Getting In

So many college programs. So many singers auditioning. If you’re in that mix of singers, how can you prepare to have the best audition possible? To find out the answer to this question, we polled university professors—those who listen to the auditions and make the admissions decisions—to get their advice for high school singers. Find out what they see singers doing well, what mistakes they see again and again, and what really makes a lasting and winning impression.

What can a high school singer do to stand out for an audition for an undergrad program?
Debra Lambert (chair of music and vocal arts and director of the Musical Theatre Conservatory at Notre Dame de Namur University): Prepare well. Have your music solid. Show us that you want to be seen and heard. Dress professionally. Have your music clean and ready for an accompanist. For recorded accompaniments, have your tracks lined up and ready to go.

Grant Knox (assistant professor of voice, director of Lyric Theatre, and director of the Summer Young Artist Vocal Experience at Furman University): First of all, the student needs to be prepared. This means knowing pitches, rhythms, and singing with good diction. We would rather hear a simple song well prepared than a complex song with mistakes. Beyond that, we want to see some expression and personality in your singing. We don’t expect perfection, but we do want to see an audition that shows how much you love singing. In our auditions, we also test sight singing. I am always impressed by the singers that do well in that part of the audition.

Stephen Futrell (director of choral activities and associate professor of music at Elon University): I would suggest that students not just pick “two contrasting selections” for the sake of just picking pieces. Or pick different languages just for the sake of picking different languages. I would suggest students pick selections that have some meaning to them. Get into the translation and “like” what it is they are singing.

Oftentimes, there will be very good singers that perform great literature and, technically, they perform at about the same level. What sets someone apart is expression. Are they telling the story? Are they expressing the meaning of the text? Are they into what they are singing about?

I think it was Beethoven (and I’m totally paraphrasing) that stated that to play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.

Paul Houghtaling (associate professor of voice and director of opera at the University of Alabama): Strive for a genuine authenticity and not a copy of a recording. Work for a natural, honest, personal performance that truly communicates and moves people listening to the audition.

Melissa Foster (senior lecturer of musical theatre at Northwestern University): The best thing you can do to stand out as a musical theatre auditionee is to be yourself. Sing material you love. Know it very well. Don’t feel that you need to show us every single thing you can do. Don’t feel that you have to show belt and legit, and ballad and up tempo, and golden age and contemporary all in two tiny cuts. We just want to see you, singing material that you feel good about. Really, there is no secret trick about material—as long as it is a good fit that shows off your strengths and doesn’t accentuate your weaknesses.

Nadine Gomes (full-time lecturer in voice in the Theatre Conservatory in the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University): We aren’t looking for perfection, we are looking for potential! We want to see your passion and your personality, as well as your talent. The students who stand out to me have healthy, colorful, and unique voices with warm and inquisitive personalities to match. At 17, most voices are not fully formed; seamless throughout the range; equally at home in mix, belt, and legit; etc. This is not what we are expecting. You have things to learn, and we have things to teach you.

What’s a common mistake high school singers make that could easily be remedied?
Lambert: Worrying too much and letting nerves get in the way. Take a couple of deep breaths and sing because you love it. Remember auditions are a two-way experience. In this meeting, you are auditioning the school and its faculty as much as they are auditioning you. What will the school offer you?

Knox: Choosing pieces that are too difficult or beyond them artistically. We want to hear a young, vibrant voice with potential, not a finished product.

Foster: First to their résumé—it should have their musical experiences clearly listed. Some folks provide work history (employment), service or volunteer work, etc., and then I can’t see if they were in choir, if they sang any solos, etc.
I would suggest that students contact the choir director and/or a voice teacher at the college where they would like to attend. (If the college folks are doing their job in terms of recruiting, they may very well have already contacted the student—or they should have!) Meet with a professor, many places offer a mini-voice lesson—take it, sit in on a choir rehearsal, meet current students, and ask questions. Be seen to have a real interest in absorbing the experience and information available.

Houghtaling: Again, I advise against being a “copy cat” in your audition. Don’t try to sound like Idina, or Barbra, or Audra. Sound like you and work toward your own musicianship and expressivity within the style.

Gomes: It still shocks me, but many students come into the audition room with an air of arrogance or indifference—and that is a major turnoff, no matter how talented that singer is. If we don’t want to spend five minutes with you, we don’t want to spend four years with you! We are looking for strong individual talent, but we also want people who will be kind and supportive colleagues. Theatre is all about ensemble and community, and this is especially important in an intense conservatory environment.

What general advice do you give to high school singers who are preparing for a college audition?
Lambert: We want to know if you are “teachable.” Can you accept direction? Are you eager to grow? What will you bring to the program? Will you work well with other students? Are you “real”? We are about to spend four years together—we want to know who you are. We assume you have a voice and want to sing!

Knox: Take piano lessons along with your voice lessons in high school. It will help your general musicianship and make you a better singer in the long run. It will also help you to understand music theory once you go to school.

Futrell: I’m a parent and I understand wanting to know what’s going on and asking questions and, in a sense, looking after my son or daughter. However, I would encourage the student to take the initiative. Instead of the parent calling a professor, the student should take it upon themselves to make contact—and when at the auditions, [they should] ask questions and take initiative.

I can see where it’s a delicate dance as they want to respect their parents. But showing that initiative and asking pertinent questions (which they should have in mind what they want to ask before they come) shows that they truly have interest, curiosity, and mindfulness and are teachable.

Houghtaling: Choose your audition repertoire carefully! This is true for classical (opera) auditions as well as musical theatre. A varied program—different styles, tempi, languages (for classical), periods, etc. Choose keys appropriately. Don’t sing something which is a little too high, for instance. If the song brings your belt voice into a range which just isn’t comfortable yet, choose another song that suits you better. Put that first selection away until your technique can better handle it.

Finally, dress nicely! Even if it’s a musical theatre audition (sometimes a bit more casual than a classical audition), you still want to look like a “together” young professional and not a high school student.

Foster: Most importantly, prepare early. Flying to auditions while being a high school senior can be very stressful. If your auditions and prescreen tapes are prepared over the summer, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Sara Thomas

Sara Thomas is editor of Classical Singer magazine. She welcomes your comments.