Gambling With Your Repertoire Choices: Is it worth the risk?

One of the biggest dilemmas a young singer faces is the dreaded aria list! What should you be keeping in mind when preparing to audition? Is there a strategy? When deciding what repertoire to bring to an audition, you must always be realistic: sing what you sing well! If you are not certain that a specific piece suits your voice, or that you can sing it well under ANY circumstances (i.e. not having the time or a place to warm up; you’re feeling a little under the weather; having a pianist who doesn’t know the piece; etc) then leave it off of your list. The most important thing is to show yourself in the best possible light.


When you sing/work on your aria list with your coach and voice teacher you can trust their opinion on what suits your voice best. They can certainly advise you on your fach (your specific voice type) and keeping the chosen repertoire within the guidelines of the fach. More importantly, however, you should propose repertoire for your list on the basis that you can sing it well. You may have an ideal list for your fach, and it may look great on paper – however, make sure that you can also sing every single aria that you present extremely well. Also, sing through the roles to know that if a panel casts you based on a certain aria, to be sure that the role is well within your capabilities.

Depending on where you are auditioning, you may be asked to present a list of between 3 – 5 arias in different languages and styles. The arias should also be diversified in terms of showing everything your voice can do at that particular time in your development. I would advise against including any “work-in-progress” arias as these tend to always sound unfinished and depending on a panel’s imagination (or lack of imagination in many cases) may not always work in your favor. Remember, you are applying for a job, show your potential employer what you can do at this moment.

Normally, in an audition situation, the panel allows you to choose which aria you would like to sing first – however, that is not always the case. In my experiences both playing for auditions and sitting on audition panels, I have seen instances in which the singer announced at the start of his/her audition: “I would like to begin with [enter aria title]”, only to have the audition jury say: “Actually, could you please start with this other aria instead?”

There are various reasons for an audition panel to do this: you could be the 20th soprano of the day who wants to start her audition with “Adieu, notre petite table” from Massenet’s Manon and the audition panel just can’t bear to hear one more performance of it; or, they might prefer to hear you sing something else from your list because they will be producing/casting the opera from which that specific aria comes and they would like to know if you could be a contender for a role in their production; or, the aria you chose to start with is exceedingly long and the audition panel is simply pressed for time. And, the list of reasons goes on…

Fortunately, this does not occur that frequently, and, audition panels usually let you sing through your first-choice aria out of courtesy. Generally, audition panels know quite quickly-sometimes within the first few bars of your first selection- if they are interested in you or not so don’t be alarmed if you are only asked to sing one aria. Sometimes, if time permits, they will ask to hear a second aria. If you sing only one aria, this does not mean that you did not sing well, so don’t despair! I know many singers who have gotten a job by singing only one aria in their audition. It is not a good idea to try and over-analyze their choices, doing this will just give you far too much anxiety. Just as I have seen singers get the role from one aria, I have seen singers not get the role after singing two or more.

If you did not necessarily sing well in your first aria, and the panel decides to hear a second aria, it is certainly possible to turn your audition around – so, always do your best and leave your mistakes in the past! If you get the opportunity to sing three arias, this is generally a good sign: they liked you and were intrigued by what you had on your list and what you could do vocally and artistically. However, this does not necessarily mean you have landed a job – it can simply mean that they wanted to hear your voice in different musical settings, or to see if you would become a bit more comfortable the more you sang.

IS THERE A STRATEGY?

No, there isn’t. You can always try to guess what the audition panel will want to hear, and many singers try to do this but don’t count on your guessing to be 100% accurate. Strategizing your audition will not help you feel more comfortable, it will just add to this already stressful and unnatural situation. Your best plan is to be excellent in all aspects of your singing and preparation.


1. The Gamble

So, you have your arias (in the following scenario, three) picked out, and you think to yourself: “Well, if I start with this aria which is fast and in Italian, they will most likely want to hear that other one as a second selection because it is slow and in French. My third aria is also Italian and fast, they will most definitely not want to hear it.” This is a dangerous approach. It is like gambling: You place your bet, sometimes you win, but most often, you lose!

Storytime:

I was once in an audition in which a singer put an aria on their list that they did not know from memory. I think we would all agree that this was not a good plan; however, the singer assumed that the audition panel would never ask for that aria, since it was similar in style and tempo to the aria the singer had chosen to sing first. Well, the audition panel asked for the unprepared aria and the singer was caught redhanded. This is not a position you want to be in. Needless to say, the singer did not get the job.

