The Collaborative Audition: Working with Accompanists and Directors

The Collaborative Audition: Working with Accompanists and Directors

Navigating the Unnatural World of Online Auditions

As I regularly work with young singers going out on their first auditions, I get the recurring question on how to collaborate with the variable and unknown entity – the pianist. In an audition situation, many things are out of your control, like the acoustics, the travel mishaps, the quality of the pianist who is playing for your audition, or your health. Some things, however, are entirely in your control, like your preparation, being organized, and how you treat the pianist who is playing your audition.

In this post, I have assembled a list of a few Dos and Don’ts to help your pianist to help you. First, in this day and age, it is a terrific idea to have scanned copies of your arias in your computer, ready to go at any moment. Sometimes the pianist will receive the list of repertoire from the organization in advance of your audition, sometimes not. If they have, they may look at the repertoire and see what they will be required to play at the audition. Some pianists are so busy that they just simply don’t have time to look at the music, but many pianists like to prepare when they have the opportunity to do so. Even if they know the arias, they sometimes like to get their fingers to remember them the night before. So, if the organization contacts you about providing them with certain music on your repertoire list, especially if it is non-standard, and you already have all of your repertoire scanned into your computer and ready to be sent off to them, then you will be ahead of the game and save yourself some stress.

Some pianists have very distinct preferences when it comes to sheet music. Here are some of my own personal Dos and Don’ts:

  • Do have your music clearly marked and organized. Pianists prefer clean, legible scores without excessive markings.
  • Don’t show up with a crumpled, coffee-stained score that looks like it’s been through a war zone.
  • Do offer to provide the pianist with a clean copy of the music if you know yours is in rough shape.
  • Don’t assume the pianist will be able to sight-read a complicated score on the spot. Provide them with the music as soon as possible.
  • Do ask the pianist if they have any preferences for how the music is presented, like page turns or specific markings.

Now, let’s talk about the brave new world of online auditions. Recently, many conservatories, universities, and companies have had to move their audition process to an online format, combining video and online interviews with potential candidates. It’s not how anyone really wants to do an audition, but if we believe the projections, we’re all in this situation for what they say will be quite a while.

So, how do we power through and survive? I put together this little checklist for online auditioning from my experience being involved both in doing them and watching them. The most important part of any audition is how you sound and how you look. Just as in a live audition, there are things that are out of your control and things that are totally in your control – actually, even more so with a video recording.

While making some videos with some of my singers, these are important points that we had to consider:

  • Lighting: Make sure you are well-lit, with the light source in front of you, not behind you. Avoid harsh shadows or uneven lighting.
  • Camera Angle: Position the camera at eye level, not from below or above. This will give the most natural and flattering view.
  • Background: Keep the background simple and uncluttered, with no distractions.
  • Sound Quality: Use the best microphone or recording setup you have access to, whether it’s a professional-grade mic or just your phone’s built-in camera.
  • Dress Appropriately: Wear performance attire, just as you would for a live audition.
  • Maintain Eye Contact: Look directly at the camera, not at the screen, to create a sense of connection.
  • Energy and Expression: Bring the same level of energy and expressiveness as you would for a live performance.

So, you got through the first round with your excellent video, and the school or organization wants to speak to you in an online interview. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Test Your Setup: Do a practice run to ensure your audio, video, and internet connection are working smoothly.
  • Dress Professionally: Again, treat this like an in-person interview and dress accordingly.
  • Be Aware of Your Body Language: Sit up straight, make eye contact, and avoid fidgeting or distracting mannerisms.
  • Prepare Thoughtful Responses: Have a few key points or stories ready to share about your experience and goals.
  • Be Flexible and Adaptable: Things may not go exactly as planned, so be ready to roll with the punches.

Auditioning online is daunting and unnatural, but it doesn’t have to feel too rigid or difficult. Be prepared, do your homework, and test it out first. Remember to show yourself at your best, and don’t be afraid to try new things – you never know what is waiting for you on the other side.

The Importance of Building a Trustworthy Team

As singers, we hear ourselves differently than the outside world, so we need a team of experts around us to be our extra ears. We depend on others to let us know if what we’re doing sounds right, if our diction is correct, and if we’re actually doing what we’re trying to do. Depending on others means that everyone will have an opinion about how you’re singing and how you should be doing things. So, how do you know who you can trust? How do you assemble a trustworthy team to help weed through all the noise?

First, and in my opinion, most important is a voice teacher. As a singer, you need someone who will go on your technical journey with you. This means someone with an in-depth knowledge of vocal technique and who knows how to communicate it in a way that you can understand. Vocal teaching is expressed through a language unique to each teacher, and it can take time to understand what they’re asking from you.

Sometimes the technical work is excellent, but your personalities do not click. Can you work like this? Should you stay in this studio? Sometimes you get along on a personal level, but the technical gains are not happening – same questions apply. These are soul-searching questions and hard decisions, but the most important reasons to be with a teacher are making healthy vocal improvements, problem-solving, and maintaining a beneficial vocal technique. The outcome of your work is more important than just having a great time with someone during a lesson.

