Never Audition Again! : An Interview with Master Teacher Janet Bookspan

At a critical junction in my career, I found my way to Janet Bookspan who quickly moved me past a serious performance block and onto my “singing feet” for the very first time. She taught me how to find my singing soul and express it. I’m in debt to her for much of what I became as a singer. She will be at the CS Convention (May 27-30) working with singers. —Editor

[From the Classical Singer archives (formerly called The New York Opera Newsletter, April 1989)]

Generally speaking, what repertoire should singers start with at an audition or competition, in the absence of a specific request?

I suggest you begin with the aria that you feel best suits your voice and temperament. It should show the beauty, range and quality of your instrument, your interpretive skills and technical security. The first selection should have variety within it and not be too long. Also, avoid new or unfamiliar repertoire; it generally does not work to your advantage. What I’ve just said seems so obvious, yet many times, I’ve heard singers begin an audition with an aria or song so ill chosen that they are thrown off balance for the rest of the audition.

Sometimes you hear singers singing the wrong repertoire for their voices. How can a singer find the right repertoire?

By the time a singer comes to work with me, his teacher or coaches have already explored many different kinds of repertoire and know what suits him and what feels best. Knowing what you’re not pursuing helps decide what you are pursuing. I feel the right repertoire should be vocally comfortable and enhance your own temperament and personality in performance. These are roles you understand emotionally as well as musically and intellectually. These are roles that will respond to your insights. These are roles whose characters you have something to say about, so that your expression of their thoughts makes their music seem more felt than sung. These are roles you have the stamina to sing from beginning to end. For instance, an Alfredo today can develop into a Rodolfo, then perhaps Hoffmann and maybe later on into an Otello when these roles fit the above criteria.

What advice do you give singers about auditions?

An audition is a full communication of who you are, what you can do, and how you do it. A good auditioner is one who competes willingly, wants to be heard, wants to be seen, wants a response and who is ready to stand and be counted. It is possible to get into such a healthy frame of mind that you can actually enjoy auditioning. Think of it as a performance opportunity. It gives you a chance to show your stuff, to practice your craft and to meet a challenge. Don’t audition: PERFORM!

Your audition begins with your entrance, so show how professional, secure and charming you are. Don’t be defensive. Treat the people for whom you are singing as an audience. Give a performance. Entertain them. Remember the purpose of an audition is to show what you’ve got in your package. Do the best you can do at the moment and then go on to your next project.

If you are using the audition as an opportunity to polish your auditioning techniques, then set yourself a specific goal or two for each opportunity. However, professionals who audition singers all the time frequently remember how you sounded to them the first time. So be very choosey about how and when you present yourself and to whom. Wait until you are ready. People don’t forget first impressions.

How do you suggest singers deal with audition nerves?

There are good nerves and bad nerves. Nerves that arise out of excitement are good, while those that cause terror and panic are destructive, i.e. not good! Well-used nerves help create an exciting and animated performance. It’s the ignition that can turn an audience (or auditioners) “on.”

However, you have to develop an attitude that enables you to perform well consistently under pressure. Focus on what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. If you enjoy your “performance,” so will everyone else. Energy put into fear takes away energy from performance. Performers tend to try too hard when they become self-critical and then the self-doubts begin. To control those negative impulses, I suggest the following plan:

1. Prepare by rehearsing the work, NOT the anxiety produced by the work.

2. Review your special qualities, i.e., your performance strengths, and know you have the tools you need to get the job done well.

3. Set yourself a specific goal or two to achieve in this performance (keep them simple and realistic) and then concentrate on accomplishing them. When both your mental and physical your energies are focused on these tasks you’ve chosen, (i.e., doing your job on stage), you’ll be too busy to write your own reviews while you’re performing or to let the critical demons of self-consciousness and self-doubt distract you.

Dealing with my own nerves has been an interesting situation. I have performed professionally since I was four years old so being on stage was a natural part of growing up. I loved it. I never had to audition as I was engaged by reputation or recommendation or by someone who had seen me in performance. But after I lost my voice, regained it and had to start auditioning, I realized I didn’t know how to audition! After six real failures, I began to organize some effective procedures that helped me. I realized that I resented being judged, that I hated auditions but I loved performing. So, I reevaluated my approaches and decided to change my attitude. At the next audition, I gave a performance and was called back!

What about nerves and stage fright?

There is a difference between stage fright (aka performance anxiety) and performance nerves. While it’s true that anxiety channeled constructively can create a great performance, debilitating anxiety can block creativity. There are different degrees of stage fright depending on how threatened the performer feels, just as there are different causes for it. Those degrees that immobilize a performer need professional help before he can come to grips with the interferences that are blocking his performing potential.

These days this subject is being addressed aggressively both medically and psychologically. Solutions range from self-help books to medications (beta blockers such as Inderal), to hypnosis, to expressive therapies, to professional counseling.

I feel psychotherapeutic help is one of the most effective, long-term solutions to uncover and deal with underlying reasons a performer feels insecure or inadequate.

Any other helps for stage fright?

If in your preparation of each song or aria on your list, you decide WHY you (or your character) is saying what he or she is saying, you’ll be so busy carrying out your intentions that nerves and anxiety will not be an issue. You like to perform, so do it with pleasure. If you enjoy your performance, so will your audience.

The Miller Health Care Institute for Performing Artists in NYC [212.496.4700] has a clinic devoted to the treatment of “occupational disorders for performers resulting from the practice of their art forms as well as general medical conditions affecting performers.” They are now offering a model program for psychotherapy counseling where fees will be charged on a sliding scale. The treatment of performance anxiety is one of their special concerns.

Janet Bookspan is a dramatic coach who does masterclasses throughout the United States and works privately with advanced singers in New York City. Her specialties are holistic work with interpretation, characterization, dramatic focus, stage personality, presence, audition nerves and performance blocks.

To contact Ms. Bookspan, please see the Coach Directory from the Classical Singer homepage at www.classicalsinger.com.

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. Read more about her incredible life and contributions to the singing community here.