For many music teachers, Covid-19 has closed our studios to face-to-face lessons indefinitely and moved us to an online format. While most teachers are happy for available technology that enables us to offer online lessons as a safe alternative to in-person lessons during a global pandemic, we are also encountering many unforeseen issues that we must learn to navigate on the fly. Overnight, we had to learn to teach music with internet lag, learn new tech gadgets, and learn new and different money management methods (when we could no longer accept checks or cash). We changed our scheduling, balanced our new family life with 100% quality time spent together, and learned to hold more space for the mental health of our children, students, and ourselves. It’s a lot.
One theme that I started to notice in students on day one of the pandemic was an obvious drop off in the amount of practicing they do on a regular basis. With schedules tossed out the window, we were all waiting to see what would happen, and mental health began to decline, manifesting as a lack of motivation to be productive. We all felt it.
After many weeks of online lessons, it started to become clear that, initially, we were waiting for things to go back to normal. We were in a sort of limbo. Once we were back to our normal lives, surely normal practicing would pick up again. Right? When that started to look like it wasn’t going to happen, I began to ask more probing questions of my students. I didn’t have to dig very deeply to discover that—whether 12 years old or 20 years old, male or female—emotionally, they were sad, confused, and, like me, didn’t even know what day it was most of the time.
After a few months of addressing the obvious, trying to encourage students to fall into some kind of a new routine, coming up with practice schedules, setting deadlines, and creating virtual performance opportunities, I finally realized WHY my students—teen through young adults—were having so much trouble: they already felt sad and isolated; when they practiced what they needed to (i.e., what they’re weakest at), it made them feel worse. Without the positive effects and happy brain chemicals released during performing, doing the hard stuff while practicing just for the sake of practice was, well, too hard emotionally.
Most of my students are engaged in rehearsals or performances of some kind ALL YEAR ROUND! Theatre is a sport here in Houston. These kids are fed emotionally, socially, and spiritually, and their little hearts are set into motion to want to practice their skills daily making them competitive to get that lead in the next musical, where they could perform. And performing makes them feel GOOD.
When you have something in your life that you are good at, that you receive praise for, that you feel strong in, you practice that. You engage in that. You breathe that in. You thrive off of that thing. You want to keep going and, yes, even practice to continue those delicious feel-good emotions and happy endorphins that thing provides. The adrenaline and dopamine you get from performing are addictive and motivate you to keep practicing. But accountability can also be a motivator.
When you commit to a show, you commit to every cast member, director, and future audience member that you will practice and put on a good show. That accountability helps to form good practice habits, whether realized or not. One study cited in Psychology Today‘s article, “Why Is It So Hard to Change Bad Habits“, states that, “if you are held accountable to someone else, by committing to someone that you will achieve a goal, then your chance of success is up to 95 percent” (Jaffe).
In March, that all ended abruptly when we were put in quarantine. Now, nearly 6 months later and still without a vaccine (or, at least, an effective treatment) in sight, there’s no known end date to this dry spell in the performing arts. I have been slowly watching a handful of students struggle to find their footing and become so down on themselves the last few months as they feel a few skills slipping that were so hard-earned prior to Covid-19. In short, they’re depressed, and motivation to practice in areas where they need growth is sparse while the normal motivating factors of adrenaline and accountability are missing from their no-longer-active lives.
Here’s the thing: most of us are currently in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. We’re stuck at home, anxious or waiting, with no future plans on the horizon. Our little lizard brains are just trying to keep things afloat, so, for some of us, practicing has taken a major backseat to just trying to get through each day. And—hear me now, because this is important—THAT’S OKAY! There is nothing shameful about surviving. It might sound silly to think that just sitting at home watching Netflix is a coping strategy, but it is, and it’s an effective distraction to how crazy things have gotten.
I remember reading an article a while back called “9 Healthy Ways to Deal with Distress“. One suggestion was to focus on what we do want instead of what we don’t want (Tartakovsky). In other words, we don’t want to be cooped up and quarantined away from our friends and the things that make life worthwhile for us, but we do want to be ready to perform when we get the green light, with solid skills we can be practicing now. However, when we practice, not only are we are supposed to practice what’s already good, but we should primarily focus on improving where we’re weak.
Practicing what you’re weak in DOESN’T FEEL GOOD. After all, we didn’t fall in love with singing and performing for those things we’re weak in; we fell in love with it because we were good at it and because it gave us what many perceive as more value and a purpose. When you finally get stronger in an area, sure, that feels great and can motivate you to continue to practice your weaknesses. But, in the immediate term, analyzing and working on our weaknesses can make us feel incapable, hopeless, and unworthy, and send us into despair when we can’t identify any kind of payoff for what we’re trying to accomplish.
