While any audition may conjure up lyrics from A Chorus Line, auditions for admission into performance- and arts-oriented colleges may seem daunting. The spotlight has never seemed more hot and blinding.
Not to worry. I recently sat down with a few insiders to get their behind-the-scenes perspectives on the audition process. So take a seat, stretch, do some vocal warm-ups, and read on for some advice from the pros, as well as a former student who has been there and done that.
Michael Manderen, Director of Admissions at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music
In his role as Director of Admissions at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, Michael Manderen has acquired a wealth of experience in both performance and auditions.
What might students overthink when it comes to their audition moment?
The first thing that comes to mind is that students in an in-person, live audition will try to "read" the audition panel, often becoming too sensitive to small things—tone of voice, posture, gesture. One should try to tune these things out because, as often as not, the feelings engendered are misleading. Often a student will ask what to play or sing first, or will be asked by the panel only to realize that they have no idea, that they did not come to the experience with a plan for order of pieces.
What is your advice to help students prepare for their auditions?
Be flexible, but also come to the audition having thought about this, and have an order in mind if presented the option to choose. It's not necessarily a performance, but an examination and evaluation. Give yourself sufficient warm-up time and come to the audition with items that allow you to sing or play your best, whether it be a water bottle or a cello endpin stop. Don't be surprised if you're asked to demonstrate other skills, such as sight reading, scales, or arpeggios. It's all fair game.
What other things should students be prepared to demonstrate during their auditions?
Knowledge of basic music theory and aural skills are important because they will enhance a student's intellectual and intuitive understanding of the music with which they engage. Such understanding inevitably is evident in an audition in subtle and not so subtle ways. Such study prior to a college audition can't hurt and can only help.
Eric Weiss, Performing Arts Admission Coordinator at Emerson College
Eric Weiss is the Performing Arts Admission Coordinator and part of the adjunct faculty in the Performing Arts Department at Emerson College. The admission process there, as he explains, is quite unique. There are four performance majors, and an audition is required for each of them. After a student applies through the Common Application, the school's undergraduate admission office is prompted to send the student an Emerson ID to unlock major-specific application tools, including the ability to book an audition. Some programs also require an interview.
How does the audition process work at your school?
All auditions begin with a Q&A, and they then take volunteers. Musical theater requires a dance component, two musical selections, and two monologues, one of which must be comedic. For acting, it requires two monologues. The objective in all programs is to understand who the applicant is. What do they bring? What strengths do they have? What's their background? In essence, the audition helps admission to gain an understanding of each applicant's talent and where they are in their development.
Are there audition trends? For example, when I was an undergraduate, many students auditioned with songs from Wicked. Does this help or hurt an applicant?
I think figuring out what those trends are is a difficult process. I'm not sure that is something an applicant can be all that conscious of. I also feel that precludes the possibility that someone brings something new to it. There are certainly monologues we've seen hundreds of times. They just do it so well, we wouldn't want to shut ourselves out from that. But if you are aware that something is being overdone, and unless you are sure you can do it differently or better, sure, pick something different.
Do you have any advice for students who have already had a good run in terms of getting parts?
I'd say the first thing is to focus on what you can control. You can't control where you come from. You can't control the auditions you've done in the past. So focus on the things that you can control. All you can do is prepare as much as you can and accept the fact that there are going to be lots of other good people there.
So in essence, experience doesn't necessarily mean that you may not have picked up bad habits, and a lack of experience may mean that you are an open book with great instincts.
I'd always encourage actors to take healthy risks. But I don't think it's the moment to be playing away from your strengths.
Speaking of risks, what about acceptance rates?
Every school and program is different, and the stats can be staggering. For instance, there were around 800 auditions for musical theater at Emerson College this year. Out of that, 18 first-year musical theater students are expected for the coming year.
Mary Lemanski, Director of Operations for Songsalive
Mary Lemanski is a songwriter and musician as well as the Director of Operations for Songsalive, a nonprofit organization that supports, promotes, and educates songwriters and composers around the world. She auditioned for piano performance and vocal performance at Millikin University, DePaul University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
What was one of your most memorable experiences in an audition?
At the Millikin University audition, I was playing Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 13, and they told me that I was the first person to play the rhythm correctly all day. I was not expecting that!
If you could give students one piece of advice for their audition day, what would it be?
Relax. I did some meditation before each audition to help me relax. If you make a mistake, keep going and act like it did not happen. Be yourself! Going into it, you feel as if the whole rest of your life depends on it, when in fact it is just a small event. If you fail, there are other colleges. It is not the end of the world.
I hope these insights and words of advice will help as you prepare for your own auditions. In the words of Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, "Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch . . . again!"
Break a leg!