Choosing an Audition Song
I’ve been auditioning for musicals ever since I was in about 5th grade (I’m now 25), and over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about how to pick an audition song, and figured I’d share some tips with those of you who could use some help. What I hope to do here is basically “teach you how to fish” by giving you some guidelines to help you determine what songs would be good audition songs for you, and how to go about finding them.
There are really two main things that you want to focus on when selecting a song for your audition. These are the style of the show for which you are auditioning, and your voice range.
Style of Show: You want to find an audition song that is written in a style similar to the show you are auditioning for. So if you are auditioning for a more traditional show, (i.e., Rogers & Hammerstein, Bernstien, etc.), you probably aren’t going to want to pick an audition song from Hairspray or Wicked, and vice versa. You want your song to resemble the style of show, because you want to show the director(s) that you not only can sing, but that you sound good singing the type of songs found in their show. If the show is one by a big name composer/lyricist, like Rogers & Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Weber, then this becomes even easier. In cases like this where you have a large number of shows written by the same people, I try and find a song from a different show by the same composer. This guarantees that your selection will be as close as possible to the show, without actually pulling from the show itself. *Note: I do not suggest picking a song from the show you are auditioning for, unless the directors specifically ask for it. Why? Two reasons: 1) It looks like you’re sucking up to the directors (imo), and 2) you’re selling yourself short. If you decide to sing your favorite song from the show because you really want that character, but that song isn’t actually the best for your voice, you’ve just pretty much guaranteed that you won’t get in. Because now the director knows exactly what you’ll sound like in the show, so if it isn’t perfect, you’re outta luck. Which brings me to the other most important thing to take into consideration.
Your Voice Range: This is definitely the most important thing to consider when choosing an audition song. Get to know your voice, and be honest with yourself. It’s always good to know the full range of your voice (being able to list specific notes is always a plus, but voice part works too), but what is more important is that you know your comfort range. I’ll use myself as an example here. My full range (on a good day) is roughly D3-E6 (that’s the D below middle C on a piano, and the E 3 octaves above that, otherwise known as the “Christine” note). But I never write that on an audition form, unless the show has a role that requires high D’s or E’s (like Phantom or Seussical). I will usually write E3-C6 instead, because this is the range that I can hit with certainty on just about any given day, and have it sound good. The outter limits of your range are never going to be as clear as the rest of it, so it’s not the ideal place to show off your voice. Now, taking my range of E3-C6, I could literally write any voice part from Alto II to Soprano I. So how to I know how to identify myself?? Go with what you do best, and what you like to do most! I always put that I am a Soprano I, because that is really my strong suit, and is what I almost always sing in choirs or shows. But this is also why knowing your note range is helpful, because it allows the director to see that while you prefer singing one part, you are able to do others if needed. More flexibility = higher chances of being cast. Now that you know what voice part you are, look for a song that is written for that part. The easiest way to do this is by using song books that are sorted by voice part (I’ll talk about some of the ones I use at the end of the post).
Those are the two most basic things to look for in selecting a piece. But at this point you will most likely still have a lot of options, so there are a few more things that you can take into consideration to help you in your selection process.
Song/Voice Style: I’m sure you already know this, but within every show there is usually a wide range of song styles. The best way to pick which type of song you should sing is by knowing which type you sing best. So once you know your range, figure out which style(s) you sing best. Do you do better with something wordy and fast paced? Or is your voice better suited to smooth melodic lines? Know your strengths and weaknesses, and use them to your advantage. Work with your voice, never against it. Remember your ultimate goal is to show off what your voice can do best. While we’re on this topic, it’s time I address the topic of belting.
Belting, when done correctly, does not damage the voice. The problem is all too often it is done incorrectly. There are many precautions you need to take in order to keep your voice in prime health. General rule of thumb to live by: if it hurts, DON’T DO IT. This seems like it would be common sense, but sadly that doesn’t appear to be the case. In belting everything rides on the support - you don’t want anything to feel forced. Because let me tell you, if it feels forced, it sounds forced. And directors will right away see that as someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. Incorrect belting often results in pitch issues as well. It is far better to sing a note in tune than to belt it and have it come out flat. So if you have a high belt, great! If you have a powerful middle belt, also great! If you can’t belt, still great! The key is knowing what you can and can’t do, and not trying to make your voice do something it shouldn’t.
Now, going back to song selection. Pick something that you really shine on. Like, I can belt, but unless the show/role I’m going for specifically calls for belting, I’ll usually go for something a little more lyric because that’s just what suits my voice better.
Acting the Song: Whatever song you pick, you want to make sure that it is one you are able to connect with, and act the part as you sing. Vocal auditions are really just like a monologue set to music. You want to show the director that you’ve put the same amount of work into developing your character as you would for a monologue. Just singing the notes isn’t going to help you. After all, this is musical theatre. You’ll notice some songs are better suited to this than others. Some will read just like a pretty love song. You’ll probably want to avoid those, but really it’s still up to you. I tend to try and find songs that tell some kind of a story, and allow for some range of emotions and expressions in performance. The best way I’ve found to really help develop the character and the mood of a song, is to literally turn it into a monologue. Speak the text just as you would if it were a monologue. Forget the rhythms. Read it and let the words tell you what inflections to add, which parts to emphasize, and so on. Now go back and sing the song, keeping that in mind. Your goal here is to add in those same inflections while you sing it. Try it. I guarantee you’ll not only hear a difference, but you’ll feel it too.
The last thing you want to keep in mind is phrasing. Most auditions call for 16 bars (which is usually to 8 bar phrases, roughly one verse). So when you find a song you like, you want to make sure you can easily isolate 16 bars (or close to) that are melodically interesting and will show off your voice. This can be rather challenging. The only way to really know is to look around, and see which songs work and which ones don’t. You probably want to avoid songs in 2/4 or cut time, because 16 bars of an uptempo cut time song are going to be much shorter than 16 bars of a 4/4 lyric solo. And if your audition doesn’t call for 16 bars, then great, no need to worry about it!
So now you should have a little better idea of what to look for in an audition song. If you are planning on pursuing theatre or even just continuing to do it as a hobby, and will therefore likely be attending many auditions over the years, it may not be a bad idea to create a small binder of audition songs. Find several songs that you feel are good fits for your voice, make copies and keep them in a binder. This way they are all in one place and there’s no need to panic when audition time comes. I would strongly suggest picking songs from as many different styles as possible, so that depending on the show you are auditioning for, you will more than likely already have a song that you know ready to go.
So that’s pretty much all there is to picking a song. Beyond this, it’s pretty much a matter of getting out there and learning songs - listen to sound tracks, get some sheet music, go see shows. Familiarize yourself with what’s out there. The more songs you know, the more options you have to pick from. It’s also always a good idea to learn which songs have become taboo in the audition world, and stay away from those ones. (If you’re not sure what I mean, I’m talking about the songs that are so over done that every director is sick of hearing them already.)
If you’re looking for a good collection of songs sorted by voice part, I highly recommend The Singers Musical Theatre Anthology series, publish by Hal Leonard. They have books for every voice part, male and female, and have selections from all kinds of shows. I’m not sure how recently they were last updated, so you probably won’t find many of the newer shows in them, but there’s still tons to pick from. And if you’re just looking to purchase individual songs, there are plenty of websites where you can purchase them. I hope this helps!