Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review - The Enraged Accompanist's Guide to the Perfect Audition

Review by Rob Hartmann

THE ENRAGED ACCOMPANIST’S GUIDE TO THE PERFECT AUDITION. By Andrew Gerle. 120 pp. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard, 2011. $16.99 (paperback); ISBN 978-1-4234-9705-9

Andrew Gerle’s new book, The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition, will hopefully help to bring calm to enraged accompanists everywhere. Mr. Gerle, who is a composer, music director and playwright as well as a top-level audition pianist, takes the knowledge he has gained from observing thousands of auditions – good and bad – and distills it into practical, useable advice for musical theater performers.

Someone who has never spent time in an audition room might think that some of Mr. Gerle’s advice is unnecessary – but when you’ve seen actors who are otherwise smart, competent people hand a pianist a blurry, illegible faxed sheet of music to play, you know that Mr. Gerle isn’t the only “enraged accompanist” out there. The missteps that actors make when preparing their music – unreadable scores, books that won’t stay open, binders that are too large – are often made simply because of musical ignorance; most are easy to address, if one has a helpful, musically inclined friend. In this book, Mr. Gerle becomes that friend, taking the role of sympathetic (but tough) musical coach, running down the list of common (and easily fixable) mistakes that actors make.

Mr. Gerle’s book is worth owning simply for the step-by-step instructions for putting one’s audition book together. Having helped actor friends who didn’t read music get their audition songs copied, I was won over completely by this book when Mr. Gerle gave the exact reduction percentage one needs to use when photocopying large-format music onto 8 ½ x 11 paper. He clearly knows what he’s talking about. (It’s 93%, if you’re curious.)

Besides the nuts-and-bolts of assembling a binder of audition songs, Mr. Gerle addresses other elements of audition preparation and etiquette: how to talk to the pianist (“No handshaking, ever. I play for up to two hundred people a day, can you imagine how many colds I’d catch if I had to touch them all?”); how to behave in the audition room (“This isn’t a party or a high school reunion, it’s not a therapy session or a concert at your church. It’s business. The tablepeople need goods. You have goods.”); and the mystery of what to wear (“Men in the ubiquitous chinos and French blue shirt make me feel like I’m at Kinko’s.”) Although his tone is light and joking throughout, he doesn’t simply toss out one-liners and stop there; the discussion of each of these topics is specific, fairly in-depth, and offers sound explanations for each of the author’s assertions.

The section that covers what an actor should have in his or her book offers a good, basic formula for putting together audition repertoire (two to four musical comedy standards, two comedy songs, songs which show off one’s high notes, etc.) Mr. Gerle could perhaps have gone further in discussing where and how to find new audition material – this is the most common topic of discussion that I have with actors – but that may be outside the scope of this book. He does suggest the strategy of trolling YouTube and iTunes as a way of finding songs – sound advice, as there is ultimately no substitute for digging in and doing your research.

Beyond all the practical advice that the book offers, I was most appreciative of the author’s discussion of the importance of the right attitude and emotional approach to one’s art. It’s not often that someone can make the connection between the more emotional/spiritual aspects of what actors do, and how these come to play in the audition room. Mr. Gerle makes his case very well.

For starters, pretending you love to audition takes the pressure off the eventual outcome. You have no control over whether they hire you in the end; their decision depends on a combination of factors, many of which have nothing to do with your performance at the audition. But if your goal is simply to have a ball doing what you love, if you’re well prepared and singing a song that touches your soul, who has the power to make that an unpleasant experience? So they don’t laugh. So they don’t make eye contact. So they cut you off. So the pianist sucks. Remember that auditioning for a professional musical theater production is something relatively few people are ever privileged enough to experience and that performing for anyone, anywhere is a gift to be cherished. If any part of that sentence caused you to roll your eyes, get out of this business. Today. Even with that kind of idealism, this career can break you; without it, you’re headed for a miserable life.

There’s no question that this book should be on the must-have list for every musical theater actor who is in a college training program; the tips on music preparation too often are never addressed in school. But even actors who might not think they need this book should give it a read in order to benefit from Mr. Gerle’s impassioned observations:

Having your music Xeroxed incorrectly or songs in the wrong key is annoying, very annoying, but will it keep you from getting the role? No. Does it impoverish the state of the Theater? No. But thinking that a decent voice and a superficial reading of the text of a song is all that it takes to be an actor will probably keep you from getting the role, and it definitely impoverishes the state of the Theater. Art matters, and whether or not you would describe yourself as an “artist,” that is, in fact, what you are or aspire to be by working in the Theater. All art is about the soul, and if yours isn’t on the line every time you perform, you rob your audience of a unique glimpse into what it means to be human, and you do a disservice to the playwrights, composers and lyricists whose voice you have volunteered to be, if only for sixteen bars in a rehearsal studio.

Andrew Gerle may be “enraged,” but his rage has resulted in a smart, articulate book that not only covers pragmatic audition tips for the musical theater performer but delves into that unique combination of businesslike attitude and passionate idealism that all successful actors need.

Rob Hartmann is a composer/lyricist who is on the faculty of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program.

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