Friday, January 25, 2008

The Audition Game

Today's guest blogger is Joshua Winograde, head of our own Wolf Trap Opera Studio and Planning Manager of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program at the Los Angeles Opera.

This is a wonky time of the blog year for me - I'm working nonstop on the upcoming operas, and because we haven't announced our season yet, I can't include any details in blog posts. Starting March 17, you'll get all the info you need about summer 2008.

In the meantime, Josh offers this spot-on advice about those crazy job interviews that singers do. Pay particular attention to the way in which he demonstrates the through-line between audition behavior and hiring potential. It's more significant than you might think. Although his message is targeted to our Studio singers, its advice holds true for the entire audition phase of a singer's career, which can last a maddeningly long time. So make friends with it.

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Auditions are weird.

Let’s face it, most singers hate them! Singing an audition is so completely unlike performing a role, and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard (or said!) “I am really good on stage but I just AUDITION terribly!” Very few singers look forward to auditions. Very few singers feel they are any good at it. Very few singers feel that an audition accurately represents what one can do on a stage.

And yet for young artists, they are the only way in the door. My friend and colleague Gregory Henkel (Artistic Planning Manager, LA Opera) recently taught an audition technique class and put it beautifully: Auditions are a short job interview in which you have a limited time to demonstrate how you might function in a variety of other settings.

Totally brilliant!!! And I’d like to take that definition and run with it for a while, if you’ll indulge me.

I am writing about this because I have recently been responding to the feedback requests from our WT Opera Studio audition tour last fall. More specifically, I get a lot of letters back from people who want me to further interpret the feedback I gave them from the panelists’ notes, asking “What did you mean when you said …?” or “How can I make my auditions better in the future?” or “If I sang as well as you say, why didn’t I get in?” As a singer and an administrator, I hope to provide a unique and useful perspective. So here goes…

The Rules of the Game

I interpret Gregory’s definition as follows: Auditioning is a game, and it can actually be a fun one. Here are the rules…

You have a short opportunity to tell us as much or as little about you as you want because we only have 10 minutes to make an educated guess about how exactly you will function in 100 different scenarios throughout your time at Wolf Trap. To audition well, you must choose wisely the things that you WANT us to know about and find ways to show those to us, and conversely you must carefully omit the things that you do NOT want us to know. If you do that, you will audition well every single time guaranteed. The problem is that this is REALLY, REALLY hard.

Why is it hard? Because there are three hidden PITFALLS that are easy to fall into, I’ll come back to pitfalls later after talking more about the way you play this game.

No one expects you to perform the exact same way at an audition that you would in a performance. In a real show, we know that you would have more make-up on. We know that you would have a prop book, or poison, or catalogue, or pan-pipes. We know that it feels differently to sing with piano than it does with orchestra. We know that your voice will sound differently in a 2000 seat hall than it does in a 30x40 foot dance studio. So forget about those things. Leave those up to us to weed through.

Instead, use this as a “game” plan and be deliberate about how you play the game.

Step One: Be Yourself (But With a Grain of Salt)

Since we are going to have a working relationship with you, we want to feel like we are actually meeting you at your audition. If you introduce us to a “character” that you have created, there is almost always a sense of insincerity. So make sure you are being yourself. HOWEVER… being yourself when you go out for a beer or go putt-putt golfing is going to be a different “you” than we want to meet. We want to meet the “you” that will be showing up every day TO YOUR JOB!!! (Remember, as much as we all love our art form, it is still our job!) Many working relationships in opera also have a friendship aspect, in fact that’s one of the great parts of this business, but you are auditioning for a job, not a friendship. So make sure you are very aware of the “you” that goes to work every day and introduce us to THAT “you.”

Step Two: Make the First List (The REQUIRED Things)

So now that you are committed to being yourself, you should make a list of the things about your professional self that you REALLY want us to know. Although there are a lot of things that are completely up to you, I would really like to start your list for you with the following required things (if you disagree with any of them, I am sorry to say you are in the minority!!!):

1) I am professional
2) I am congenial
3) I am confident
4) I am talented
5) I am smart
6) I am interesting

There may be additional things that other people require, but I am guessing these cover most of it. The rest is up to you.

