What NOT to wear

With the NATS auditions coming up, I thought I’d address a couple of things about appropriate attire for performing.

The studio gave a recital last week for a couple of new singers and the kids who are singing on November 5 at UWM. No one dressed horribly but there were a couple of missteps in choice of shoes, dress length, etc. While they didn’t bother me all that much, they bothered my father-in-law, who had come from Maryland to visit that weekend.

Now, my father-in-law is rather conservative in every aspect of his opinions. He has a very strong sense of propriety. Some might call him an old fart. I would never say such a thing. Aloud. Or in print. He went on for the rest of the day about the things that bothered him about the performers’ attire. He could not get past them, even though he liked the individual performances.

Perhaps his reaction was excessive. (The discussion of it certainly was.) But… if he reacted that way, perhaps someone else will as well. Someone who might be your judge. Or deciding on whether you are coming to their school. Or casting people for an upcoming opera or musical.

So you might as well play it safe. Two articles just came out in the September and November issues of Classical Singer magazine:

“Judged by your appearance: What university professors really think about your audition attire” (September 2010);


“Judged by your appearance: What artistic directors and hiring agents really think about your audition attire” (November 2010).

In both articles, both the directors and the university professors were horrified by the number of people dressing overly provocatively in audition settings – clothes too short, too tight, too low, too high (heels). Obviously this applies to females more than males. For men, wear a tie and a jacket. (You can take the jacket off if it works for the piece you’re singing, but wearing it at the beginning of the audition makes you look more professional!)

Musical theater gives you a bit more leeway than classical singing. You can be bolder in color, and perhaps a bit more casual in terms of length, but never too short, especially if you are singing on a level higher than the audience.

Dress in a way that works with the material you are singing and what you are auditioning for. I went to the Lyric Opera of Chicago to audition for the chorus and someone came to the audition in a formal gown. That’s as bad as showing up in a track suit (which a former Washington Opera chorister did – and I emphasize “former” – she had already ticked off the chorusmaster by being unprofessional in rehearsals in terms of preparation and to show up underdressed just confirmed the level of her cluelessness).

I, on the other hand, dressed around the fact that there was snow on the ground and I was going to wear boots. I needed to pick out something that would hold look good with my boots and would hold up in the car after a 90 minute drive. (I have planned clothing choices around shoes way more often than I really should.) I don’t remember what it was, but I got hired!

One time I judged NATS lower college musical theater women and a young woman wore a horizontally striped top that was very tight across her abdomen, and this was not a part of her body that should have been highlighted. Particularly when she inhaled, because there was a great deal of expansion and not only did she expand, so did the stripes! It was very distracting. I had to figure out a way to tell her, “Never wear that again, it makes you look fat,” without actually saying, “Never wear that again, it makes you look fat.” So I chose to write:

You may want to consider wearing a pattern that does not draw attention to your breathing mechanism and away from your very expressive face.

I hope that got the point across. Which was, of course, “Never wear that again, it makes you look fat.”


  • If your skirt is short, you have to wear tights or leggings. The latter is more appropriate if you’re doing musical theater.
  • The little black dress has been deemed practical but forgettable. Find something distinguishing to set you apart.
  • If you’re going to wear a shawl, be able to work with it so it’s not awkwardly sliding about your shoulders or constraining you. Better yet, don’t wear a shawl.
  • I don’t have a problem with open-toed shoes but some of the respondents in the articles did. Everyone has a problem with flip-flops. Don’t wear them!
  • If it’s tight enough that you have to wear Spanx or the equivalent under it to look good (and you’ve never sung wearing Spanx or the equivalent), it’s too tight. If you don’t wear them, you’ll look like a sausage bursting out of its casing. If you do and you can’t get a good low breath, then it doesn’t matter how good you look. (Although Marianna said she liked singing in a corset because it gave her something to work against, I want freedom!)

75% of directors admitted that a singer’s poor clothing choices might have an effect on his/her being hired. You have to be really good to get away with not looking good (and I’m not talking about physical attractiveness, only clothing).

However, only 42% admitted the opposite – that a well-dressed singer had an advantage. While the first impression is made when you walk on stage, what comes out of your mouth is the deciding factor.

In business, people are told to dress for the position they want rather than the one they have. Your job right now is student. The position you want is performer. Dress authentically and professionally – convey your personality and tell the truth about yourself.

