Singing at Drama College Auditions

What are they looking for?

(NB Check the section ‘College Advice’)

  1. “Is my singing voice OK? What if I can’t hold a tune?” Wrong questions! This audition is not about the beauty of your singing voice, or your level of musicianship. This is an audition for drama college, not a music theatre training. In other words, it’s about your potential for: acting; knowing and playing to your strengths; preparing thoroughly; response to words/character/story; learning and taking direction; using your voice and body as well as you can (allowing that you probably have limited training and experience at this stage).
  2. It’s all about selling the song, not vocal quality; about making the song real, and embodying the words; about acting, not singing – and even singing is about acting.
  3. A song is another chance to show off your acting ability. In this respect, it is just like your spoken pieces, and must be prepared just as thoroughly. ‘Bad’ singers can deliver fantastic song performances if they are real and take the audience on a journey through character or story.
  4. A song well acted can even tip the balance in your favour if the panel is lukewarm about how you performed your spoken pieces.
  5. The panel wants to experience you, so sing in your own voice, and your own accent. Don’t try to sound like someone else, like a well-known singer, like a jazz or music theatre singer, and most definitely do not use an American ‘pop’ accent (unless you are American!).
  6. Be wary of advice from your friends or family. Their advice is often contradictory and largely uninformed, as well as coloured by their personal relationship with you (whether through secret lack of belief in your chosen path, envy, wanting to reassure, etc)
  7. You won’t always be asked to sing in your preliminary audition, so a) don’t worry if you’re not asked to sing on the day at this stage, but b) always have your song ready, just in case. But you may well be asked to sing in the recall audition, even on the afternoon of the same day.

College Advice

  1. Check the advice given on the websites of the places you are applying to.
  2. Guildhall – “Be prepared to sing a short unaccompanied song of your own choice. This is not a major part of the audition; indeed, you may or may not be asked to sing at your preliminary audition. If you are, how you act it (i.e. tell the story) is more important than how well you sing it. Don’t worry if the Panel stops you midway through a piece or makes notes, and don’t worry if the Panel does not ask you to sing or do your third piece. It may be more useful for the Panel to spend a longer time in discussion with you.”
  3. Central School: “An unaccompanied song of no more than two minutes in duration and a song from the Musical Theatre repertoire, to be performed with piano accompaniment. Please provide the piano accompaniment in the correct key. Please note: a trained singing voice is not required for admission. Afternoon session: Candidates may be asked to <SNIP>…, participate in a physical and vocal workshop, sing unaccompanied, participate in a vocal assessment, participate in a brief interview. Those candidates selected by the Acting (Musical Theatre) pathway for the afternoon session will be required to sing their accompanied songs. Final recall: Candidates may be asked to present a self-devised physical theatre piece and those selected for the Acting (Musical Theatre) pathway will be required to prepare two accompanied songs from the musical theatre repertoire. Looking for: understand, embody a text; trainable vocal, physical and imaginative & emotional skills.”
  4. Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama: “Recall: You should also learn any one song, which you should be prepared to sing unaccompanied. You do not need to imitate the original artist. The song may be in any language but should last no longer than two minutes. You will work with the panel on material which may include improvisation, your original speeches and previously unseen texts. You will also participate in a movement workshop, a singing workshop and a short, informal interview. Tips: avoid accents; play to your own type and age; Technical and expressive ability in voice, movement and singing; don’t use props”

What’s a song for?

(Some thoughts from the lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim)

  • “A song is like a little one-act play. You state an idea, and then you develop it a bit, and then you come to a conclusion. And if a song is successful in a show, it’s because you move a character from point A to point B, or move the plot from point A to point B. But the point is that the song has to be necessary to telling the story. If you can take the song out and it doesn’t leave a hole, then the song’s not necessary.”
  • “Examine every single word in a lyric, what the thoughts are. There are so few words in a lyric. If you think of every lyric as a one-act play, then each line is a scene; a quatrain becomes an entire act … each word is a speech. … It is as focussed as that.”
  • “One of the things you want to do in a song, and in a scene, and in a play, is surprise an audience. You don’t want them ahead of you. Because if they’re ahead of you, then they get bored. And they say, ‘Oh I saw that coming”. It’s an anti-climax. But if they didn’t see it coming, that could be a scene, or a character, or a word. You can surprise them with a word.”