Step Three: Find Ways to Show ALL These Things

First I will address the required 6 things, and then try to hypothesize about the additional elements in another “step” below. There are lots of other ways to show us these 6 things, but below are some of my ideas to help you get started. The following is YOU speaking in first person.

1) I am professional. I care about this audition THE SAME WAY I will care about the job you give me. I confirmed my audition appointment promptly and was ready to sing 20 minutes early in case you were running ahead of schedule, THE SAME WAY I will at rehearsals. I brought everything you asked me to bring, and my materials are up to date and on nice paper because this is my JOB and I cared enough about it to spend an extra 20 cents for the sheet of resume paper. All the spelling is correct. The names of people and places are accurate. That is THE SAME WAY I will approach the job you give me. (Other questions for you to answer: how ELSE do you define professional? What are some other things about you that you consider to show you as professional? How else can you show us those things?)

2) I am congenial. I smiled when I entered the room and made some eye contact as I introduced myself to you. When you said “good morning” or “thank you” I said something nice back. When I said I wanted to start with an aria from “Boulevard Solitude” and you told me you had never heard of it, I politely told you who wrote it. When you asked me for my 2nd aria, I seemed happy about your selection. This is THE SAME WAY I will behave when I meet the director. This is THE SAME WAY I will respond when the conductor goes crazy and screams at me. When the costumer puts me in something that I think makes me look fat, I will go along with it THE SAME WAY. (Other questions: How else do you define congenial? What else about you shows that? Again… we are not looking for some good jokes the way we would at putt-putt. We just want to know you are pleasant when you come to work every day.)

3) I am confident. Not arrogant, just confident. I think there are special things about me as a professional, congenial, talented person that made it worth your while to give me an audition. I made myself look nice and I know how to dress appropriately, much in THE SAME WAY I would never wear flip-flops to a fight rehearsal or jeans to a donor party. I said my name clearly and spoke with confidence when I announced my selections, much in THE SAME WAY I would greet audience members who waited after the show to meet me. If you asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer, I confidently admitted that I didn’t know. That is THE SAME WAY I will be at work. (Other questions: how do I want to convey that I have confidence in my professional abilities?)

4) I am talented. I have a great voice and a great technique. I am a committed and skilled actor. I will be THE SAME WAY in rehearsals and performances. (This is the hardest part and it is also the most obvious one. Clearly you want to show that you have talent, so this one goes almost without saying. Also, it must be said that very occasionally this ALONE will get you a job.)

5) I am smart. I created a good-looking, clear resume or maybe I hired someone to do it for me because I am smart enough to know that I couldn’t do it myself! I obviously know the words I am singing and am pronouncing them right. I have done research of my arias: my ornaments and general style elements are appropriate. The selections I am offering are prepared thoroughly. That is THE SAME WAY my roles and assignments will be prepared. (Other questions: what else about you helps make you smart? Are those things you want to show us?)

6) I am interesting. I have made artistic decisions and have something unique to say in my repertoire. THE SAME WAY I will in your show. I have things about me personally that make me interesting, and (only for the ones that are appropriate to share J) have listed them on my resume. (Other questions: what is interesting that we should know? Special skills? Dance background? Double major? 2nd career? Specific repertoire interests? Should you show these things on a resume or by offering a unique aria?)

Step Four: Make the Second List (Your Choice Elements)

What else would you like us to know? Are you serious or funny? What kind of characters do you feel you should play? What are your strengths? Why else should we hire you? Are you an excellent and strong leader, or do you feel to be more a dependable worker-bee who is happy to accommodate? This is where the list starts that YOU must create. It can be one more thing or 50 more things… whatever you want! Examples may be, but are in no way limited to: I am formal. I am casual. I am versatile. I am funny. I am serious. I am in great shape. I am fashionable. I am high energy. I am calm. I am fluent in Czech. I am flexible/accommodating. I am interested in obscure rep or new music or baroque music or musical theater. Basically… whatever else you WANT to tell us, you must find a way to do that through your audition.

