News & Views

Audition advice from respected pianist Richard Black

Tue 17 Feb 2015 @ 16:22

At most auditions, you will be singing with a pianist you don’t know and with whom you haven’t rehearsed. Ideally, she or he will know your pieces and/or be a fluent sight-reader, but however well those criteria are met there are things you can do to make things work better for you.

The first thing is obvious, and can be done very easily long before the audition. In addition, once you’ve done it it’s ready for any number of subsequent auditions. Despite this, it never ceases to amaze me how many singers fail to turn up with suitable copies of their music for the pianist. All that’s needed is a copy that is easy to read and use. If the pianist can’t follow the cuts, or bits are missing from the edge or the page, or dark lines from a dodgy photocopier obscure important details, or the copy keeps turning its own pages back, it’s YOU who will suffer in the end.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a proper printed score to an audition, if the weight of the thing doesn’t put you off in the first place. But do make sure it will stay open on a normal piano desk, and the pages are all secure. The old grey Schirmer aria books are rubbish for this, for instance, except the soprano volume which was fine.

Photocopies are practical and sensible as long as one observes the following precautions which are really no more than common sense:

  • Stick them together. Loose pages are asking for trouble from every possible point of view.
  • Use two sticky-tape hinges, at top and bottom of each page. Masses of tape will simply make pages impossible to turn over.
  • Make sure they are clearly legible and not out of focus at the edges, missing important bits like clefs or obliterated by markings.
  • Carry them around in an envelope or folder so they don’t get horribly screwed up. Or put them in a binder of some sort – plastic sleeve binders can be a nuisance depending on lighting. 4-hole ring binders are probably about best, though they and 4-hole punches can be a bit hard to find.
  • Mark start and end points clearly and any cuts VERY clearly. If the start is completely out of context, write in the previous tempo and/or metronome marking.

OK, so you’ve got a decent copy of music for the pianist. Next is to make sure that the tempo is at least roughly correct. If the aria is well known you may just murmur to the pianist as you hand over the score,‘Keep it moving’ or‘I like this on the slow side’ or something like that which will be enough. DON’T embark on a lengthy description of how you want it to go – apart from anything else you will probably get half the speeds wrong in the heat of the moment anyway. If the aria is obscure, give the pianist a rough idea of speed by humming and/or beating a bit of it. It’s actually worth practising this: I’m often surprised by how vague singers can be at indicating a speed. A metronome mark can be useful (most repetiteurs will have a fair idea). Speed changes within an aria, if they’re not obvious, can be marked in any of the usual ways (arrows, squiggly lines, verbal descriptions, metronome marks). It all helps.

And then you need to develop the knack of pulling a speed on or back if necessary. This is all part of standard preparation, or at least it should be. Next time you’re running through audition repertoire with a pianist, ask for a speed that’s slightly too fast or too slow and see how it feels to sing resolutely against it. You’re best off doing this right at the outset, with the first few words you sing. If you deliver these firmly at the speed you want, you are most likely to get a response – trying later may be interpreted as unintentional rushing or dragging. It will occasionally happen that a pianist in an audition simply won’t budge, but most of us can take a hint. Try to avoid waving arms to encourage speed changes – it looks bad, for a start, and it’s often also unclear.

I’ve often thought that it could be mutually beneficial for singers to run through audition arias with inexperienced pianists – undergraduate kind of level. You will encounter horribly inexperienced pianists in auditions (who probably shouldn’t have accepted the work and who certainly shouldn’t have been asked to do it by opera companies) but practising with young pianists will help you prepare for this unpleasant eventuality and also help the next generation of accompanists be better prepared when they enter the real world. I wouldn’t regard it as appropriate for money to change hands for this kind of get-together, by the way – a beer at most!

Finally, just what do you do if the pianist is simply incapable of playing your repertoire? If you’ve just put some late Tippett, or some of Strauss’s tougher pages, or something new, complex and in full score, on the piano you may be expecting a pretty rough approximation anyway, and we all mess up now and then in any human activity, but suppose you encounter blank incomprehension at a straightforward bit of 19th-century tonality? Resist the temptation to throw a complete fit (if only because it won’t be good for your voice), but do feel at liberty to stop, explain that the situation is untenable (as the panel will understand – if they don’t, do you actually want to work with or for them?) and investigate three options. First, ask if there’s another pianist around who might know the music (obviously only any point in this if you are on opera-house premises). Second, ask the pianist to simplify and just put down a chord on the barline or something. Third, sing unaccompanied. Then, when you get home, write a polite email to the opera company (even better, get your agent, if you have one, to write) asking for the sake of future auditionees that they book a more experienced (you may think, simply competent) pianist for their forthcoming auditions. They, as well as the pianist, owe you an apology.

Find out more about Richard Black