Skills You Need for a Musical Theatre Program : Part 1

This is Part 1 of this article. For Part 2, click here.


Get professional vocal guidance during the audition process. Your current vocal teacher will help you understand your voice and put together a good audition package. You need another set of eyes and ears.

Your voice is still in flux in high school; you may feel that you have several voices because your registers are not unified yet. This is age-appropriate and normal. Pick pieces that show you off to your best advantage; don’t just try to sing the hardest piece you can find.

  • Study regularly with a vocal technique teacher who understands Musical Theatre repertoire, styles, and performance practices. Work with a technique teacher for at least a year before college auditions. Don’t just squeeze a few lessons in before audition season.
  • If your technique teacher is not a strong pianist, find an excellent vocal coach who can help you to feel more comfortable with the accompaniment and cuts for your audition pieces.
  • You may also need pre-recorded MP3s of your accompaniments for some auditions, so a vocal coach can help you there, as well. Use these MP3s to practice your pieces. The has pre-recorded MP3s for sale many musical theatre songs. You can also find good tracks on Spotify and iTunes. Most auditions want 16-32 bar cuts so you need a live pianist to make recordings of your audition cuts.

Music Theory

If your high school offers a music theory class, TAKE IT!  If you can take AP Music Theory, so much the better. If not, use online resources as well as self-study books. Find a class at a local community music school; for most students, classroom settings for music theory are preferable.

The pace in college programs is extremely fast, and you need to be able to teach yourself lots of music quickly and accurately. Also, good ears are essential for MT singers! Ear training skills such as dictation and aural identification of intervals, chords, and scales help you develop your inner ear and quicken the pace of learning new music.

Also, contemporary MT repertoire is incredibly musically and rhythmically complicated! If you want to sing songs by Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, and Andrew Lippa, (not to mention classic MT composers like Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz, and Stephen Sondheim), you must have excellent rhythmic skills and strong ears.

Here are eleven basic skills I recommend you have for admission into competitive programs or in order to test out of beginning music theory at other programs:

  1. Fluent and immediate note reading in both treble and bass clefs, including up to three ledger lines above and below the staves. The Every Good Boy Does Fine method is not fast enough! You need to recognize notes names as immediately as you do letters of the alphabet, and you should be able to plunk the note in the proper octave on the piano. Use flashcards or online programs/smartphone apps to get speedier. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this skill!
  2. Strong rhythmic and counting skills; be able to identify and count triplets, whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, as well as equivalent rests; the ability to write counts into music. You should also be able to speak and clap in rhythm.
  3. Understanding of double, triple, and compound time signatures (2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 12/8, 2/2, 3/2, 5/8, 7/8, etc…).
  4. Basic music terminology regarding dynamics, tempo, and articulation (crescendo, staccato, ritard, forte, fermata, allegro, etc…).
  5. Visually recognize and write out all major and minor key signatures.
  6. Visually recognize, write out, and sing the major scale, as well as the three different minor scales (natural, harmonic, and melodic) in any key.
  7. Interval singing, as well as aural and visual interval identification, ascending and descending (2nds, 3rds, etc…, up to an octave — major, minor, perfect, augmented and diminished).
  8. Triad identification, aural and written (major, minor, diminished, and augmented).
  9. Seventh chord identification, aural and written (M7, m7, Mm7 or V7, ø7, º7, +7).
  10. Sight-singing with solfège syllables (do,re,mi, etc..) and with text (some programs have sight reading as a component of their audition!). Most schools use moveable do versus fixed do.
  11. Basic rhythmic dictation and melodic dictation in both major and minor keys.

Theory Resources

  • For those interested in working on music theory on their own, I recommend Music Theory CompleteMaster Theory (a 6-book series)
  • For online help,, an excellent site with free lessons, as well as aural and visual trainers.  This website also offers a smartphone app called Tenuto.


You don’t have to be Stephen Sondheim but having some basic skills at the piano is essential for a professional MT singer. You often get sent callback material the night before an audition, and you need to be able to teach yourself the music. You also need to be able to work on your solo repertoire, as well as music from the shows you will be in. If you must depend on other people to teach you music, you are going to fall way behind. You don’t need to be a concert pianist, but you should at least aspire to be a good plunker!

Here are seven recommended piano skills for an MT singer:

  1. Accurately plunk out a melody or harmony part on the piano in tempo, regardless of key signature.
  2. Play while watching the music rather than your hands; not just relying on your ear.
  3. Play basic triads and seventh chords, at least in root position
  4. Read and play chord symbols, at least in root position–if more advanced, in inversions
    • (G add9, Fsus4, C/D, etc…)
  5. Play basic vocal exercises and warm-up patterns and modulate by half-step up and down the keyboard.
  6. Some right hand/left hand coordination and independence.
  7. Please note, that the more competitive programs may require you to play some solo pieces and/or sight-read at the piano at your audition!
Nadine Gomes

Nadine Gomes has spent her career exploring the genres of musical theatre, jazz, and opera as a singer and voice teacher. She is a full-time Lecturer in Voice in the Theatre Conservatory in the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where she has been on faculty since 2004.   Nadine received an M.M. in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy from the Music Conservatory in CCPA at Roosevelt University, she earned a B.S. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, and she was a Vocal Jazz Performance Major at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her students sing on Broadway, in national tours, in regional theatres, and throughout Chicago.