There are lots of considerations when it comes to finding the right music school for classical singers, but one question we get frequently is: “How do I choose the right audition material?” We posed this question to three college voice faculty who are among the top experts in classical voice training in the country. Patty Thom from Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Lynn Helding from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, and Salvatore Champagne from Oberlin Conservatory offer their advice for high school students getting ready for college and summer program auditions.
Note: Faculty responses have been edited for clarity.
ArtsBridge: What are the most common mistakes students make when choosing audition material?
Patty Thom (PT): Choosing repertoire that is too difficult for the current technical abilities of the student. Choosing pieces with emotionally ambitious content to which high school students may not be able to connect. Singing things that stress the student’s stamina, range, and linguistic or emotional capacity. There’s so much good rep in the world that there’s no need to rush into that stuff.
Lynn Helding (LH): To not practice the titles of their songs or composers’ names in the foreign language (great diction when singing but the announcement/slate is a mess) makes a bad first impression, because it’s the first thing we hear in the applicant’s voice. Choosing literature that is too advanced shows almost everything about the student’s situation in a bad light: it shows us that they’ve either had poor teaching, or it shows a lack of good judgment on the part of the student. In classical singing in particular there is a certain level of education and sophistication that we count on the student having, and one must have a spectacular talent in order for us to look past that.
Salvatore Champagne (SC): Choosing something that they think will impress the panel rather than something that they have a complete handle on, can sing well, and communicate through. Picking a piece in order to impress is a mistake. I would rather hear Mary Had a Little Lamb.
ArtsBridge: How do I manage the particular preferences of faculty at different colleges or even in the same audition room when it comes to my audition material choices?
PT: You don’t. You can’t manage what other people prefer or want. You have to go in with the repertoire that suits you, that you’re ready for, and that you like to sing. And then sing it as best you can and with your own authenticity. If you start trying to please people on the panel then you end up disappointing everyone, including yourself.
LH: Stick to the school’s stated requirements; most schools post their repertoire requirements on their website. It’s very obvious when students have consulted the website and when they haven’t. One of the nice things is that most schools have similar requirements for classical voice.
SC: That should not be a consideration. You pick what you sound best in and what represents you best. Choose material you connect with emotionally. You can’t fashion your repertoire according to the tastes of who is in the room, and you don’t know their taste in the first place.
ArtsBridge: How much does my choice of audition material get judged compared to how well I present it?
PT: What gets judged is your presentation of the material but if you’re not able to wrap your mind, heart, and voice around it (if you can’t master it technically, linguistically, and emotionally), then we will judge the material. Young singers have smaller ranges and shorter stamina. There are lots of 4-page songs that have a reasonable range and that are fun to sing, too.
LH: Repertoire choices are not insignificant. It has to do with fit of the voice but also with level of sophistication. For example, it can be strange for students to show up for a classical audition with musical theater rep. In those cases, what’s on their repertoire list really counts. Most of the rep lists I see are consistently good in that I don’t look at them and say “what were they thinking?!” The gaffe we see over and over again is that applicants bring rep that’s too advanced. In terms of presentation, remember that in addition to presenting your voice and repertoire, you are presenting yourself. Many young people walk into the room with a sour look on their face and sing without knowing what the song is about. They’re singing something about their heart bursting with joy at the sight of you, but with a glum facial expression. Practice in front of a mirror and you might find that how you thought you were expressing yourself is not how you look.
SC: Well, if you choose pieces that are very ambitious for where you are, even before you’ve opened your mouth, eyebrows have gone up and you’ve given the impression that you’ve not gotten very good advice. Sometimes this isn’t fair, but it’s just the case. You must pick rep that you feel connected to, and this can mean many things (a piece you simply love, or a piece in which you can really say something, and so on). Pick pieces that speak to you and give you joy; this joy will show in the audition process and certainly in the performance. If you are having fun, the panel will have fun hearing you.
ArtsBridge: I work with different teachers and coaches (at my high school, community music school, private voice studio teacher), and I’ve been told by one teacher that a song is great for me, and by another teacher that the same song isn’t appropriate for me. Now what do I do?
