Before Sheri Sanders founded her Rock the Audition course, she was an actor rocking her own auditions. “The climate was changing and everyone was asking for rock music at auditions,” she explains of the musical theatre audition scene in the early aughts. “I already knew how to sing popular music, so I was just like, ‘I’ll pick out a song for you and I’ll help you as a friend.’” Her friendly help turned Sanders into a master class teacher, then a performance coach, even a book writer—formalizing her approach in a how-to manual.
Now, 13 years later, Sanders is the leader in the industry when it comes to coaching actors to understand and sing popular music—particularly in an audition setting—and instructing music and theatre teachers to coach their students in her method. She built Rock the Audition around a philosophy she calls “#ResearchSoulSearch.” “You research the era and then you soul search: What would I be like if I was there?” Sanders’ approach is a mix of cultural anthropology and music study, finding the motivation and the history behind a pop music style to inform the character and the vocal production. Her method has been proven as her students book rock musical on Broadway, The Glee Project, American Idol, and more.
And Rock the Audition comes in a multitude of forms: in-person master classes in New York City and on site at universities, online courses (live in a group with Sanders or on-demand) at Rock-The-Audition.com, and one-on-one coaching. On September 15, Sanders launches a teen edition of the online course tailored to performers ages 13 to 17 to, in her words, “explore all styles of popular music to strengthen their emotional expression in a social media-saturated world while building their skills to compete in professional musical theatre, super-competitive college auditions, in community theatre, and at school.”
The online course features eight modules, each focused on a different genre of “rock” music, which envelops rock, pop, R&B, hip-hop, disco, folk, country, and fairies (think Amélie, Once, and Spring Awakening)—or as Sanders defines it “stuff off the radio, not from a musical.”
“Underneath the umbrella of rock is everything from Memphis to Disaster! to Sister Act to American Idiot, the palette is so gigantic,” she says. Through training modules, Sanders digs into the history of each genre's era using videos, Spotify stations, first-hand documents, and more, to create context for the music and the character and voice behind it.
Through the program, Sanders equips her students with a knowledge base of the musical era, which leads to an understanding of style which leads to appropriate audition song selection and a higher level of storytelling. “When we listen to popular music, we get emotional and the emotion changes the sound,” she says. “The work that I do is to teach people to have different kinds of emotional experiences in different eras on different kinds of songs.”
If, for example, an actor needs to find an audition song for Motown The Musical, flipping through the catalog of Motown artists is not enough. “What was going on in the Motown era? There was integration and segregation. What was going on in the music? There was the British invasion, the Brill building pop-making machine,” Sanders explains. And, of course, you need to find the rock that fits you. “[If you’re] a legit soprano you should actually be singing Joni Mitchell and Olivia Newton-John, not that low rock stuff,” she says.
Still, in traditional musical theatre, songs move plot. In rock musicals, according to Sanders, music creates a feeling. Casting directors in the professional world and audition committees in theatre education want to see an emotional breakthrough in the audition room.
But that doesn’t mean performers can substitute Rock the Audition for voice lessons. “The technique has to be cooking on the back burner,” says Sanders. “You just have to put the emotions on the front burner.”
And Sanders stresses individuality in finding the song that resonates with you. “Be the you that’s in the 1970s folk-rock era, for example,” she says. “When you go back to that time period you go, ‘How would this music make me move? What would I be like?’”
Of course, singers also have to find the perfect audition cut—and Sanders has a solution for that, too. She has partnered with MusicNotes.com to create downloadable cuts from songs (available beginning September 15) in the popular music sphere with sheet music from their catalog to ensure that singers have a full—albeit short—story to tell through song.
As the musical theatre climate continues to draw from pop music for its new scores, the ability to tell stories through the music becomes crucial. “More and more pop artists are going to be writing the musicals, and the line between legit and rock is going to get very very thin,” says Sanders. “We used to call the most marketable performer a triple threat, now your ability to sing popular music and legit music is a more marketable quality to have.”
Versatility is key, but it all starts with hitting the history books.
Click here to watch the introduction to Rock The Audition.