Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Readers' Comments on Audition Best Practices

Parliament PianoIt seems like pianists and singers alike have a lot to say about a recent post on audition pianists. Here are a few highlights.

Anonymous writes:
Unless one has perfect sight reading skills, AND an uncanny ability to read minds, it is important to know when to say "No." Especially for obscure arias, if you don't know it/don't have the time to prepare it, let the singer to find a coach who HAS played it and can relay the sensitivity and technical execution needed. There will inevitably be a time and place in the future - with ample amounts of prep time - to revisit and accompany that particular aria in an audition. 
 Furthermore, it is important for the singer to know when "NOT" to audition. If they are not musically ready, it is a nightmare for the pianist, and the best interests of the singer is at the hands of their own anxiety. Never leave the first (or first two or three) auditions as your "trial runs" of the season. Always go in readily prepared - coaches and teachers alike are out there to help singers reach that level. Your first impression might be THE ONLY impression!

CS noted the significant change in rep between music school and performing career:
There's a strange thing about collaborative piano in a university environment: when you are in school playing for singers, you play mostly repertoire that student singers are learning. For opera, that means a lot of Mozart and light lyric soprano arias. When you transition to the professional world, you are suddenly faced with MUCH different repertoire--the larger Verdi rep, Strauss, Wagner, and tons of obscure French pieces. Since it is unlikely that you ever encountered this repertoire in school, there are only two ways to learn it: 1). Personal study: listening to recordings, sitting down with scores, running surtitles, practicing. 2). Take every gig and opportunity that comes your way, pretend you know what you are doing, do your best, and learn through experience.
CS goes on to say:
It seems selfish to use auditions as a learning opportunity at the singers' expense, but I cannot think of a better way for a young pianist to gain experience. All those little things--like when to follow a singer into a new tempo, and when to keep a steady tempo while the singer does his/her thing, with the confidence that the two of you will end up beautifully together at the end of the phrase--are things you cannot possibly learn through solitary practice. Also, I'm not doing the singers any favors by turning down the gig, as there is no guarantee that whoever they end up getting will be any better than I am.

And as far as preparation goes, preparing to play vocal auditions is a little like preparing to visit a foreign country by buying a language book the week before your trip. If you don't already know SOMETHING, it is unlikely to be useful, and even if you do already know something, its usefulness is still limited. Even, for instance, if you ask for the rep sheets ahead of time. Say you are playing 20 auditions, and each singer has 5 potential arias ready to go. Of those arias, there are 20 that you have never even heard of. There are another 20 that you are familiar with, but need to review. There are any number of singers who don't send their rep lists at all, or who send it at the last minute when you don't have time to get to it. There are conductors who ask for things that aren't on the "official" rep list, but that the singer knows and is prepared to sing. Basically, there is no way to learn all this music unless you have a Time-Turner like Hermione in the 3rd Harry Potter book.

So you go in there and do your best. When I don't know an aria, I try to be honest about it, and ask the singer for the tempo. I look through for any tempo changes I should anticipate. Then I do my best to play with as much rhythmic clarity as possible and to provide at least a harmonic framework (even if I'm not playing all the notes). It is always easier if the singer has marked cuts and tempo changes clearly. I especially like it when they mark all those little rubatos that are so common in the Verdi and bel canto rep. If you haven't played or listened to a particular aria in awhile, you might forget they are coming up and it's nice to have the reminder.

To respond to Susan Eichhorn's question "who is that pianist in the room?" the answer is: someone like me. You know all those "marvelous, exceptional and brilliant pianists out there" the ones that you wish were playing your auditions? Yeah, well those highly trained and experienced pianists would not exist today if some conductor or artistic administrator had not taken a chance and asked THEM to play auditions, back when THEY were young and just learning the repertoire. No small number of those "marvelous, exceptional and brilliant" pianists are now sitting on the other side of the audition table as conductors, giving the same opportunities and encouragement and mentoring to young pianists that they received when they were at that early stage in their careers.
Finally, an anonymous singer talks about his/her best practices:
I always bring my scores folded, marked and with all the things that I think important while studying it clearly written, and then I also ask my coach if he/she understands all the marks or would he/she put it differently… so I think my work is, generally, well done. 
When the audition times arrives we are nervous and lots of things can go wrong everything depends on that very minute that you get to show how good you are and that you are their best choice…. Ehem! No pressure at all… but we also know that a great deal depends on how the pianists plays and how he/she follows what you are doing and I think that’s what makes the difference. 
In my experience the best pianists which have helped me in an audition are the ones that follows the singer. I have played, lots of times, music that the pianist has never played or seen before but they where there trying their best to help me and even at the cost of an nice performance for them. Sorry but I really appreciate that because those 10 minutes are mine!
The worst auditions pianists that I ever have encountered where playing alone, the audition was theirs and they never looked or listened at what I was doing, tempo? Their own, cadenza (even noted)? No thanks!..

So I don’t care if the pianist who plays in my audition is the best sight reader over the entire world, if he plays alone It doesn’t work for us! The one that leaves some notes unplayed but try to help you and is there listening and changing as necessary is the good one! Sorry guys but we are musicians so make music!

A huge thank you goes to all the pianists who singers who took so much time to write such detailed insight into the art of auditioning from both sides of the piano. Your comments are valued by the entire Collaborative Piano Blog community.


  1. Valuable indeed! Thanks for sharing, as always.

    Depending on where you live and/or work, the repertoire to which a pianist is normally exposed may well be limited to student material. In this case, keen collaborators would do well to keep an eye out for other informative posts, such as a recent article on "favorite audition repertoire classified by voice type." I believe it was posted or linked here... and even included three separate years' worth of titles. What an awesome resource.

  2. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Whether you've learned much of that rep would depend on which school you've gone to. Larger Verdi rep, Strauss, Wagner, and tons of obscure French pieces, were all available at Indiana in the 80s and 90s when specialists like Virgina Zeani, Gabriella Tucci, James king< Girogio Tozzi and at least 300 voice majors including many grad sudents made it entirely possible to learn all of this repertoire, indeed the entire repertoire this way if one was ambitious enough. We get so locked into this idea that one has to get a collaborative degree to learn how to do this that one forgets that a large number of people in this profession with large resumes did in fact attend large schools like Indiana with flourishing opera programs and learned their repertoire that way, or through going to Manhattan and playing the trenches in New York. Most of the working (ie non-academic performers, excluding those who combine the two careers, an honorable way of doing this in a major city) collaborators built their careers that way.

  3. It's great to see this subject discussed. Some years ago, here in the UK, where I live, I went on a weekend course on being a repetiteur, and we were given audition repertoire lists taken from Anthony Legge's book 'The Art of Auditioning', which suggests arias for each voice type. A quick Google search shows that the book is still available: http://www.boosey.com/shop/prod/Legge-Anthony-Art-Of-Auditioning/691665 . Certainly some operatic arias provide a real challenge for auditions if one doesn't already know them - apart from Strauss and Stravinsky, I find it easy to be caught out by some Britten arias, which are pretty standard repertoire here.

  4. Thanks, Phillip! I use the Anthony Legge book regularly, both in working with pianists and singers.