A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The other side of the table

This time of year is when traditionally I write a rant about auditions. I'm going to break out of that somewhat and, rather than rant, I'd like to share some thoughts on what it was like for me last week, when I sat on an audition panel for 3 days. It was a fascinating exercise for me, as it gave me a valuable insight into what those poor people on the other side of the table are going through... and yes, I mean those poor people on the panel. Please remember, I can only write from my own point of view, so I can't speak for every panel, but I have tried to incorporate some things I have been told by various people who are on panels as part of their job, and have just put my personal take on the points often raised in talks on auditioning. So here we go, my observations from listening to 60 singers over 3 days:

1. It's hard to remember people when you have only 10 mins with every person. You know how panels start scribbling on their notepads the moment you settle on a piece and you feel they're not giving you any attention? They're probably writing down what you're singing, and any distinguishing features you may have so that they can recall you quickly when they look over the whole process. This difficulty in remembering leads into the next point:

2. It's hard to stand out. If you're polite, do everything right and sing well, you won't stand out, which is good, because failure in any of the above would make you stand out in the wrong way. Being memorable in the right way is very hard to do, and despite having a few in my mind who were, I'm not sure what exactly they did to be so. I think it's a question of being yourself and putting the panel at ease. The standouts I remember were either very personable and endearing, or confident and willing to take charge of their own audition (in a good way). The latter is tricky to replicate, as you can come across as overbearing... So I think the only piece of advice to glean is this: be yourself, and as relaxed as you can be, and there's nothing wrong with not standing out. It's better than standing out in the wrong way.

3. It's close! When hearing people of a certain standard... they're all of a certain standard. When it comes to who gets something and who doesn't, it's so close you wouldn't believe!  It can come down to a gut feeling of someone on the panel and everyone else going with it. So not getting something does not mean you did a bad audition or didn't belong there or weren't good enough to get anything. It just means that this time you weren't the right person. As a singer I'm taking that one to heart, because it's a lot nicer thinking you weren't the right person than putting your abilities in question and losing faith in yourself. There were people we heard last week who were absolutely amazing, but didn't fit what we had in mind for the roles in this opera... to the point of me thinking 'I wish we were casting a different piece so I could offer this person something!'.

4. Black is not a good colour to wear. When the panel are sitting there for hours on end, a parade of people in black is... well, dreary for one thing, but it also makes it more difficult to remember people (what distinguishing features are they meant to scribble down?). Would you rather be the guy in the pink shirt, or the one with a funny nose?

5. Props and costumes... OK, this may be personal preference, but I think they will put more people off than draw into your performance. It's not what a panel expects, and yes, it will make you stand out if you come dressed as the character you're going for, or bring a prop for your aria, but whether it'll make you stand out in the right way? It's a risk you're welcome to take...

6. Handshakes. You can tell a lot about a person by their handshake. If you do shake hands with the panel, it's a bit like putting all your eggs in one basket, and it has very little to do with singing. Practice handshakes for when a panel encourages them. I had no idea how strong an opinion about someone can be formed from that one touch.

7. It's a lot nicer watching a performance than an audition. Try to think of it as such. Politeness is fine, but a bit of showmanship gives everyone a break from the formality of it all. Just don't overdo it ;)

8. Don't let a botched note put you off. I talked to some of the singers afterwards and they apologised for various cracks, harsh notes, wrong words, etc. I didn't hear more than half of them, and the rest I didn't really care about. It's never about one note, it's about you.

9. It is about you, not just your singing. The panel want to see a person, and ideally that person won't suddenly become just another singer the moment the piano starts. If you can be yourself all the way through your audition, seamlessly changing characters of course, but without that moment of cutting away from your own self, you give yourself the greatest chance of giving the right impression of yourself. Try to be the same person when you walk in, as you are talking to the panel, as you are listening to the intro and singing, and then saying goodbye and walking out.

I loved being on a panel and I loved it most when people sang well. Yes, it made decisions difficult, but it made me get back a bit of faith in the fairness of it all. I could see that if I'm ever rejected from something (and it happens a lot, to everyone), it does not mean I was bad. Or at least not necessarily. If I think I sang well, I can trust myself and put the failure down to... well, anything really: height, build, timbre of voice... but not my abilities. Which is a lot better for my sanity.

I think colleges should run more audition classes and sit students down as 'panel members'. The thing is, it's not really the same unless you're listening to strangers, and a huge group. But it gives people an idea of what it is to be on the other side of that table.

The panel are people too. Be nice to them.

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