Any casting directors here? As a singer, how much knowledge of sheet music do I need?

• Dec 28, 2020 - 05:39

I'm asking this question to get at the right level as a singer.

By the time that community theaters are opening again I'll be auditioning for musicals again. For an impression, early this year I was cast for the musical "Anything Goes", which was canceled due to Covid. I won't be singing in classical masterpieces. I'm now using my spare time to prepare, and although I never had musical training, I can find my way around MuseScore to prepare what I need. But I wonder if that's enough.

Resuming, how much knowledge of sheet music would be expected of a singer for auditions and to play a role in a musical. Or is it enough to be a good singer?

PS: If there's anybody who gives voice coaching, those reactions are welcome too.


Are you're asking if, during an audition, you will ever be handed sheet music for a song you may not know, and then have to sing it? There is no reason for them to do that. The audition is for them to hear you sing a prepared number. They are also after the right look for the parts they have, as well as the right sound. It doesn't hurt if you can read music. At least enough to follow and learn a part following a recording.

My family was in a community theater production of "Anything Goes". Great fun. Hope you get to finish it.

In reply to by bobjp

Bob, thank you for you reply. That already clarifies.

Now that you mention it, I can recall an audition where I was handed a piece of sheet music and then asked to sing it. The music was a random melody, not part of a song. The music director did play it a few times on the piano, but that's not how my head "records" melodies. People are different. Some have absolute hearing, others have relative hearing and the way we memorize melodies is different too. Anyway, afterwards they wrote me that I had great music talent, and that they hoped to meet again, but after I had built up my music reading.

As for "Anything Goes", it has been cancelled. I hope they reschedule it in their next season, also because I had a funny thing in mind for my own role. ;-)

Most of all, thank you for your answer!

PS: If there are others with a different view, or an additional view, I'm interested in all opinions.

In reply to by barencor

I would assume that most community theater types of productions would not care about sight-singing, but many professional ones probably do. Consider that most of the people chosen to sing in a show are not the leads, but in the chorus, and this very likely means learning a part other than the melody. The usual way you will need to learn your part is from sheet music. If others can do that from day one of rehearsal, but you need to study it at home first, you're at a disadvantage, which is why many professional productions will want to make sure they have people up to the task.

Don't think of this as just not how your head works or that you are "different" from others. This is just not a skill you have today, but it's a learnable skill like any other. It's not like some people were born knowing how to read English and others weren't - it's something we all learn as it becomes necessary. Same with reading music. But only you can decide if you value the skill enough to dedicate the time to it. I would say if you have ideas about doing certain other types of professional work - e.g., being hired to sing a commercial jingle just re-written minutes before the recording, or to sing in a choir that is constantly learning new music - you'll find it beneficial, and it will open doors for you.

There are plenty castings for which you only have to prepare songs known in advance.
Though there are a decent amount as well where you're handed your audition score just an hour in advance; there is no shame at such a point in time to tell them that you can't read sheet music, but that you're willing to try singing along as best as you can and guarantee them that you'll always be well prepared before rehearsals.

Yes, being able to read on sight gives you an edge in such cases; but in my experience that part of the audition is really only taken into consideration as a tie-breaker. There is so much more to casting that just the capability to sing on sight.

Mark and Jetee,

Thank you for your reactions too.

A while ago I already started with getting the required sheet music, enter it in MuseScore, have MuseScore play it, and memorise the melody that way. I guess I need to have enough knowledge of sheet music to understand the sheet music of a specific production. With the reactions that I got, I guess I'm on a fair path and that's good to know. (But if I weren't on a fair path, I would need to know that even more. :-P )

Thank you for your support!
(I guess we all need a bit of that every now and then.)

Hi, barencor –

I've music-directed a few dozen musicals at high school, community, university and semi-pro levels. Here are some thoughts on that:

In musicals, the director's goal is to cast actors who will look and sound great performing the material. Not every talented actor (or even every great-sounding singer) arrives with the ability to learn and sing parts quickly. And if they can, their understanding of music theory shows more plainly as music becomes more harmonically or rhythmically complex.

Some of the world's most recognizable music theatre celebrities (e.g. from Broadway or movie musicals) aren't the world's most intellectual musicians, but they're achieved that status because their talent and presence was worth the recruiting of whatever musical coaching it took to support them. That shows the paramount importance of listening to your heart and your gut when acting, and I'll put that aside.

In community theatre, skill varies, resources are scarcer, and directors have to strike a balance between the available talent and the available time for support from their music director, accompanists, and so on – so the more skill evident in individual cast members, the better, period. That makes being excited about increasing your music literacy a near-certain path to advantage. After casting, many artistic teams will provide a recording as a learning aid, but every artistic team should provide a vocal score, and I'd consider it a minimal requirement to be willing to use that score as an educational opportunity.

If there were no recording, you could still notate your part in MuseScore by directly copying the vocal score, and use its playback to listen to it. The value of that exercise in preparing you for the next musical rivals that of performing in the show, in my opinion. If you take one measure beyond using MuseScore, I'd suggest learning to play your own vocal part on a piano or keyboard; equally valuable practice.

You can even use this ability to notate and create guide vocal parts for other actors; when they start talking with each other and the artistic team about how helpful you are, you could significantly boost your reputation as a valuable person to cast within that community.

In reply to by Starfia

Hello Starfia,

Thank you for you response too. Part of what you wrote is what I was doing, like preparing "my" parts in MuseScore. Also, if a song is partly harmony, then putting it in MuseScore is my way to learn "my" part of the melody. Other things that you wrote are what I had in mind, like sharing parts with other actors. Again other things of what you wrote are new for me but certainly useful.

In other words, thank you too!

PS: I just saw your reply. I must have missed the email notification :-o

In reply to by Brer Fox

Brer, thank you too.

I found that there are many more musicians who can't read sheet music: Elvis Presley, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, etc.:

10 Legendary Musicians Who Never Learned How To Read Music

7 Famous Musicians – Who Can’t Read Music

But I guess they didn't have to do auditions for musicals. :-P

In reply to by barencor

Precisely - some aspects of music-making benefit from reading music, others don't. Singing written parts, such as in a chorus in a musical - generally do, you're at a huge disadvantage as I mentioned if you have to resort to learning by rote over the course of time what others can do more or less instantly. Singing lead parts you can easily learn from existing recordings is another matter entirely.

That said, also, it is pretty common to hear stories of famous musicians who can't read music that are somewhat exaggerated, in order to add to the myth.

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