Slowly, our hard work becomes mediocre work and, eventually, no work at all if we become consumed by those negative feelings. If we can muster up the energy to even practice for a moment but not find success after that single practice session, we only solidify the already negative feelings we were having about that weak skill. Now, we’re stuck in a negative cycle that continues to confirm itself: “I can’t do it, why bother even trying?”
This is what the pandemic has done to many of us, no matter if you’re a musician, an athlete, or just a human trying to human. And this just becomes an additional set of roadblocks for those of us who already struggle with mental health. The arts are usually a safe haven for us, where many of us find our voice, feel valued, and feel like we can contribute to society through the stories we tell. The pandemic has thrown gasoline on the fire of our emotional weaknesses, and it isn’t very hard right now for anyone to get stuck in a rut. In isolation, lots of us don’t have access to the thing that was once keeping us motivated through: performance. For others not active in the arts, that might be social gatherings, Sunday brunch with our family, school, travel, concerts—you name it, that list goes on and on.
For a couple of months, I told my students who were struggling to “just sing.” When you’re sad, sing. Happy? Sing. Just sing. Sing to the radio, sing in the shower, sing your favorite show. Anything. Forget our normal, structured practice right now. Just don’t give up singing!!! I added a few virtual performances, online workshops and master classes with professionals—anything that I could think of that would require my students to practice and prepare. And that helps, but it doesn’t address the elephant in the room for my more advanced students: if you’re at the stage in your lessons where you are preparing for college auditions/summer camps/professional auditions, you need to be not “JUST singing” but practicing efficiently in the areas in which you need growth and keeping your stamina up in the areas where you’re already strong.
Of course, no one wants to lose skills, range, or stamina; instead, we want to gain them if we’re hoping to keep going in this business. Theatre won’t wait for us to feel better, so we have to start trying to find our new normal. Live theatre WILL happen again, and, when it does, I want you to be ready to take your place in the spotlight with confidence and a healthy, well-balanced set of skills in your back pocket. The world is going to need the arts, and the world is going to need YOU!
Practicing to strengthen our weaknesses is vulnerable. And hard. And scary. I am also 1,000% talking to myself here. We know on some intellectual level that “practice makes perfect” and that there is an eventual payoff if we keep doing the damn thing. But on an emotional level, when things are already so uncertain, we tend to go into survival mode and shut down when growth isn’t happening fast enough for us. This process is a normal part of being human on any given day. During a pandemic, we’re learning that the negative aspects of that process are amplified. You’re not lazy for not being able to practice in this state. You’re coping. Then we start allowing that inner voice to shame us for all of the perceived failed expectations we have of ourselves. We shame ourselves for not jumping up and practicing those dances from YouTube that we said we would, or memorizing that monologue or song, or not working for 20 minutes today in our weakest vocal register like we were told we should before our next lesson.
Instead of allowing the shame beast to continue this negative cycle, I offer these 6 steps to getting back on track. I’m going to be doing them myself in a few areas of my life, and I hope you’ll do them with me:
- Acknowledge that practicing what you’re not already good at is vulnerable and can feel shitty—ESPECIALLY during these current times. Be present in your body—really present. What feels tense? What feels relaxed? Are you feeling a specific emotion right now? Where does that emotion show up in your body? If it’s stress and frustration, there’s a high probability you can sense some tension in your throat. We don’t use the term “all choked up” for nothing.
- Make a list of your performing strengths. ALL of them. Be specific and detailed. Note how your body feels when you read your strengths. What does pride feel like? Accomplishment? Does your stomach feel light? Arms floaty? Whatever the feeling, it all matters and means something. Write it down.
- Break your plans to practice down into chunks. Make a list of short term goals for today and this week—not everything you need to do by November 1st. Practice in tiny chunks. Accomplish things from your list in chunks. Research in chunks. Whatever it might be, just break it down. Before your practice session, decide what small thing you’re going to troubleshoot today and start there. Doing a little is better than doing nothing.
- Change your self-talk to sound less like shaming/blaming and more like what you might tell a friend who was being way too hard on themselves. This is going to feel really stupid and false at first. That’s ok. Do it anyway.
- Start your practice session with what makes you feel good. Refer back to that list of strengths. Maybe that’s an old monologue or song from a role that you know you rocked! After you feel sufficiently badass again, spend a little while on the hard stuff. Let that time you spend there become a little longer each week until you’re back up to the time you know you need to be spending there. Again, doing a little is better than doing nothing.
