen. If it’s a dance audition, bring dance clothes and shoes (or wear clothes you can move in). Character shoes will usually work for dance auditions, unless otherwise specified.

Here are some hints/tips/general rules:

1) DO NOT SING: Sondheim. Just don’t do it. Almost all musical theater audition sites will tell you this. Sometimes people can pull of some “Into the Woods” stuff, and I know one guy who can sing “Being Alive” from Company like nobody’s business, but, in general, Sondheim is hard to play, and it’s hard to sing. So try something else.

2) Also DO NOT SING: Anything from massively popular musicals, because the directors are sick. of. it. So that means no “Wicked”, also no “Les Miz” (yes, it’s still in the “do not sing” category), no Rent, no “whatever the hottest musical is right now” stuff. It might not be a good fit for your voice, and casting directors want t hear you, not you imitating the opening of The Book of Mormon.

3) Sing something that shows your voice to its best advantage. This might sound obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it. Don’t try to sing soprano stuff if you’re an alto. Don’t try to belt if you’re not a belter. Play to your strengths. A vocal coach will be enormously helpful here.

4) Sing something you are comfortable with. This is not the time to try out new material!

5) Also, memorize it! You cannot bring the sheet music up on stage with you! (Unless the audition notice specifically states that you can.) Make sure it is memorized!

6) A note on the evil 16 bar length: Some places really mean it. Some don’t. Some will let you go a bit farther, and others will cut you off. In general, don’t sway too much from 16 bars. Make sure the phrasing makes sense; finish the musical thought (i.e, the verse, the refrain, whatever). But  do not take advantage of no length limits to sing entire songs, especially long ones. It is highly, highly rude. Sing something relatively brief.COROLLARY: If you are singing two pieces (like, a 16 bar ballad and a 16 bar up-tempo), you MUST stick with 16 bars, or the director/accompanist/other auditioners will kill you. DO NOT WASTE TIME.

7) Bring a clean copy, if at all possible, for the accompanist. Mark where you want to start, and where you want to end. Practice giving your tempo. I have a black binder that holds a few (3-5) copied songs, in page protectors, so it’s easier to turn. Some places ask for a copy for the director, so be sure you have that. Try not to bring the book since it’s bulky and can be hard to set on the music stand of the piano, depending on the model.

8 ) Some accompanists are awesome. Some are not. But YOU are singing here. If the accompanist totally messes up, don’t let it rile you–you can stop and ask him/her to start again. In general, I choose a piece that most accompanists won’t have trouble with. You don’t want something uber-complicated for them to play, unless you know the person, and know that they can handle it.

9) Remember your stage presence! Practice announcing yourself, your song, and what show it’s from. It’s theater! Be loud! 🙂

10) Try not to do too much Idol hand motions. You know what I Mean–the arms rising with crescendo, the random jazz hands, etc. Don’t be a statue, but don’t be over the top. Practice in front of a mirror or your voice teacher, or a friend. (Or all three)

11) Dress comfortably, especially if there is a dance audition. If you are auditioning for a certain character, try to channel that character in your make-up, hair and clothing choices. (For example: When I auditioned for The Importance of Being Earnest, I wore my hair half up/half down, wore a tea-length teal dress, and pearls. It worked–I got cast.) This is not the day to break in character shoes!

12) Usually the dance audition is given to you that day, as in you don’t know the combination beforehand. Concentrate and do your best. Remember to smile!

13) Bringing a resume is another way to up your game (I’ll have a post on that soon). Headshots are usually not required, but if you’re serious about auditioning for higher-level theater (regionals/Equity), it would help to have them handy.

14) Be polite to everyone–assistants, casting directors, staff, and other auditioners. Thank the accompanist and the directors when you are finished.

15) Songs from the show: Very few places allow this. If you’re not sure, ask. It helps if you are familiar with the show and can sing something similar to what the show is like, or something from the composer’s work. When I auditioned for Jekyll and Hyde, I sang something from The Scarlet Pimpernel.  If they do allow it, try to pick something less common from the show. For example, if it’s Children of Eden, and you want to audition for Yonah, don’t sing “Stranger to the Rain”–try to get the music for “Sailor of the Skies”, or sing part of “In The Beginning.”

16) Some places will do vocal testing–scales, intervals–to get a sense of your range. If you know your range in scientific voice notation, write it on your resume. It’s helpful.

17) It helps very much if you are familiar with the show you are auditioning for. Buy the CD, learn the music, read a synopsis or the libretto itself. The more familiar you are with it, the better you will prepare (at least, I think so). And if you get cast, you’ve already done a lot of prep work!