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Ask the Hard Questions
Sylvia McClain
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Audition Connection8/1/2004

Editor's Note:
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More than ever, a large amount of help and advice about auditioning is available to young singers the United States. Web sites, magazines, workshops, institutes, summer programs, and other forums for information provide a great deal of insight into the auditioning process. Previous issues of Audition Connection have featured articles from the best sources of knowledge: general directors, artistic directors, artistic administrators, and artist managers. These professionals can tell you directly which details win them over in an audition and give you advice on how to prepare and present yourself, audition protocol, and how make the most of each opportunity. A voice teacher will also have a large amount of material to cover when preparing students for auditions: repertoire, vocal technique, artistry, dramatic interpretation, diction, attire, etc.

Searching for all of this information may obscure some basic areas of preparation that are less obvious, and often ignored. These are questions that you need to ask yourself as soon and as often as possible. You will need to answer them over and over again in every stage of your training, and continue asking them throughout your career.

As a teacher, I can tell when a young singer is driven by something more than the possibility of fame, prestige, and adulation, pressure from friends and family, or other outside influences on singers. Are you motivated from within? Consider the following:

Why do you want to sing? How much do you want it?

Do you have to be pushed to audition?

Are you mature enough to be able to work independently, or do you need constant reinforcement from your teacher or friends telling you how wonderful you are (or how awful the others were)?

Are you willing to do the things it takes to be able to sing and act on stage in operatic repertoire?

Are you willing to sacrifice time and a good amount of resources to the continuous study and performance of the art?

Are you secure enough in yourself that you will try again and again?

Are you convinced that this profession is right for you?

Continue to ask yourself these questions as you grow and learn. If you find yourself answering “no” to these at any time, keep in mind that there are many, many professions that may satisfy you and that will certainly pay more and provide more security. As difficult as it may be, persistently look for the things that keep you from doing this deep and hard work, and from feeling motivated by love and respect for the art form. Your attitudes and behaviors will certainly play a role in your success at auditions and in this field. Whether you are still a voice student at a college or university, at the apprentice level, or truly pre-professional, be honest with yourself about this next set of questions.

Do you have an “attitude?”

Do you get defensive when receiving constructive criticism?

Do you thrive on negative gossip about other singers, conductors, coaches, directors, teachers, general directors?

Do you try to justify not placing at a competition, not getting the role, etc. because of someone else’s error? If any of these are true, you need to lose the attitude and get real.

Learn manners, including how to thank people.

If you feel ready to pursue the profession, make sure that any feelings of entitlement are gone. Replace these negative feelings with an attitude of honest preparation and extreme love of what you do. Develop a sense of humor, and be willing to laugh at yourself. Surround yourself with happy, talented, honest people.

After looking at these questions, it may help you understand why it is that some singers can go to every audition with the right clothing and the right repertoire, sing very well, and find that they still have trouble getting roles. If this sounds familiar, or if you want to avoid this situation later in your career, consider the following:

What do you consider a successful audition? Do you feel as if you have done well if you look good, remember your words, and accomplish everything with technical brilliance? Is your artistic interpretation also important to you?

Do you blame the auditioners, the accompanist, or any other person if you are not cast?

Aside from your technical mastery of the repertoire, do you feel so moved by this piece that you want very badly to share it with others?

Do you have the ability to touch and move an audience, not only with sound, but with your soul?

Is your guard down when you sing? If not, why not?

Do you and the audience share the magic of the music you are singing and the character you are portraying? Or do you have technical mastery, but leave people cold?

I spoke before of the importance of being motivated from within, but how do you know if that is true of you? The signs that I have come to recognize in my students include a hunger to learn and to sing new music and text, a drive to constantly improve, and a real desire hear as much music as possible. Conversely, if a student is easily diverted from the often solitary study of music, then he or she has not found the right profession, no matter how beautiful the voice. As you develop as a musician and prepare for auditions, you will need to ask yourself the following questions:

For which works/music do you have a special affinity or feeling?

Are you singing repertoire to which you are not fully committed?

Are you putting in the hard work that is essential to your training?

Are you accomplished enough to be able to (and do you want to) sight-read contemporary music?

Singers often underestimate the time needed to prepare. I advise the following for a more complete preparation for roles and for auditions. Learn your words and music from a score, not from a recording. Recordings are useful because they allow you to hear what is happening stylistically and in the orchestra, but you want to become a consummate musician, not a copycat. Train your ear. Learn the art of musical and dramatic collaboration. Train your bodies to move flexibly and with stamina and conviction. Do extensive historical research to prepare your character, even for a single aria. Read. Listen to great singers of the past. Use our modern tools see yourself objectively in audio and video recordings or yourself. Approach these recordings, your lessons, and your career with a positive willingness to find and fix any areas that need improvement.

How do you know when you are ready for an audition or performance? Ask yourself these questions:

Are you technically very well prepared?

Are you able to look forward to the audition with joy and confidence?

Do you want to share what you feel in harmony with the composer and librettist?

Is your objective to impress the auditioners, or are you truly excited to sing with exuberance and intense feeling?

Above all else, your audience and auditioners want to see, hear, and feel that exuberance and love of the music. Though not something you can learn, you can learn to express this excitement with this kind of preparation, performance, and self-evaluation. As an artist, you must be willing to answer these questions objectively. If you cannot, it is certainly not disgraceful to find satisfaction in an easier profession. The ultimate goal for any person is happiness, and you have to know inside yourself that the sheer joy and privilege of singing for a living will make all of your questions and sacrifices worthwhile. As Dame Eva Turner said long ago, “don’t sing unless you’d die if you didn’t.”
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About the Author: Sylvia McClain is an associate professor of voice and opera at the University of Connecticut. Dr. McClain has had a distinguished career as a performer and a scholar both in Germany and the United States. She has taught voice at Hardin-Simmons University, Southwestern University, The University of Texas at Austin, and Howard Payne University. She is a graduate of Indiana University, and she received her doctorate from The University of Texas at Austin, where she studied with Barbara Honn.
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