The Perils of Zoom Auditions
Virtual auditions used to mean sending a link to a pre-recorded video. The idea of auditioning online live from your own living room is definitely a brainchild of the pandemic.
I participated in a Zoom audition recently, mainly so that I could glean info about the process which might be useful to other singers. In this post, I would like to demonstrate, using actual clips I made on Zoom, what you need to consider before doing a Zoom audition.
The instructions I got from the organizers of the audition* was that all one needed to participate was a computer/smartphone and an internet connection, though using an external USB mike, they admitted, is preferable. Turns out it's a little more complicated.
If you are going to do your audition from home, you should own a piano and have someone to accompany you. I've heard it's actually better on Zoom to sing a capella than to sing with a pre-recorded track (the latter can lead to pitch issues on the receiving end). I have an electric piano (the kind that sounds about 70% like a real piano, with a nearly full dynamic range) and a boyfriend who can play about 70% as well as a real pianist (I kid, I kid). If I didn’t have those things I would simply not participate in a Zoom audition. But that’s just me. Apparently, there are ways to make a pre-recorded tracks sound alright over Zoom but I cannot speak to that from personal experience.
Here is my biggest piece of advice: Record yourself THROUGH ZOOM before the audition. In fact, do it before you even consider doing a Zoom audition. Once you download Zoom (if you could get through this pandemic without already having it installed - congratulations!), you can simply start a new meeting any time, without any other participants. You can then record this meeting, and thus record yourself over Zoom. This is very informative. It’s the closest you will get to actually hearing what someone on the other end would hear.
Here’s the problem: When I heard myself over Zoom for the first time, I was about to cancel the audition. And no, it's not because I'm not used to hearing myself recorded. This is a fragment of the very first recording I made:
Anyone who knows anything about recording will know that the problem is the input volume. The microphone is simply overstimulated by the sound. After fiddling with all the sound settings on Zoom (like the ones everyone talks about: enabling original sound and turning down background noise canceling) I've found the input volume to be the single most important adjustment. If you are using your computer mic, chances are you will have to bring the input volume all the way down. Here is the best I could get the sound on Zoom with only the built-in mic:
According to outside listeners, this recording doesn’t capture the ring, the color, or the size of my voice. I’m not saying it doesn’t capture the voice at all, but I can only imagine how dramatic voices would fair under these conditions. What's more, the result is going to vary a lot depending on the exact computer you are using (I'm using a MacBook Pro), the acoustics of the space your are in, and your internet upload speed. The latest version of Zoom also has something called High Fidelity Music Mode but supposedly that only works if your upload speed is above 20Mbps (so I, for example, couldn’t use it.) Put a pin in internet speed...
Another consideration is the look of the space you are singing in. While I think having a “polished” look is often overestimated, it is a nice touch. So I cleared all clutter out of the view of the computer, which I had to place on my bookshelf. I placed a plant next to the piano to even out the shot. Even so, it didn’t look great. The white curtains of my window took up a disproportionate portion of the shot because I couldn’t get a better angle from the bookshelf. I also used some LED lights to light myself better. This is what my “shot” looked like (through Zoom) after all of that (I’m not in my audition attire, of course.) Does this look professional to you (attire aside)?
Now, I’m sure that the standards for “professional look” are not as high over Zoom as they would be on a pre-recorded audition or in person. The people on the other end are also just people and they have to understand. But I’m sharing this because it’s little things like this which threw me before the audition.
The actual audition took place on November 5th at 4:30p.m.* I sang Barče’s aria from Bedřich Smetana’s Hubička (the sound examples are all the same fragment from this aria) and was then asked to sing “Piangerò” from Händel’s Giulio Cesare. I wish I could share some of the video from the actual audition (because there is certainly further distortion by the time it gets to another computer) but I don’t have that, of course. I had no mind to think about that – I didn’t even remember to enable original sound for my first aria because I was called in from the waiting room with seemingly no heads up (I probably just missed it) and was a little frazzled, despite having stood there, prepared, for at least 10 minutes. Again, the novelty of the format threw me in ways I couldn't have really prepared for.
I did, however, actually see the agents watching the audition (this will vary, of course, depending on your Zoom settings) – they were unmoving, but mostly seemed to be looking at the screen. One of them was smoking a cigar, it looked like. The fact that I really did see the “panel” did create the sense of an actual audition, however, and assured me that I was at least singing for someone.