Song choices

  1. Consider choosing with one or more of the following criteria:
    1. a) a song you can connect to (which might mean choosing something you already know well)
    2. a song you can sing easily. ie not too taxing vocally in terms of breathing, volume or extremes of high or low notes; it’s better to have a simple melody / tune that you’ll be able to sing when you’re nervous, no high notes that you can only get on a good day. It’s about how you perform more than how impressive the song is.
    3. a song you are confident you can know inside out, back to front and upside down
    4. a song that matches your playing type, personality, age, experience
    5. a song that complements and contrasts with your spoken pieces
    6. a song where you make impact with story and character quickly – the panel may not want you to sing all the verses. A short song is fine, and usually better.
    7. a song you can deliver in a clear sound when singing, though this is not essential, if your performance is compelling. Remember that Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan (singers) and Mariella Frostrup (presenter) have all had successful careers with husky, unhealthily produced voices!
    8. a song in your first language (even if it is not English)
    9. a song that is not so well known – there is less chance of the panel making comparisons with other candidates, or with famous performers or performances, and it shows you’ve done your homework
    10. a funny song if you are confident you can do it – it can be a relief for the panel from hearing earnest, intense angst-ridden pieces. But only do this if you know that what you do gets a laugh.
  2. Avoid:
    1. pop songs – these can often be thin in melody, character or story, and rely in performance on elaborate ‘production’, instrumental backing etc
    2. ‘look at me’, showy, or famous ‘signature’ songs that are strongly associated with a particular artist – apart from anything else, this is not a music theatre audition, and belting is not much use in theatre, as there is no scope for storytelling or portraying character; another problem with these songs is that their content is often “I’m gonna win this time!”, “the world’s gonna notice me!” – and such songs can irritate an audition panel as they feel you are arrogantly (or desperately) telling them to select you because you are so perfect and unfairly underrated.
    3. songs that need a piano accompaniment (assume you’ll be unaccompanied)
    4. slow, ballad-like songs that have long gaps where the instrumental interludes would be
  3. Some words about choosing from music theatre
    1. Don’t go for a big music theatre piece unless you know that is a strength of yours. On the whole, I advise against doing a music theatre piece for a drama college audition (unless, like Central, they ask for this as a second song) because a) it often requires more vocal and musical skill, b) it often requires instrumental accompaniment for a performance to be convincing, c) like a spoken theatre piece, you have to know the whole show, character and motivation, and where it comes in the show, if you’re going to do it (the panel may cross question you on this).
    2. If you insist on doing a music theatre song, be wary of doing any from current well known West End shows: A Chorus Line, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, Annie, Billy Elliott, Blood Brothers, Bodyguard, Book of Mormon, Bring it On, Cabaret, Carousel, Cats, Chess, Chicago, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Disney musicals, Evita, Fame, From Here to Eternity, Guys and Dolls, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, Joseph, Kiss Me Kate, Les Miserables, Lion King, Matilda, Mamma Mia, Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Scrooge, Shrek, Singin’ in the Rain, Sound of Music, South Pacific, Spamalot, Spider Man, Starlight Express, Sweeney Todd, Top Hat, We Will Rock You, Wicked.

Preparation

  1. Prepare in the same way you would prepare a spoken piece – thoroughly!
  2. Don’t leave it until 3 weeks or less before the audition.
  3. Consider going to a singing teacher – they can help you with vocal and musical technique if you are really concerned about these, and can also give helpful guidance on breathing. However, find a teacher who understands the audition requirements of drama college. In other words, this is about acting, not about singing, and song choices can be vocally & musically conservative, whilst emphasising your potential as an actor. The singing teacher needs to focus more on interpretation and performance.
  4. In theatre, the tune is the background to the words – it’s not the main thing. Above all, actors need to be immersed in story and character – the words must become yours, welling up because they have to in that moment, in exactly that way, fresh each time. Learn to let one thought lead to the next, allowing the impulses to unfold – it should seem as though you are saying (singing) the words for the first time, as though they are just occurring to you.
  5. Practice your song as a spoken piece, to help make it become part of you.
  6. If you have a recording, and need to learn the tune this way, once you have learned it, stop listening to the MP3. Otherwise, you will internalise somebody else’s version, which is not authentic to you. It is much better to record yourself doing it, even if it’s imperfect, so that you are memorising your personal interpretation.
  7. Practise starting the song (ie finding the pitch of the first notes), and performing it through without having just listened to a recording. Remember, you won’t have that help in the audition. You need to be able to start the song without any pitching help.
  8. Never just ‘sing’ the song. Memory is a whole person process; you need to remember the song mentally, physically, and emotionally. So if you are going to practise singing the song, at the same time, practise the thought process, the emotional steps taken through the song, and the physical feeling of each new moment. It is these that must be memorised so they come back to you automatically when you need them in the audition.
  9. Don’t get patterned. Learn to do the song in more than one way – because, (although this is unlikely) the panel may direct you to try it another way.
  10. Study carefully my three blog posts on Singing as Storytelling. 1) ‘Mr Bojangles’ 2) ‘Cry me a river’ 3) ‘Over the rainbow’

Audition & Performance Technique

  1. ABC: Align (straighten), Breathe, Connect (to meaning and self)
  2. Don’t push yourself forward – it compromises the voice and expressive range. Mel Churcher makes a nice point here: “Dogs want to be loved, they lean forward, tilt their heads, nod a lot. They’re nice. Cats sit back, they watch, they are still. Cats are intriguing. Dogs say, ‘You give me food, you give me warmth, you give me love (you might give me this job) – you must be a god.’ Cats say, ‘You give me food, you give me warmth, you give me love (you will give me this job) – I must be a god.’ This is a lighthearted analogy with truth in it – we are attracted to people comfortable in their own skins, not ‘needy’, not trying too hard…so add a dash of ‘cat’ to your audition technique.”
  3. In almost all instances, I suggest you don’t look directly at the panel when singing. Personally, I prefer to get into the character and story, and imagine other characters, or the environment of the song. If it is a ‘storytelling to audience’ kind of song, then sing to an imagined audience, rather than the actual panel.
  4. Never apologise for your performance or your singing voice. And unless it is absolutely obvious you are in the depths of a flu bug, do not try and take out an ‘insurance policy’ against performing badly by saying you are just getting over, or getting into a cold.
  5. Don’t dance!

Truly great examples

NB But … take note of my earlier advice  where I strongly caution against doing a music theatre song for a drama audition.

If you’re looking for a really useful book on all of this, take a look at Paul Harvard’s Acting Through Song: Techniques and Exercises for Musical-Theatre Actors:

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