- Remind yourself why you started singing in the first place. We love it, right? We GET to do this. It’s a privilege to be able to move our bodies and voices in such a creative manner. Make a list of things you love about singing and all of the ways you think music has changed you. Read your list when you feel crappy about how things are going. Add to the list often.
- If you have old recordings of yourself, go watch them to remind yourself how far you’ve already come. Try to remember what it felt like to be at that stage, wishing you were where you are now. Tell yourself that a year from now you’ll look back and be able to see the same kind of progress again.
I hope it goes without saying that what we’re after with getting into our practice routine is never perfection. Perfection is boring, not to mention unattainable unless you’re a robot. We are all inherently born worthy, talented, beautiful, special, and with a song to sing. The world needs the gifts each of us has to offer. Give yourself some grace and compassion while you BUILD upon your gifts and the strengths that are already there.
An article from Harvard Business listed “A 3-Step Plan for Turning Weaknesses into Strengths“. Even though this is a journal about business, there are still some pretty insightful things about handling our emotions. In the article, it suggests making a plan of action that includes managing the inevitable negative emotions that are bound to arise when looking at where you need growth. The author says:
Simply forcing yourself to attempt a terrifying or uncomfortable behavior is not a success in and of itself; provoking these unpleasant emotions will simply reinforce that this is an act to be avoided. You must seek out tactics you can use to make the unpleasant act more pleasant, or at least manageable. By doing so, you gradually retrain your brain to change its formula for predicting how you’ll feel in your crucial moments.Joseph Grenny
This is where I think looking at old recordings that show the progress you’ve already made can be helpful and hopeful. You’ve already done hard things that you didn’t think you’d be able to in the past, and you can and will again.
Look, this stuff would be difficult anyway, even if we weren’t all locked away in our homes, impatient to get out, impatient to all be better versions of pre-pandemic selves, and impatient to get back on stage telling the stories that we love. How we spend our time right now is possibly more important than ever for far more than just our music practice habits, but also for our personal growth as humans in a community who need each other more than ever. We need your heart. We need your voice. Don’t quit, but do learn to rest.
Lastly, if you find pieces of yourself in these words but feel too stuck to see a way out, I highly encourage you to reach out to a licensed professional. I am a firm believer that everyone needs therapy and there is no shame in needing someone to talk to. It’s okay to not be okay.
Last summer, I was sitting in class at Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method, listening to a lecture on psychological vocal pathologies, when the speech language pathologist said “Consider this, the voice is halfway between our heart and our mind…our voice is our very identity.” For over twenty years, I’ve known this to be true—both personally and professionally—but having it put in such eloquent terms really resonated with me.
In my studio, it is not uncommon for a teen or adult student to begin crying mid-lesson, seemingly without reason, when we find some new vocal freedom or ease, or even when they feel stuck or frustrated. Other times, singing and connecting with the characterization of a song can help to release pent up emotions from the body that a singer may not have felt safe enough to allow themselves to feel outside of performance.
Through the research that I continue to discover, as well as in my own experience with healing my trauma via singing, I have found that there is actually a scientific reason that singing is so emotional: there is a physiological integration of cortical and subcortical structures involved in laryngeal motor control (Christy Ludlow, 2015). In other words, there exists a direct link between the voice and the part of the brain (the amygdala) that controls our nervous system, which includes memory recall and our primitive fight-flight-freeze responses.
What we love, what we hate, and what we fear are all part of our entire systems, and we voice these things often. Don’t we? Our voice trembles when we are afraid. Our pitch goes up when we are excited. We get louder and our tone hardens when we are angry. Our emotions are highly evident within the expression of our voice as part of our identity, and singing is a powerful extension of this phenomenon that is exclusive to us humans.
In addition to the physical and emotional aspects of vocalizing, there is also an abundance of science behind our understanding of social connection in relation to singing. Tribal ceremonies, church services, sporting events, holiday music, singing lullabies to our children, etc., are all examples of the ways in which singing connects us as a group and as a species. You don’t have to be a religious or spiritual person to know that to sing together is to belong to each other while creating an unspoken understanding that existence goes far beyond that which we can see and hear: it’s science. Our respiratory rates and heartbeats actually sync up when we sing together. Singing with others also makes us feel good, releasing dopamine and oxytocin, which increases our sense of bonding with other humans as well as our sense of safety and trust (Stacy Horn, 2013).
I have come to accept the unexpected emotions that sometimes overwhelm my students during lessons as a normal part of my job as a voice teacher. Because of this emotional and bonding connection, the relationship between a student and their voice teacher can be a close and important one. Often, my students feel safe enough to tell me their trauma stories in between working on freeing their instruments. It is incredible to watch a person step into their power and sense of worthiness while working through deep, emotional trauma with something as simple as a vocal exercise or connecting with a character’s experience within a song.
