As illustrated by Playbill’s Schools of the Stars column and the annual Big 10, undergraduate programs at colleges and conservatories offering degrees in the performing arts have hit a boom—and with good reason. Just as it behooves a future accountant to be an accounting major, it makes sense for artists to study their craft, its history, practical techniques, and more before entering the world of professionals.
Performing arts programs include an addendum to that common app: the audition. Here Playbill consults six educators and coaches, who sit on the other side of the table during college auditions, offer their best advice for conquering the process to nail your call and find the right fit.
But all agree that this process is about showing who you are and revealing your potential, rather than your perfection.
“Make a spreadsheet with all of the info for all of the schools that you are auditioning for. I am talking: NAME OF SCHOOL, DATE OF AUDITION, DUE DATE OF PRE-SCREEN, MUSICAL PIECES NEEDED, ACTING PIECES NEEDED—any info that you need to keep track of.”
—Marc Tumminelli, founder of Broadway Workshop as well as the non-profit Project Broadway, which provides scholarship funds for youth performers. He adapted the book, music, and lyrics as well as directed the development workshops for the school editions of Zombie Prom, All Shook Up, Curtains, Spamalot, and more.
“College auditions are still figuring out what to ask for and it’s very stressful. If a school doesn’t ask you to sing a pop/rock song at their audition, or there isn’t a 'wild card' option where you can bring in pop/rock if you feel strong in it, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to ask you for one in the room. They want to hear it. Have a pop/rock audition cut mastered in your book, ready to rock anyway! I’ve sat in on Unifieds and many young performers get asked for it—right there in their audition. And they were not ready for it!"
—Sheri Sanders, actor and pop/rock coach, author of Rock the Audition, now an online rock musical theatre training program allowing professional performers and coaches, MT programs, and teens-to study directly with Sanders from every corner of the world so she can act and teach. Sanders also arranges audition cuts on Musicnotes.
Types of songs that work well and don't work well
"Songs that are immediately actable; songs that you connect to personally; songs that are in the 'sweet spot' of your voice; songs that make you feel powerful and grounded; songs that are written for people your age; songs that are open or exude joy; songs that can teach us about you in some way; songs that are about change or embarking on something new; songs that have an epiphany in them; songs about helping other people in some way.
"Songs that have repetitive lyrics and notes do not work well; songs about an experience that you cannot relate to or empathize with; songs that are a pity party; songs that are out of your range or vocal style; songs that don’t have a dramatic narrative; songs that require 'high comedy'; songs that have non words in them; an aria or songs from operetta (unless requested ); the newest song that no one has heard; songs that have a lisp or accent; songs that identify you as crazy; songs that tell me you are a star."
—Amy Rogers Schwartzreich, director and founder of the B.F.A. Musical Theater Program at Pace University in New York City and author of forthcoming book The Ultimate Musical Theater College Audition Guide: Advice from the People Who Make the Decision (out February 1, 2019).
"Choose more material than you need. By the time auditions come around you should have at least four monologues and six songs. Keep in mind that you’re going to be traveling around the country to audition so make sure you have songs that you can sing even if you’re sick or have allergies. We call those pocket songs. You should be able to pull these out no matter how you’re feeling.
"Read the plays that you choose pieces from. Know the shows you’re choosing music from. Be prepared to discuss the composers, shows, or playwrights if asked. There’s nothing more revealing than asking a potential student about a show that they’re singing a piece from and they don’t know the show."
—Michael McElroy, associate chair/head of vocal performance undergraduate drama NYU Tisch School of the Arts, founder/musical director/arranger for Broadway Inspirational Voices, and Broadway performer.
"If you are not 100 percent certain you’ll hit that note, choose a different song. We love a wide range, but we also love when you hit the right notes. And choose material that is extremely personal that you can have a real connection to. Then find a teacher or a coach or a friend that can run through that material with you over and over to ensure that you’re being completely honest and open."
—Nedra McClyde, full-time faculty member at Pace University's School of Performing Arts and former instructor at The New School of Drama and NYU's Playwrights Horizons Theater School, Broadway and television performer.
"Remember that auditioners are watching you from the time you arrive. Stay focused in the waiting rooms. Don’t get lured into endless conversations with others. Don’t be so well-rehearsed that you can’t take direction—no matter how wacky the request. We want to know if you can play and take adjustments."
"Don’t ask for permission. 'Can I use this chair?' 'Is it OK if I stand here?' Take control and do what you need to do. Grab that chair and do the work. What this says is that you are an artist who is certain of themselves."
Choosing a program
"We’re not only auditioning you, you are auditioning us. How you’re treated from the time you walk in and are greeted, to your time in the room auditioning, until you leave tells you about the program you’re auditioning for. Pay attention. Are folks pleasant or distant? Cold or encouraging? That’s information you can use to figure out if that program is the place for you.
"If you can, and I know it’s expensive, once you have narrowed down schools go and visit. Just because a program is well known does not mean it’s the right program for you. When you go to the campus and sit in on classes, you will know if it’s where you’ll thrive."
"Look to see what opportunities there are beyond the season’s productions. Student directing programs, chances to work behind the scenes, mentorships, and internships are all great, and be sure to look for a school that has a design/tech program and get involved. Theatre artists need to be as well rounded as possible, as putting on a show is an ultimate example of teamwork. Knowing what everyone does on a production will only help you respect each other and work better together when you enter the professional world. Also, see if their faculty continues to work professionally, and/or if they bring in guest artists—the profession changes so often, it’s crucial to know what’s happening in the business today."
—David Alpert, adjunct professor at NYU, artistic director of headling programming for BroadwayCon, and producer of Living for Today concert series