College audition season is upon us, and one of the first hurdles for musical theatre college auditions is the pre-screen video. Musical theatre programs are in high demand, and more and more colleges and universities are requiring you to submit and pass a pre-screen video audition in order to qualify for a live or Zoom audition. I watch hundreds of pre-screen videos every year, so I’ve seen a wide range of offerings. Here’s some advice from behind the audition table on how to put your best foot forward and truly shine in your pre-screen videos.
How many songs should you prepare? How long should your cuts be? Will every school have different audition requirements? While there are some differences from school to school when it comes to the live audition, the video pre-screen process is a little more straightforward. Many musical theatre programs participate in the Musical Theater Common Pre-screen program, which provides schools with two possible sets of audition requirements:
- One song cut, written pre-1970, ballad or uptempo, 60-90 seconds in length
- One song cut, written post-1970, contrasting with the first song, 60-90 seconds in length
- One contemporary monologue, written after 1950, 60-90 seconds in length
- Two contemporary song cuts, written after 1970, contrasting in style, 60-90 seconds in length
- One contemporary monologue, written after 1950, 60-90 seconds in length
- One classical monologue, written before 1950, 60-90 seconds in length
You just need to make sure you know which option each of your schools is asking for. By the way, “contrasting” can mean ballad vs. uptempo, sad song vs. happy song, legit musical theatre vs. contemporary musical theatre, two very different types of characters, etc.
There are also some dance requirements, and you can submit a “wildcard” video, where you can feature a special skill or interest, play an instrument, or let the college know something interesting about you.
You can find more detailed information on the Musical Theater Common Pre-screen here:
Video and Audio Quality
A good video and audio setup will help to put your audition in the best light…literally! You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment for these pre-screen videos. Here are the basics:
Video: You can use a smartphone, tablet, or video camera to film your audition videos.
Tripod: This is helpful to stabilize the shot.
Audio: You might be just fine with the audio on your video device, but you might consider getting an external mic that plugs into that device if you are having a hard time getting a good vocal level. You don’t want to use a stand mic or a handheld mic, though.
Accompaniment: You can use either a pre-recorded accompaniment track played through an external speaker or a live pianist. The track gives you a little more flexibility about when and where you film. If you use a track, make sure to get an external speaker that can play at a loud enough volume for you sing over and still hear the accompaniment. You may also need to use tracks for some live on-campus auditions or at Unified Auditions, so you might want to invest in a good Bluetooth speaker now.
Light: You can purchase a ring light or use a light box, but you may be fine with using lamps from around your house. You just want to make sure that the light source is in front of you (out of the shot) and that we can clearly see your face.
Background: Use a blank wall or hang up a sheet or solid tablecloth to give you a nice background. Do not wear the same color as your background. You don’t want to disappear in the shot!
Bottom line? You want to make sure that we can see and hear you! That sounds obvious, but a lot of people stumble here. Make sure that you are well-framed in the shot and that the camera is at eye-level. I would suggest that you film from the waist up or three-quarters (from the knees up), and I think shooting in landscape versus portrait mode gives you more freedom to move. You should be in the center of the screen in the shot, and you don’t want to shoot from too far away.
The other important factor is audio balance between the voice and the accompaniment. We should hear the singer over the accompaniment, but we do want to hear both. Also make sure that the overall audio level is loud enough. Do a test video and play back your video on a laptop to check for sound levels. This is how most auditors will be listening to your video, so if it isn’t loud enough to hear on a laptop at top volume, you may need to adjust your audio set up. I can’t tell you how many times I cannot hear somebody’s video submission without plugging in an external speaker, and even then, sometimes it’s really hard to hear if it hasn’t been recorded at a high enough volume level in the first place.
What Should You Wear?
Wear clothes that you feel great in and that express who you are! Musical theatre is a lot less formal than opera, so wear something maybe just a notch up from your everyday attire. You want to wear something that you feel comfortable singing in, so your outfit shouldn’t be too restrictive in the torso. Also, make sure that we can see your eyes. That may mean a slight alteration to your hairstyle for your video. I would avoid extremely baggy clothing, as that obscures your breathing and movement. Your clothes should be clean and wrinkle-free, they should look good against your backdrop, but other than that, you do you!