Given the harried (and, I admit, last-minute) process of trying to get myself halfway presentable over Zoom, I ordered an AudioTechnica AT2020USB+ mic right after the audition. Here is a sound test I did with the new mike today over Zoom:
Hmmmm... well, good thing I didn't buy this microphone just for Zoom. It's a little hard to compare because (not to get all singerly on you) I was not singing as well today as I was the day before the audition. But here's what I learned the hard way: It doesn't really matter how good your mic is if your internet upload speed is too small. Having a great mic but lousy internet is like trying to thread a two-by-three foot painting through the eye of a needle. I did this at about 9.70 Mbps upload speed (107Mbps download.) I live in a basement apartment and have no way of using an ethernet chord on my computer (yes, I could buy a converter - but that would be yet another thing to invest in for uncertain results) so there's little I can do about it, though I will continue to look for ways to get around this.
There are many variables at play in the final sound you will get (and chances are you have never heard me live so it's hard to compare with the "real thing") but I’m hoping these little recordings give you an idea of how classically-trained voices fare through this medium.
Now, you might be asking yourself: What bearing does the sound quality have on how one actually comes off to the panel?
I would like to believe that sound quality does not have a bearing on how technically secure you sound but Mr. Blackburn (in case you didn’t read the footnote: yes this was a NYIOP audition but that’s not the point) who had heard me live several times before told me during the feedback session (which was offered as part of the audition) that he thought I was less vocally secure than I was back at my last audition. While I do not have the audition recording, I am almost certain that this was due to the sound quality (also the opinion of my boyfriend who was in the room with me). Let's face it: low-quality recordings are simply unflattering. I have been on the receiving end of this experience, in fact, witnessing how a singer who was dazzling in person lost almost all magic over a lower-quality recording (and this was a recording of the the same performance I attended!) It must have to do with the fact that the impact of some voices is defined by certain overtones which some recordings simply don’t capture.
Summary of Takeaways
- Prepare by recording yourself over Zoom and adjusting the settings accordingly (turn on original sound, reduce background noise canceling, and - for the love of Callas - ADJUST INPUT VOLUME so that you are not overblowing the microphone).
- Perform your Zoom test in time to buy extra equipment, like an external mic.
- But even if you buy an external mic, it won't be much help unless you have a strong upload speed (you can test it by searching for "check internet speed" online.)
- So have strong upload speed - or you might as well not invest in a mic.
- While the listeners will probably give you the benefit of the doubt over Zoom, it's not the best first impression, so perhaps reserve Zoom auditions for being heard by people who are already interested/have already heard you.
A little extra note on my ongoing encounters with the question of age:
In general, I was told during the feedback session that the agents filed me under “young ingénue/soubrette." Quelle surprise (and it apparently means I shouldn’t sing Cleopatra). When I expressed my concern that this doesn’t reflect my age, Mr. Blackburn said that doesn't really matter and that it was, in fact, an advantage because being youthful-looking meant I would get more “benefit of the doubt.”
To be stuck looking like an ingénue but not really being one (I am still young, mind you, but not 20) has been a great source of frustration for me and I wonder if this isn't a very specific issue which a whole swath of sopranos are facing: The misery of being too old yet too youthful. I began my Opera on the Verge video about ageism describing an incident where a former voice teacher told me that “I couldn’t compete” with the singers who were “just a few years old.” I didn’t realize it then, but what this voice teacher must have meant was that I look like a very young singer but I’m not. It’s a kind of Catch 22. She prescribed Baroque music as the solution – which seems to be everyone’s solution for me except, that is, of actual Baroque specialists.
Yet, according to Mr. Blackburn (at least that was the implication), plenty of agents don’t care that much about age but they do care about the general archetype a singer invokes – my archetype, I was told, is “pixiesque.” Other archetypes on the market might be "sexy diva," "barihunk," "earthy matron" or "dad bod." This is not the first time I’ve heard people who aren’t in the education sector downplay the age concern. This doesn’t change the reality that, for whatever reason, age does feel like a very real barrier to a singer in her late 20s or early 30s.
*Yes, I said I would not talk about NYIOP anymore on this blog - I paid for the season pass before the pandemic, though, and I simply do not want to throw that money away. Who organized the audition shouldn’t matter, however – I’ve tried to focus on things which might be universally helpful or informative.