While I am always careful to give space for such students to explore, share, and feel validated, and am honored to be so trusted, I have also learned to recognize when a particular trauma coming to light within a voice lesson is worth referral to a licensed therapist if they do not already see someone on a regular basis. Many people find the strength to finally seek therapy from the unburdening they felt singing in a lesson and I think that’s amazing!
The majority of the emotional work that I do with students involves untangling their own negative beliefs about their singing, most commonly as inflicted by the words and actions of others. I cannot even begin to explain how damaging it is to someone to be told that their singing voice is bad. These negative beliefs can even show up as actual vocal pathology through psychogenic voice disorders, in which people develop muscle tension, raspiness, or a complete inability to phonate without any physical cause. Many such students constantly apologize for the way they sound, and it’s heartbreaking.
Despite the general understanding that telling someone they “suck” is mean, it can be emotionally damaging. Yet there are still those who feel it their “duty” to point out when they think someone else’s voice is not up to snuff. Even the words “Don’t quit your day job” may be enough to silence someone, whether expressed candidly or in jest.
Most of the people doling out such unhelpful advice (incorrectly) believe themselves to be superior vocalists when compared to others. See the definition of Dunning-Kruger effect for an explanation on that. Their verbal judgement is misguided at best and emotionally traumatic at worst. These negative comments are especially damning when coming from teachers, directors, and caregivers that students really look up to for safety and guidance. Students come into lessons so afraid to even open their mouths saying things like:
- “I can’t sing. I don’t know why I’m here.”
- “I’m tone deaf.”
- “I’m always too loud/soft.”
- “My teacher says that Stacy is a better singer than me.”
- “I don’t have any natural talent.”
- “I’ll never be good enough.”
- “I like singing, but I’m horrible.”
- “My high school choir teacher told me to just mouth the words in concerts for 4 years.”
- “My mother told me not to let anyone hear me singing.”
The list of things that people have been told and taken to heart about their singing voice goes on and on, and it makes me angry thinking about the damage I have seen inflicted and the number of times I have sat and cried with a student over the loss they felt when they were silenced. To silence a singing voice is to silence a whole individual, stripping them of their social identity and their God-given rights of belonging and worthiness. This false narrative can spill over into other aspects of someone’s life outside of singing, even to the point where people become fearful of standing up for themselves or voicing ideas in the workplace. In short, they are hearing:
- “You don’t have value.”
- “Just keep everything to yourself.”
- “You don’t belong.”
- “You’re not good enough.”
That last one is the worst of all. One of the most difficult but most beloved parts of my job as a teacher is to deconstruct the lies ingrained from the words and actions of others giving someone back their voice. Nothing brings me greater joy than to see someone learn to love to sing again, with freedom, as the very best version of themselves that they have to offer. It is never mine to give back, but theirs to take back!
No one holds claim over art, creation, and expression. “Play” is vital for mental well-being, and music and singing is the most accessible form of play. We sing in the car, in the shower, in church, at sporting events, at concerts, and so on. We have to stop telling kids and adults to not “quit their day job” when it comes to singing. EVERYONE CAN AND DOES AND SHOULD SING. And everyone deserves the chance to learn, grow, and heal, both from the harmful words of their past as well as from traumatic events, through music’s healing resources.
Singing can be transformative if a safe space is created in which singers may explore the ways in which their voices work. Singing is healing, and even though sometimes healing hurts, trust me when I say that the rewards of getting back out there far outweigh the perceived benefits of stifling creativity to try to armor up against the hurtful words and actions of those who would seek to silence you.
In my studio, I have seen people who were unable to match pitch, and who felt so ashamed and humiliated about how they sounded, gain the confidence and tools needed to go on to major in music in college and have successful careers. And where a career in music was not their aspiration, sometimes it is enough to just feel safe to sing from the hymnal in the congregation again. Natural talent has never been a prerequisite to the success, enjoyment, and healing attributes of vocalization.
So I challenge you, today, to speak to your shame and start singing again. Right now, in your car, in your shower, while you clean your house, while you’re laughing, while you’re crying, SING OUT! Unapologetically. Uninhibitedly. Freely. Music belongs to everyone, allow yourself to remember why you once enjoyed singing in the first place. It’s still in you, and it’s still yours. I promise. You can reclaim your voice and your identity with a little trust and bravery, and if you’re feeling called out for having been one of the people who unintentionally hurt someone by saying something mean, apologize and change your behavior. Let’s all seek betterment and connection through music instead of seeking to isolate, humiliate, or silence.