PT: Have fewer teachers. Every singer – no matter how young or old – has to have a teacher whom they really trust, and then also a team of other people they occasionally get input from. But one teacher and one coach at most – don’t double up on coaches or teachers because it’s both a waste of money and leads to confusion. Your teacher should know which coach you’re working with and vice versa. If you are working with a second teacher or a second coach, you should disclose that to your primary teacher/coach so that they can decide if they want to be part of that.
LH: My advice is know your source! If you have to work with multiple people equally, you will need to prioritize them in terms of whose advice you follow. Taking advice from one person whom you trust is the way to go.
SC: Most likely you go with the advice of your voice teacher because s/he knows you best. You can try to form a network of people you trust and people you know are well informed, but then you go with the person who is the most well established in the field, who knows you best, and whom you trust the most.
ArtsBridge: Is it OK to sing a foreign language piece in, say, Spanish or Russian or Czech? Basically not the standard German, Italian, or French?
PT: Sure, if your Spanish or Russian or Czech is really, really good. The Russian rep is really demanding and the accompaniments tend to be quite full and romantic and fully textured, so they ask a lot of a voice to sing over those textures. If Spanish is your first or second language, then definitely bring something in that language! I wouldn’t just willy nilly replace the requirements that are asked for, but perhaps offer one of these as an additional piece.
LH: Only if the audition requirements say it’s ok. Most schools are very specific in their requirements about languages. If you either speak it in your native tongue or have had diction training in that language, and as long as it doesn’t go against any stated requirements, then go for it, and make sure it’s really good. More and more schools are saying Spanish or Italian are both acceptable.
SC: Yes. I would say yes, if that language is very good. There are few students in this age group who will be prepared or qualified to sing in Czech…
ArtsBridge: Can I sing an aria from an opera in a college audition?
PT: Some summer programs and some colleges require it while others prohibit it. Some leave it a little bit open to judgment, and in those cases I wouldn’t advise doing anything more recent than Mozart, and even in that case it is important to be really discriminating about your selections. For example, it really needs to suit your current skills in terms of expressivity and range, and you should have a mastery over the full range of ability required for that piece. We don’t want to hear what you aspire to sing, but rather what you can sing really well right now. When you’re choosing repertoire, choose pieces that show us what you can do. If you have a beautiful legato, then show that off. If your German diction is particularly great, then show that off. If you can’t sing a high C beautifully, then don’t choose a piece with a high C in it.
LH: It depends on what it is. If it’s from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, probably great. Early English opera, like Purcell, then probably great. Puccini? Definitely not. Opera is not one monolithic thing, so it totally depends. To be on the safe side, assuming there is not a requirement to include or exclude opera, then I would say no. Better would be a golden age musical theater piece, such as “I Could Have Danced All Night.” That said, some of the Italian art songs are actually arias from operas, so you need to make sure you have a teacher who can advise about particular rep choices.
SC: You can if you sing it well and it is within your means, with a caveat: there are very few arias from the standard canon (other than Handel and a few Mozart arias) that are appropriate for high school singers auditioning for undergraduate programs. Of course the early Italian (16th and 17th century) repertoire (24 Italian Songs) is perfectly acceptable.
ArtsBridge: If the aria has recitative, is it OK to include it?
PT: If the recitative is really long, don’t do the whole thing, but if you do it really well, then include some. Handel’s “Ombra mai fu,” for example, would be strange without the recitative, as would Mozart’s “Deh vieni, non tardar.” Look to your teacher for advice about how much of the recitative is commonly done. Whenever you do include a recitative, it is imperative that you do your own translation so that you really understand how the speech in it works.
LH: Yes, but if you have doubts about how long it should be or whether it should be included at all, then be sure to speak with your teacher about what is considered appropriate. In the absence of that advice, then as an undergraduate applicant, it’s probably best to cut it.
SC: There are some arias that come with standard recitatives. You will need to rely on the advice of your coach and/or teacher, but the recitative should just be an introduction to the aria and should not take the majority of the time.
