Your Audition Partner at the Piano

First, a list from a few seasons ago, when my colleague Thomas Lausmann sat on the audition panel with me:

What Makes a Fabulous Audition Pianist?

  • Listening. The ability to put the playing in subconscious mode and use most of the conscious mind to take in all of the details of the performance and become a split-second collaborator for singers the pianist has never met.
  • Flexibility. Turning on a dime to respond to the unexpected – a mis-timed entrance, a sudden change in tempo, an ill-marked cut in the printed music, a book (or, perish the thought, a stray piece of loose music) that won’t stay on the rack.
  • ESP. The ability to know sometimes a singer grinds to a halt not because he wants to, but because he can’t help himself. The pianist must gently prod the tempo. The ability to know that a singer’s desired tempo is predicated on the length of phrase she can sustain or the very specific speed that the coloratura must move in that particular voice.
  • Tolerance. Auditioners are a nervous lot. Normally sane, pleasant people can become pretty tightly wound in the audition room. Face it – the pianist is physically closer to the singer than any of us, and some of that wears off.
  • Musicality. We notice this and are thankful for it almost hourly. Singers feel it in their bones even if they don’t acknowledge it consciously. A well-shaped phrase, an interlude or prelude that actually encourages the singer to join in the music-making – that’s what it’s all about.

Your Responsibility

We realize that the audition pianist is a variable that changes from company to company, from day to day, from location to location. Safest to let go of whatever expectation you may have. Control the variables you can. The pianist is not one of them. So, best to think slightly conservatively.

If you’re kind of new at this audition stuff, you don’t need a lot of curves thrown at you. Bring a pianist (preferably a good one, please…) if some of your rep is non-standard. But be sure that your pianist can play your rep better than a typical company-provided pianist. I’ve seen too many singers undone by their own colleagues.

If you’re getting a bit more experienced and comfortable, you can always take a chance, though. Here’s the most important thing: Be able to sing your aria without getting rattled even if the piano isn’t helping you. Give your aria to a pianist friend who isn’t good at sight-reading. See if you can prevail while s/he accompanies you. It is possible. We recognize when there is a singer/pianist problem, and generally, unless you allow it to hamstring you, it doesn’t end up being a huge liability. It’s a sliding scale, to be sure.

Don’t snap your fingers at the pianist to indicate tempo. Aside from being slightly irritating (don’t ask me why, it just is… I’ve been on the receiving end myself), it’s rarely functional. I have yet to see a singer indicate a tempo (by clapping, snapping, conducting, etc) that bears a real resemblance to the actual speed of the aria.

Take a look back at this post in Week 3 for practical considerations when prepping your music for the audition pianist.

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