If you’ve had any degree of vocal training in the Western classical tradition, you’ve encountered the 24 Italian Songs book.
Folks love to hate on em. You can search the YouTubes and find a lot of nascent singers doing their best.
You can also find some of the world’s greatest like Cecilia Bartoli bring them to stunning life.
Theatre singers often give these the hard eye roll because they can’t see how a 250-year-old art song is gonna help them nail that Hairspray callback.
And they’re right. It’s not a direct line. Add to that most singers don’t take the trouble to find out what they’re singing about, and yeah, absolutely — you’re in irrelevant-to-me snooze town right away.
But when you’re a theatre singer, you get to embody countless stories and folks, and that means countless sounds. And these songs have a lot to teach us about how to access those in beautiful, soul sharing ways.
I’m remembering reading the program notes from Betty Buckley’s concert at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000; she talked about how her core training was in bel canto technique, and you can hear the value for legato singing, communication of soul, and vibrant presence in everything she did/does.
Go listen to some “Memory” circa 1983 as well as the stuff she sang in “Tender Mercies” and you’re gonna hear legato flow in all of it. If there’s a theatre singer you wanna take a note or seven from, there you go.
These can give you the keys to flow in your breath and sound, vowel secrets and acoustic leverage, make your articulation clear and effortless, make you a flexible embody-er of character, give you terrific sound comparison tools, and show you how to mine the beauty in material folks call overdone.
Some days through a string of lessons, I’ll get super passionate about meeting your childhood survival tension with understanding or setting yourself free to make crazy noises, and I’ll drop an f-bomb or 12.
It’s my favorite one — It’s got that terrific fricative at the beginning, all manner of ways to shape the vowel, and ends with the fireworks of a voiceless velar plosive.
People say it’s uncreative and base.
It’s like Froot Loops.
My mama wisely didn’t buy them. (She was also on the front of the whole wheat bread train; I envied Greg Varney’s white-bread-no-crust bologna sammies in 4th grade.)
But once I had more agency over what was part of my complete breakfast, I couldn’t get enough high fructose corn syrup, chemical color, and questionably sourced grain circles down my gullet.
I’ve eased off of the cereals that leave an itchy film on your hard palate, but I still partake in regular profanity.
I also pray. I mean listen. When I’m stumped, I’ll get quiet, close my eyes, and I’ll see if any info bubbles up in my guts, some guidance on what would be most helpful for you.
Sometimes I’ll tell you how I follow Jesus, but that’s normally to clarify why I believe the greatest power in the universe is born of vulnerability. Or the only explanation I got of how the blind blunders in my life have somehow turned to gold.
There’s a long list of whys because it connects to everything for me.
I used to go to this psychic in Studio City, and every time I walked in, she’d laugh and say Jesus was with me again.
You’ve heard me talk about how New York City diner menus. They overwhelm me. I mean, who can choose between blintzes and a BLT?
(I’m remembering a woman I waited on at Artie’s Delicatessen who ordered French toast and followed it up with a slice of carrot cake. She didn’t have any problems choosing.)
I finally developed a technique of deciding the category of food I’d order BEFORE walking into the diner, and that helped.
But I’ve found that my menu overwhelm syndrome creeps up in other areas of my life.
And I’ll tell you why.
We get NYC menu-level info hurled at us every day. That is, you do if you get as attached to that little computer rectangle in your pocket with the candy-colored squares on its adorable little screen as I do.
Lately it’s been the YouTubes.
I told you last week about how I’m all about that INPUT. (Did you do your Clifton Strengths? They’re helpful, right?)
Input’s a wonderful trait for an educator. And it’s a PARALYZING flaw when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other toward that thing you decided was a priority.
But you get surfing on one algorithm wave, and all of a sudden you’re like,
oooooh, wait, maybe I need to break this all down in an Asana work flow. Hmmmmm. Will the free version be okay? How much money have I spent on software this year? No. Just use your paper checklist that’s been working. Did I pull those tasks from my Google Calendar? What about the bullet journal? How do these people post on Instagram so much? SHOULD we buy land and building and off-grid community with rentable yurts and compost toilets?
Then Melissa’s like, “Sweetie, you need some time? What’s up?”
And I’m all like, “Where do I even BEGIN? It’s MADNESS in here, I tell you! It all started with blintzes.
Melissa threw me a life preserver, though. (She may have gently aimed it at my head.)
She brought my brain back to our lived-in kitchen and toy-strewn living room and reminded me, “The summer’s gonna be over soon. Let’s enjoy this time we have together.”
Thank you, sweetie. It was so clear and simple.
I’m having a hard time appreciating the present lately. My brain flies off in the future, and the future looks like a diner menu with much higher prices.
So, these are some things I’m doing to help my brain.
Feeling wonky? How can you get back to HERE?