What should you sing? Ah, the million-dollar question! Some schools have “do not sing” lists of overdone songs that they do not want to hear. If a school has a list like this, make sure you abide by it. These lists are also good indicators of songs that are generally overdone, so they are worth checking out, even if the schools you are auditioning for don’t have this requirement. By the way, at my institution, we accept people who sing overdone songs all the time. Ultimately, we are more interested in the person and their potential than the audition piece. It’s not the end of the world to sing a very popular song, but it is possible that your audition will be less memorable if the auditors have heard your song eleven times that day.
In my opinion, the most important factors when choosing a song are:
Your connection to the piece: Do you love singing this song? You need to love your audition songs! You are going to be practicing and performing them A LOT.
Does the song suit your voice? Show us what you do well right now, not parts of your voice that you are still trying to work on. Sing songs that fit you like a glove and that you can sing well all the time. Personally, I have no problem with singers changing the key of an audition piece to suit their voice, particularly if they are trans or non-binary, or if they are gender-bending the song, but check the audition requirements for the schools on your list on this point.
Does your song have an acting arc? Yes, we want to hear a lovely voice, but this is musical theatre, and the acting matters, too! Your song should have an emotional journey. It should not start and end in the same emotional place. Your song cut should show some progression of thought or feeling.
Does your song show a variety of vocal colors? Please do not belt your entire audition cut! You can belt in moments if the emotion of the piece requires it, but it is much more impressive to show us a range of vocal colors and textures in your cut. Not everything in your audition package needs to be big, loud, and showy. If you do sing one showier piece, contrast it with something softer and more vulnerable. Also, less is more when it comes to riffing. If the song calls for it, one or two riffy phrases are plenty in an audition cut.
Can you sing this song with musical accuracy and good intonation? Sometimes people pick incredibly difficult songs in an attempt to impress, but I would rather hear a simpler song sung accurately, expressively, in tune, and with emotional connection than a very difficult song sung with a lot of errors and pitch issues. Since you can re-record your video as many times as you want to before you choose your best take, the video you submit should be musically accurate. We assume that this is the best version of you performing, so make sure that the take you submit is as clean as possible. I would also suggest that you film your pre-screen materials way ahead of the submission deadline so that you can re-record if you need to.
There are a few types of songs that I would advise against:
Villain songs: For the most part, these songs are kind of one-note, and they don’t have a lot of nuance. “You’ll Be Back” from HAMILTON is a great piece in the context of the show, but it is a boring audition song.
Songs in dialect: We want to hear your natural voice quality, and that can be obscured by a dialect.
A song sung by a character that is much older than you: No Mama Rose from GYPSY for college pre-screen auditions! Sing a song sung by a character who is close to your age, no older than 25. You don’t have the life experience to sing songs meant for older actors.
Songs that were written for a specific racial or cultural identity if that is not your identity: For example, do not sing from IN THE HEIGHTS if you do not identify as a member of the Latine community. There are so many songs that can be sung by anyone, so you have lots of other choices.
So ultimately, what are colleges looking for in a pre-screen audition?
The pre-screen video is our first chance to get to know you, so choose pieces that speak to you and reflect a bit of who you are. You are going to connect better to songs you love, and that will make for a more exciting video. When I watch a musical theatre pre-screen, I am looking for a healthy voice with a variety of color and an honest and engaging performance. Some contrast between the two songs, either vocally or emotionally, is also a big plus. We do not expect you to be perfect. We are looking for young people with talent, potential, and the desire to learn, grow, and develop with us over the next four years. The pre-screen video should help us get a sense of you as a young artist and make us want to meet you and hear more from you. I wish you all the best as you prepare for your musical theatre college auditions. With a little planning and preparation, you can create pre-screen videos that you can be truly proud of!