I know auditioning for college musical theatre programs can be stressful, and have you and your parents pulling their hair out! One way to get a little more organized before heading into the process is by creating an audition chart. An organizational chart is something that can be used by any Junior/Senior high school student preparing to apply to college with a few modifications depending on your major– but for high schoolers preparing to major in musical theatre where auditioning for between 10-30 schools is considered “normal” nowadays, the chart is a necessary tool to help keep you organized during the application and auditioning process. It should be made by YOU, not your parent since you are the one auditioning, but getting help, support, and advice from Mom and Dad about such a huge financial and life decision is always a good idea.
So what exactly IS a college audition chart? Well, before you even begin applying to schools, before you choose your audition repertoire, before you record your preliminary video auditions, and before you begin filling out your Acceptd page, you need a college audition chart. Trust me when I say this will help you keep your head on straight as things begin to run together during your Senior year. I typically suggest that students begin to create this chart at the end of their Junior year.
This chart should list between 10-30 schools you are thinking of auditioning for, and structured according to your skill level and chances of getting into schools. For the sake of this post, lets say you are a highly trained and skilled singer/actress/dancer and there’s a good possibility of your getting into a great program. Your chart should include a handful of top schools called “Reach” a few “Far Reach” schools. A larger grouping of middle tier programs, or “Target” schools, and a handful of “Safety” schools who either don’t have an audition requirement, or have more lax audition requirements and/or accept a larger freshman class. This differentiation is color coded in my chart as red (Reach), blue (Target), and green (Safety).
If you are unsure of who the Reach/Far Reach schools are there are plenty of online lists, but they all vary, and many list schools as a top program that are not in my opinion. Click here if you do want my opinion. 😉
Your list should include the following:
- Preliminary Video Audition Requirements (and fee if applicable)
- Preliminary Video Audition Deadline Date
- Application Deadline Date (and fee)
- Degree type (BFA, BA, or BM) can you double major or add a minor?
Nice to include:
- Which schools on your list will be at National Unifieds/ Moonifieds/ CAP United Auditions/ Greater Houston Area Auditions, etc.
- Which schools you’ll have to travel to if you do get a callback
There is no perfect right or wrong way to go about this process and are many things to consider when you’re looking at potential schools. Things like location, the size of the program, and the type of people you see already attending these schools are definitely things to factor in. What kind of musicals have they done in recent years? Lots of Golden Era or lots of contemporary shows? If you’re not a strong belter, the latter may not be a great fit. This list of things to consider will grow as you do your research. If you’re unsure of a school’s potential fit for you, you can look up clips of past shows on YouTube, use Google Maps to check out what’s in the area, get in touch with a current student of the program to ask some questions, or visit a campus and sit in on some classes or take a trial lesson if available (although it is recommended that you wait until you’re accepted into a program if you have to travel far to visit to save on travel expenses to so many campuses). If you will be attending a consortium audition, look into the lesser known programs in attendance that you will also be auditioning for. You may find some hidden gems in a program you didn’t even know existed, then add them to your list!
Obviously, this list is going to change as you discover information about various programs you may want to include or remove from your list. But this should help you get started and hopefully set you up to be admitted into the program that is perfect for you.
Take a deep breath, and break a leg!
I have seen many lists online for the top BFA programs and they all vary depending on who wrote the lists. Very often the author is a journalist and not necessarily a musical theatre person. So I decided to make my own list. 🙂 This is just my opinion, but I am a director and voice teacher of musical theatre repertoire who prepares a half dozen or more seniors for college auditions every year.
First, lets look at what makes a top school a top school? Mainly, a top school is one where the percentage of college grads that go on to have professional performance careers is high. Other things to consider are things like senior showcase, quality and training of faculty and curriculum, qualities of facilities, selectivity, Alumni support, and performance opportunities. For more information about what criteria makes a top school, checkout OnStage’s blog about Understanding College Rankings.
In no particular order, here are my top 10:
- University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Shenandoah University
- Baldwin Wallace University
- Penn State University
- Elon University
- Pace University
- Otterbein University
- Texas State University- San Marcos
- Florida State University
The above are schools that are seeing 1400+ kids audition and accepting the top 1-3% of those kids, and have the highest rates of graduates going on to perform professionally. There are several other amazing schools that have amazing faculty and amazing opportunities that could also make it into my top list like:
- Coastal Carolina
- Oklahoma University
- University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music (CCM)
- University of Arizona
- University of California- Urvine
- Montclair State
- Texas Christian University
To see how to decide which colleges to audition for and structure your audition list, click here. Break a leg!