Step Five: Make Good Omissions

No one is exactly all those things exactly all the time. And once again, your friends accept you for your whole being, flaws and all. But you are on a JOB interview, and it is entirely appropriate to keep certain parts of yourself private. Are you impatient at times? Do you snap at people when you are in a bad mood? Are you in a bad mood right now? Do you occasionally say or do something so tremendously embarrassing that it makes you want to crawl into a hole? OF COURSE!!! We all do… but NOT AT WORK! We want to know that you will leave those things at home during the audition THE SAME WAY you will at rehearsal or during a performance.

Step Six: Avoid the Pitfalls

Remember those pitfalls I mentioned above? They are very important.

Pitfall #1) Many times singers show us something that they didn’t mean to or are COMPLETELY unaware of. This usually happens when they want to show us something but miscalculate how to do it. Most of the things that fall into this category are vocal… for example, you show us that you have no top notes, or that you sing under pitch. I won’t address those elements at all other than to say all young artists should make wise choices about selecting teachers and coaches. But there are other things that fall into this category. For example, you may WANT to show us that you are a funny, affable person but one singer came off as a smart-alec when he said to me “Uccch I can’t believe you asked for Belmonte after I just sang Romeo, what are you trying to do kill me?… no, just kidding, I’ll sing it.” You will? Gee, thanks so much!!! Another singer who I know to be in perhaps the best shape of anyone I have ever seen came dressed in something so big and unflattering that he looked like a small child wearing his grandpa’s outfit… maybe he was trying to show “I am not only about my body” which is fine, but it is NOT what he ended up showing us. Another example is repertoire choices: I recently heard an audition by a youthful, energetic, and very talented singer who offered 5 of the most depressing, slow, and painful arias available for her voice type. So when I said, “Are you interested in being seen as someone who specializes in serious and suicidal roles?” she responded “Not at all!” Could have fooled me! If you see yourself as a versatile performer and want us to know that, show us!

Pitfall #2) Many singers are not aware that there are certain things that we NEED to see, so they ignore finding ways to show them. The things I listed above in Steps Two and Three are things we NEED to see. If they don’t come naturally to you, start working on them.

Pitfall #3) Singers sometimes THINK we want to know something that we definitely do NOT want to know!!! Just a few examples to illustrate this: There was one girl who, when I asked about a conductor on her resume, said “Uccch he was awful!” Well, he was also my good friend. Oops! She thought we wanted to know that she was sassy, but we didn’t. What about the girl who started with Carmen and, presumably to show that she can be sexy, wore just a slip and no bra? She showed us things we most definitely did not want to know about her AT WORK.

My Solution?

This sounds super-dorky but it will REALLY work, I promise.

Make your lists and decide how you plan to show those things. Invite 3 (or more) other people to do the same thing. Ideally, there should be at least someone there who DOESN’T know you very well or at all so that it will be more similar to a real audition where we generally don’t know you. Friends tend to find certain things charming because they know you and love you. Then, get a pianist and a room and all four of you do auditions for each other. A full, two-aria, walk-in-the-room, hand-them-a-resume-and-headshot audition. Then afterward, go one by one and answer the following questions about each person (including yourself)…

1) Did the singer show that s/he is professional, congenial, confident, talented, smart, and interesting? If so, how? It’s fine if one thing shows more than one element… for example, a good resume may show that you are both professional and smart. Or, an excellent performance can show that you are both talented and interesting.

2) What else did I learn about the singer? How did they show each thing?

3) What did the singer show me about himself that I think he probably shouldn’t have? Were these things accidental or deliberate?