2.Playing the “long aria” card:


If you decide to put an aria on your list that is extremely long, for example, Zerbinetta’s aria; Anne Trulove’s aria “No Word from Tom”, or Tatyana’s Letter Scene, please be prepared to sing it ALL. It is not wise to put long arias on your list and assume that the audition panel won’t ask for the entire piece simply because it is long. They can ask for a part of the aria, or indeed, the full aria.

Storytime:

I was playing for auditions and as I was rehearsing with one of the singers I noticed that she had Zerbinetta’s full aria (which is at least 13 minutes) on her list. I suggested that we just start each section to briefly set tempi, to which she replied that she did not think they would ask for it all. Surprised by this, I said: “Well…you never know, so be prepared!”. We then just started each section of the aria. Sure enough, much to her surprise, the panel asked for the full aria. Luckily, she did an amazing job with it; however, it could have gone the other way.

Sometimes, auditions are running on time – or, the audition panel has extra time because of cancellations and they would enjoy hearing these longer arias. These arias are wonderful and show a great deal.

If you only want to sing one part of the aria, you should make note of that on
the handed in repertoire list by writing down the text of exactly from which point in the aria you would like to start.

For example:
Zerbinetta’s Aria “So war es mit pagliazzo” Ariadne auf Naxos R. Strauss

This way the panel knows that you would like to perform from this point in the aria until the end, and not the full aria.


3. Sing as if you have all the time in the world!

If the full title of the aria is on your list and the audition panel asks for it, my advice is just to sing it and let them decide if/when to stop you. If they ask to hear your very long Händel aria, I would not advise you to say the following: “It is quite long, do you want to hear all of it or should I just start at the B section?” Of course, you are trying to be helpful by doing this, but trust me, if you are auditioning in reputable houses, the chances are very good that the audition panel knows the length of your repertoire, so, please let them make that decision themselves. Assume that they want to hear you sing the full aria and sing like you have all the time in the world. If they decide to stop you, you will know it. I have seen singers start an aria, and just wondering after every phrase: “Is this where they will stop me?” At times, even if the panel says that they will stop you, they often don’t, take it as a compliment, they are enjoying your performance!

What about video auditions?

We all have to do video auditions, but especially now during the current global pandemic. When making pre-recorded video auditions or live auditions via Zoom, I would advise that the same advice applies as above. However, with a recording, there is a bit more control. You can re-take if things don’t go so well, you can fix your hair if it looks strange, or you can just scrap it all and do it on another day if you are having a bad singing day!

Aria choices for your video recordings

When recording, I don’t recommend choosing excessively long arias. Singing on a recording requires very different energy and mind-set than doing a live audition. When singing live, we know that once it is out, there is no going back, but the knowledge that we can go back on a recording makes it very difficult to be happy with what we have done. Not to mention, the more takes you have to do, the less fresh your voice will feel and sound. Choose arias that show all of your voice, but that are shorter.

For example:

Mimì’s act III aria “Donde lieta uscì” From Puccini’s La bohème

This aria is short and has a lot of “bang for your buck”, as they say. It has legato lines, a great opportunity to be expressive, and some beautiful high notes. Best of all, it is short, clocking at approximately a little over 3 minutes, so even if you have to do several takes during a recording session, it is not going to exhaust you too much.

Another important point to remember is that a panel listening to your video audition is probably not listening to the full arias. When you are auditioning live, you have a captive audience. Sure, they can be writing down comments or looking in their files while you are singing, but they are in the room and you will finish at least one aria. With video submissions, panels are at times left on their own to listen to hundreds of video recordings, or sometimes they do it as a group, either way, in all my experiences doing this, it is common practice to listen to big sections, but not necessarily the full aria. They know the spots they want to hear, and they generally click around the take to get to the good stuff.

5.Aria order

Just as in a live audition, order your selections on your video audition file in the order of what was the best take of the best aria. Always put your best foot forward. The first notes a panel hears will determine a lot. Even if all your takes were amazing, you know there is always one that you like better than the others. If you are not sure, or if you are the type of singer who just cannot listen to themselves, ask your team. Your voice teacher and your coach will be honest with you and you trust them not to let you send something out which does not show you at your best.

In Conclusion

Auditioning is almost an art form, the more you do it, the better you become, or at the very least, the better you learn to cope with it. The people on the other side of the table, or at their screens, all want the same thing: to be moved by your singing. Don’t try to strategize and cut corners, do your best, trust yourself and your team to help you along! Remember that you are selling yourself as a product – believe in your product, and they will too!

