YOUR AUDITION BOOK / REP BOOK: Everything you need to know, Part One

your audition book

“WHAT’S IN YOUR BOOK?”

While this may be a normal question to those of us who have worked with a coach or class or college, for actor-singers just starting out, being asked “what’s in your book” can be a bewildering moment. Even actor-singers who’ve been at this a while aren’t really using their book as a tool to sharpen their focus and confidently go after what they want in the audition.

Just what is a Rep Book? Repertoire Book? Audition Book? Audition Binder?

Audition Book-Binder

It’s the music you take with you to auditions, the same way a model or designer brings a portfolio to interviews.

Here we go, from start to finish, this is everything you need to know about building your starter book, and continuing to build a winning book that gives you audition confidence and helps you stand out in the audition room.

WHAT THEY ARE REALLY ASKING YOU

What are they really asking when they ask you what is in your “book”? If it’s an industry professional they are asking: Who are you? What is your “type”? “For what roles are you perfect? What is your vocal ability/range? What do you love performing? How prepared are you?

You will save yourself YEARS of grief by being mindful about what you put in your book as you begin building. A book with three songs that are a singularly stunning short performances will serve you better than a book of 20 songs you “know”.

QUICK ANSWER:

YOUR AUDITION BOOK IS A BINDER with copies of the songs you sing for auditions. 

The physical assembly of the book will include these elements:

  • 3-ring binder
  • page protectors
  • tabs
  • post-it notes and/or highlighters
  • song list
  • a few extra copies of your headshot and resume
  • music selections you sing for auditions

WHO IS THE AUDITION BOOK REALLY FOR?

The only people who will use your rep book/audition book are you, your coaches, and the pianist at the audition. The pianist at the audition is the critical person to keep in mind as you assemble your book. Just as you perform for the “people behind the desk” to show them your ability, the way you handle your rep book/audition book shows the pianist (who is often also the show’s music director) what it would be like to work with you in music rehearsals.

One critical role of the Audition Book is to make the pianist’s life easier from the moment you walk in the room.

ELEMENTS OF THE PERFECT AUDITION BOOK

THE 3-RING BINDER

skin horse velveteen rabbit
Your book should have a tidy, organized look about it; even when it becomes as worn as the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, it will look LOVED.

The binder for the Rep Book or Audition Book is typically solid black or solid white and is usually 1 to 1.5 inches thick. You don’t get bonus points for having an art project on the cover of your book. And honestly, it may look like you have a little too much free time on your hands. Keep it clean and simple.

 

 

PAGE PROTECTORS

In every audition prep workshop I’ve ever attended (I’ve attended many) someone inevitably asks this question: “Do audition pianists want our music to be in page protectors or just hole-punched?” And a very long and boring conversation takes place and all I can think about is, “I’m paying $x per hour to listen to THIS conversation again!…and the answers are always the same: IT DOESN’T MATTER as long as your music is easy to read.

sheetprotectors_general1

What’s my personal preference? I use page protectors for musical theater repertoire and no page protectors for opera/operetta. Here are MY reasons why, but know that you could go either way and be absolutely fine.

 

REASONS I USE PAGE PROTECTORS FOR MUSICAL THEATER REPERTOIRE

  • If you are really hustling for great musical theater roles, it’s not uncommon to have two or three or more auditions or lessons in one week. That means those pages are being turned hundreds of times a month, and usually with vigor.
  • More flexibility in arranging cuts (see below).
  • The use of page protectors in musical theater audition books is fairly standard; it looks and feels very tidy.
  • It’s faster than the Print-Tape-Reinforce-Fold method (below).
  • Occasionally after you’ve sung your requested cut, a casting director will ask you to sing the full song, or a different part of the song. I keep the full version of my songs (pages I’m not using for my cuts) stacked inside an extra page protector-for just in case.

Note: Some pianists really appreciate it when you use glare-free page protectors; however, they are a little thicker/more difficult to grab and turn quickly, so other pianists don’t love them. Ask your favorite pianist what he or she prefers and go with that.