The Audition Game

So you see… it becomes a legitimate GAME. It has rules, a scoring system, and strategy. And like any game, you win some and you lose some, and you get better every time. I hope that looking at it this way encourages you to start enjoying the hunt a little bit more, and I am positive that it will make your auditions more consistent and effective.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

(Humbly,from a stranger,not american): thinking about my few favorite singers from the past and now...You would not like them as your Studio applicants.The portrait of the "smart" one in your essay does not apply to the real personality with its sometimes necessary uncommunicableness or visible edges; does not apply to a someone who will be out of any crowd in general. I played millions opera auditions as accompanist; very often game is going from the both sides of the table--and it is just a game,it does not add anything for the impression, but rather--- "yes,we know the game's rules". Few of my beloved singers came to the highest level, where there is no such game,and the only king is the real huge harismatic and original soul;nobody anymore botheres with "to be polite","smart","congenial" etc. Did those singers proved any of those "I smiled when I entered the room ;I seemed happy about your selection; I am confident;I am interesting..." ? For God's sake---no! They did not! I apologise---here is my language limitation to express in better words what I mean, and I do not want to bring up the names as examples of what I mean. May be most of the qualities that you so generously described in order to help young singers---may be here are some of the reasons why voices and personalities nowdays are so uniformed, so unpersonal. They are trying to be really smart... And something missed that should be just pure and rather weird ----it's called sincerity.///However,great essay and explains a lot, though rather in a fatal way. Sincerely,stranger,pianist.

Kim said...

Great discussion.

Yes, when and if artists are lucky enough to get to the highest level, there is no such game. (I disagree that there is no game; it's just a different one.)

And if the talent is big and distinctive enough, it could brook no rules and still rise to the top. But we want singers to do this only with informed consent - if you flaunt the system, then you can't be mystified about why it is so hard to get a foot in the door.

I will contradict myself, though, and admit to some empathy with Anonymous when s/he says that "may be here are some of the reasons why voices and personalities nowdays are so unformed, so unpersonal." We cannot (and I believe most of us do not) put so much emphasis on do-no-harm that we won't accept artists with rough edges. We can't complain then, that no one inspires us.

As for those glorious singers of past generations whose talent could never be shoe-horned into our crazy young artist system... I do believe there's room for that kind of out-sized artistry even in today's world. I do believe that we are always watching for it. But (and indulge me here for a moment), we know/knew those singers as fully-formed mature artists, not as 22-year-olds desperate for a chance to be heard.

For mere mortals, it's just a wise move not to shoot yourself in the foot. Make quick and easy work of these rules and buy yourself the privilege of being noticed for your artistry only. We just want it not to be any harder than it has to be to gain an opportunity to perform.

Anonymous said...

Your answer gives a hint of hope for the outsider artist."We know/knew those singers as fully-formed mature artists"--truth,they are so often super-ugly ducklings at 22.And those who organicly cannot follow the rules("Make quick and easy work of these rules"--it is not easy at all for the non-standard one,or sometimes simply impossible)later comes out as a new voice type,new rules(or let say,rather already not comes anymore). Marylin Horne wrote in her book: "Kathleen Ferrier had a rotten technic".Yes,also was "not really stage animal".And yes,performed the only two staged operatic roles(paper works,resume!).Nowdays Lucretias set the ideal already 180 degree opposite,because choosen according to the rules "communication,presence,brith-ness" etc.) Jon Vickers--you may find more of controversial comments on his technic as well.His voice was so much unitalian---and Italian type still be the only dictator for the most of YAPs. Yes, YAPs playing the rules of market,yes,company teaches young newcomer the rules which he should expect on market, yes,market asks of more Netrebko and not anymore of Ferrier or Vickers or Lotte Lehmann.But why at least not to set the opposite rules:sincerity,uniqueness,rough edges-ness! There is invisible screen(most of YAPs) that is blocking all of non-crowd talents...///Your blog is trully enjoyable.

Josh said...

Thank you, Anonymous and Kim, for your thoughtful responses! I must continue to affirm my theory with some examples.

Not to brag... well, maybe just a little :)... I have sung with Renee Fleming, Sumi Jo, Laura Claycomb, Patricia Racette, Ana Maria Martinez, Denyce Graves, Susan Graham , Susanne Mentzer, Joyce Di Donato, Frederika von Stade, David Daniels, Ramon Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovski, Bryn Terfel, Sam Ramey... and I can say with absolute certainty and absolute honesty that every single one of these people was, at all times, professional, congenial, confident, talented, smart, and interesting.