You’re gonna roll your eyes, but the answer almost all the time is paying attention to your breath. And it’s paying attention to your breath longer than you want to. I want to take exactly one and a half deepish inhales and feel balanced again.
Nope. It takes a little longer to travel from Agitation Station to Clarity Town.
The other thing is to notice things around you on purpose. And name them to yourself. The wall color, the birds you may hear, the loud train or smell of subway track grease. This helps. (Also key in an audition room.)
This, too, takes longer than I want it.
Siri, “Make me present, calm, and serene!”
One other thing: Phone a friend. Literally pick up that rectangle computer and call somebody. This, for some reason, is hard to do these days. Especially because we all assume something’s wrong when we get an actual phone call. So, maybe send a prelim text.
This is also especially hard for folks like me who want to solve everything inside the ole brain. One day I’ll accept this doesn’t work.
One other simplifying question that’s helped me is from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.
It’s a question of identity.
If you want your identity to be someone who’s healthy and vibrant, you can ask yourself, “What would a healthy and vibrant person do?”
I’d drink a glass of water. I’d get out for a walk. I’d take some time to stretch.
If you ask yourself what you’d like your identity to be, you can then ask, “What would this kind of person do?” We almost always know. It’s just that the steps are often so simple, our brain’s like, “It can’t be that straightforward. Yawn. What’s on YouTube?”
That brings me to the next helpful thing: Getting where you want to go means doing simple/boring things over and over.
It’s not shiny and entertaining. It’s satisfying.
Once you stop expecting constant amusement to be a thing, you can start humming and stretching and learning that song you picked out for the cabaret you decided to put together (even though you feel scared. I always do.)
Then when you show up for the thing, those days and days of practice are in your body. That’s where confidence comes from, the skill you built.
The other one that’s helpful and very hard for me is seasons.
Right now is the time for — fill in your blank.
Right now is not the time in my life when I can do a lot of 730pm dinner meetups. I’ve got to put my boys to sleep mid-chapter of the next Chronicles of Narnia book.
🫁 Breathe for as long as it takes.
👀👂 Notice things around you for as long as it takes.
📞 Connect in a real time present way with somebody you trust.
💚 Ask yourself, “What would a kind-of-person-I-want-to-be do?”
💪🏽 Then do it. Over and over, and look for the satisfaction not the entertainment.
📆 And notice what season you’re in.
Hope this was helpful for you. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, you know what I’m fixing to say: There’s only one you, and folks need to hear the story only you can sing.
There’s an ongoing complaint that musical theatre rep keeps getting higher and higher. And that’s because musical theatre rep has gotten higher and higher.
If you survey what folks were singing generally in the 1950s and ’60s and compare that to what was shaking down just 20 years ago, you’ll see — things have changed, Raoul.
It’s like when a runner breaks a world record, humans want to see how much faster they can run. Same with singing — it’s a muscular event, and our mirror neurons want to witness the risk and excitement of high notes sung with skill and beauty.
And yeah, you’re right, there’s not been a race to the low frequencies in this regard, so a lot of folks with deliciously low voices are feeling very left out of the current commercial musical theatre market. I have thoughts on this that I’ll share with you later.
The shape of musical theater singing changed in the 1960s, really with the advent of HAIR and when rock music entered the scene and then all kinds of styles found their way to the stage. Microphones and electronically amplified music as a standard meant that singers could do a lot of different things with their voices, and that changed the game.
Understanding the framework of your own instrument
This is where understanding your own vocal sweet zone is so important. If you focus on Western classical singing, your voice type will be categorized — lyric soprano, dramatic mezzo, leggiero tenor, basso profundo, etc.
This is mostly because you’re singing acoustically with no amplification when this is your field.
When you’re a theatre singer, it’s important to know where your voice feels most efficient, easy, and powerful, AND you also have a lot more leeway than our classical classification system has handed down to us. You’re a human with a voice, and there are tons of possibilities. Especially with a microphone.
Questioning Your Limits
If a song or role calls your name that you’re not capable of executing range-wise right now, I invite you to question whether you might be able to accomplish it one day with the right tools.
I’m not advocating delusion here. I’ll never sing “Glitter and Be Gay,” and no one’s ever going to say, “Dan really gives me Barry White vibes.” But I have tons of other possibilities available.
I want you to understand that your voice is full of potential and possibility, and just like regular yoga practice will get you bending in ways you never thought possible, regular systems of vocal practice will change your identity as a singing storyteller. You’ll sing into new ways of making sound that your ego doesn’t even have a name for right now.
And of course, this skill will open up all kinds of possibility for you as a theatre singer.
What to understand and how you can leverage it
Real quick, some basic understanding of anatomy and physiology will help you out here —
Lower pitches mean thicker shorter vocal folds.
Higher pitches mean stretchier folds.
Think of a guitar string. If you loosen the string, lower frequency. If you tighten the string, higher frequency.
Your vocal folds are vibrating bodies like the guitar string.
Looser or shorter = lower pitch.