REASONS I DON’T USE PAGE PROTECTORS FOR OPERA/OPERETTA REPERTOIRE

  • I have less frequent opera audition opportunities than musical theater opportunities, so the pages aren’t being manipulated by pianists as often. For one, there are far fewer U.S. opera companies than U.S. musical theater stages, so fewer auditions to start with. Secondly, so many U.S. opera companies are strapped for cash that they actually charge an audition fee of $25, $35, $50 or more. It’s illogical, but true! And I’m not about that life.
  • You usually don’t need to arrange cuts in opera. Most companies will ask to hear “an aria” or a “short aria”.
  • Page protectors just aren’t commonly used in the opera world, so it may scream “hey, non-serious musical theater performer here!” to the pianists who just haven’t developed a lot of respect for U.S. musical theater performers.
  • If you DO go without page protectors, you should prepare your music using the print-tape-reinforce-fold method:
    • Print your aria single-sided. A double-sided print of music can sometimes be difficult to read depending on the lighting in the room and how heavy the paper is, because the reverse page can show through.
    • Tape: put pages back-to-back to create one double-sided page. Tape the pages together using one long piece of tape along the outside edge of the paper.
    • Punch and reinforce. Use a dependable three-hole-punch on the opposite length of the paper, and apply reinforcement tabs.
    • Fold, “dog-ear”, or curl the bottom corner of each page to make it easier to turn.

ARRANGING YOUR MUSIC IN YOUR PAGE PROTECTORS

  • Print your music single-sided. You will have more flexibility in arranging new cuts of your song for different auditions; also, it’s easier to read music that has been printed on one side only, unless you are using heavier-weight paper.
  • Include as few page turns as possible – this is a big one. Your pianist will not love you if there is a page turn in the middle of a complex or deceptive chord progression, or if there are multiple page turns relative to the length of the cut.
  • Consider for a longer cut of music, like a “brief song” (60-90 seconds of music), keeping the originally published pagination. For example, if page 11 was published to be on the left side of the book and page 12 was published to be on the right, keep it that way, because the publishers are often conscious about avoiding awkward page turns when they are arranging the layout for printing.

TABS

repositionable tabs

Label each song clearly that you or your coach or the audition pianist can find your next song easily and without your help. I like to use repositionable tabs because I will rearrange my book from month-to-month.

Another reason to use very clear writing or printing on your tabs is because it gives the audition pianist (remember, this is often also the show’s music director!) a quick glance at other things you do!

POST-IT NOTES AND HIGHLIGHTERS

These are used to show the start and end of  your cuts.

Remember, one of the critical missions of the Audition Book is to make the pianist’s life easier just because YOU walked in the door with this really great rep book. Here’s where you can really make a great impression.

post it notes markers

Clearly mark START and STOP and any CUTS in your piece. I use sticky note markers to do this, because I use different cuts for some songs, depending on the audition requirement. So instead of reprinting and re-highlighting my music, I just move the sticky note. I do have a few songs where a verse + chorus + 2nd ending make a perfect 32-bar cut, and I’ve marked those up permanently.

 

 

Before every audition, double-check those sticky notes to make sure your cuts are exactly what was requested on the casting  notice. Trust me, it’s worth it.

 

CONTINUE TO PART TWO HERE!

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YOUR AUDITION BOOK / REP BOOK: Everything you need to know, Part Two (and a bonus)

If you haven’t read Part One first, CLICK HERE to go there now and come on back!

your audition book 2

A NOTE ON CUTS

First (AND THIS IS HUGE), do be meeting regularly with a voice teacher and/or rep (repertoire) coach who will work with you on deciding on your cuts for various auditions.

Second, read casting calls thoroughly. When casting notices go out, they will include (or should include) exactly what the casting team wants to hear at the audition. If you can’t –or just don’t–follow instructions for this, why, then, should they cast you at all? So pay attention to the end of casting notices. Read and re-read for obvious information and clues. Here’s an example: “Please prepare 32 bars of a song from the show or from the style of the show. Be prepared to sing a contrasting song if requested.”

