How to Do Your Best in a Singing Competition: Advice from a Judge
Note: This is the first of a 2-part series which explains judges’ framework for auditioning singers. Additional useful strategies and tips for successful auditioning will appear in the second installment of the series.
We see many shows on TV with singers being evaluated by panels of judges. Maybe you are preparing to enter a singing competition or to audition for a show, or for college admissions and scholarships. Did you ever wonder exactly what is involved in properly evaluating a singer’s performance? Though we’d like to think the process is objective, many judges rely on their own musical experience, basing their score on how they feel about the singer. It is nonetheless possible to judge singing on a more objective basis. Understanding what the judges are looking for, and how they typically make decisions about contestants, will give you an edge as you prepare your audition.
As an audition team member and coach who has auditioned thousands of singers, I will share with you a precisely calibrated method used for judging singers. While it is impossible to be 100% objective in judging a performance (judges are influenced by what they do and don’t like), it is possible to bring a measure of objectivity to the audition process. This information should be helpful to singers and their coaches, or anyone who might be asked to formally judge singers’ performances. In the second part of this 2-part series, I’ll offer some more useful singing and auditioning strategies and advice.
Criteria for Evaluation. What are the Standards?
We will first consider the criteria used for evaluation by the audition judges, and then describe the various aspects of vocal performance typically judged. The judges try to apply the criteria as consistently as possible, through use of a rating scale to fairly and impartially judge singers. The process is designed to be as neutral and impersonal as possible.
For the rating scale we generally always use numbers. All judges on the team need to understand the scale and calibrate their thinking around it. We will call this scale the “assessment standards” or “standards for evaluation.” The usual scale is from 1 to 5. This standard rating scale will work for evaluating any kind of audition or performance:
- 5 Points: outstanding, excellent, superior, of a professional level
- 4 Points: very good, better than average, but not quite excellent
- 3 Points: average, acceptable, some deficiencies or noticeable flaws
- 2 Points: needs work, some serious deficiencies
- 1 Point: poor, unacceptable, shows serious lack of preparation or ability
Realistically, we will almost never give a score of 1. Most performers will be reasonably prepared, and if there is some initial screening process we shouldn’t have to judge anyone who is really awful (though it might happen on occasion). Practically, we end up with a 4-point scale. The lowest score is almost always a 2 (needs work). By definition, many more contestants will earn 3’s (average), there will often be some 4’s (very good), while it’s somewhat unusual to have a score with lots of 5’s (outstanding).
When awarding a number, judges should always be honest with their assessment. A judge should not give someone a high score just because she likes the singer. Singers should have to earn their scores fairly. We also should remember that we are only being judged on this particular performance or audition. That means judges should not consider prior knowledge of the singer, or any personal relationship they might already have with them (as Teacher or Coach, for example). It’s possible for a great singer to have a lousy audition. Since we are supposed to be judging only the audition, to be fair and consistent, judges need to only award points based on what they hear and see in the audition.
Categories for Judging Singers
Now that we understand the rating system and how it’s applied, let’s consider the categories (singing/performing qualities; criteria) used to judge your performance. If you are preparing for an audition, it would be wise to keep the following aspects carefully in mind.
There are seven categories or criteria often used to evaluate vocal performances. These may vary by situation and team, but the beauty of this approach is that it can be applied to any style of music, in any live performance setting.
- Stage Presence/Audience Communication
- Vocal Quality
- Rhythmic Interpretation
- Song Choice/Song Prep
Let’s address each in turn.
If just one note was slightly out of tune, how much should that affect the score for intonation? These are the nuances and quandaries faced by the judges in deciding scores. One judge might decide to drop the score a point for this, while another will not because they see it as so minor an error that it doesn’t detract from the performance. A single point on a score can often make a difference in whether a singer passes the audition or not, so the decision can be an important one.
1. Stage Presence/Audience Communication
This category is based on how the singer dresses, uses the stage, moves, interacts with the live musicians (if any), and communicates with the audience. Proper attire should be based on the musical style and setting. For example, a heavy metal singer would likely dress differently than a classical or opera singer. A country singer might dress differently from a jazz singer. Use of proper makeup for the stage can enhance facial expressions and features. During the performance, the judges will try to imagine the singer in a concert, and make a judgment based on whether the overall “look” of the singer seems appropriate for the song and the style of music.
Movement is also an important part of stage presence. It may or may not be appropriate to stand perfectly still while singing, while excessive or unnatural movements could detract from the overall effect of the performance. Ideally, a singer should move naturally and appropriately to enhance their delivery. They might choose to use the entire stage, perhaps walking slowly at a dramatic moment, standing at the lip of the stage close to the audience, and above all, appearing comfortable on the stage throughout the performance.
