You’re done with your auditions and responses are beginning to come in, and the purpose of this post is to help you weigh your options, make wise decisions, and integrate everything that you have learned over the course of audition season. While offers go out at different times of year for Young Artist Program, Pay-to-Sing programs, and degree programs, the basic principles covered here can be applied across the board.
Responding to Offers
Hopefully you have received at least one strong option for pursuing your current training and performance goals. It is vital that you respond to your offers in a timely fashion and communicate effectively with any organization that has extended you an invitation. Here are some guidelines to help you make your best possible choice.
Fielding Multiple Offers
If you receive more than one offer for a YAP or degree program, congratulations: you must be doing something right to have garnered validation from multiple sources. If you have a firm offer from your clear first-choice option, rejoice and accept. Then immediately communicate with the other organizations from whom you have received invitations to thank them for their interest but let them know that you will not be available. The sooner they receive this information, the sooner they will be able to extend an invitation to the next singer on their waitlist.
Role vs. Ensemble
Suppose you are accepted by your first-choice program without a clear role guarantee while another offers you a contract with a leading role. That can be a tough decision to face, but in general it is best to go with the program that convenes the higher quality production and instructional staff. You will get far more out of spending a summer performing with the ensemble at Aspen Opera Theatre, for example, than you would performing a leading role with a company that may not be able to provide you with the same level of musical coaching and dramatic direction. It’s important to learn and perform complete roles, but it does not serve you well to learn them with suboptimal diction and/or performance practice. By contrast, with the resources available at an excellent program, you can sometimes take on a role under your own initiative. A student of mine who was assigned only small roles and ensemble at her YAP last summer showed such enthusiasm that they made her the second cover for a lead in one of their mainstage productions. She thoroughly prepared and learned the role, and when the right opportunity arises she will now be ready to take it on. She also impressed everyone at the program with her level of commitment.
If your singing continues to improve, performing a leading role at a low-level YAP might give you an edge when auditioning for higher level programs in subsequent seasons. But excelling at small roles and ensemble assignments almost certainly will give you an edge with the same program the following year because you have demonstrated your professionalism, something that cannot be accomplished in an audition.
Scholarship vs. Tuition
What do you do when your first-choice program wants to charge you tuition but another offers you a substantial scholarship? The same principle holds: it is best to go with the program with the higher quality production and instructional staff even if it will cost you more financially. This is, after all, an important investment in your future career. However, the fact that you were accepted into multiple programs may give you a little leverage. Get in touch with your first-choice program to express your gratitute and enthusiasm over their offer and to inquire whether there is any possibility of financial assistance. Respectfully mention that you have received a competing offer that carries a scholarship and detail whatever your specific financial difficulties may be at the moment. Be sure to emphasize your willingness to do whatever it takes to attend their program while letting them know that if there is anything they can do to help you out ,it would be greatly appreciated.
When You’re Waitlisted
If you are waitlisted for a program that you are enthusiastic about, rejoice. It is an affirmation of your work that you attracted their interest, and there is also a decent possibility that a space will open up for you. Singers pull out of programs with greater frequency than you might imagine – they may receive an offer they consider superior, or their personal, career or financial priorities may shift. Communicate your desire to participate and be in touch with the program administrators as frequently as you reasonably can to let them know you remain enthusiastic and to keep them informed as your alternative plans develop.
When You Get a Better Offer Later
If you have already accepted an engagement, whether for a mainstage production or a YAP, be very careful when considering withdrawing to participate in an opportunity you consider more advantageous. Base your decision on what is ethical, not what would seem to be more auspicious for your career. Most companies or programs will state their policies and expectations up front when making you an offer and require that you sign some sort of contract; breaking that contract can have professional or even legal consequences.
Withdrawing from a program or production is a risky situation to be handled with the utmost diplomacy, so the first step is to approach the organization with whom you already have an agreement to request permission to withdraw. Where training programs are concerned, your request may well be met with understanding and support, but it still presents them with the inconvenience of replacing you; at worst, your preference for a competing program will register as a slight, so you must face the possibility that the organization and members of their staff will not be willing to work with you again in the future. If you withdraw from a professional performance, the inconvenience you create for them is more serious because they may already have designed their production with you in mind and the process of replacing you will be costly and time-consuming.
As you can see, the right choice is often to decline the new offer. The organization extending the offer will likely respect your professionalism and keep you in mind for future seasons and projects, whereas pulling out of a commitment for which you are already under contract will nearly always burn some bridges and can injure your reputation.
When You Come Up Empty-Handed
If over the course of audition season you have made a great effort to pursue performance and training opportunities and did not receive any offers or were not granted many auditions, you must examine your experiences as honestly and thoroughly as you possibly can. There is at least one area where your skills and presentation are in need of significant improvement, and while you may have your suspicions you must assume that you do not actually know what is lacking – if you did, you would not have put yourself forward in the first place. You will probably need professional input from people who are not on the team with whom you prepared, as they also did not succeed in making you aware of any deficits.
Handling rejection gracefully is part of the job description of a professional performer, so learning to cultivate equanimity with this experience will serve you well in the future. As discouraged as you may feel, do your best to remain dispassionate. Seek feedback from people you respect, identify the areas in need of improvement, and create a plan to address them in advance of the following audition season.
