Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Pianists at Auditions

Having an exceptional and committed pianist is so important to the perception that a singer will bring to an audition. Yet why do so many pianists not take this kind of work seriously? Susan Eichhorn's latest take on auditioning is worth a look, especially for the care and commitment she asks for which needs to come from both singer and pianist:
If you call yourself an audition pianist then you need to know the repertoire.  Period.  You need to be an excellent not competent, sight reader.  You need a fantastic sense of time and rhythmic pocket.  You need to know how to re-organize the repertoire - what to play and what to leave out - to support that singer.  You are not auditioning - the singer is.  You need to support that singer.  They are nervous.  You need to given respect,  AND GIVE IT BACK.  Your attitude needs to be checked... 
...Singers - BE PREPARED.  It is up to you to be so prepared for that audition, that even if things de-rail you can make it work!  Again,  singers who are under-prepared will often play the blame-game.  Stop it.  Prepare!  Don't think by learning that cut the day before will allow you to nail it.  It won't.  If the first thing you do is blame the pianist and not look at your own preparation,  you need to really rethink what you are doing.  Again,  if the attitude is larger than the talent, the craft or the preparation, perhaps it's time to sit down and have a reality check.
Of course, the number of pianists who don't take audition playing seriously is often matched by the number of singers who don't do their preparation and recon work prior to auditioning. I've noticed that singers who take the time to either rehearse with me or discuss relevant cuts, marking them in their painstakingly organized scores, often sing at a higher level of preparation and artistry on audition day than the ones who haphazardly toss me messy photocopies as we walk into the room.

Singers and pianists: what are your best practices for auditions?


  1. Anonymous12:19 PM

    Unless one has perfect sight reading skills, AND an uncanny ability to read minds, it is important to know when to say "No." Especially for obscure arias, if you don't know it/don't have the time to prepare it, let the singer to find a coach who HAS played it and can relay the sensitivity and technical execution needed. There will inevitably be a time and place in the future - with ample amounts of prep time - to revisit and accompany that particular aria in an audition.
    Furthermore, it is important for the singer to know when "NOT" to audition. If they are not musically ready, it is a nightmare for the pianist, and the best interests of the singer is at the hands of their own anxiety. Never leave the first (or first two or three) auditions as your "trial runs" of the season. Always go in readily prepared - coaches and teachers alike are out there to help singers reach that level. Your first impression might be THE ONLY impression!

    1. Great comment, Anonymous. The difficult part about pianists saying no to difficult arias is when you're the house pianist. Your last sentence could not be more true.

  2. I've read Eichhorn's article and I felt compelled to respond. I love this blog and it's a great place to discuss playing auditions from a pianist's perspective. So here is my response to her article, and I hope others will also share their opinions:

    There's a strange thing about collaborative piano in a university environment: when you are in school playing for singers, you play mostly repertoire that student singers are learning. For opera, that means a lot of Mozart and light lyric soprano arias. When you transition to the professional world, you are suddenly faced with MUCH different repertoire--the larger Verdi rep, Strauss, Wagner, and tons of obscure French pieces. Since it is unlikely that you ever encountered this repertoire in school, there are only two ways to learn it:
    1). Personal study: listening to recordings, sitting down with scores, running surtitles, practicing.
    2). Take every gig and opportunity that comes your way, pretend you know what you are doing, do your best, and learn through experience.

    I think you really need to do both to be successful.

    I do NOT "call myself an audition pianist." BUT sometimes I get called to play auditions. And when I do, I never say "I'm sorry, I don't know the repertoire that well and I'm just not good enough. You can probably find someone better." Instead, I ALWAYS take the gig. First of all, I can use the money. But far more importantly, I can use the EXPERIENCE. Playing auditions is a crash course in repertoire. You get to hear different singers sing the same arias with a wide variety of tempi and stylistic choices. Your sight-reading will improve. You develop your own opinions about vocal color and characterization and style that end up becoming extremely useful later on.