REVIEW – The Singer’s Ego: Finding Balance Between Music and Life

I recently read Lynn Eustis’ above-titled book. Dr. Eustis is on the faculty of the University of North Texas and did 3 session on Mental Health and the Singer at the NATS conference in Salt Lake City this summer. They were excellent, often cathartic sessions on discussing just why singers are so neurotic. And how teachers can help and also harm their students in their growth as performers and as people. Based on Dr. Eustis’ engaging personality and the value of the information in these sessions, I ordered the book before I left Salt Lake City. I looked forward to how I could use her insights as both a singer and a teacher – in fact, the subtitle of the book is “A Guide for Singers and Those Who Teach and Work with Singers.” I finally got around to reading it on my recent mini-vacation.

The book is organized like a textbook, with questions following almost every chapter (except, interestingly enough, the one on the benefits of therapy, which I thought cried out for some self-analysis!). It is in two parts: Part 1 – the inner world of the singer; and Part 2 – the outer world. The book could be used with the college music student, and there are many things that would apply more to the singer starting out than to the … mature singer (i.e., me).

I found Part 1 particularly valuable. There were some extremely good points made about how singers are different from instrumentalists. I especially liked the analogy of how if an instrumentalist’s instrument breaks down on him before a performance, he can get it fixed! He can get another one if he has to. He might even have a backup instrument. Pianists are another story – a traveling concert pianist has to work on a different instrument everywhere he goes. If he’s famous, he can specify that he wants a Steinway or a Baldwin to play on, but it’s still a different instrument.

We are our instruments. If we get sick, don’t sleep well, need emergency dental work, get into an argument with someone on the day of a performance – our instrument is affected. We can’t go get another one. We have to either cancel or make do, and especially if we’ve been practicing under perfect conditions, and suddenly fate kicks us in the teeth, it’s heartbreaking.

Dr. Eustis doesn’t hold anything back. She admits that she is not a natural performer and that while she might have been the best singer at any given audition, she often didn’t get the part because she was considered “boring.” She had to work at inhabiting the music and letting it take her to the next level. Like her sessions at NATS this summer, her focus is on finding the truth in what you are singing. I found her analyses to be extremely insightful, inspiring, and often humorous.

But one thing about the book bothered me, and that happened in Part 2, the outer world. In the chapters regarding competition and relationships and the world of professional singing, she told stories about other singers who had done her wrong and how their actions affected her. I can appreciate that. I remember a fellow mezzo introducing me to a conductor and saying, “This is Christine Thomas. She’s a fine choral alto.” At which point I said, smiling, “And a mezzo soloist as well!” My problem was not with her telling these stories, my problem was the specificity of the stories.

At one point, she told a story about how a soprano in an apprenticeship program said something vile to her immediately before going on for the 2nd act, in which she had a major aria to sing that required intense focus. My problem was not with the story itself – it was that she said where it happened, which role she sang, which role the other girl sang and which opera. In this day of the internet, it is not hard to imagine that someone would say, “Gee, I wonder who that bitch was,” and with a couple of keystrokes, find out.

I did. I Googled Dr. Eustis, the role she mentioned, and the opera house. In 5 minutes, I had a review of the performance and I found the offending soprano. And then I found her website. If I could do it, so could a casting director. Or an agent. It was 20 years ago – the soprano could have had her own issues that year. Maybe since then she’s found Jesus. Or a new partner. Or better medication. Or she just grew up. Why bring this up now? And so specifically?

That specificity spoiled the book for me in some regards because it wasn’t necessary. She could have – she should have – kept it much more general. It would make her look better . And I don’t think she’s a petty person. I’ve met her – she’s not. I think it was a mistake, and one that her editor should’ve had her change. Telling these stories in a workshop is one thing – but print is forever.

I can recommend the book in so many ways. The insight into the singer’s mentality is invaluable – there is so much truth in this book (maybe too much truth) – and she offers the reader a great opportunity to become self-aware by answering the questions at the end of chapters. (What is my goal for my voice lesson? Besides getting there on time? Really, I’m supposed to have a goal? Oops!)

As I’ve said in the past, quoting the now-defunct TV show Eastwick, “I am here to inspire and facilitate.” And Dr. Eustis opens the book with an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the last two lines of which I found applicable to that thought:

“Leaving it you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.” 

I look forward to her upcoming follow-up, The Teacher’s Ego.