In addition to giving singing lessons for kids and adults in Marin, I also love children’s theater. I’ve been involved in the Ross Valley Schools’ YES program as a music director for more than 10 years, shifting from one school to another with a variety of talented directors and choreographers that make up the “creative teams.” I also music direct at many private schools in the area. It’s always very exciting for children to be part of these productions, some starting as early as 3rd grade and acting in them until they go off to high school. However, shows, with their sometimes-intimidating auditions and subsequent casting, can bring up strong feelings, both of elation if the child gets the part he or she wants and deep hurt if not.
What exactly goes on in these musical auditions? First, I usually spend a few sessions providing singing lessons (i.e. teaching the kids a portion of a song from the show): This fall’s show is “Shrek Jr.” so I picked a little bit of “The Travel Song” that Donkey sings. I chose it because not only is it vocally rangy and tricky, but it gives a child the opportunity to show his or her personality. In the pre-audition “workshops” we talk about what qualities make up good singing and a successful audition. The kids almost always know: singing on the pitch; singing out so that “your grandma in the back of the hall with the hearing aid can hear you.” I always kid that if I got a quarter for every time a director told the actors “I can’t hear you!” I’d be a rich woman! We also talk about rhythm, the text (I always forget that very young children’s vocabulary is limited), and the characters’ personalities. I also always share vocal technique, such as “the tip of the tongue’s ‘home base’ is relaxed behind the bottom teeth” and explore resonance and vocal support. Then we learn the song and I have them sing it in groups, duets, and trios.
Children seem to fall into certain categories during auditions. Some can’t wait to get up there and sing by themselves. Others enthusiastically want to sing with a friend. And then there are those who really don’t want to sing at all but will suffer through. Those who ask to sing with a friend will also often ask if that means they won’t get a good part. Well, are you afraid of singing by yourself? If yes, then I tell them that it will probably mean that when we cast, that child will probably be singing in group and not a solo. Often, though, once we are in rehearsal, I try to pull out solo lines where they don’t exist in the score so that someone might grow into a solo moment. You’d be surprised how often children don’t want to sing by themselves but when they start getting more comfortable they change their mind. As I’m auditioning the singers, the director is working with “sides” (spoken parts of the script) and the choreographer is teaching a dance to see how the children move.
I have a 1 to 5 rating system in auditions, where 5 is a very strong singer and 1 is someone who can’t match pitch. I’ve never given anyone a 1 but there have been some 2’s. Usually 3’s are children with very soft, breathy, sweet voices – often 3rd graders. 4’s have more resonance. Some children, especially boys, don’t recognize they are “talking” rather than singing or have a very limited range (not knowing how to access higher notes.) Then I take notes about overall physical energy, bravery and personality, which often go a long way to moving from a 3 to a 4.
Casting isn’t easy. As in any adult show, we try to put the best little actor into the bigger parts. We always double-cast. However, as a team we must come to an agreement about talent. One child may be a strong singer but not a strong actor or dancer. Depending on the role, perhaps one can be weaker in one area than another and still get a plum role. And, of course, there are some kids who are just “triple threats,” great singers/actors/dancers, shoe-ins for lead roles.
Some directors have very specific feelings about casting the older children in the leads, even if they aren’t as strong as the younger ones. For instance, a 5th grader would take precedence over a 3rd grader because the 3rd grader would have two more years to take a lead role. Other directors say the best performer gets the part, no matter his grade. I tend to lean toward the latter. We also cross genders – usually there are a dearth of boys, so girls will be cast in traditionally male roles. (I have yet to see the other way around!) I love looking at different possibilities in terms of casting – a female Lord Farquaad, for instance. Also, my ear often tells me “this child has more sound in him” and we gamble that he or she will grow when we give him or her a bigger part.
I know from my own performance experience that we don’t always get the part we want. And it can hit your ego hard. And, with kids who are emotionally vulnerable, not getting a lead can mean very bruised feelings. No matter how much we use the famous quote “there are no small parts, just small actors,” and that every part is important to the play, the truth is that kids will build their “specialness” on the part they get. They are also going to count lines and feel bad if they don’t have a lot. We always remind them that they will be in many numbers they don’t know about, dancing and singing, and that the director often throws in surprise “bits.” Some directors will even write in a scene for those who have less featured roles. That way everyone has a moment to shine.
I feel it’s important for the creative team and parents to reinforce the child’s value as a person rather than an actor. One thing I’ve learned through the years is that no matter how many shows you do, how many kudos you receive for your talent, it doesn’t make you who you are. Shows are fun, a place to practice your craft. They are meant to fill us with joy rather than to fill a void in our self-esteem. Of course, as a child sticks with it, being in theater becomes a part of their regular activities and does make one “special” around one’s friends. It might even ignite interest in theater as a career. However, it’s essential that we nurture a child’s true self in every show. We also acknowledge when she feels bad about not getting the part she wants, cheering him on when he does a good job singing his solo and always, always being encouraging and kind. One of the joys I experience, both as a children’s musical director and one who gives children’s voice lessons, is seeing a shy, withdrawn child open up and years later take the stage like a pro.