“Where do I start when considering musical theatre summer intensives for my teen who is preparing to audition for colleges?”
There are many great summer programs nationwide that offer a variety of training in the skills necessary to prepare for musical theatre college audition season. Attending a summer intensive is of course not a requirement for getting into a good program, but the boarding intensives can definitely help prepare a high schooler for college auditions and for life as a BFA major on a college campus. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Local summer programs:
If your child is a entering 7th-10th grade, check locally to see if your local university has a summer intensive through its theatre department. Ask around to see if anyone has attended their program and see what their experience was like. This might be a good way to save some cash because it’s local, and you might even choose to commute during the 1-3 week intensive. Local schools may also prepare your teen for pricier, more competitive programs that are out of state in future years.
Schools I might want to audition for:
If your teen is already in high school, there are tons of great programs that are offered through college theatre departments to consider. In fact, this can also be a way to get to know a campus and some of its faculty if you are considering auditioning for a school after attending their summer program. Some programs like NYU’s summer program even offer an early admittance/audition option at the end of the intensive. Check the fine print though, because sometimes early admittance means you might have to commit to their school if they offer you a spot. It’s a blessing in that it removes the stress of audition season, but a curse if you are planning to audition for many schools in the hopes of having multiple options.
Fun programs that are more like a summer camp:
French Woods is a program that is more like a typical summer camp for ages 7-18 that offers training in musical theatre without taking away the fun of a childhood summer. They offer swimming, horseback riding, and even classes in circus skills like trapeze and silks!
Higher caliber summer intensives:
Programs that are more competitive like Carnegie Mellon, TPAP, Broadway Theatre Project, Berklee, Interlochen, and Idyllwild offer 1-6 week boarding intensives which provide a full-submersion in training for the teen who is already a fairly well-rounded performer. These programs will help students identify their weaker areas and sharpen acting, singing, and dance skills sending them home as more of a solid triple threat with more of an idea of what to expect for college auditions.
There are of course many more fantastic summer programs that are not listed in this blog. Depending on where you live, there is something perfect for your teen and it doesn’t have to be too far away. Do your best research and ask around to find people who have attended and see if they enjoyed their experience. While not a deal breaker for getting your teen into a great college, attending a summer intensive can provide some of the skills and confidence to know he/she is on the right track as they head into the big competitive world of college musical theatre.
A while back I had a conversation with a director about a student who kept receiving the note to practice at home to perfect something. The student came back week after week doing the same things, frustrated, and the director was getting frustrated as well telling the kid he needed to practice at home. The student happened to be also a private student of mine and once in his lesson he said “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, I keep running this at home.” After further prodding I came to the realization that the student was reinforcing the deemed “incorrect behavior” at home, further sealing his fate to be yelled at in rehearsal for not practicing when in fact he WAS practicing, he just wasn’t practicing in the way that was helping to change the old habits, in this case his posture. Later the director realized he needed to be more clear towards the student about what to be working on at home and all turned out well in the end. But it’s not always that easy.
In this scenario, the student was missing step 1: awareness. The student was confused of what specifically was being asked of him/what he was doing wrong, and the more he practiced at home running his lines, songs, and blocking, the more he solidified his body posturing in the moment. Once we discussed what the issue was and where it stems from (tension and anxiety, more on this in a later post), it became easier for the student to practice effectively at home.
A lot of music teachers and directors teach “practice makes perfect” or “don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” In other words, they believe that you should be running things over and over at home to get them right. I think this is a mistake without addressing quality control in practicing effectively, and us teachers should be teaching you how to practice. It is simply not enough to be running something over and over if what you’re practicing doesn’t include what you’re actively working on in lessons or with your director to better yourself.
If in private lessons you are working to free tension and you take 15 minutes of lesson time stretching the body before you sing or doing vocal exercises before you dive into your pieces, do this at home as well as part of your practice. If in rehearsals you continuously perform a gesture or stance by habit that the director wants done differently, practice with the new intention until it becomes a natural habit you do not have to think about anymore. If you find that you are stuck in rehearsal or lessons and the end goal seems far away ask yourself if what you’re practicing at home is reinforcing the new habits or the old habits, and do not be afraid to ask questions for clarification when you’re unsure of what goal the teacher or director is trying to accomplish. We want you to succeed with our direction because we have your best interest and the show’s best interest at heart, not to mention when we’re working with a group of people we may not always have the time or focus to get really person-specific on how to practice at home, but if you ask, we’ll do our best to help you learn to practice effectively.
