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POV - Thoughts of an Audition Pianist

On Thursday of last week I ventured into rather familiar territory - the Arden School of Theatre in Manchester - to accompany for the auditions for some students of vocal studies.


I don't have any photographic evidence of my morning, so here is a picture of the building from the Arden's Facebook Page!

These auditions were to allow the students the opportunity to audition - as a module - for a part in a concert that is to be staged in February. They were instructed to prepare one audition piece and then bring some secondary pieces that would be selected by the panel.


It was up to them whether or not they used sheet music or backing track, but the majority - excitingly for me - chose sheet music. Even those who used backing track only did so for their first song, opting for a selection of scores to choose from for their second piece.


Despite the fact that I have never met or seen any of these particular students before, I am always impressed by the standard that is exhibited in anything that I am involved in at the Arden. Whether this be acting through song, mock auditions or auditions for entry into the school, or even playing in the 'pit' for one of their shows.


But mores to the point when it comes to this, I am always impressed by how well prepared the students are - and I don't just mean from their own point of view. Yes, their own performances are, needless to say, rather wonderful, but from my point of view as audition pianist they know exactly what to bring, say and / or do to make my job a heck of a lot easier.


So much so that I have taken some inspiration here to write a blog for any budding auditionees as to how to prepare for your audition if you ever plan to do so with a pianist.



Consider Your Strengths



  • Is your performance going to be up to standards when performing with a pianist?


This one might sound obvious, but it can be extremely different hearing a pianist playing a piece of music than the original song or a backing track to which you have been practising. Ensure that you practice with a pianist to know whether or not the accompanying part has enough of a drive to justify you giving the best out of your performance. For example, one selected piece last week was 'Dog Days are Over' by Florence and the Machine. I was able to vamp this a bit more methodically because I knew the song, but the actual score just called for block chords to be held for a bar or two bars at a time, which really isn't much for the performer to thrive off. This is, of course, because the original song is based heavily on a driving drum beat to keep its momentum going, which I tried to mimic to make as interesting as possible. However, a lesser experienced pianist may not have been able to. That said, if you are expecting a much more stripped back piano part then it shouldn't affect your performance, so make sure you can still sing it to the best of your ability with minimal accompaniment.


  • Opt for your strongest, not the most enjoyable!


So frequently the second song picked might end up being better than the first! The reason you may pick a specific song to showcase may be because it's the one you've rehearsed the most, so technically it is the most polished - therefore - the most enjoyable to perform. However, they should all be enjoyable to perform, so make sure there is no compromise across the board, but moreover consider a) the context for which you are auditioning (such as not singing a gentle ballad if you audition for the role of a villain!) and b) which of the songs you perform actually sounds best as both a singing exercise and an overall performance. One good trick here that all performers and musicians benefit from is to record yourself and listen back. This way, you hear first hand what needs improvement, but also gives you a much clearer idea as to which ones sound best. When you perform, thrive off the enjoyment which leads to an automatic assumption that everything is fantastic. This is not necessarily the case, and you might find that the pieces you brush to the side for whatever reason are actually the ones you engage with most strongly.



Accessible Scores



  • Sellotape!


It's old fashioned. It's a pain for you whilst preparing. But it is oh so reliable! Imagine that you put the scores into a ring binder. Well, that can tear out as you turn pages. No problem - plastic wallets! Well, aside from the same issue of potentially ripping them out, glare is not always attractive, so direct eye to paper contact is always desirable. So how do you attach them! Sellotape them! And do so in such a way that you can turn the pages like an open A4 book. Sure, at a push anything 4 pages or less can be spread out landscape across the music stand, but ultimately us pianists are very used to having our heads facing straight ahead at all times, and the idea of moving slowly from left to right - particularly for a piece we may not know - can be a drag on the old sight reading. But with sellotape - problem solved! I will add, however, that - whilst many old school pianists may disagree - I don't have a problem at all with iPads or other such tablets. However, please make sure they are charged and not so old that they don't respond to my finger or - if your are very well prepared - a foot-switch page turner!


  • Choose Pianist Friendly Repertoire


It's super important that you don't misunderstand me here - I don't mean that you have to consider me for everything. However, try and keep in mind that you can count on two hands the amount of people in history (well known ones, at least) who could sight read complex piano parts at the drop of a hat. You don't want your audition skewered because I'm struggling to keep up with a piece that's not 'piano friendly'. As a golden rule, try and establish if your score is feasible to play off the cuff on the off chance that your pianist may not already know the piece. A perfect example here is virtually any score by Stephen Sondheim. Fair enough, the pianist in your audition will likely know an awful lot of his repertoire. However, the majority of his standard piano and vocal scores are based heavily on the orchestration and not designed with a pianist in mind. This means that there are extremely large - often unplayable - stretches, clusters of unfathomable notes that are individually allocated to different instruments or instrumental families - many of which feature difficult-to-decipher-which-note-it's-on double sharps / double flats, as well as having lots of 'pedal' notes that are impossible to recognise on the piano. If you wish to do this with a piano then that's fine - it is you being auditioned and not the pianist - but if you want to give both parties the best chance, find a friendlier score, or if possible use a backing track or even sing a cappella (depending on the brief of your audition).



Communication



  • Talk to Me!


The auditionees all had to bring me their scores anyway, so it stood to reason that they told me anything I needed to know. And there were a few things. Where do we start? Where do we stop? Do we honour repeats or carry straight through? Tell me if there are any lines that you will be dragging out more and need me to follow you rather than me ploughing through. I ask all of them - even if I knew the song - to demonstrate the first line or so just quietly to me just so I could gauge the tempo they would comfortably perform in, and also just confirmed what introduction they would like - especially true if they weren't starting at the very beginning. For example, shall I give you the two bars prior to, or count you in and play your starting note, or jump vamp 4 chords in to kickstart? Whilst it still isn't my audition, you don't want to jeopardise your potentially one chance at singing this to the panel by not quite syncing up with me, so now is the time to get all your worries out of the way!



  • Marking the Score


This one kind of relates to the above, and it's simply a case of marking up. Yes, still talk me through everything, but if you throw me a bone and write 'START', 'END', 'CARRY STRAIGHT ON', 'SKIP TO BAR ---' etc., it does wonders for me as this original information will not necessarily remain in tact first time round. Also, it gives you the opportunity to not have to feel so obliged to remember to tell me everything - that is, to say, if you tell me to - for example - start here, end here then it's as written - you won't feel bad when you get halfway through the audition and think 'oh, I forgot to tell him to repeat the verse' - because it's already marked on the score! Mark it clearly and neatly - if you're striking out bars then that's great, but do so with something bold as sheet music is quite bold as it is, and if you're crossing out a lot of bars then don't give me whole pages of cut bars to turn! It makes my life so much easier and ultimately I need to be my best for you, not myself. My gig is playing for the audition. I go home, I may be asked to do another one, but there is nothing riding on it. It's all to play for for you, so do a kindness unto yourself and follow all of my points and you will do a good audition!


 

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