Tighter or longer = higher pitch.
There’re also different ways of singing different frequencies,
different modes and registers where the same pitch happens with different coordinations.
There are also different vocal tract configurations in which pitches can happen.
Vocal tract just means the space from your folds to the opening of your mouth, and there are thousands of possibilities for shaping that and the sounds you can make.
Pitch happens inside your larynx —
Your larynx can figure it out. If your physiology is capable, the things inhibiting you from singing certain pitches often happen before or after the vibration event in the larynx. I’ll lay those out for you later.
All these ideas will loosen up your idea of what it is to make different frequencies with your mechanism.
Before I tell you how you can sing higher notes with confidence,
you need to pay some attention to the lower frequencies first.
This will give your mechanism balance. If you ignore the low frequencies, your folds will get used to singing the stretchy rubber band sounds and won’t have any quality time letting the loose and juicy folds vibrate at the other end of that spectrum.
And the stretchier frequencies give important info to the low meaty vibes, and the thicker fold events have things to teach the higher sounds. You want to make sounds in all frequency capabilities of your voice.
I’ll link a simple series of exercises to coordinate and bolster your low sounds at the end of this.
Now, when you look to extend your capability and confidence singing higher frequencies,
it’s important to sing these pitches in thick and thin fold coordinations and the continuum in between.
You’ll want to sing pitches in Mode 2/head voice and Mode1/chest voice.
After you’re finding some ease with both of these coordinations, you’re going to want to discover that they’re connected. I’ll link a messa di voce exercise at the end of this as well that show you how to do that.
In all of these ways of making sounds, the important truth to incorporate into your body is that the voice works like a stretchy rubbery situation. It’s not a series of compartments.
This cubby hole idea is a big reason why singer brains want to physically reach for high frequencies or shoehorn pitches into imagined compartments.
Singing pitches is much more akin to intonation with a stringed instrument where there are millimeters of variation as opposed to a piano keystroke.
And here’s a list of things that could be making singing and pitch flexibility very hard for you:
Pushing too much air
We think more is more when it comes to singing, and we’re wrong. You need enough air, no more. Especially when it comes to higher frequencies, we think we have to pound the support.
This has the unhelpful outcome of pummeling the underside of our closed folds with a ton of air pressure, and all the laryngeal muscles have to adjust. This creates all kinds of mayhem and the opposite of the balanced energized flow we need for your brilliant folds to sing different frequencies.
Ask yourself: how much dynamic support do I need for this phrase or note? Listen to your body, give it a number value from 0 to 10, and experiment. I’ll link a video at the end of this article that talks more about this.
Thinking the voice comes from not through
We perceive the source of the voice at the throat level. Not helpful.
The energy that comes THROUGH the folds originates in your breath-moving muscles, the abs and ribs, depending on what style you’re singing. And those muscles live inside the entire body’s energetic framework.
This is why bodywork modalities are so important for singers to promote muscular and skeletal awareness, alignment, strength, and flexibility.
The cubby hole concept
Like I said before, singing is a stretchy and malleable event. The moment we start to perceive the voice in terms of piano keys or compartments, we get rigid, and we lose the sense of flexibility we need to let the voice show us what it can do.
Slamming way too much vocal fold together
We get really local in the folds sometimes when we’re trying to make a pitch happen.
We apply pushups or pick-something-heavy-up logic to singing, and it’s a very different muscular event.
It’s something that happens with delicacy and robustness together, and you’re learning to engage certain muscle groups while others relax, and that’s because singing is weird. And you guessed it. There’s a video for that.
Not allowing the larynx to do its thing
This goes together with the last one. But your larynx is a very brilliant structure. It literally hangs from the hyoid bone, the only structure in your body that does this. And it has an intelligence all its own.
The quick and dirty advice on this is to talk kindly to your larynx and tell it, “I trust you.” Then you give it absolute permission to go wherever it wants to go. You’ll make some sounds you don’t like, and you’ll discover a lot of things you wouldn’t have when you were trying to hold it in place because a teacher somewhere talked a lot about a stable larynx.
If you’re singing, you’re moving, and your larynx should be like a buoy on the water, able to respond expertly to the breath energy you’re providing.
As a general rule, I tell mine he can elevate if he wants to when I’m singing higher pitches. Experiment with this. See how high it can go! You can always let it chill down.
The actual length of the vocal tract (folds to mouth) affects how easily a note will come through, and it will vary song to song and style to style.
Tune in to your own body and get someone with good ears and incorporated skill themselves to walk the road with you.
And most importantly, listen to your own body.
Your singular voice is capable of so many things, and it has colors and expression that are singular to you.
You have to tune in and feel what feels good, be courageous and try new things so that your vocal identity can include lots of different sounds.
It’s also important to recognize and embrace the frame of your vocal limitations. Great creativity always flourishes inside constraints. Like a sonnet.