Building neural pathways in the brain to create intentional new habits can take 18- 66 days or longer depending on what you’re asking to change. So give yourself some grace and be intentional about what and how you’re practicing to ensure it’s producing the desired outcome.
As we begin audition season, the question I get asked quite often is “what should I wear to my audition?” There is a seemingly simple answer being that your outfit should look and feel like you and reflect your personality. But there are a few basic “rules” you might want to consider as well.
When walking into the audition room you’ll have just a few minutes to showcase who you are both as and as a person and a performer. In addition to your chosen music, your outfit should reflect your everyday style and personality without being too casual, or too dressy. Are you eclectic, preppy, vintage, grungy, trendy, a little bit country, or a little bit rock n’ roll? Don’t be afraid to show that. You also need to choose an outfit that is flattering to your shape, that you feel confident in, and move well in for your singing audition. If you have a sweater you like to wear over your dress, consider adding a belt to pull in the waist. Choosing shoes that are too high or super short mini skirts where you can’t bend over if you drop something or where you haven’t spent extensive time walking and SINGING in isn’t recommended. There’s actually a really great study here about how the height of women’s shoes affect head positioning/vocal tract and how that can affect singing. (Spoiler alert: high heels are not great for high belting)
Look for patterns, accessories, and colors that are unique to you and catch your eye. Basic black can still be really cute if you have accessories to really make it pop, like funky shoes and a scarf. If you love cats and find a cute pair of cat earrings go for it…but maybe save the dress with a giant print of your own cat’s face on it for another day. 😜 Your makeup can be like your daily wear or a tad heavier than your everyday wear, but your hair should be away from your face if possible. Pinning or “bumping” your bangs away from your face might be a good idea if your song’s blocking means you’re going to be messing with your hair a lot or have hair falling in your face detracting from the emotion of your piece.
Don’t neglect your creativity in your dance auditions outfit, either. The dance audition panel especially needs to see your body shape here and how well you move through the outfit you choose. A little color here goes a long way, nothing too crazy or fancy, just form fitting with clean lines.
Guys, these rules also apply to you! Show them who you are in your style. Corduroy, jeans with dress shoes, pops of color in your slacks, sweaters, vests, bow ties, ties, rolled sleeves, sports coats, and scarves are all perfect for those winter auditions in cold states. You can show more creativity that just slacks and a button up.
Also keeping in mind that you’ll be traveling to multiple states during auditions and layering will most likely be necessary unless you decide to have a cold weather audition outfit and a warm weather audition outfit. Here is a link to my Pinterest Board showing some examples that might help you get started in choosing something that feels right. Just remember to have fun when choosing outfits, and ask your style savvy friends or your Mama to come shopping with you when you need help. And, as always, BREAK A LEG in your auditions!
So you want to major in musical theatre. Congratulations! You are embarking on one of the most competitive college audition experiences there is. Going into the arts is not for the faint of heart, but you already know that from your experiences in the rehearsal hall and on stage. But fear not! Despite the idea of the “starving artist,” you’re going to be ok, and you will not end up living in a box under a bridge. You will find your way.
Everyone enjoys and consumes some form of art on a daily basis. Music, literature, media, tv, the big screen—hell, even the news. The world needs artists. I’m not saying that it won’t be hard and, at times, frustrating to be an artist after graduation, but I am saying that it’s hard and frustrating at times no matter what profession you choose. The world will always need artists to make day-to-day life a little less crappy and a lot more beautiful. So tell your Grandpa that it’s going to be ok and that there are worthwhile professions outside of law or medicine. Then remind him that those actors he loves to watch on Matlock probably have degrees in fine arts as well. 😉
A few times a year I am honored to be asked to remove my private voice teacher hat and don the hat of a musical director for local community theatre and high school musicals. One of the questions I get asked frequently by my theatre students is “what should I be looking for in a private teacher if I want to pursue musical theatre?” I usually provide them with a short list of names of very accomplished voice teachers of musical theatre repertoire in their area as well as an often lengthy answer to their question. While I am familiar with a handful of amazing local teachers, I know there are other great teachers out there that may be more centrally located to where a student lives. After all, here in Houston it can take more than 90 minutes to drive from one side of the city to the other.
One of the most critical things to know—especially for parents of kids gearing up for college auditions—is that anyone can teach voice privately. Just because someone sings well does not necessarily mean they’ll teach well. Anyone can decide to teach voice with or without pedagogical training, with or without the ability to sing in the styles that they are teaching, with or without knowledge of what the college audition process entails for various degree programs and genres of music, and with or without reading music, playing the piano, or having a basic understanding of how the voice even works.