Make Haste Slowly

Make haste slowly

“Make haste slowly”

This is what my mentor and teacher, the late Dixie Ross Neill used to repeat to me when I was studying with her, but Caesar Augustus is said to have first adopted the motto: Festina Lente. Make haste, slowly. It took me a while to understand what it meant. I think that when I was a student, I was impatient and maybe a little result-driven. Imagine, back in those days, no social media or profiling trends were pushing me to show my results to the world. Fast forward to 2020, we are the age of social media, instant fame, and being discovered on big platform talent hunts. How does a young aspiring singer get to their desired result while fighting the temptation to skip steps?

I work with singers, and a big part of my work is training young singers who are more than aware of their online content. Knowing how to brand yourself, is an important skill, but the question is, are we skipping important voice building steps in the rush to get “there” faster? Some go into the process, they lay down the base for a great technique, let the voice develop, work on their languages, musicianship skills, bodywork, all of which make someone into a complete artist. Then, there are some who lack patience and are always running after results. They put in the work, but they always try to skip steps because they want to get there faster. With the latter, you can feel an actual sense of panic, which some may confuse with ambition. Skipping steps can make them feel like they are getting there faster, but the truth is, they will inevitably have to turn back and redo the steps they have skipped.

What does it mean to make haste slowly? Let me use the following metaphor: A pianist, while learning a difficult musical passage which is at a high level of technical difficulty is tempted to just play it at tempo, just do it, get it on the first try. There may be a slight chance that they get it right on the first try, but what about every time after that? What will happen to the consistency of their playing? How will they know if it was just a fluke (which it absolutely was)? They now go back, dissect the passage, play it slowly, practice with different rhythms, build up tempo, work on the fingering, and put in the necessary amount of time to learn it from start to finish. Instead of doing it instantaneously and risking that it is just a fluke, the goal now becomes not only to do it right but most importantly, to learn it so that you never do it wrong.

Building your career as a singer is a lot like that pianist working on the difficult passage. Just because you are talented, have a beautiful voice, and sometimes you get it right on the first try, does not mean that you are ready to hit the ground running. Like the pianist working on the passage above, you will want to take the time to establish the foundation on which you build your voice, and that will, in turn help you achieve your artistic and professional goals in the long run. Even if it seems that everyone around you is posting concert photos or doing exciting things; stick to your lane, keep your eyes on your ultimate goal, and eventually you will pass them.

The thing to remember is that we are all learning a craft. Whether you are a pianist, a singer, or any other kind of professional. Knowing everything you can know about what you do is very important. As a young singer I suggest studying where your art comes from, listen to all the great recordings available, examine how the technique and the esthetic have developed over the years. It is a good idea to take note of different styles and conventions of the repertoire so that you can implement them in your singing, or respond to a coach or a conductor when they request them. As you are absorbing all this, also explore listening to all vocal repertoire, not just your voice type, but every voice type, other instruments, and orchestral works. Educate yourself on what you need to know so that once you get out there, you don’t have a lack of knowledge. All this information will most definitely influence your singing and artistry.

As you are doing all of this, be curious and insatiable when it comes to your vocal technique. Whether you are a singer, a pianist, a violinist, or any other musician, technique is the absolute foundation of artistry. Without technique, it is not possible to achieve your musical goals. Imagine doing something incredibly musical: a long phrase, a triple piano on a high note, a lightning-fast coloratura passage, and making it look effortless. Now, imagine that you had the technical knowledge to do this, every-time, without fail. That is what technique means; it is a vehicle for artistic choices. How long does it take to get the technique of a high-level singer? You will probably be working on your technique for the duration of your career, as long as your voice changes with your body. Many of my friends and colleagues with elite careers, still seak help from their voice teachers regularly. When you are a young singer, you lay down the foundation of your technique which hopefully will take you throughout your career. The foundation is the most important part, of course, just think of what happens to a house when the foundation starts failing: it crumbles.

During the spring semester, we were pushed into a different situation in all training programs and education due to Covid-19. We had to go online. It was not ideal, and nobody wanted this, however, I do feel there were good lessons to be learned if you were willing to look for them. The singers that I have heard or seen since have made remarkable vocal progress which in turn has made them much better artists. The focused and meticulous work they did during this time has given them more vocal freedom. They were also free from deadlines and pressures of getting to the result which became somewhat less important for a while. Consequently, they improved quicker than they thought they would. It has been a dreadful time for everyone, but what we can draw from these positive points is that process means progress. In the age of “get there fast”, the part where we slow down to figure things out, is something that most of us have forgotten how to do in this age of “high-speed”. It may take time to get your result, and that is OK. In the words of Caesar Augustus or the great coach and pianist Dixie Ross Neill, “Make haste slowly” and you will get to your result better, stronger, and yes, faster! The quickest way to accomplish something is to proceed deliberately.