  • “32 bars” – You usually are asked to sing 16 bars (measures), 32 bars, or a brief song (which should be a cut of around 60-90 seconds long) for a musical theater audition. Occasionally they will announce at crowded auditions that they only want to hear eight bars, which is cruel and unusual, but does happen so don’t be shocked when that happens to you. Anyway, the cut you prepare doesn’t have to be 32 continuous measures, it is sometimes 16 measures from the beginning and 16 from the end. HOWEVER, until you have worked with audition cuts for a while and really understand dramatic and harmonic progression, do not attempt jump cuts (I call these “Frankenstein cuts”) on your own, consult with your teacher or coach. Remember, we want to make the pianist’s life better, not make them crazy with a weird performance of cuts that don’t make sense.
  • “A song from the show” – I know a casting director that would prefer to hear only songs from the show he is casting. Another director I know doesn’t respond well to interpretations that are too different from the version in her head, and would prefer to not hear songs from the show she is casting. IF the casting notice says “a song from the show”at all, in my opinion, try to bring in a song from the show. Ultimately, consult with your own teacher or coach on song choice strategy. It’s definitely an important skill to cultivate, and will come with time–I promise!
  • “Or from the style of the show” – If you don’t know what that means, don’t guess, ask your teacher or coach. Sometimes you can look to other shows by the same writer/composer team, or shows from the same era, or characters that are similar to the character you are auditioning for. As you continue to educate yourself in the musical theater audition space, it’s super useful to research and understand musical theater styles as we know them today. And that’s another blog post.
  • “Be prepared to…” – This is easy: follow instructions and be mentally ready and studied up for whatever they may want next: cold reading, contrasting song, dance, etc.
  • “A contrasting song” – If you’re singing a contemporary ballad, a contrasting piece would be a contemporary uptempo song, or even a legit “show tune”. How contrasting should you go? Do not over think this. “Contrasting” doesn’t mean “complete opposite”. Be smart and have in mind another piece that has been in your book for a while that is different from the piece you are bringing in. Which brings me to my next juicy tip for when you hear…

That was great!

Yay! Someone on the casting team wants to hear more. What do you do?  Say:

“Yes! This is “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, step over to your book at the pianist, quickly find the tab for that song, and go!

The pro-version of this is to prepare a speech that goes along with your “Rep List”.

Your Rep List, or Repertoire List, is a simple list of songs that you are

prepared to sing THAT DAY.

You should never have anything in your book at an audition that you would have to decline singing that day. Awkward! This means if my voice is feeling yucky and I don’t have high notes that morning, I take “The Hair Song” out of my book and leave it on my desk before heading to the audition. Ok, so here’s the speech to have ready:

What would you“Yes! I have ‘Practically Perfect’, ‘I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You’, and ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’. What would you like to hear today? [flash winning smile]”

OR you could say:

“Yes! I have some Mary Poppins, a little Sibella from Gentleman’s Guide, and a fun Tom Lehrer song. What would you like to hear today? [flash winning smile]”

By giving the casting director choices you not only show them what you have in your Book, you show them that you are PREPARED for this. And speaking as a director, this is like a little compliment, like when someone shows up for a date looking like they put some thought into their appearance. It makes them feel good, and lets them know that they would enjoy working with you because you are SWITCHED-ON when it comes preparing a performance.

HEADSHOT AND RESUME

Of course you will bring a copy of your résumé stapled to the back of your headshot to be collected by the creative team at the table, but also keep a few extra copies of your headshot and resume in the front of your  binder. If you keep your résumé in the front inside pocket of your binder, the pianist can get a snapshot of your experience for just a few seconds.

Also, if you are auditioning in New York, you will sometimes pass a room with another audition in progress, and you may want to be seen for that opportunity, or drop of your headshot/résumé with the monitor if you can’t stay. It’s just nice to have extra copies of your materials.

ON CHOOSING MUSIC FOR YOUR AUDITION BOOK

You really only need five to ten songs in your book to cover just about any audition you attend. As mentioned before, work with a teacher or coach who specializes in “book building”. Though you really only need five songs, sometimes it can take a few months to get your book right. Sometimes you work on a song for a few weeks before realizing it’s not a great fit for your voice, and sometimes you just grow out of your songs. Here are some hard rules to follow for a winning rep book/audition book. If any song or cut doesn’t meet the criteria below, it doesn’t belong in your book. Period.

  • It is freshly coached, beyond memorized, and represents one great facet of your voice as it is TODAY
  • It is a role that your could conceivably be cast as TODAY
  • It’s been performed in front of people other than your teacher or coach
  • It has a distinct beginning, middle, and end–even the shortest cut
  • You really love singing this

BONUS: REP BOOK, VOL. 2 and VOL. 3

So here’s a fun fact: I have three personal rep books that I work from. (I’m a voice teacher, so I have several shelves of vocal music, but I’m talking about my own personal use.) One binder is the tidy little book that I take with me to auditions and the others are massive 3-inch binders of around 100 pieces of music. They are my “on-hold” books for:

  • songs I am still learning
  • songs someone suggested I learn
  • songs that are “supposed” to be perfect for me, but I don’t love yet
  • songs I learned for a specific audition and don’t love, but have been coached
  • songs I used to sing but feel “burnt out” or are on “don’t sing” lists
  • songs that I love to sing, but don’t really fit my “type”
  • songs I only sing in certain circumstances (funerals and weddings)

You’re not obligated to have a second book, but sometimes it’s nice to have a place for those songs that are not perfect for your “official” audition book. Who knows when they will come in handy! It also helps me set aside my audition book as “very special” performance material.