Some people freeze when under the lights, like a deer in the headlights. This is from a lack of experience, so once you’ve been through that as a singer you hopefully won’t allow it to happen again. You should always strive to make the stage your own, be natural, and be yourself. Don’t overdo anything, unless the song really calls for it. Movements should always be appropriate to the song and style of singing.
When judging diction, I always ask myself the question: can I understand the words? If I have trouble understanding the lyric of the song, there may be something wrong with the diction. This can happen due to poor vocal technique, or perhaps the singer is singing in a language other than their native tongue. A singer might also be a victim of poor microphone technique or have difficulty with getting the lyrics out clearly because the tempo is too fast.
It’s possible to rate diction even when the evaluator doesn’t speak the language sung. This is because every language has its recognizable characteristic sound, based on how the vowels and consonants are articulated, its natural phrasing, and the cadences typically used. It’s not too difficult for a judge who doesn’t speak Spanish, French, or Italian, for example, to understand if the words are being enunciated clearly. This might be more challenging with a completely unfamiliar language, but we encounter such a situation very rarely. Diction is a very important part of singing and the judges will listen carefully to how well you sing the words, whether the lyric is sung in a stylistically appropriate way, and whether they can easily understand your lyrics.
This seems simple at first glance: are you singing in tune? In reality, it isn’t always that easy to tell. For example, you might sing perfectly in tune 99% of the time but go slightly out of tune for just one high or low note. This happens commonly. If just one note was slightly out of tune, how much should that affect the score for intonation? These are the nuances and quandaries faced by the judges in deciding scores. One judge might decide to drop the score a point for this, while another will not because they see it as so minor an error that it doesn’t detract from the performance. A single point on a score can often make a difference in whether a singer passes the audition or not, so the decision can be an important one.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to scoring, it is always at the discretion of the judges. This is where judging can get complicated because a judge might also consider other aspects of your performance when deciding a score for a single category. For example, maybe they really like your appearance, so they decide not to drop your score on intonation for one sour note. These things do happen, and it’s very difficult as a judge to be totally impartial when deciding the final score to award a singer for each category. That is just one of the many challenges judges face.
Another issue with judging intonation is that people tend to hear music differently. When a group of judges scores a singer, the numbers will almost never match up perfectly. One person might hear something they think sounds out of tune, but another will not notice or disagree strongly about it. This is one of the fascinating aspects of working on audition teams; two people never seem to hear anything exactly the same way.
4. Vocal Quality
Judging vocal quality is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects for judges to remain objective. Naturally, whether a voice has a pleasing quality or not can be a matter of taste. However, judges will also consider singing techniques affecting the sound quality, such as breath support, projection, singing posture, and whether the voice sounds strained. Beginning singers can develop all sorts of bad habits that can impact the way their voice sounds. For example, jutting the chin forward can constrict the air flow through the larynx. The position of the upper palate can impact the airflow to create breathy effects. Sometimes a slight adjustment to posture can affect the sound of the voice dramatically.
Assuming they’re not looking for a particular type of voice, and just want the best singers, judges should be able to recognize and appreciate different vocal qualities. Some singers produce a remarkably clear and smooth tone. There are singers with raspy voices that have quite a pleasing quality and are stylistically appropriate, for example when singing blues or hard rock. Some voices have a greater sensitivity than others. A voice can also sound different throughout its range, for example when a singer belts out a high note. It’s also easy to hear if someone’s having issues with vocal health. This is one of the scarier aspects of judging and singing.
The voice is the only instrument which lives inside the body. It’s important to know how to use the voice effectively to sing without physically hurting yourself. There are techniques for hitting high notes, or screaming, that are specifically designed to protect singers from straining or otherwise damaging their vocal chords or larynx. There are lots of very small muscles and delicate tissues involved with singing, and singers need to be careful not to overexert themselves while singing. It’s not uncommon for professional singers to grapple with physical issues, and their doctors may prescribe extreme vocal rest, and even surgeries in extreme cases (e.g. for vocal nodes). Students and others learning to sing must take caution not to over sing or hurt themselves due to lack of proper technique and awareness. I’ve heard singers singing in a way that was clearly damaging to their voice, and as a judge, it’s very difficult to ignore.
Having said all of that, when listening to a singer and evaluating vocal quality, I listen for tone, richness, consistency throughout the range (low notes sound even with high notes), and that certain “something” which the layperson would just call a “great voice.” Most people know it when they hear it. But again, not every judge will hear the same thing. One judge may look for a strong powerful voice, while another might consider a smaller-sounding voice (a more sensitive sounding instrument) with a nice vibrato to have a wonderful quality and be full of charm. It’s not always about power. As judges, we must always call them as we hear them.