    1. Thanks, CS. That's a great attitude to take.

  3. It seems selfish to use auditions as a learning opportunity at the singers' expense, but I cannot think of a better way for a young pianist to gain experience. All those little things--like when to follow a singer into a new tempo, and when to keep a steady tempo while the singer does his/her thing, with the confidence that the two of you will end up beautifully together at the end of the phrase--are things you cannot possibly learn through solitary practice. Also, I'm not doing the singers any favors by turning down the gig, as there is no guarantee that whoever they end up getting will be any better than I am.

    And as far as preparation goes, preparing to play vocal auditions is a little like preparing to visit a foreign country by buying a language book the week before your trip. If you don't already know SOMETHING, it is unlikely to be useful, and even if you do already know something, its usefulness is still limited. Even, for instance, if you ask for the rep sheets ahead of time. Say you are playing 20 auditions, and each singer has 5 potential arias ready to go. Of those arias, there are 20 that you have never even heard of. There are another 20 that you are familiar with, but need to review. There are any number of singers who don't send their rep lists at all, or who send it at the last minute when you don't have time to get to it. There are conductors who ask for things that aren't on the "official" rep list, but that the singer knows and is prepared to sing. Basically, there is no way to learn all this music unless you have a Time-Turner like Hermione in the 3rd Harry Potter book.

    So you go in there and do your best. When I don't know an aria, I try to be honest about it, and ask the singer for the tempo. I look through for any tempo changes I should anticipate. Then I do my best to play with as much rhythmic clarity as possible and to provide at least a harmonic framework (even if I'm not playing all the notes). It is always easier if the singer has marked cuts and tempo changes clearly. I especially like it when they mark all those little rubatos that are so common in the Verdi and bel canto rep. If you haven't played or listened to a particular aria in awhile, you might forget they are coming up and it's nice to have the reminder.

    To respond to Susan Eichhorn's question "who is that pianist in the room?" the answer is: someone like me. You know all those "marvelous, exceptional and brilliant pianists out there" the ones that you wish were playing your auditions? Yeah, well those highly trained and experienced pianists would not exist today if some conductor or artistic administrator had not taken a chance and asked THEM to play auditions, back when THEY were young and just learning the repertoire. No small number of those "marvelous, exceptional and brilliant" pianists are now sitting on the other side of the audition table as conductors, giving the same opportunities and encouragement and mentoring to young pianists that they received when they were at that early stage in their careers.

    I apologize to all singers out there--past, present, and future--for all the wrong notes and wrong tempi I have played, or will play, in your auditions. But the fact is that playing auditions is a valuable part of the training process for young pianists. For my own sake, and for the sake of future pianists who come after me, I hope this system doesn't change anytime soon.

  4. Anonymous8:24 AM


    I have read the different comments that pianist have put… so here goes one singer with some auditions already done and some ahead (I hope!!)

    Well I have played in different auditions with different pianist and quite often without time to rehearse before and I have encountered good ones and awful ones as well.

    I always bring my scores folded, marked and with all the things that I think important while studying it clearly written, and then I also ask my coach if he/she understands all the marks or would he/she put it differently… so I think my work is, generally, well done.

    When the audition times arrives we are nervous and lots of things can go wrong everything depends on that very minute that you get to show how good you are and that you are their best choice…. Ehem! No pressure at all… but we also know that a great deal depends on how the pianists plays and how he/she follows what you are doing and I think that’s what makes the difference.

    In my experience the best pianists which have helped me in an audition are the ones that follows the singer. I have played, lots of times, music that the pianist has never played or seen before but they where there trying their best to help me and even at the cost of an nice performance for them. Sorry but I really appreciate that because those 10 minutes are mine!

    The worst auditions pianists that I ever have encountered where playing alone, the audition was theirs and they never looked or listened at what I was doing, tempo? Their own, cadenza (even noted)? No thanks!..

    So I don’t care if the pianist who plays in my audition is the best sight reader over the entire world, if he plays alone It doesn’t work for us! The one that leaves some notes unplayed but try to help you and is there listening and changing as necessary is the good one! Sorry guys but we are musicians so make music!

    P.S. Please forgive my English!!!

    1. Thanks for the amazing comment, Anonymous!