CHANGE YOUR GAME

I’ll leave you with a game-changing thought. So many actor-singers complain that they are going to audition after audition without role offers, and they are sick and tired of not actually performing. But what is an audition? It’s a solo performance opportunity. A one-woman-show. A cabaret. You want the role of Aldonza in Man of La Mancha? Well, for a moment in that room with the creative team, you ARE doing the role of Aldonza. For a minute all eyes are on you as you take the stage and sing “It’s All the Same” full-voiced, body flooded with anger and fear and determination.

When you view every audition as a great opportunity to perform, you elevate every step of the audition process. You become a better performer, a more prepared colleague, and a more relaxed person. And we all know the joy is in the journey.

This is the good stuff. Enjoy building your book!

My Cringeworthy Secret

Last night I had one of the best coachings I’ve had in a long time. There are some technical issues that I’ve been working on for the past couple of months while my teacher has been away in Berlin, and last night’s coach gave me some really useful strategies for approaching these bugs.

But the most meaningful moment was when he proposed that these physical quirks could just be manifestations of some mental hangups. I think he was right. I have a dark secret that I have worked zealously to keep under wraps.

I’m scared.

I’m intimidated of this career, I’m afraid I’m not good enough, I’m scared to sing, I’m scared not to sing…sometimes I feel stuck.

Maybe you have the same secret. Maybe you already know you need to let go and go for it. As my insightful coach put it, “Let go, and surrender.” These are some of the most unsettling words you can hear as a singer. And some of the most powerful.

It’s so interesting…as I’m sitting here listening to the recording of my coaching session, I hear that what I need to tweak with my breath and my sostenuto are actually about embracing uncertainty; I don’t need to make any huge change to my technique, I have to acknowledge that release can bring me peace or panic…serenity or turbulence…sweetness or sadness.

One element of bel canto is the “appoggia” or lean. That’s the muscular antagonism between the inspiratory and expiratory breathing muscles while singing. It’s also a reference to the role of the larynx in providing resistance to the upward pressure of the breath. So in its fullest sense, “appoggia” is the complex balancing act between two sets of muscles at the respiratory and laryngeal levels. The image of leaning on the voice is a great metaphor for breath support. I like to think of the breath as water and the body as earth, combining to make a divine blend of mud, silky and delicate like a mud mask, and sometimes a little thicker, like a mineral mud bath where you can immerse your entire body.

But water and earth also combine to form mud that is too thick, dried out, and solid as adobe brick…which is also an ideal metaphor for being stuck. That’s where I am.

When we overfill our emotional body with unused elements of artistry and technique, we become stuck. We become procrastinators, we become attached to things that no longer serve us. Ultimately, we can get pretty clingy. And needy. Hanging on to something that no longer serves us.

You know what would happen if you were to take one of those great breaths at the beginning of a beautifully composed phrase, then you clench down and hold it. At that point you’ve already absorbed all the oxygen you need from this breath, but you’re still holding on. Just try spinning out a beautiful phrase now.

This is what it’s like to hold on to something that no longer serves you. What do other things in your life feel like when you hold onto them past their value point? Is there a fach, a teacher, a relationship, a point of view that you are still holding onto that no longer serves you?

Is there a box that you’ve meant to open that is still taped shut?

This could be a real box from a move or another metaphor that speaks to some congested aspect of your singing life; something you want to open, but for some reason it has remained closed. Acknowledge that there is another world other than the world you are locked into.

The reason we have fear and trepidation about taking the plunge is that we think that taking the plunge is diving off a thousand-foot cliff into the water below. There are so many factors to concern ourselves with: the depth of the water…the splash from the crash…the timing of your breath…our form as we dive…will my parents be watching? Will there be any sharks in the water to nibble on me? How far from shore is it? Do I need a life vest to hold onto?

Taking that plunge is horrifying and humiliating.

Instead, imagine that taking the plunge is like so gently sliding into a warm, lavender-scented bathtub: bubbles and salts caressing your body. The water temperature is soothing…the aroma is nourishing…and calming. The depth of the water is just perfect, cradling your neck, supporting your back. This plunge feels pretty good. Expansive. Nurturing.  Awakening. Supportive. Generous. Loving. In line with what you want.