Allow this to motivate you to raise your game. You will need to take action. Do not continue to pursue the same strategies and expect different results next year. It may be less painful to brush off these rejections by telling yourself that success requires a measure of luck that is beyond your control and perhaps you’ll fare better next time, but this is a wake-up call: you must now take it upon yourself to raise the level of your artistry and improve the way that you present yourself in auditions. Take personal responsibility for your success and diminish the role that luck will play in your future.
Every round of auditions represents a significant investment of your time, effort, and financial resources. Make sure this investment pays off by reflecting carefully on what worked well for you and where you would like to raise your game for the next round. If you’ve earned yourself some wonderful opportunities, it’s vital that you understand what you did to attract them so you can continue to build on your strengths. If you did not receive the kinds of offers you were seeking, you must conduct a comprehensive review of your skills, artistry and overall presentation to identify those areas that need further development.
While each artist’s journey is unique, this season I have had the opportunity to observe a number of issues that arise with remarkable frequency that are preventing singers from preparing successful pre-screening demos and performing effective auditions. I offer my list of the top ten most common problems I have seen this year in the hope of helping you take inventory of your own strengths and weaknesses and raising your standards for future auditions.
1. Inconsistent Vocal Production
Are you creating a full, well-supported sound only on syllables that are accorded longer note values while the faster notes leading up to them are straight-toned and devoid of resonance? Strive for consistent vocal production. If we only hear your full sound on accented syllables or sustained pitches, we do not understand the overall shape of the musical phrase or the dramatic intent of your text.
2. Larynx Ascending Along with the Pitch
Is your larynx is elevating on higher pitches? This will diminish your resonance and may impair vowel definition and intonation. Work on allowing your larynx to remain settled throughout your range and for more internal height and expansiveness on all your vowels when singing above the staff.
3. Audible Inhalations
Are you producing an audible gasping sound when you breathe? The sound itself will distract from your musical presentation but will also create problems for your technique because it dries out your throat and vocal folds, creates unwanted tension that will impact your voice when you resume singing, and narrows the airway so that you cannot take in as much air as you would wish.
4. Sausaging Syllables
Are you investing energy and breath into individual syllables/pitches and then stringing them together? This keeps you from producing a consistent legato. It also requires a great deal more effort and breath than conceiving of each phrase as an integrated whole, making it necessary to end phrases sooner than would be ideal because there isn’t enough breath remaining to sustain them.
5. Unsupported Soft Dynamics
Are you dialing back on your breath and energy for the sake of creating a softer dynamic level or a more intimate vocal color? Holding back like this will result in a lower decibel level, but at the expense of your full vocal resonance, vibrancy and depth. Cultivate the ability to produce softer dynamics while still engaging your whole instrument.
6. Mechanistically-Motivated Melismas
Is your coloratura lacking in dramatic subtext? Composers write florid passages for the purpose of conveying outpourings of emotion. Always imbue your phrasing and expression with rich dramatic subtext so that they are expressions of passion and excitement rather than moments of mere technical brilliance.
7. Careless Italian R’s
Are you consistently applying the rules for r’s in Italian? While there are plenty of diction rules you must diligently apply to your repertoire, this is among the most elementary and you will appear unprofessional if you neglect it. In Italian, R’s are always rolled, with one exception: when one appears in between two vowels in the same word. The classic example is that in “aroma” (fragrance), the r should be flipped, whereas in “à Roma” (to Rome) the r should be rolled.
8. Ill-Timed Gestures
Are your physical gestures organically synced with the timing of your text? Thoughts and feelings register in our faces and bodies just prior to verbal utterances and should seem to motivate each phrase you sing. I often see gestures and facial expressions timed to register simultaneously or just after a phrase, and the result is that the singer awkwardly appears to be reacting to what they themselves just said.
9. Poorly Filmed Live Performances
Have you been submitting pre-screening videos filmed from the audience during live performances? If your videos were filmed using a hand-held and/or too far from the stage, they are not adequate for auditions. The resulting instability makes them impossible to watch, and the distance prevents us from observing your facial expressions. It’s great to have live performances with orchestra or ensemble, but only use them if the camera was mounted on a tripod and filmed close enough to see what is really going on.
10. Audio Levels Set Too High on Recordings
Do you conduct proper sound checks when making your own audio and video pre-screening demos? If your levels are set too high, the sound of your voice will be distorted and impossible to accurately evaluate – and the higher and louder you sing, the worse the distortion will become.
Some of these issues are more easily addressed than others. The more technical ones will require the help of a skilled voice teacher, while the ones related to dramatic presentation may make you a good candidate for further acting training. However, you can probably diagnose them on your own. If you find that any of these problems are holding you back, get to work on resolving them. They are all treatable, and you will not realize your full artistic and career potential while they continue to plague your singing.
Reflections from the Trenches
We kicked off this project by asking professional singers what they wish they had known when they first started down this path. To wrap things up, here are some reflections from mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Robert McPherson to give you a sense of what is coming next and provide encouragement as you take the next steps in developing your career.
Sasha shares her thoughts on why it's all worth it even though you might get a bit bloodied up along the way:
Robert offers assurance that with tenacity, you will end up some place wonderful even if you don't always know exactly where you're headed:
What did you learn from your experiences this season? What questions do you have about how to do even better next year? Post your reflections and questions to the comments thread!
Thank you, Claudia!