what I do

by Sirje

Summer apparently exploded in the less than 24 hours I was away! I love it. It’s my favorite season and I wish it were longer… I think I’d like Berlin a lot more if it were.

I recently attended a very interesting audition and had an email conversation afterwards with a singer friend who is a couple steps above me on the foodchain, that inspired me to write a little about what auditions can be like, for those of my readers who don’t have anything to do with singing or opera (I know there are a couple of you out there! Hi!).

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll lump all auditions together here, though in reality there are distinct differences (agent, house, competition, etc.) Let’s start after the audition has been arranged, you’ve been invited to attend and you’ve traveled there via train, plane, boat, car, giant ostrich or land roving sea cucumber. Sometimes you’re asked to bring specific music with you, which of course you already know and have worked on, often times you’ll just show up with what you do best.

So. The first order of business before an audition or performance is warming up. Singing loudly for hours without microphones and without screaming requires the use of very particular muscles throughout the body (you’d be surprised) and we have to warm those up, like any athlete, to get everything working right. But warming up can be kind of loud, too, so if the house or agent you are singing for doesn’t provide you a place to warm up,  you have to make other plans. Which means that if you’re ever walking around some strange city in Germany and see some frazzled looking singer doing warmups in a phone booth, stuffed in there with luggage and simultaneously brushing their teeth, pulling on Spanx, checking pitches on an iPhone and applying mascara, that is why. That is also why yoga is helpful.

Depending on the people you’re singing for and the other people there doing auditions, the atmosphere will be anywhere from supportive, relaxed and cheerful to downright toxic. Fortunately, most of my experiences have been very good ones, and most houses I’ve sung for bend over backwards to help you feel relaxed. In the best case scenario, you’ll be given a fairly precise singing time, arrive early to warm up in a practice room provided to you, meet with the excellent and professional pianist who will accompany you to go over the music and any tricky spots, meet a few other lovely singers who are also going to audition, and be brought to the stage where you will sing anywhere from 2 to 5 arias (you usually get to pick your first aria so that you’re comfortable and get to decide what their first impression is of you). Then you’ll chat a bit with the very nice people hearing your audition, who were pleasant and attentive while you sang, and who want to know more about you and what you might be like to work with, what your availability is like, what else you sing, where you see yourself heading, etc.etc. etc.

On the other end of the spectrum, which can be rather more stressful, you’ll have 20 to 40 singers all called at the same time and then asked to sign up on a sheet in order of how quickly you can jostle to the front of the line without actually stepping on anyone’s toes, then your money is collected (towards room and pianist, anywhere from 15 to 50 euros), and you start waiting. A variation of this is being given the wrong time or times being shuffled around and nobody notifying you… which is why it pays to check the morning of, even if you get an email the night before, a hard lesson I learned this year.

It’s not unusual to wait for 4 or 5 hours before you sing at auditions. But if you’re like me, you can’t spend that whole time chit chatting because that can take you out of your concentration and also be tough on the voice. So, basically it’s time you spend trying to stay relaxed and calm as everyone around you kind of slowly freaks out. However, the long wait can be quite interesting if you like to observe human behavior in times of stress – you get the Diva Queen Bee who makes abrupt loud vocalizes when sufficient attention has not been cast upon her in the last 5 minutes, the Chatty Cathy who want to know everything about everyone in the entire room and her twin sister, Gabby Gossip, who will tell you horrific dirt on the perfect stranger who just left the room if you so much as look at her and smile, the Moonie who wants everyone to study with their voice teacher because they changed their life, and the Insecure Imogene who wants everyone to hear how badly her last few auditions went and why she suffers so much because everyone is an idiot. It can be tempting to lend an ear, but you really have to block all this nonsense out when you’re waiting to sing, because, repeat after me, sopranos, it is All About You.

Other common issues: you will not be allowed to warm up, and there won’t be enough chairs for everyone to sit. The pianist won’t be a very good sight reader or be familiar with your repertoire, or, worse, refuse to play something quite standard for your first aria because she doesn’t “like” it, and then the guy running the large regional audition will demand that you randomly sing something he doesn’t even know is in your repertoire or not, then proceed to conduct you through the aria while the pianist skips entire beats. ::heavy sigh::

But in the end, whether it’s a supportive or toxic environment, your job is to show up, be professional, and sing really well. Your performance must demonstrate not only your technique and showcase your beautiful/useful voice, but also reflect the intimate knowledge you have of the music, the character, the scene, standard practice as far as the composer goes, and much more. You have to do all the prep work beforehand, and then find your zen place and enjoy.

So that’s what I do! Sometimes, it even works. 🙂