For example, I can sing low notes, but if I just hear a bass baritone talk, I know my voice is a different instrument than that. I’ll never have the power and resonance in lower frequencies that they have. Therefore, I lean into what my voice enjoys doing. We all have different sounds to contribute to the choir.
But now back to that question from the beginning of this —
since the current commercial musical theatre celebrates and features higher pitches in many instances, what do you do when your sweet spot is in the low zone and doesn’t coincide with what the market is currently doing?
First, if you want to work in the commercial musical theatre, ask yourself how much can you bring your skills into the middle of the Venn diagram. How much range can you stretch into while feeling like it’s comfortable and true to how you want to express as an artist?
(I often say if you’re a baritone with range extension, that’s vocal gold because you have the leverage in your lows and access to the top. Boom.)
Second, if you truly feel like your skill set doesn’t have a lot of overlap with market demand, where can you use it where you’ll feel artistically fulfilled? What styles do you love to sing? And what musical rep is actually out there that you can specialize in? Thing is, having a truly sparkly low voice is rare, and if you do it well, you will stand out in the market and be known for your ability.
And this is simple, and no one wants to hear it, but it’s the absolute truth: how can you choose yourself? You want to sing and share the sweet zone of your voice, get a musical director you trust, make a show, and invite folks.
Make ways to share your voice that you’re in control of, and you won’t be as tempted to be angry at market trends that skew to screlt.
If you haven’t heard the news already, there’s a little bit of advice for theatre singers that’s been going around for a long time.
It has to do with the sinuses in your face, and folks who taught bel canto singers back in the day often used these mysterious skull caves as guide posts for singers to know they were making the right kinds of acoustically amplified sounds.
Versions of this legend have been passed down through oral tradition and may take on the form of phrases, such as “get it forward” or “use your mask,” or you may even have a visual of a very well-meaning voice teacher pointing on either side of their nose, and telling you to aim your voice there like a laser beam.
In my experience, all of this has been the opposite of helpful.
And I can tell you why real real quick.
First of all, nobody can hear what’s going on in your mask except for you. The only thing folks hear is what vibrates through your mouth and through your nose.
You might not even have the self perception to feel the resonance there, and that’s okay.
The second reason I never think this way or encourage singers I work with to think this way is because the vast majority of your resonance happens in a little place that I’d love to talk about.
That place is your pharynx.
If you snort, let your uvula flop back like your sawing logs at 3 AM (my wife reports I am expert at this these days, sorry sweetie) you’ll feel the spot.
👆 In the above pic, you’ll see the blue, yellow and green portions — those are where your prime resonant money’s at.
Makes sense, right? They’re directly north of your vocal folds.
Your folds vibrate, and then all that vibration gets bounced around and amplified right there in the recital hall of your vocal tract.
Feeling resonance in your mask is an EFFECT, and what you’re feeling is nanoseconds past tense. The vibrations you’re feeling there are the result of what just came through your folds and pharynx.
In my experience, when I’ve tried to aim for the front, sing into my mask, or hit any kind of back row through a lot of forward resonance, my body recruits all kinds of muscles to direct this feeling to this spot.
And this makes the pharynx muscles do the only things they can — constrict.
Lookit: (image courtesy of Teach Me Anatomy)
The green, orange, and blue muscle groups — they swallow for you hundreds of times a day. And the only thing they can do is get smaller.
To sing well, this mischief has to be managed. The softer and meltier these muscles are, the more room the recital hall (your pharynx) has to bounce sound waves around and amplify them.
If they’re squeezing just a little trying to laser beam your sound forward, well, you’re going to get a real samey, monochrome, bright metallic sound that honestly musical theatre gets made fun of for.
And for good reason — it’s dopey, and folks are missing out on all the individual color that the rest of their singular vocal tract can paint those sound waves with as they travel through.
So, what DO I do?
I encourage a dual perception — a centered awareness of the resonance vibrating through your vocal tract while your communication attention goes to your scene partner.
Musical theatre performers have to manage multiple awareness all the time.
I’m Christine Daae, I’m me, there’s the conductor, the audience is full tonight, that bobby pin is in too tight, maybe I’ll offer Raoul a breath mint later, I should have warmed up better before this show, I could use a nap, watch the conductor.
I’m astounded when folks believe we can’t think about vocal technique and storytelling at the same time. We have to. Humans have to think about more than one thing on the regular.
Yes, I know all the recent studies on how you can’t really multitask, and yes, hand raised.
But are you trying to tell me that when you’re scrubbing your tub you can’t sing “Alone” by Heart at the same time?
I mean, anybody who’s sung and danced simultaneously can tell you that technique and singing can happen at the same time. Or else you fall over.
So here’s what I want you to understand:
Your primary resonance happens in your pharynx.
Folks can only hear what vibrates through your mouth and your nose.
Therefore, let’s do things that help these two factors happen as freely and efficiently as they can.
