I was fired by my vocal coach and failed every singing audition. Two years later I got a perfect score from every judge
For a lot of people, singing (and being musically-inclined and “on pitch”) seems like a talent we’re either born with or without. Sure, you can take singing lessons and watch online tutorials, but if you start out a William Hung, you’re unlikely to graduate to a Whitney Houston, no matter how much time, money, and effort you put into the best coaches, training, and practice.
Well, I’m here to prove that narrative wrong — and I have both the qualitative and quantitative feedback and results to back it up.
So much so that I recall one of my best friends — who is now a professional opera singer and was blessed with innately perfect vocal skills from birth — compared my voice to a “screeching cat” and “dying animal” at a middle school sleepover. Yes, we’re still friends; at that time, she was probably right.
I was even fired from singing lessons by my youth vocal coach. Perhaps taking joint lessons with my mother — in which we could barely keep a straight face throughout our ear-splitting (unsuccessful) attempts at harmonizing — didn’t help. The coach didn’t exactly say I was an eternally lost cause, but she did tell me to go away for the next few years and perhaps come back once my voice changed or matured. Three to four years at the absolute minimum.
When most people hear that kind of suggestion from the very person who specializes in helping people like them improve their singing, they might get discouraged. I was not most people, and perhaps being tone-deaf to the sound of my own voice worked to my advantage in one regard: perseverance. Or perhaps I just embodied a ridiculous amount of undeserved brazen confidence. Either way, I was determined to become a good singer.
Let’s just recap the proof that I sucked for a minute here:
- Pitch-perfect friend compares my voice to a “dying animal”
- Youth vocal coach fires me (for at least a few years)
- I was rejected from my elementary school’s not-so-discriminating chorus — I was the only one of my friends to get rejected, and they were no Ariana Grandes. They made me play the glockenspiel in the back corner.
It gets worse.
Subjective feedback is one thing, but quantitative, numerical data (and results that are unanimous among multiple qualified judges) are a lot harder to dispute or deny.
Once “years later” arrived, I had successfully improved my voice from screeching cat to pleasantly tolerable (more on this later). Unfortunately, my mastery of relative pitch did not simultaneously catch up. I know this because, once I began auditioning for high school acapella groups and advanced audition-only choirs, I received numerical score sheets and feedback.
While my scores for categories like “timbre” and “technique” had improved dramatically since my younger years, there was one category where I continued to get zero points: sight-reading. That’s where you look at a piece of music and sing it perfectly on pitch, without ever hearing it before and without the help of an instrument for vocal tuning, key anchoring, or accompaniment.
As someone who could read music, took piano lessons from age nine, and graduated to playing violin in the school orchestra and dabbling in guitar, you might think sight-reading would come naturally as a byproduct of my many years’ exposure to instruments. You’d be wrong — I sucked, and my 0% score is irrefutable proof. However, this tone-deaf audition flunky still had one thing going for me: delusional determination. And it actually paid off.
With a methodical strategy, two years after my last failed audition, I not only got into the most selective advanced choir, but I also achieved a perfect score on all my sight-reading auditions (unanimous across all judges, from acapella group leaders to vocal coaches to the head of my school’s top choir). And yes, I do believe with enough dedication and effort, along with significant time attributed to following the step-by-step process I used (outlined below), anyone can achieve similarly transformational results and vast improvement.
Since my transformation was threefold (vocal, sight-reading, and auditioning), I’m going to outline the steps I took to improve each aspect separately.
Vocal transformation: the steps to singing well (or a lot better)
First, let me make one thing abundantly clear: There is a physical component to singing, and some people do have a natural gift. That doesn’t mean they’ll have great technique or perfect pitch, but there are some people who seem to have melodious, angelic voices that could soothe anyone into submission. The physical reason for this is simple: bone structure and physique affect a person’s resonance chamber.