It doesn’t need to be challenging or painful, taking the plunge can be exhilarating! It’s finally getting yourself off the space you’ve been occupying: the chair, the couch, the bed, the practice room, the hedge fund day job, the young artist programs, the chewed consonant, the disconnected breath…wherever you’ve been stuck out of fear or overwhelm, at some point you have to break free from the past and the reinforcement that has kept you in check.

“I understand that fear is my friend, but not always. Never turn your back on Fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed. My father taught me that, along with a few other things that have kept my life interesting.”
― Hunter S. ThompsonKingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century

Think of the unknown as a gift, so that you can grow in any direction. Think of uncertainty as the driver of possibility and potential.

I’ve been stuck long enough. I’m ready to step outside my comfort zone of “this is what my voice does and this is what my voice doesn’t do” to a place where new things, GREAT things, unexpected things, unplanned things can occur. I want to actually have the life I dream of. As my delightfully unmusical Mann says, I now need to add some “swagger” to my audition package.

I think singers in this city and in this economy have conditioned ourselves to think that we have a looooong way to go before we quit our day job.  Can it be that I am so embarrassed that I am not yet singing in A houses that I hang on to my vocal bugs as a way of saying “see, this is why I’m not at La Scala, because I’ll never be good enough!”? Is there such a thing as fear of success?

I think I’m entitled to the same when-I grow-up-I-want-to-be-a-singer dream I had as a high-schooler. I desperately want to connect with that un-constricted, unbounded self. That self is a conduit for real art to flow through. I know I need to give myself permission to feel powerful when I sing. I need to lean into the present moment and give up “then”.

I invite you to jump in with me.

xo,

Juliana

P.S. Thank you sooo much, Dear Coach. I look forward to our next session!

Leap, and the net will appear. -John Burroughs

Joyce Lyons: Making Songs Her Own

Singer and Actress, Joyce Lyons (AEA., SAG) has performed all over the country (Aspen and Durango in Colorado, Santa Fe, NM, Lenox, MA and Washington, DC.) and of course in the Big Apple to name a few and to much acclaim. Once described as “What Cabaret is all About!” Her cabaret shows are legendary, but it was the honor of performing for Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court that still leaves her speechless. Her recently released CD, “Sooner or Later” is receiving radio airplay throughout the country and features some of New York’s finest musicians, including the stellar Lee Musiker (Musical Director and Arranger), who’s “day job” is musical director for Tony Bennett. Sooner or Later is available on  iTunes or CD Baby  or her website…joycelyons.net.

I met Joyce when she taught a masterclass on “Expressive Text Portrayal” for Underworld Productions last fall. She coached our American opera and musical theater pieces, and she helped us make an honest connection to our audience.  I have often thought of that class.  It’s not just when working on my musical theater  I want to infuse all of my vocal “conversations” with that same ease and honestly.  If you have a chance to see her perform, don’t miss it.

Joyce, what was the first aria you learned?

First aria or classical piece would be Vivaldi’s Domine per Gina [Crusco, voice teacher] pushing me out of my “jazz box!”

Do you attend shows that you aren’t singing in? What makes a good performance?

I always like to get out and see other performers. I can always learn something new. To me, a good or great performance is one that makes me laugh, cry, reflect or sigh! Or better yet, causes me to lose all sense of time and space.

What was your first stage experience like?

My first stage experience was 4th grade, sang “Side by Side” with my older sister. It was great, though she was wearing fishnet stockings held up with rubber bands and one of them broke…I’ll never forget it.

Do you sing in the shower?

…Yes, I sing in the shower, all the time!

What is a technical reminder you give yourself while warming up?

The technical reminder I give myself when I am warming up…to take my time and breathe…just breathe!

I practice exercises and then attempt to always learn a new song.

And you teach voice, too?

I teach performance/lyric interpretation and I love it when working with students and they make a connection to the material. Truly making the song their own and creating a performance that soars!

Thanks Joyce!

I Don’t Believe You! – Acting for Real Part 1

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” 


In attempting to make singing actors out of classical singers, I’ve observed frustrated teachers and students trying to marry the sound of the voice with the sense of the scene.

Almost every “Acting for Opera” workshop I’ve attended includes reciting the text followed by reciting a character’s “facts” and concluding with a Frankenstein performance mashing all those things together.