You might feel like your forehead’s gonna buzz right off your head, but someone could make a very similar sound and feel none of that.
Here are the questions you can ask yourself in order to find the sweet spot for efficient resonance and honest communication.
What are you singing?
What’s the world of the show or the song? Ado Annie’s gonna sing differently from A Little Night Music’s Ann, and she’s gonna sing differently from Ana in Frozen.
You’re a theatre singer. You make thousands of different sounds.
Once you know that,
What kind of breath support are you using?
“If I Loved You” support is gonna be very different from “Take Me or Leave Me.”
(”If I Loved You” is gonna have floatier ribs and be generated from the lower transverse abs and obliques [appoggio], and Rent is gonna have more rib closure and engagement which produces compressed phonation —
think toddler wailing over their banana being peeled the wrong way, broken, or slightly bruised. Those ribs know how to engage with the focal folds.
Then get a sense of the emotional impulse you’re working with.
Ado Annie: “It ain’t so much a question of not knowing what to do….”
Ann: “Soon, I promise. Soon I won’t shy away.”
Ana: “For the first time in FOREVER!….”
Three very different needs to communicate. These emotional images will light up in different parts of the body, and they’ll move the voice in a different way. Pay attention to your body on this.
Then, notice how that affects the phonatory pattern of the voice —
What happens when you notice the emotional energy of surmising, “It ain’t so much a question of not knowing what to do.”?
And how’s that different from Ann singing, “Soon, I promise….”?
And Ana’s got a completely different set of circumstances going on.
Your folds are going to sing these three different characters in different ways.
Now, it’s time to notice what the voice is doing just north of you larynx — in your pharynx.
Meditate your attention right back to that spot where your uvula vibrates against the back pharyngeal wall when you snort.
That’s the spot where I want you to notice your vibratory energy flowing past like a stream.
How does Ado Annie’s stream move?
How about Ann?
Notice the differences in air speed and how you feel the vibrations. Does that feel different from what you normally do?
Do you still feel sensations up in the front of your face? For me, I never think about them anymore. I may just be used to them, but I just don’t focus there.
Then after that, how can you shape your articulators and the rest of the tract to help you the most?
The one tip I have for you on this is to let your tongue float into your mouth. You want your tongue to float high and close to your hard palate.
This does at least 3 things:
1, it gets your tongue out of your most resonant place, your pharynx.
2, it floats the root of the tongue off of the larynx, so this whole mechanism has freedom to move.
and 3. When the tongue floats high toward the hard palate, it creates a very helpful acoustic bottleneck that causes sound waves to bounce back into the pharynx and amplify even more.
Then, the dialect of these characters, their self concept, and the world of the show are going to affect your articulation choices. Your entire body energy based on who you believe you are is going to shape how your tongue, teeth, and soft palate, and pharynx all interact.
And that’s the flow of energy that you have actual immediate control over. You can witness that as the actor/storyteller while looking to see if your communication is landing with your scene partner.
You can, in fact, do more than one thing at a time within a given task.
I hope this takes the pressure off of you to think you have to target and aim vibrations in a certain spot on your face. Sometimes you may feel sympathetic resonance galore in all kinds of places in your skull. Other times, you won’t.
That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are making free, efficient sounds that come from a deep belief and empathy for who you are being, and the story you are courageous enough to live.
Again, what I want you to walk away with from this is —
Your primary resonance happens in your pharynx. Nobody can hear your mask.
You can indeed think about vocal technique and storytelling at the same time. In fact, I believe they serve each other.
Trying to aim your voice in a forward direction can sometimes recruit muscles that decrease efficiency and cause unwanted constriction.
Then, when you’re working on any kind of material, ask yourself:
What world am I in? What am I singing?
What kind of breath support does this call for? What’s my body’s identity here?
How does this affect my phonatory pattern? What kinds of sounds am I making?
And then what do the resonances happening in my pharynx feel like as they flow through?
How do your articulators, affected by your body’s ego identity as this character or in this style, sculpt this vibration when it flows through your mouth?
And sub note on this, and this is a whole other topic — let your tongue float high and fill a lot of the mouth. It gets out of your pharynx, frees your larynx, and creates a terrific acoustic environment.
All of these things you have direct agency over. You can stand in your energy column, share generously, and observe how your scene partners respond with openness, curiosity, and play.
Practice these things, and reach out if you have questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or click on “work with me” to find out how you can, well, work with me.
I’m all about getting you simple tools that make sense and work fast so that you can tell the stories you want to with joy, freedom and love, feel confident and excited at auditions, and contribute beautiful and satisfying work in whatever room you collaborate.
Because remember there is objectively, empirically, and scientifically only one you, and folks need to hear the story only you can sing. Now go sing. Bye. 💙
I’m going to tell you the reasons folks you think are demonstrably average seem to work all the time.
And I’m also going to tell you how this information will make your auditions and overall creative expression more successful.
