A Tool- Not The Tool: : Managers, Conductors and Administrators Talk About Tapes


“Tapes are one of the least important elements of your package”; says John J. Miller, a former professional singer turned manager, who also writes and lectures on the subject of young singers getting work. “A tape helps you weed out a few people, but it does not get you opera jobs. Orchestra conductors will sometimes use them, but opera, never.”

Miller receives about six unsolicited tapes per month. “They stack up for months, and eventually I try to listen because I try to be courteous.” However, he admits, if the basketball game on TV is more enticing or if he’s simply too busy, unrequested tapes are apt to fall by the wayside.

Despite his willingness to listen as time allows, Miller is not a believer in tapes as an introductory tool. “Send them when there’;s already some interest,” he counsels. “Tapes are of limited value and never replace a live audition, he maintains, though they might spark enough interest to set up a hearing. They show if a person sings in tune and phonates well. They do not show size of voice, and,” Miller says, “most distinctive aspects of a voice are not evident on tape”

Plus, some voices sound great on recordings and completely different in the theater. He prefers live recordings, made in a large space with plenty of ambient sound, to studio efforts. Studios are too artificial and there’s the whole editing issue. “I look askance at studio recordings; but, they’re better than nothing.”

Miller repeatedly emphasizes the value of personal referrals accompanying any materials, and the importance of résumés and photos over tapes. Pictures will make you spend two minutes on a résumé instead of one, he says. Your picture should give people an idea of what you look like on stage. Next, he looks at the résumé to see where and with whom a singer has worked, and who they’ve studied with. “If it’s interesting enough, I’ll make a phone call.”

Some singers do too much to try to promote themselves in the beginning instead of getting noticed through competitions, apprenticeship programs, and work. “Advertising and PR mean nothing until you reach a high level in your career,” Miller says. “There are only about 100 people who deal with this business, and we all know each other and to gossip. Create a buzz about yourself.”

Networking is the most important tool for getting the attention of an agent or opera company, according to Miller. Beginners fail to use personal referrals. Make contacts through coaches and conductors. “If someone I esteem professionally recommends a singer, I’ll listen to a demo tape.”

Oratorio Society Of New York

“A tape is one of those first barriers,”says Lyndon Woodside, whose conducting credits include the English Chamber Orchestra, Prague Symphony, and Orchestre Pasdeloup. “If something piques my interest, I’ll listen.”

Woodside finds tapes a useful screening tool. He doesn’t mind getting unsolicited tapes, and he usually listens to them. He finds studio and live recordings equally acceptable, but presentation is important.

“Sometimes people send them with a cutesy letter, or something that’s a little too pushy. That turns me off”

In addition to listening to the voice, Woodside looks for good sound quality, a good accompanist, and no glaring typos or misspellings on accompanying materials. He also likes to hear the basics. “It’s nice to hear unusual things, but every tape should have some standard repertoire.”

The Oratorio Society Competition utilizes tapes in their first round of auditioning, but even the perfectly presented tape can be deceptive, and Woodside admits “I’ve been fooled. Some of the people I passed on to the next level weren’t the quality I thought they were. There are just some voices that the electronic media is kind to. Some performances were obviously made a number of years ago, and the singer was no longer in that kind of vocal shape. A few times, the singers were actually a lot better. I don’t trust tapes entirely. Ninety percent are not really high quality. There’s extra noise, poor balance, or a bad accompanist. The highest quality tape is really the most productive.”


“If I’m interested in auditioning a new singer, I much prefer to hear the singer live rather than on tape”; says Daniel Beckwith, a frequent guest conductor at the Met and other major houses in the U.S. and abroad. “While most tapes represent the voice as accurately as possible (vocal quality, range, diction, musicality, style), many are edited with splices and sound enhancement, and they don’t convey the singer’s ability to communicate. Also, audio tapes do not give the listener reasonable assurance that the voice projects sufficiently in a large hall.”

Beckwith is not a fan of live performances on tape. “Unless the performance is being recorded for a radio broadcast, usually the chances for a good, ‘in house’; tape are slim. Tapes of live performances are not apt to represent the singer’s best work.” Still, if a tape is the only solution, Beckwith urges singers to pay attention to details in order to produce the highest quality recording. “;A mediocre accompanist can spoil the product,”he says. “Make sure balances between voice and piano or instruments are correct from the beginning.”

And if you’re not in good form when your recording date comes around, cautions Beckwith, be good to yourself and cancel. “You may be surprised to hear how clearly that comes through on your tape! Remember: there will always be another time to make a demo tape.”

“No one trusts a tape on its face value, but it’s a good tool for general information,” says Julian Reed, whose hats at Austin Lyric Opera include music administrator, assistantconductor, chorus master, and head coach. Reed and his boss, General Director Joseph McClain, use demo tapes primarily to determine whether they would like to hear a singer in auditions. Tapes often fail to show size of voice or whether it will carry over an orchestra. The total effect of the performance is not always represented well. But they can pique interest in a singer, Reed says.

In general, though, Reed doesn’t like studio tapes. “A mike back in the theater with an audience shows more. Live performances show so much. They show you in the role and give the listener a point of reference. My advice to singers is if they get even a hint that an archival tape of a performance is being made, get to know the right person and get a copy.”

The right people may include the production stage manager or the music administrator. And many companies broadcast performances locally, so tapes are often available when one requests them politely and through the proper channels.

“Tapes with piano are okay when you’;re considering people for auditions,” Reed allows. “CDs are really fun to get. There’;s something inviting about a CD. And they store better.”

CDs can also be cheap to produce. “If you do a glass master (as opposed to digital),” he says, “ou can reproduce 200 CDs for $4 each.”

“Whatever the format, if it’s unsolicited, it’s annoying” says Reed, “Videotapes are really an inconvenience.”

Unsolicited tapes, even from managers, are much less likely to be heard than ones that are requested or come with personal recommendations. I know one person in this company who was hired off a tape, but she had strong personal recommendations.

“Word-of-mouth from your colleagues is fabulous. When a singer is working in your cast and has a recommendation, I listen. Professionals tend not to give recommendations lightly, because they don’t want their opinions to garner disrespect.”

“Once you’ve got your recommendation” says Reed, “It’s still vital to insure that you’re sending appropriate material for the roles you’re auditioning for; and quantity is not as important as quality. It’s better not to send anything at all than to send something bad.”

“Even if you’re sending your best, it had better catch the listener’s attention right away. You put a tape in and hear ”

“Chhhhaaaaay-lo e maaaar,”; Reed warbles in an exaggerated, twangy voice, “You flick it off right away. Grab attention. Put your strong suit first. It needs to show something”

He is adamant about sound quality. “Most opera companies don’t invest in high quality stereo equipment. We have boom boxes. If you have a really tinny, crappy tape, it’s going to sound even worse on bad equipment.”

Never, ever, ever have a high-speed dub. The sound quality is horrible. It cuts off the high frequencies and makes the voice sound dull, especially for women’s voices. Another big mistake is to send a tape you made in a practice room or your teacher’s voice studio. That’s pretty useless. Send a copy of the master, not a copy of a copy. And when you copy, don’t use Dolby. On bad equipment, it sounds horrible!

And finally, even if you’re sending a high-quality archival tape, make sure you’re the star of the show. Reed tells of an artist who submitted a tape that made him sit up and take notice of another singer! “The singer being put forth was fine, but the standout was the singer we ended up hiring.”

Linda C. Cotman

Lina C. Cotman was associate editor for Classical Singer magazine from 1998 to 1999.