Scenes from a competition

Earlier in the week,  I was honored to be asked to adjudicate the annual Fielder Grant Vocal Competition, sponsored by Austin's own Wednesday Morning Music Club.This is a women's organization, founded in 1923 and going strong ever since. Their members are active performers themselves --- a few of them have been my students from time to time, and back in the day I sang as a fellow chorister with several of them at Austin Lyric Opera.  They do a great deal to promote music and help American artists. The vocal competition is named in honor of Bonnie Fielder, a local doyenne of the arts who lived a very colorful life and did much to both indirectly and directly support the arts and artists.

I was further honored and somewhat confused to find myself in ritzy company, as my fellow judges were international star soprano Ruth Ann Swenson (who is currently teaching at the University of Texas here in Austin),  and Joe Specter (the new General Director of Austin Lyric Opera). I have no idea how I got  invited to be part of such a lofty assemblage!

Adjudicating is great because not only do you get to hear a diverse pack of talent and often some wonderful, previously unfamiliar repertoire  --- free concert! --- but it's simply invaluable to a performer to observe other performers under this very peculiar and specific form of pressure.  It also drives home how very subjective this art form is.

We heard six excellent young finalists, chosen from a preliminary group of fourteen. Every one of them had an instrument worthy of advanced training; every one had good basic training; every one had stage presence and poise; every one had career potential.  Interestingly, there was only one person whose performance all three judges agreed was outstanding; and this young man won the first prize. We were so far apart on the placement of the other singers, each of us valuing different aspects above others, that finally we agreed to agree on what we could agree on --- that all six singers deserved encouragement. We suggested to the committee that they divide the remaining prize money evenly among the remaining five candidates, and this was done. Unconventional, but I think an equitable solution. It's also very important to realize that we heard these folks for the first time, singing two pieces. Our impressions were based on how each of these artists sang THAT DAY; and thus it's not to be taken as an overview of anyone's career, work, or potential. But that's the way competitions, and auditions in general, work.

It would be unfair of me to publicize any sort of critique, but here are some general impressions that I took away from the competition. They aren't new ideas, but this experience reinforced them.

Spend time figuring out what the best parts of your voice are and what arias REALLY show those off. Anyone who knows voices can tell in the first phrase whether you have a good voice or not, and whether you know how to use it. Don't audition with something that does NOT show off your voice. Don't audition with something you can't nail, every single time, every single note; and especially don't start your audition with a piece that isn't completely within your current power even on days when you're not at your best.

Speaking of which, if you are sick, or your voice is otherwise not at its best, and you choose to audition anyway, you cannot expect the adjudicators to take this into consideration. You are being judged on how you sing that day. Yes, chances are, the judges will know that you are sick; but they can only guess at what you'd sound like if you were at the top of your game. So if you do sing when you're under the weather, you better make damn sure you've picked pieces that sound great in the parts of your voice that are working. If your voice is husky in the middle and you can't get it to focus properly, don't sing an aria that begins in your middle voice.  If your breath support is shot that day, don't sing something that requires long, effortless, soaring lines.

Don't act. BE. Instead of focusing on "bits", mugging, getting laughs at any cost, take the time to find out who your character really is and what she wants and what she is doing right now, and make her into a REAL PERSON.  Then show us a slice of her life. Look, people aren't funny or sexy or threatening because they are ACTING funny or sexy or threatening. You can always tell when it's an act. Something's always off; it's just not true. Sexy people are sexy because they know and believe in who they are, down to their toes. Funny people are funny because of how they see life, and how they share it with others. Threatening people are threatening because they mean you harm.  Still not sure what I'm talking about? Watch this video.

While we're on the subject of acting and interpretation, find the levels of emotion in every piece. I promise you that a sad aria is not sad --- or at least not the same degree of sad --- from start to finish. That's boring. And that's not how the thought process works. Your job as an actor is to make your aria seem spontaneous and real.

Your audition is a kind of performance, and it starts the moment you are visible to the audience. If you're introducing yourself or your piece, be sure you practice that part, too, so you remain poised and in control. Don't distract your listeners from the singing performance you're about to delight us with by becoming self-conscious and awkward while speaking.  Plan what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. Practice your diction.

Don't sweat the small stuff. Young singers often make the mistake of believing that adjudicators are ticking off points, like teachers on an exam, for every little mistake.  Not at all! What's most important is the big picture. Certainly, if there is a major technical flaw, it is going to affect the overall performance; but that doesn't mean that your musicality or inherent vocal beauty or dramatic skill won't be noted and appreciated. While there are certain moments that make or break certain arias,  performances are not only about moments;  and you can win an audience over with a stellar overall performance despite little flaws. The trick is in how you handle them.

Last but not least, remember that your goal in singing should not be to impress people. If that's your goal, you will only succeed in trying to be impressive, and that is selfish. When you step in front of an audience, whether it is for an audition, a competition, or a paid gig, your goal should be to entertain; to communicate, to move in some way. If you can do those things, no matter what flaws you may still have in your technique or in your overall package, you will certainly make an impression.