It goes like this:

  • Teacher has Student recite the text of the aria.
  • If Teacher wants to really torture Student, she will have Student recite the translated text word-for-word in English.
  • Teacher, with a lengthy oration on how to flesh out a character, asks Student to rattle off the “who, what, when, where, why” of the character’s circumstance during the character’s aria.
  • Singer gives the facts.
  • Student proceeds to perform the aria again, this time singing the happy bits with a smile and the intention “to inspire joy” and the sad bits with a faraway look and the intent “to recall a happier time.”
  • Teacher looks at the rest of the class with pride and leads the ovation.

Ta-Da!! In a brief 25-minutes the aria has magically transformed from the standard park-and-bark to a performance complete with gestures, facial expressions, and dynamics.

English: Spanish opera singer Jose Mardones (1...

And I’m sitting in my seat unmoved, thinking “I still don’t believe you!  I don’t believe that this is what it feels like to be on top of the world, in a fight with your lover, betrayed by your best friend, dying of consumption…” Here’s the truth. You don’t have to shove those details in my face, Singer. You only need to give me permission to have two things: the clean canvas of your own honesty and an infinite palate of pure colors provided by an honest performance of the music and the text with which to paint my own human experience in this very REAL moment.

“I still don’t believe you!  I don’t believe that this is what it feels like to be on top of the world, in a fight with your lover, betrayed by your best friend, dying of consumption…”

Just as the acting teacher struggles to pull something deeper out of an opera singer’s performance, there is a struggle among opera coaches as to which acting style is the most appropriate to facilitate the athletic demands of the singer’s instrument. A popular argument at this time is that opera singers can never take advantage of a true Method acting technique, as total immersion into a character will most definitely interfere with the ability to produce the correct operatic sound. Sadly, many of those who uphold this conviction don’t really know what they mean by “Method”.

Next, Part 2: The Madness to your Method

Singing for Real

After a recent studio class, a talented colleague and I had an interesting little conversation via Gchat which began with her question, “Were you always sooo expressive?”

My answer: “Yeah, I think so, but I was also sometimes clumsy. I try to approach every piece asking myself how I can be as honest as possible in my interpretation. On the technical side, that trickles down to intending to make honest vowels and being true to the composer. On the dramatic side, I hope that my personal experience and being true to myself within the piece will translate to an eminently relatable moment for the audience.”

And her reply: “What you said about expressiveness is sooo beautiful!! Being true to yourself and who you are is SO important, it totally makes sense to bring that to anything we do in life. Thanks for the inspiration! ….It’s actually very interesting that you answer included being truthful to self, cause I just realized that I’ve been in a way untrue to myself since I could remember. Oh the human mind!!! what a cluster f**k that is sometimes.”

She’s right. When you aren’t true to yourself, your life is chaotic.  And when you don’t sing with your real voice or perform with honesty, you can’t communicate fully what the composer/librettist/playwright intends. But when you become real, you’re finally singing “for real”…you are the “real deal”…a “real professional”…

A lot of attention is given to improving opera singers’ acting chops. That’s super. But, in brutal honesty, I see more of an increase in  “acting out” and posturing than an abundance of moving performances. Young, earnest opera singers buzz around NYC from teacher to coach to acting workshop: my problem with this is that most operatic performances still don’t feel REAL at all. We rarely sit down to do the intense meditative “table work” required to get any kind of context for the pieces we work so hard to polish. At the end of the day, we have an over-processed show tune that still somehow falls flat before it reaches the front row. We have a party trick. The answer to a meaningful performance is so simple: be honest, be real.

In addressing vocal pathologies, we should talk about disowning the pretty little impostors of vowels, which I have started calling “fake vowels”. These are well-intended harmless alterations or modifications, but they wreak all kinds of havoc on the vocal line (more on this later). Again, the answer is simple: be honest, be real with your language.

“What is REAL?”

English: pg 18 and 19 of The Velveteen Rabbit.
Side by side in the nursery

One of my all-time favorite moments in literature takes place in the little book I read over and over and over as a child, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. My parents kept the audiobook performance by Meryl Streep and George in our family van, and played it when they wanted to get all four of us kids quiet. Winston Here, the Skin Horse and the Velveteen Rabbit talk in the nursery:

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to make string bead necklaces. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it. 

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

This passage expresses so perfectly the wonder and angst most singers experience on their journey to becoming a singer…a real singer.  We wonder how long it will take to become really viable…hirable, we long to know what it feels like for our technique to be sparkling, exact, and second-nature, we do wish that “we could become it without these uncomfortable things happening” to us.

In this “Singing for Real” series let’s talk about what it means to be a real professional, an honest singer, a singer whose art actually MEANS something.

Stay tuned!

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