In addition to a voice teacher, an excellent vocal coach who understands where you’re coming from and where you’re going is essential to any singer trying to have a career. It’s important to note that a vocal coach is not a voice teacher. Though they may have the same goals for you, a vocal coach is usually a pianist, which means there are no grounds for them to give you a full-blown voice lesson.

As you can see, the two functions at times cross over each other, but this should only be in support of each other. As you advance in your career, you may see your voice teacher less because you’re traveling, and a weekly lesson is not possible anymore. You end up checking in once or twice a month or when you start working on a new role. We are realizing, however, in this time of Covid-19, that voice lessons can really be productive in an online format if need be.

But as you’re working and traveling, an excellent vocal coach is a vital component to your success. They will be your ears and let you know if something is not working. They can take you through your role and advise you on a multitude of issues. The best part is that you can have several trusted vocal coaches around the world. You don’t have to have just one, but with voice teachers, it can lead to confusion to have more than one – the equivalent to too many cooks in the kitchen – and in my years of experience, when I have seen singers try to have more than one voice teacher, it has rarely worked out if ever.

The Pianist’s Role in the Collaborative Audition

This sounds like an existential question, but it is one that bears asking. For years now, I have been coming across social media posts or YouTube clips of singers which don’t mention the pianist who is clearly visible and audible. When I asked some of my friends who are sometimes responsible for announcing singers on radio programs or for social media postings why this happens, some of the answers that I received were that they often try to avoid calling a pianist an “accompanist” because they are worried to offend the pianist. But is being called an “accompanist” worse than not being mentioned at all?

Let’s look at the term “accompanist” and why it has become, for some, such a derogatory term to describe the pianist who plays with a singer or instrumentalist. The term “accompanist” is defined as the musician who plays a musical instrument while another person is singing or playing the main part. Is this what I do? Yes, all the time. The term has nevertheless been known to imply inferiority.

Fairly recently, in North America, the term “collaborative pianist” has been in use to describe what I do. I believe the term was coined somewhere in the 1980s and then gained more mainstream popularity in the 1990s. This term, however, has not reached the same popularity where I am in Europe. At the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I am called a “coach,” and my official title is “correpetitor” – this Dutch word is actually closer to the term “collaborator,” not to be confused with “repetiteur,” which is strictly used for the rehearsal-pianist, as the prefix “co” implies to collaborate, whereas the term “begeleider” is the equivalent to “accompanist.”

Every time that I sit at the piano and perform, I am acknowledged with a variety of titles: Piano, Pianist, Accompanist. It has been argued that the role of “accompanist” comes with a lack of appreciation and anonymity. One of my all-time favorite books, an excellent read, very witty, and a book that first brought the humble accompanist into the light, is Gerald Moore’s “The Unashamed Accompanist,” who puts this feeling of anonymity into words that I think we all pianists can relate to:

“We accompanists have our minds above such mundane things as fees. But I would like people to realise what extremely important people we accompanists are. The most enchanting lady walks on to sing and all the ladies look at her because of what she’s wearing and all the men look at her because… well, all the men look at her. And nobody looks at me. And I can’t blame them. Nobody notices the accompanist at all. He looks so slender and shy and so modest that people think he’s there just to do what he’s told, to follow the singer through thick and thin. Well, there’s a great deal more to it than that.”

The truth is, if no one is sitting at the piano, then all this beautiful repertoire could not be performed, and the same goes for the singer – it takes the both of us. There has been, and still is, a discrepancy in fees between the singer/instrumentalist and the pianist, and the latter is often the afterthought, appearing in much smaller letters on billboards, posters, programs, and/or recordings.

As they say, it takes a village to develop great performers and artists, and a great team is crucial to your development, so choose wisely. This sounds like an existential question, but it is one that bears asking. I have no huge issue with being called an “accompanist” if that is what I am doing. I prefer to be called a “pianist” because that is what I am. I don’t personally see any use for the word “collaborative” because it is obvious that I am doing just that. There are no “collaborative singers,” and if we are doing a song recital together, we should just be singer and pianist. What’s in the name anyway, as long as you are an excellent player or singer?

Obviously, on this matter, I only speak for myself concerning my preferences. So, how do you know what to call your recital partner? Ask them how they wish to be addressed – everyone has a preference for how they like to be presented on the program and/or recording. Always show them either in the photo or in the video, and always make sure their name is published on everything alongside your own so they don’t feel like an afterthought. These pianists have spent their lives working, studying, and devoting themselves to the art of making music with others – they are your colleague, so honor your relationship with each other through respect.

As you embark on your musical journey, remember the importance of building a trustworthy team and understanding the collaborative nature of the audition process. Whether you’re working with an accompanist, a vocal coach, or a director, approach each relationship with respect, communication, and a shared passion for the art. By fostering these valuable connections, you’ll not only enhance your performance but also enrich the entire creative experience. So, as you step into the world of musical theater, embrace the collaborative spirit and let it guide you to new heights of artistic expression. Who knows what incredible opportunities may await you on the other side of that audition door?

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