One time I was doing a show, and one of the leads was offensively average. Company members noticed. Crew noticed. I definitely noticed.
Management were delighted with them.
To seal the deal, this artist spoke matter of factly about their inherent belonging in the principal player echelons. (I think this was more of an anxiety thing than arrogance to be fair.)
I was an ensemble member, and (funny enough after just criticizing what this person said out loud), I thought I should be playing a principal role, too.
I worked with an acting coach at the time who saw the show, and I’ll never forget what she said:
“They stood for their work.”
What do you mean? They stood for their work?
It meant this:
They weren’t asking for anybody’s permission; they owned their performance, and there wasn’t any whiff of a question in the air whether or not they should be wearing those costumes and singing those songs.
This lights up a major lie that performers tell themselves. Wreaks havoc in general life, too: The Just World Belief.
Good things mean good outcomes. Bad = bad. And the world should be fair.
Extensive studies on both combat veterans and abuse survivors show that holding to this belief increases and prolongs PTSD symptoms.
Now please think about one actor acquaintance who carries this just world belief into every audition room.
Every table of deciders now holds the weight of universal justice in their hands, and with every heartbreaking opportunity, more evidence piles up with how unfair the world is.
The truth is — auditioning is not (and can’t) be a meritocracy. It’s decided by humans, and we are notoriously fickle. And it’s not a fair process.
I remember not booking a tour of Les Miserables and crying on my therapist’s couch because it was a dream of mine,
so I was sad.
But there was also a part of me that believed it should be my turn, and I deserved to get picked.
My advice — question this belief.
And notice the things in your life that work out well, when the odds skew ever in your favor.
We get so focused on how life has slighted us, we forget to notice that we can see, hear, walk, and have food to eat.
Dang, I still remember the time a cop just let me go in North Hollywood for talking on my Blackberry without a hands free contraption. She even said, “I don’t know why I’m doing this. These phones make me so mad.”
The next reason for all this audition mayhem is a very human thing that no one’s ever going to change — Middle School.
You’ve written a play, and you need folks. Who do you think of first? Your friends, people you KNOW.
If you have to look outside your familiar circle for roles or production support, what do you do? You ask your friends if they know somebody.
What are you looking for?
Someone who’s competent, kind, detail oriented and lives for stage management.
Can you imagine if you were interviewing a company manager, and the candidate said:
🙋🏼 Can you give me a chance to solve your problem? I mean, I don’t know how I’ll solve it, but just pick me?
🙄 Problem? I don’t see a problem here. And I’m amazing, so yeah, here I am. (Sits back and puts shod feet on desk.)
💙 Hey there. I get it — I see your problem. I’ve solved a lot of these before, and here’s how I can help you solve yours.
Who are you gonna sling a contract at that second and pray they’re available?
Yet actors often bring in versions 1 and 2 into rooms and then get frustrated that their results are crap.
It’s human to want people to pick you for stuff. We want to be chosen. It’s a natural and good desire. When my wife puts her hand on my back and says, “I love you,” I mean, that’s the stuff.
But if we’re talking about getting picked for shows, you need do 1 of 2 things:
Create positive emotional associations to yourself,
Then create positive emotional associations to yourself. Because no matter how much you pick yourself, if you’re an asshole, no one will want to be in the trenches with you.
If this feels middle school, it’s because it is — because guess what middle schools are full of? People, just younger with under-developed prefrontal cortices.
This bears out in many rehearsal halls, too.
So what can you DO about this? How can you make your auditions and creative life more successful?
First, we are going to define a successful audition:
A successful audition means you prepare well, share the work with artistry, skill, and an open heart, and accomplish the goal you set for yourself in that meeting. It’s a clear preview of how you’d solve a casting problem, and it’s also a glimpse into the straightforward joy it will be to work with you.
That’s it. There’s no outcome component. You’re not going to get the job. Most of the jobs, we don’t get, so dispose of the lie that you have any direct control whatsoever over manipulating a casting decider into picking you.
For more on this, and to really set yourself free, read Audition Psych 101 by Michael Kostroff.
So, to have this successful audition, do this:
Number one, the folks you’re pissed about? Stop paying attention to them. They have nothing to do with you except what you can learn from them.
Number 2, this one’s real simple, but people discount it because it’s not shiny enough.
PREPARE THE SHIT OUT OF IT — and I mean prepare the shit out of it. This means that although you are holding your papers, you’re off book. You have your pitches, rhythms and lyrics in your body because you’ve taken the time to do it.
You understand this person you’re being on a cellular, empathetic, and experiential level.
Confidence only comes from competence, and that comes from your current skill level plus PREP.
And put yourself in the table people’s shoes — how do you feel when the person comes in PREPPED and READY? Exactly — good.
And go ahead and let this boost your ego. If you know you work harder than other folks, let that fuel you. Know that it will pay off because it has to in some way.
