The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) is celebrating its 75th year as the prominent professional organization for voice teachers. In 1944, 13 teachers and 87 proxies voted at a Music Teachers National Association convention luncheon in Cincinnati, Ohio, in favor of forming NATS with the purpose of “establishing and maintaining the highest standards of ethical principles and practice in the profession, and to establish and maintain the highest possible standards of competence in the voice teaching profession, to conduct and encourage research and to disseminate resulting information to the profession at large, and to encourage effective cooperation among vocal teachers for their protection, welfare, and advancement” (www.nats.org/history-of-nats.html).
Since the establishment of NATS as a governing organization of vocal educators, members have served teachers and students by publishing peer-reviewed research in the NATS Journal of Singing and supporting teachers with pedagogical training programs. NATS Chat, a NATS sponsored online forum, hosts live chats and covers relevant topics in the singing community. Two of the most popular and beneficial opportunities for students are the masterclasses and annual auditions.
What’s in It for Me?
Every state chapter hosts an annual audition, followed by regional auditions where students can qualify for nationals. At the national level, students submit videos online to compete for a live audition at the national convention. Singers are adjudicated at each level by three NATS members who score the performance and write constructive comments.
If you are in the business of “competing to win,” then NATS auditions might not be for you. Although top singers are ranked and get to sing in the final concerts, this event is intended to be educational, not merely competitive. We all have room to improve, and every performance is a chance to face that reality.
NATS does host professional competitions, including NATS Artist Awards (NATSAA), the National Music Theater Competition, and the Art Song Composition Award. This column is focused on information about the annual student auditions.
Members of NATS range from private studio teachers, vocal coaches, and high school teachers to university professors and retired singers/pianists from all the groupings. The only thing you know definitively about your three adjudicators is that they are not your voice teacher.
The opinions the judges write on your comment sheets are given to you. Comments serve as immediate feedback on your performance. You and your teacher may get new insights on your approach to perfection—or, you might want to burn them. Sort out the comments with your teachers and coaches. As with all advice, use what works and toss the rest.
To attend the audition, students of NATS members may register for a category in their level of study and gender. The teacher must attend the auditions and adjudicate categories in which they do not have students. Some chapters hold classical and music theatre auditions on different dates and some do it all in one weekend. Information can be found at www.nats.org under Student Auditions. If your teacher is not an active member of NATS and you would like to get involved, you can encourage your teacher to sign up or you can join a university Student NATS chapter (SNATS) in your state.
Bargain Basement Pricing
When you register for NATS auditions, you pay a nominal registration fee and you will either pay for a staff accompanist or make plans with a pianist you know. Teachers volunteer to adjudicate the entire event and chapter officers donate weeks of their lives to organize the auditions each year. The service from your chapter members generates the opportunity for you to participate without paying an expensive young artist training fee—don’t forget to thank your teacher!
NATS requires participants to follow copyright laws without exception. Your pianist must play the audition out of the original score of music or a legal download with receipt of payment. Free domain downloads such as IMSLP are acceptable.
The responsibility to provide original music is yours, not the pianist’s. Library copies or your teacher’s books are fine, but music must be from original scores that have been purchased. Gone are the days you can show up with a binder full of photo-copied music.
Glendower Jones (#getitfromglendower) at Classical Vocal Reprints (classicalvocalrep.com) can provide you with a legal copy of most classical music in any key that has ever been published. Please note that he is an actual human being and must deal with the U.S. Postal Service just like the rest of us. If 475 singers email him the night before NATS, the chances of a personal download for your rare Verdi art song in a low key is similar to your chances of winning the Mega Millions Lottery. Contact Classical Vocal Reprints well in advance of your NATS audition, and he will ship your music or direct you to a digital download on his website.
They Can’t Take That Away
My own affiliation with NATS began when I sang as a freshman in Spokane, Washington. My membership began in Arizona when I was a doctoral student working primarily with high school students and university music theatre students. I have since moved on to the ALANATS chapter of Alabama where I participated with undergraduate students and I am currently a member of GANATS in Georgia. I have had the pleasure of taking students to regional and national levels, where the talent is both staggering and inspiring.
At every student audition I have attended over the years, the officers work tirelessly to plan a well organized schedule. Teachers are encouraged to write constructive comments, follow the rules, and give students the opportunity to sing in a safe, professional environment. Some state chapters offer small cash prizes and some do not. Winning $50 is an encouraging perk, but the fundamental reason to participate in NATS is to challenge yourself.
If you aspire to a professional career, NATS will help you establish a benchmark for how you compare to your peers across the state. The big fish in a little pond always benefits from a dip in the ocean.
I encourage students of all levels to participate in NATS so they learn new repertoire, network with other singers, receive feedback, and develop their audition technique. Where else can you practice walking into a room to sing prepared music for judges you do not know? The stakes are real, but the risks are educational. When you feel you have done your best, you gain a personal win.
Observations of a NATS Teacher
The best voice doesn’t always win.
The most prepared student doesn’t always win.
Rehearsing with your pianist is essential for a successful audition.
Dress for success. Prom attire is not necessary, but please no leggings or shorts. How you look demonstrates your respect for the music, your judges, and yourself.
The singer who gets rest and allots time to review music will be prepared and ready.
Oops, Don’t Do This Again
I forgot my suit.
I forgot one book of music.
I stayed up late talking and now I’m unfocused and vocally fatigued.
I was late, the category closed, and I didn’t get to sing.
I hope they don’t ask for the German.
From Participants in the
National Student Auditions
“To sum things up, NATS taught me so much about singers and repertoire, hard work, and how to be professional, graceful, and supportive. Not to mention that the documented experience every year in musical theatre that I gained and listed on my résumé largely led to my graduate assistant [position] teaching voice to musical theatre majors at Florida State University. I met so many people who I have since worked with, singers and directors alike, and people outside the field who are simply interested in my career—and that may be the most important thing one can gain. People are power and they are the only reason this art form still exists. Invest in people and they will invest in you.” — Carol Anne Osborne, 1st place, National Student Auditions: Upper College/Private Women, 2015
“NATS is an amazing opportunity for singers of various levels, styles, and dreams to come together and hear their fellow singers in a safe and exciting way. I love the rush of competition and I have seen it bring out the truest parts of people. Strong work ethic, panic, joy, drive, talent, self-expression, and self-doubt are all at the forefront of every competition. But when you step out on that stage, all of that goes away and it’s just you . . . and the music. If I could pick any moment to live in, it would be that one. The moment right before you start to sing when it’s all of a sudden just you and the music.” — M. Sawyer Branham, 2nd place, National Student Auditions: College/Private Music Theater Women, 2015
“Overall, the experience of meeting so many peers who I still communicate with was invaluable. Competing is actually one of my favorite things to do! The months of preparation, the traveling, the rush of adrenaline as my piece begins and I prepare to sing—I love it all. I feel as though my best performances have been in competition.” — M. Tyler Cook, 2nd place, National Student Auditions: Upper College Music Theater Men, 2016