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Do's and Don'ts of Preparing Sheet Music for Musical Theater Auditions

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

For musical theater auditions, singers are usually asked to bring 16- or 32- bar (measure) cuts, rather than entire songs. The more easily readable your music is for the accompanist, the less likely you are to have any unfortunate upsets coming from the piano which might throw you off. Careful sheet music prep is crucial for successful musical theater auditions.

Having played for auditions myself, I have been amazed at how many singers bring sheet music that is poorly marked or incorrectly prepared to professional auditions.

Here are some of the BIGGEST NO-NO's:

Music in the wrong key. Ideally, you should be singing songs in their original key for most auditions, especially when singing anything from the classic musical theater repertoire. But in cases where it's acceptable to use an alternate key, do your homework and find the music printed in the key you desire. With all the online sheet music resources available today, it's easier than ever to accomplish this.

Don't ever expect an accompanist to transpose (change the key) on the spot for you! Not only is this completely unacceptable, but you are taking a huge risk that the accompanist can pull it off. Many fine accompanists who can play practically anything put in front of them are not adept at instantaneous transposition, especially for a song they don't already know. Even if you've crossed out the chord symbols and written out the new ones, this is NOT acceptable.

Below is an example of 2 TABOOS for auditions -lead sheet notation AND key transposition.

lead sheet for You'll Never Walk Alone

Lead sheet notation. This is when only the vocal line is notated (as in the example above) with chord symbols placed above, rather than having the full piano part (bass and treble clef) written out. While there are plenty of pianists out there who can read this (mostly jazz musicians), musical theater accompanists are NOT happy when you bring this to an audition. Lead sheet notation requires that the accompanist make up the accompaniment on the fly, and if they are not familiar with your song, you are taking a leap of faith when you ask them to do so. Provide the accompanist with music that has the piano part completely written out - in treble and bass clef.

Music that is illegible - whether blurry (because it's been copied over and over), faded, print that is too small, missing or spotty staff lines, or poorly cut-and-pasted measures that jump around on the page - all these are landmines waiting to explode in your audition because you're asking the accompanist to do the impossible. Again, music is so readily available online these days that there's no reason to come with anything other than clear, easy to read scores.

Music with no tempo, dynamic or style markings. You should assume that the accompanist doesn't know your song and give them as much information as possible. The tempo is of particular importance. Turning a ballad into an up-tempo (or vice-versa) is not something you want to happen in your audition. Also, if you are planning to sing softly in certain passages for effect, you don't want the accompaniment to drown you out. Or if the score calls for a big belt and the accompanist is playing softly, you may not feel supported by the accompaniment at that point. These are reasons to ensure the dynamic markings are included. The style of the piece is important for the accompanist to understand as well. Imagine you are trying to sing something with a Bossa Nova feel, but your sheet music doesn't indicate any style, so the accompanist plays it straight. Right off the bat, you would be thrown, and your audition would suffer.

Poorly marked directions - 1st/2nd endings, repeats (which you usually shouldn't do anyway in an audition), D.S., Coda, etc. - all these can get you into trouble. If your cut requires jumping around from one section to another or repeating sections, it's better to just re-print the music for the accompanist so they don't have to turn pages back and forth at precisely the right measure.

Big sections that are crossed out. If you are cutting more than a few measures on a page, do some clean cutting, pasting and re-printing if necessary so that the accompanist doesn't have to hunt for the next measure to play.

Music in a bound book - whether it be an Anthology, Vocal Selections, or the entire score (heaven forbid), think about the accompanist trying to manage a book that wants to close or fall into his/her lap. I don’t encourage anyone to break any copyright laws, and with all the online resources for purchasing sheet music, there's no need to. Get your legal copy online and print it at home.

Now for some things you SHOULD DO:

1. Make page turns easy.

There are several ways to accomplish this. First, if your song is only 2 pages, print them on 2 separate pages, then 3- hole punch them so that they are facing each other, and place in a 3-ring binder. That way, when the binder is open, the pages are both visible at once and no page turning is necessary.

If you have 3 pages, you can do the same thing, but tape the 3rd page to the 2nd page using clear tape so that it will open up, and unfold it as you place it in front of the accompanist. (All 3 pages will be visible at once.) For 4 or more pages, print on both sides of the page and put them in a 3-ring binder but fold back the bottom right corners of the pages so they are more easily turned. Don't use staples when putting two sheets of music together back to back. Either print the music on both sides of the paper or tape the pages back-to-back using clear tape.

Some pianists like page protectors, and some don't, but if you use them, make sure you get the non-glare type to prevent an annoying reflection from the light in the room.

2. Use a highlighter pen to indicate the following:

  • Accompaniment intro and where the vocal line begins. Two to four measures of intro is usually sufficient. You only get 30 to 60 seconds, so every beat is precious time.

  • Tempo markings - The starting tempo (speed) should either be indicated with a tempo term, or for more specificity, a metronome marking. "MM=60", for example, indicates 60 beats per minute (1 beat per second). If you don't have a metronome, get one of the free metronome apps. Any changes in tempo should also be indicated at the point in the music where it occurs.

And while we are on the topic of indicating tempo for the accompanist, NEVER snap, clap, or tap the tempo for an accompanist. You are in close proximity when doing so, and it is considered very rude and obtrusive. Instead, lightly sing a little bit of the first phrase or two. If more is needed, the accompanist will ask.

  • Modulations (changes in key) & meter (time signature) changes

  • Breath marks and notes you may hold a bit longer than notated - lets the accompanist know where they may need to wait for you if necessary.

  • Dynamic markings (desired changes in accompaniment volume)

  • Directional markings - D.S., Repeats, 1st/2nd endings, CODA, etc.

If any of these important guideposts occur just before or after a page turn, it's even MORE important that they be highlighted, and you may even want to draw attention to them when you first give your music to the accompanist, just to make sure they don't miss them.

3. Write the song and show title as well as the composer's name(s) on the top of the first page for the accompanist when you are singing a cut.

The accompanist may not recognize the song right away, especially when only given a 16-32 bar cut that may start in the middle of the song, but if they know the show or the composer, they will have a better chance of playing the song in the appropriate style and tempo right off the bat.

4. Remove any superfluous markings in the music.

If you've used this copy for your own rehearsal and made notes on the character, subtext, blocking, choreography, etc., the accompanist doesn't need these and they can be a distraction. Provide a clean copy with only the things mentioned above that are necessary.

5. Check to see that all piano notes are visible on the bottom, top and sides of the pages.

Sheet music is usually larger than 8x10, so it must be reduced to fit when copying. And make sure all your pages are put together in the correct order!

6. Get familiar with the piano accompaniment on your sheet music, and make sure you know how it will sound.

You need to know what to expect from the accompanist so you'll know when to enter, how to find your first pitch from the accompaniment, how long certain notes will be held, where you'll have a chance to breathe, etc.. So many people practice with tracks at home instead of the sheet music they'll be using at auditions, which is fine as long as the track you're using is exactly like your sheet music, but most often, it is not. So get someone to play the sheet music accompaniment for you so you can practice with it ahead of time.

7. Be sure your name, email address and cell phone number are printed in or on your 3-ring binder.

You'd be surprised how many people accidentally leave their music behind in auditions. And as hard as you work to build your book, you'll definitely want to get it back!

Lori Moran and her colleagues at Lori Moran Music have coached hundreds of students who have gone on to star on Broadway, in national tours, film, television, commercials and concert stages. If you are seeking guidance in audition preparation, contact any of our voice teachers.

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