The same way that you don’t look for completely fair and equal measures based on your input and output, you can also know that there’s still cause-and-effect in the world.
If you put in the work, if you give away incredible work in the audition room, you’re going to get results. It can only have a compound interest.
If you go in and share fantastic skill with someone who makes casting decisions, and that particular project isn’t a fit for you, you’ve built up artistic goodwill with that decider. It’s just human that they’ll want to pay you back for your investment with them with more opportunities for future projects.
Ego is like butter, salt, heat, and sugar — a little conscious and measured addition in your recipe goes a long way.
Number 2A is also important, and that’s this: Be good.
Have a sober and humble estimation of your skills.
Video yourself. Get a good ears on your voice. Get a wise, incisive and kind acting coach on your storytelling.
What are your blind spots? What are your blocks?
Get in there and work on them and become the electric malleable and expressive performer that you yourself can trust to tell a story with honesty and power. If you know, you can do that, imagine the difference that will make when you walk into a room to share your solution to a casting problem.
And Number 3 —
Have something rich and meaningful going on in your life besides this audition.
Your performing career needs to thrive inside a rich and meaningful life. What do you have going on that gives life to you in life to those around you?
Sit down and write down what’s truly most important to you. Who are your people? Who do you love and who loves you?
And this is dramatic, but effective, and let’s face it, we’re dramatic. When you’re on your deathbed, is this audition or this show opportunity going to be the thing you’re thinking about?
If you’re at an appointment and you know that you have a writers’ meeting later that day on the project that you’ve put together or you’re going to meet up with that friend you haven’t seen in a long time, it’ll set you free to put things in context, and you won’t put value on things that you don’t need to put value on.
What is valuable is your preparation and showing up with excellence so that you prove to yourself that you’re a skilled and generous performer, who has a rich depth of artistry to bring to the table.
So, back to those folks booking all those jobs who clearly don’t deserve it and fill you with indignation. Here are some possibilities to weigh:
Maybe they’re better than you think they are. And maybe just because you understand what a good performance entails doesn’t mean that you’re delivering that yourself. I remember when I realized the gap between my intellectual understanding of the thing and my actual physical execution of that same thing. Ouch. And thank God.
Notice what’s in their energy. It might just be bravado, but there’s something in their energy that communicates “I don’t need this.” They’re not thirsty for connection at the party.
And remember, you don’t know their life. You’re judging a performance aesthetic and skill set, and you’re attaching meaning to their character. Stop doing that. Number one, it’s not your business, and number two, it’s a waste of your time while you could be working a messa di voce exercise to get your head and chest voice making terrific friends.
Comes back to work my acting coach Elizabeth said that time.
You’ve got to stand for yourself, and I’m convinced that having the skill, competence, and preparation underneath you is what will give you a substantial foundation that you can plant your feet on. Do that over and over, and great results will show up in your audition in creative life.
So get in there and do the work. There’s only one you, and folks need to hear the story on the you can sing. Now go sing.
The tough thing about the studio I use at school: it sits directly beneath a practice room.
Sometimes it sounds like incidental orchestra warm up.
Sometimes I hear prolonged reed instrument embouchure masochism.
And sometimes singers get in there, and I remember that nobody knows how to practice.
(Sounds like a useful video series. I’d just have to make the title “How to Get Good and Slay Your Foes,” or something like that.)
The other day, though, a diligent person above me at 8 The Fenway decided they was gonna do themselves some high belting.
And they’d decided belting meant making a strong sound with their vocal folds REALLY together all the time.
I understand. That’s a logical thing to think. It’s just that so much of singing is weird and counterintuitive.
I tried to focus on my work, but I just kept hearing this somewhat familiar melody being emphatically forced through this person’s larynx.
My mirror neurons wouldn’t let me notice anything else besides the auditory empathy constricting my throat.
Then there were the vowels.
Oh no, friend, you’re not going to sing that note with that vowel the way you want.
I almost changed into my nobody-asked-me-but-I-must-help Vocal Pathology Avoidance Man superhero costume and bounded upstairs, but I had no time. And that woulda been weird.
Then I realized that somewhat familiar melody was “The Joke” by Brandi Carlile.
I love “The Joke.”
But there was nothing funny about what was happening here. Stop doing this to yourself. And this song.
So, there’s a slew of stuff I could say about the nuanced interworkings of how to make effective Mode 1 (basically chest voice) sounds around and above your passaggio.
But here are three takeaways we can learn while we pray for our friend’s vocal future.
The Voice Comes Through, Not From
The power source for your voice starts in your torso (well, your whole body, really, but, again, another article) — your abs and ribs, depending on what kinda sound you’re making, who you’re being, and what’s happening in the story.
This moves the air THROUGH (yes, yelling at you) your vocal folds and causes them to vibrate.
When folks make belty sounds, the brain somehow decides that the source of the screlt is at the throat level, so the body recruits all kinds of effort around your larynx. No bueno.