5. Rhythmic Interpretation
This category may be elusive to some. With long experience and deep understanding of dozens of contemporary musical styles, I have come to realize that the rhythmic “feel” is perhaps one of the most important factors contributing to the quality of a performance. After all, there are only 12 notes in the western musical scale, and all popular styles use those same 12 notes. While there are certainly harmonic and melodic traditions for every style, the rhythmic placement of notes is what makes music swing. Some musicians call it the “groove.”
There are two things to consider when judging rhythmic interpretation. First, does the music groove naturally? If it feels unintentionally halting, stumbling, forced, rushed, dragging, jagged, or rough, it might be a sign that something is not quite right rhythmically. Singing should always flow naturally and smoothly. The second question has to do with appropriateness for the style. Latin music has a very different rhythmic feel than rock, and jazz and country also move at different paces, sometimes even within a single bar. Use (or overuse) of vibrato or slurs might also be a consideration, if it’s appropriate to the style. I like to listen carefully for the phrasing and articulations, and I then carefully consider whether it is a convincing approach to the rhythm of the musical style.
Having said all of that, when listening to a singer and evaluating vocal quality, I listen for tone, richness, consistency throughout the range (low notes sound even with high notes), and that certain “something” which the layperson would just call a “great voice.” Most people know it when they hear it. But again, not every judge will hear the same thing.
In music, the concept of dynamics traditionally refers to intensity, or gradations of volume from loud to soft. Here, we will use dynamics as criteria with a slightly different and more nebulous purpose. Every performance has some intangibles; there are some things it’s just hard to put your finger on. What makes a performance memorable, interesting, or great? What specifically makes a performance dull or boring? We might not be able to put a name on it, but we recognize it when we hear it.
The dynamics category is where all the other categories interact in a holistic way to create and maintain interest. It can be a kind of catch-all for anything which might not seem to fit into the other categories. For me, it comes down to whether the singer was able to maintain my attention and interest throughout the performance. I’m looking for the consistencies, the inconsistencies, and sometimes the transitions between them. I might also ask myself if the performance entertained me in some way. If I was bored or easily distracted, that isn’t a good sign! If I was riveted by the emotion coming from the stage, I will have more likely been entertained by the performer. For this category, the best advice I could give you is: be interesting.
7. Song Choice/Song Prep
Did the singer forget the lyrics? Was the song in the right key for the singer’s range? Was there an arrangement of the song that worked favorably? Was the song a good choice for THIS singer and THIS audition? Did the singer choose the right tempo? If the singer brought her own Accompanist, did the Accompanist make mistakes or play too loudly? Did the singer count off the song properly and start in the correct key? These are all factors which would be judged under the song choice/song prep category.
There are some songs which are great to listen to in your living room or car, but not very exciting to perform on a big stage. Other songs might be great for a big stage but not work well in a small audition room. Singers need to carefully choose the best song for each unique situation. They also should carefully consider what’s the very best song for them to sing. There are great songs that for any number of reasons might not work well for a particular singer. If the song calls for a big voice with a bright presence and much belting, and the singer has a delicate voice with subtle nuances of tone and a lilting vibrato, that song may not be the best choice for them. It’s not as easy as it seems to find a perfect audition song. It helps if you have a professional Voice Teacher or Coach familiar with your voice to bounce ideas off of. You should also follow your instincts when choosing the best song to audition with.
Once you’ve decided on a song, preparing that song for performing also requires thoughtfulness and care. The goal of an audition is to showcase your voice in the best possible way. If the audition has a fixed time limit, you should be certain to sing the part of the song that will best show off your voice. For example, if it is a 2-minute audition, you might cut the intro short and skip a verse, so you can be sure to include the bridge with the big modulation while keeping within the 2-minute time limit. You don’t want to get cut off by the judges right before getting to the best part of the song. Time your audition in rehearsal and adjust your arrangement appropriately. Besides arranging your song to include the best part, it’s crucial to have the song in the best key for your voice.
You must prepare the arrangement of the song to fit the specific audition. It is never “one size fits all.” Think carefully about what you want to bring to each specific audition and how you will present yourself. You should practice for your audition enough in advance, but don’t over prepare either. Whatever you do, don’t try to just wing it. The judges are watching carefully to see how well prepared you are.
As an aside, this category is so important because if we are auditioning you for a show, we are also looking for singers who know how to prepare for the stage. You might have a great voice, sing in tune, and have great stage presence, etc. But, if we see you are unprepared in the audition, that could cause us to choose someone else who seems easier to work with. There is always stress in show business, and we want to see how well you handle that stress. That’s one reason why most auditions take place on a stage.
A Vocal Coach can be a huge help to you in preparing for an audition. Their experience and knowledge around all aspects of vocal production will help you to guide yourself in choosing the best material for the audition, making sure it’s in the best key for your voice, and developing the strategies for success that work best for you.
In the second installment of this series, I will offer additional tips and strategies for singers preparing for an audition.
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