How do you find a 16-bar singing audition performable unit?

The 16-bar audition is a newish feature of life as an actor/singer/dancer in the West End. It’s a way for the casting panel to see new people but without taking the time to hear whole songs. The point for the actor is to show a very brief snapshot of their character choices & story and to get the callback.

When I help people choose songs for specific auditions, I look for several different ways to match the prospective musical. It could be something by the same composer or the same era (music style). It could be something with the same emotional arc for the character (storyline) or the same type of drama/comedy (energy and ‘flavour’). It could even be something written in a very different style but that we can change to fit the character ‘type’. One of my most successful morphs was getting one of my experienced clients to audition with a music-hall song. It was a romantic song written for a young ingenue, but I advised her to sing it in the style of Madame Thenadier. It was shocking, hilarious and got her the recall and the job.

A real-life example

In one of my coaching sessions in London, a client needs an audition song for Frozen. He’s aiming at the role of Olaf and we need a song that would work, that’s close enough to the character, but that isn’t from Frozen.

My client has the idea of using one of Donkey’s songs from Shrek – a great choice for situation and lyrics but it’s far too long and the character doesn’t quite match. He needs a 16 bar cut version that would stand up by itself. He also needs to show the casting panel enough hints of the character of Olaf that they could see him playing the role, without actually singing songs from the show.

16 bars?

Let’s digress for a moment and ask the questions “What does a 16-bar version need”, and “Does it really need to be 16 bars?”

In reality, 16 bars of a ballad lasts a lot longer than 16 bars of a patter song. When Gillyanne and I do our Successful Singing Auditions masterclasses, we tend to refer to the 16-bar cut as a short audition performable unit. This takes away the desire to actually count bars and stop the music at unfortunate or bizarre points (and yes, I’ve witnessed a lot of those in auditions).

It also deals with the question of whether the 16 bars includes piano parts or not – a singing audition performable unit is complete in itself and works successfully without the rest of the song so you can include as much of the piano part as is needed to get you going/end.

The singing audition performable unit

What makes a singing audition performable unit? It depends very much on the style of the song, what you want to feature and the requirements of the role you’re auditioning for. I rarely start an audition performance unit at the beginning of the song, and I don’t always include the loudest bits either. Usually, I will choose a part of the song that reflects the character we’re aiming at. In this particular instance, we decide that we really did need a ‘beginning, middle and end’. That meant the opening of the song, a recognisable part of the verse/chorus and a finish.

Back to the studio

Back to my Frozen client’s session. My task is to find a drastic cut that works well and to help him move his characterisation from Donkey towards Olaf. We start with a sing-through of the whole song to gauge what works well already and if there are any sections that we could immediately cut or ignore. Then we start looking for some fairly drastic cuts.

I suggest we start at the beginning with the colla voce section, sing the first 8 bars of the verse and jump slam-bang into the big finish, cutting about 8 pages and four key changes. The way we work it, I don’t even need to rewrite any of the piano part! We have exactly what’s required to show character, storyline and vocal capability.

Now to count the bars. Ah. 27 bars in total. But the unit is so good and so complete in itself that I think it’s worth checking the timing. Sometimes if you have a lot more than 16 bars it helps to know how long you’re singing (so you can tell the panel if they ask). We think a total of 1 minute and 6 seconds was fine for a 16-bar audition, so we go ahead with this cut version.

Morphing the song – the skilled bit

Now we need to change the character to fit the audition. We start with choosing keywords for the existing version of the song and character. Donkey is spiky, somewhat sarcastic with a healthy dose of James Brown. Focusing on the new character, the keywords we decide on for Olaf are gentle, naïve, excitable and slightly confused. So we take all of the hard-edged sounds out and add a gentle excitability, together with more fear/desperation that he might be left behind. It means we can introduce a different type of comedy into the performance that works really well for the character without losing the drive of the song.

That whole process takes less than half an hour so we have time to work two more songs for other auditions.

Client, sorted.


PS Morphing a song that you already know towards your next audition – that’s one of my favourite things to do. If you have auditions coming up and you want to get the recall, click on the link below to book a session with me online or in London.