Were some of them also shy? Maybe. Were some of them private? Were some of them also intense? Maybe. Were some of them better in some languages than others? Maybe. Did they show those things in completely different ways that I wrote about on my lists? Definitely! So you are right in that regard... maybe they didn't smile when they entered the room or seem happy about the 2nd selection, but they DID show these things in their OWN way. And when they were 22 years old and having to prove themselves at auditions, I assume they did the same thing. I am sure they didn't make the list and play the game the way I describe it, but that's because all 6 things exist naturally within those people in spades.

Now I never had the chance to meet Callas, Siepi, London, Corelli, etc. But I can guarantee they were the same way. Listening to their recordings, it is obvious that they are at the very least smart, talented, interesting, and confident.

As I wrote in my original post, the WAYS that I suggested demonstrating various elements of yourself at an audition may be different from your ways. You may find 10 completely new ways to show any one of the 6 things.

Oh, and one more thing... when Anonymous writes that this "does not apply to a someone who will be out of any crowd in general" I must actually disagree and say that the singers who do this best are EXACTLY the ones who stand out, get roles, and win competitions. Oh yeah... and get famous.

Josh said...

Sorry...one last thing. When Anonymous says in his/her 2nd post why not show "sincerity, uniqueness, rough edges-ness" I say BRING IT ON!!! If those are things you want to be known for, find ways to show them. Very good point, Anonymous!

ricolas said...

Very useful comments, and well put too.

The only point of argument is the ability of a panel to judge the ability of a voice to 'travel' as opposed to (perceived) 'size' - two very different things! Some poepl are very loud in a room, and deeply disappointing in a theatre... Generally panels get this wrong unless they are auditioning within a theatre. I for one never get auditions in a rehearsal room, but always in theatre.

The other 99.9% of your comments are brilliant though!

NovaStage said...

No director will ever say they don't want to see sincerity. I don't believe that was what Josh was going for here.

As a director, I am looking for that level of professionalism - and a feeling that the performer wants to be there and is passionate about the work. You can be sincere and personable without losing your personality. Our company thrives on the oddball, but all our great character actors still gave spot-on auditions, while still being super well-prepared, and courteous to the audition panel.

Cheers,
Anne M.
Artistic Director
NovaStage

Anonymous said...

This past fall, I sang for the Studio program. I would relish the opportunity to hear feedback about my audition - except for the fact that this was my worst audition yet. I'm sure that the feedback would be framed in a positive manner - all my experiences with Wolf Trap and their personnel have been fabulous - but I still feel like I'd be setting myself up for a bruising by asking for feedback from an audition that 1) I didn't think went well and 2) was months ago!

However, Wolf Trap is so generous to offer feedback that I feel foolish for NOT asking for feedback. Josh and Kim, what would you do? I ask mostly because it seems like a pattern that even more established singers might experience.

Kim said...

A response from Josh:

Really good question. As a singer, I have to say that I probably would not ask for feedback from an audition that I felt was NOT reflective of my usual abilities. (Just being honest.) I am not sure I would be interested in having someone pass on their observations of me on an off day... I would probably be very likely to dismiss any constructive criticism, assuming it was not about me at all, but rather in observance of whoever that beast was that crept in and impersonated me!

As an administrator, however, I would say you should really go ahead and ask. You may be surprised, especially if the feedback contains comments that you have heard before from coaches and teachers that you trust... it may prove to you that even when you feel you are at your worst, your level of auditioning is more consistent than you think. That applies not only to those elements that you need to work on to improve, but also to those things that we felt were successful.

And a postscript from Kim:

If you feel you have a handle on the specific ways in which you underperformed (vocal indisposition affecting a particular aspect of your technique; general indisposition affecting energy level or focus), then it might be just fine to get feedback. Because if what you hear from us aligns with your own impressions of what didn't go well that day, then some of your questions are answered.

On the other hand, if you just feel it all went badly, and the feedback might just confuse you because you wouldn't be able to project backward and figure out which comments, if any, are truly useful - well then, it might make more sense to just move on.

Hope this helped!

Curious said...

Mr. Winograde, if this is not too personal a question to ask over a blog, why did you decide to switch you sights to administration over singing? Was it something you were thinking about for a long time? What prompted the switch?

Thanks
Curious