The air movement ITSELF helps with vocal fold closure, so when I don’t collaborate with this physical reality, I fight my own body and make things real real hard.
The breath, vibration, and communication energy come THROUGH, not from the folds.
This is also why singing’s so scary and tricky — it’s a flow that you can’t stop and edit before it leaves your mouth.
Belty Sounds Aren’t Just Dependent on Your Folds
Lots of folks think, “Belt? Ok, engage vocal fold slam!”
There are lots of ways to make called-out, excited, risky, wailing, engaged, scream-adjacent sounds. And so much of this depends on your phonatory pattern and the shape of your vocal tract.
And when you discover these ways, you’re gonna be a little angry at how easy they feel.
What we call belting is often one of the most efficient ways to make noise, and it requires a teeny bit of air. Yeah, it’s robust, but the actual feeling of efficient sound making is some crazy return on your breath investment.
Belty sounds also collaborate only with certain vowels.
If you want to look this up, check out Complete Vocal Technique’s work on this, and look up Overdrive and Edge modes. I think their breakdown of this is one of the most straightforward ways of understanding belty sounds. You can also watch a video I did on vowels here.
Your Body Knows How to Belt
The family of sounds we’ve come to call “belting” are all very natural human sounds. That’s why we love it. They’re real, engaging, risky, and the let the emotions through. They’re healing.
So learn to listen to your bod.
And listening to Brandi Carlile is a good lesson in this. She sings straight from her hear guts spirit errythang.
In “The Joke,” the melody of the chorus climbs and climbs — that’s story structure telling you these folks who are laughing one day won’t be.
Just that line, “Let ‘em laugh while they can.”
That “laugh” for 2 beats — what does your body feel when you picture folks pushing somebody down chuckling because they have the upper hand? Do your justice hackles get up? Might that affect how your voice calls our the word “laugh” for 1.5 seconds? Of course it will.
The question that gets a stumped pause from me now:
“What are you reading?”
Rarely an answerable question for a parent of young children.
My audio book game is strong, though, and I will pop on my new bone conduction headphones (thanks Aunt Sherri!) while I’m emptying the dishwasher to scratch my input itch.
(You know about Clifton Strengths? It’s a tool that tells you what your natural are.)
I always forget mine, but I remember at the top of the list is INPUT. 🤖
I love to know things, find out things, learn things. And tell YOU about the things.
So I’m sharing some of the most meaningful input sources in my life with you: books.
In no particular order, here you go:
Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle
From the author of A Wrinkle in Time, this book reflects on L’Engle’s lifelong integration of faith and art.
A few small phrases from this book are always in my pocket when I need context or a little light to see my way.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
This correspondence between the German poet and a young artist represents a mentorship we all wish we could have.
Makes me long for how we used to get letters, read them a few times, and let their words live in our imaginations while we waited for the next one to arrive.
If you never read the book, there’s a terrific quote to store in your heart:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.
“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
So brilliant and so frustrating. A thought like that’s not going to get a lot of clicks these days.
An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler
I’ve told you about this book before. I love it. And there’s a cookbook now.
The book comes from Adler’s blog. She used to cook at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and the way she writes about bread, beans, and boiling vegetables makes you want to fill up a pot with salty water and get going.
Its theme is based on an earlier book written during the Depression called How to Cook a Wolf. You’ll never look at your chopped-off onion ends the same way again.
And if you like braised beef, you won’t find a better way to do it than in this book. Risotto, too.
Anything by Anthony Doerr
This year I listened to Cloud Cuckoo Land and All the Light We Cannot See on my walks from the train to work.
When you hear a novelist create such specific and diverse worlds and connect them in such unexpected and inevitable ways, it’s evidence that there’s beauty in the world and goodness and truth in the human imagination.
Both of these books are masterful.
Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown
This book is so important for storytellers — it breaks down the nuance and facets of language we use for emotion.
When our language is clear, connection happens. (Her explanation of the difference between envy and jealousy is fascinating.)
And don’t forget — there’s only one you, and folks need to hear the story only you can sing.
PS You know your Clifton Strengths? Tell me! I looked mine up again — Input, Empathy, Positivity, Developer, Adaptability
PPS And something to think about — What has it looked like to live a question? What questions are you living right now?
This is a blog post that I’m writing because I told myself I would write one every day for the foreseeable future.
I fought through way too much traffic on the Mass Pike (the boys were troopers, though 🙌🏻), thought a lot about how I want to grow the teaching biz and share more. No epiphanies, but I’m listening.
And now I’m going to bed with a headache.
My brother in law treated us to Italian tonight which was terrific — rigatoni and meatballs in creamy marinara. Thanks Rob.
It was also in the low 80s today, so that’s a plus. Though the boys’ guest room got a little too hot, and they were too excited to go to bed, so I had to tap Melissa in before I hit someone and screamed “you turd!” These are the wins.