This can be a little scary since we want to make sure that the person we are paying to help us is the best person for the job. Hopefully, your new teacher can direct you to his/her website, social media page, etc., so you can read about his or her background before feeling like you need to ask a million questions that might make you feel like you’re being crazy. But remember, these next few years are crucial to your growth towards reaching your goals, so a bit of intense scrutiny up front might be a good thing! To this end, I have assembled a few questions to ask future teachers to help you along your way:
1) What styles of musical theatre do you sing and teach in?
There are many styles of musical theatre, from the classical/legit musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein to the contemporary/rock styles in musicals like Next to Normal or jukebox musicals like American Idiot. Musical theatre is trending more and more towards rock styles these days, and the truth is, you should be learning ALL of those styles from legit to rock, and your teacher should be able to sing and demonstrate healthy sounds in each of those styles as well.
2) What’s your past experience with musical theatre?
It may seem like the answer to this question would be obvious, but you might be surprised by how many voice teachers are really choreographers or pianists looking to earn additional income by adding voice lessons to their list of offerings. Furthermore, just because a teacher has a background in singing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have ever been in a musical. Conversely, a teacher can also be fantastic and knowledgeable without ever having had any professional or regional stage credits especially if they have invested time in continuing to study vocal pedagogy.
3) What are your thoughts on belting vs. “legit” singing?
There’s an ongoing debate in the singing community that stems from the “folklore” of classical styles that has been passed down through generations: “belt is bad.” The truth is that, in order to be competitive while auditioning for musical theatre, your chances of getting into a great program increase when you’re able sing in BOTH styles.
Science and experience dictate the “belt is bad” myth simply is not true. The body is designed to do it all and to do it healthily. If your teacher is going to be helping you audition for college musical theatre programs, she needs to understand that fact and be willing to help you, not just allow you to belt songs outside of lessons. There is too much that can go wrong without proper functional training, and that goes for classical singing as well as contemporary belting. Bad technique is bad technique. You need to be working on chest voice AND head voice for all styles of singing.
We spend the bulk of our performance time in some kind of mix (chest-heavy contemporary mix or head-heavy classical mix and everything in between), so you need both even if you don’t think you do. Look to the research of Dr. Scott McCoy, Robert Edwin, and Jeanie LoVetri if you are interested in learning the proven science behind this.
4) What schools/degree programs have your former students gotten into, and do any past students perform now for a living?
The answer to this question may vary greatly, but it’s still valid. For instance, a young teacher with great performance experience might not yet have any students on Broadway but could still be a good teacher who can assist students in getting into great programs. If a teacher has been teaching for 30+ years, she will probably be able to easily answer this question with some great BFA and BA programs that her students have gotten into, and she’s sure to have some former students who are successful. If she doesn’t, she might not be who you are looking for.
5) Do you have any outside certifications or have you attended any workshops after you graduated college?
Again, answering “no” to this question doesn’t mean they are a bad teacher. There are many styles and methods represented on Broadway today, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to singing. But knowing a teacher has attended an outside workshop might mean they are interested in pursuing and updating their techniques for the betterment of their students. Some popular methods are: Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method, CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais MethodⓇ, Bel Canto Can Belto, Estill Voice Training™, and the list can go on.
6) Should I use an audition coach?
Yes! There are a number of reputable companies that offer fantastic coaching sessions with theatre and acting teachers nationwide. Do your research, and make sure you’re investing in a company that has knowledgeable, experienced staff and isn’t just trying to turn a profit. Companies here in Texas like College Audition Coach (who run the “Moonified” college auditions) can help you pick repertoire if your teacher is not yet well-versed in musical theatre. They’ll help you polish the performance side of your audition music by working in Skype sessions online, sometimes with the staff of the actual college programs you may be applying to. It’s always a good idea to have an extra set of eyes and ears to help you be the best that you can be before you set off into the scary, crowded world of college auditions.
7) Lastly, ask other successful musical theatre singers around you who they study with and check these questions with them.
In the end, reputation is everything. Your teacher doesn’t have to have the entire cast of Dear Evan Hansen on her list of former students to be helpful to you, but they should be well-versed in functional vocal training and be someone that you know you can trust with the growth and health of your instrument—someone that you know cares about what happens to you, emotionally and vocally, both in lessons and during the audition process.
A good, knowledgeable, and loving teacher can take you a long way. Finding a good teacher to help you improve and get you college-ready can be a lot like dating, so don’t be afraid to try out different teachers if you’re finding that you aren’t growing vocally. Just be sure you are kind and honest as you go about the switch to a new studio.
And, above all, don’t forget why you fell in love with this crazy theatre thing. Have fun, work hard, connect with people, and make a difference.