ArtsBridge: How do you feel about applicants performing obscure or contemporary repertoire in an audition?
PT: First, if it’s obscure or contemporary with a really difficult piano part, then you want to be sure that you can get the music to the pianist well in advance. If you are choosing this rep and you’re making a recording, then you need to hire a really great pianist. Second, be sure that the demands of the piece are in line with your current skills. We recently heard a piece from a contemporary opera, and while we loved hearing a piece of new music that showed off her interest in contemporary music, she was just not technically able to sing it yet. Do choose those early or contemporary pieces because it gives us insight into your interests and might be compelling, but you have to be careful that they are within your abilities.
LH: One practical consideration is your accompanist; obscure could mean it’s too challenging for a pianist to sight read. Pieces by living composers can be very refreshing to hear in auditions, but they need to be singable. It can go very well if it’s a quality piece of music, especially when we are hearing lots of the same repertoire over and over again, but make sure you don’t leave us wondering “What was this student thinking with this choice?”
SC: I think, again, if you do it well and convincingly then it’s fine. Sometimes it’s nice to hear something different.
ArtsBridge: Is it okay to sing an unaccompanied piece?
PT: Yes, but only if it is a song that is meant to be sung unaccompanied! There aren’t very many unaccompanied pieces for classical singers, but Michael Head’s “The Singer“ is available both accompanied and unaccompanied – we heard it recently in an audition and it was fantastic.
LH: This is generally not a good idea because most of the time students will go horribly out of tune. It isn’t the common practice in classical voice auditions, but there is a great audition piece called “The Singer” that is available with an unaccompanied introduction.
SC: Only if the piece was written to be unaccompanied (and there are very few of them). For example, Michael Head’s piece “The Singer” has an optional accompaniment. But if it was written with accompaniment then it would not be appropriate to do it without.
ArtsBridge: If I’m asked which song I want to start with, how do I choose? What are the criteria for deciding what to lead with?
PT: You should start with the piece that you absolutely love to sing among your choices. Don’t try to game the panel by thinking “if I start with this then they’ll ask for that” because you’re setting yourself up to be thrown off when your plan doesn’t go accordingly.
LH: Sing what you like to sing and what you feel you sing best! Don’t try to outwit the judges. Start with what you feel best represents your abilities. The faculty panel will typically choose the second one. If you start with something slow and in a minor key, the faculty will want to hear a contrast in your subsequent piece, and will likely select it from your list of prepared pieces. Don’t make the mistake of choosing your most difficult rep first, because if it requires a lot of agility, or has long phrases that require highly developed breath support, it will end up making you look bad instead of impressive. We learn something about your self awareness by what you choose to sing first.
SC: What makes you feel most confident and the best? Some people like to sing something fast to get their energy out at the beginning. Others prefer to begin with something slower or more lyrical. Rule of thumb: sing what you feel most confident with and sound the best with.
ArtsBridge: How important is it that my audition material be the same as my prescreen material?
PT: If your prescreen material fulfilled the audition requirements and you like singing those pieces, then keep working on them and bring them to your auditions. Honestly, by the time you’re at the live audition, the panel isn’t going to remember what you sang on your prescreen recording.
LH: For us it doesn’t matter at all.
SC: It doesn’t matter. If you have identified your strongest pieces and you did them for your prescreen and they’re still your strongest pieces, then by all means do them for your live audition.
ArtsBridge: What should I wear to an audition?
PT: Ladies, find a dress with stretch in it so you can breathe, and one that is of modest length so that you don’t feel self conscious in it. Don’t wear shoes you’d wear to a party but ones that you can move in and feel grounded in. Do wear hose/tights, especially in winter, and have your hair out of your face. Gents, be sure your clothes fit, that your pants are hemmed appropriately, and that you have a belt. Jackets are not necessary but many guys do wear them. If you don’t wear a jacket then make sure it’s a nice looking top. Ties are not necessary, and if you’ve grown six inches in the last year then get a new suit!
LH: Dress up! Dress as if you were going to a job interview for a job you really want. Do not, however, dress as if you were going to a black tie event. No floor length gowns and no tuxedos.