If you’ve ever heard how Barbra Streisand refused to get a nose job, though she supposedly wanted one, for fear it would negatively impact her voice, this is a perfect example. And yeah, it probably would impact her voice to some degree. The size and shape of your nose, mouth, cheeks, jaw, etc., all impact your resonance chamber. This is the part of singing that you can’t do much about — and no, even plastic surgery to turn you into a replica of your favorite celebrity singer probably won’t result in an identical vocal transformation.
However, there are a lot of other factors to singing well that are within your control. These include the following:
My journey to master the above:
- Join a multi-part choral ensemble.
Since I couldn’t get into the auditioned choir, I joined the non-audition chorus that was open to all. Being in a multi-part chorus tested my ear. While I benefited from the daily vocal warmups, forced practice, and honest critiques from our teacher and conductor, I also benefited by having my ear challenged.
It’s a lot harder to stay on pitch when you hear the altos, tenors, and baritones singing three different notes. The challenge of staying on my note amid the auditory chaos of diverse parts is what helped me learn and listen better. After eight or so months of having to hold my own in a multi-part chorus, my pitch-matching skills and ability to stay on my note, in the proper key, and to keep up with the indicated timing reached a whole new level.
2. Find the vocal teacher who can help you find your range (unlike the one who fired me).
In addition to joining that chorus, I did actually find a vocal coach who agreed to work with me. I ended up cycling through four different coaches. The first fired me, but the second was great — because he was a male! Being male, he assessed my (female) voice with a lot less bias and fewer preconceived notions. This is what helped us determine that I wasn’t a horrible singer; I was a coloratura soprano. That means that while my low register won’t blow you away, I can hit Ariana’s high notes, no sweat.
After that coach moved away, I found another male coach who was good, but unfortunately, he tried to keep me in the “pop” genre. That wasn’t optimal for my coloratura, vibrato-filled voice. I needed a classical opera soprano as my coach — and that’s what I got. She was my last vocal coach, and I worked with her for more than five years. But the key to our significant progress was the multi-year journey to find my ideal range that preceded it.
Find your range early — it’s arguably the most important thing!
3. Practice with good technique.
There are two ways to practice almost anything in life: One way is the “going through the motions” type, and the other is the concentrated, dedicated type, which actually feels like work. I set aside a full hour for my at-home practice sessions, used my piano, metronome, and the recording of my prior lesson to ensure I was addressing the issues we were currently working on. Practicing is not just singing; it’s warming up, evaluating your technique, and focusing on specific areas of improvement to address.
4. Develop a better understanding of various styles of music.
I took a music appreciation class (since I couldn’t get into those auditioned choirs, but still wanted more exposure to music and singing), and this was eye-opening. We delved into the history of various music styles and singing types and techniques, and this gave me a much better understanding of how music and singing have evolved. It also challenged me to learn about different song structures, chords and keys synonymous with certain genres, and further improved my ear to identify when something is out of place.
The combination of the above fourfold journey did result in a significantly improved voice. I was no longer a screeching cat or dying animal.
In fact, my violin teacher (and orchestra conductor) asked me to sing the lead (solo) in front of the entire auditorium at our concert, rather than play my violin part. Either I had gotten pretty good at singing or really horrible at playing the violin. Considering the positive feedback I got after the performance, I’m going to go with a mix of both. This was the first and only time someone had been asked to sing at an orchestra concert at our school.
Sight-reading transformation: the steps to a perfect sight-reading score
Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to perfect sight-reading overnight; it largely comes down to practice. That said, specific areas of study and practicing under stressful conditions that challenge your ear can accelerate that progress.
1. Learn about and master music theory.
Music theory knowledge will significantly elevate your sight-reading skills, simply because you’ll develop an understanding of solfege and the way notes on a scale, in major and minor keys, relate to each other. You’ll also develop an understanding of chord structures and progression, as well as leading tones, all of which will help your ear navigate when reading sheet music, even in your head.
I mastered this through an AP Music Theory class, which taught me everything from song-structure to the circle of 5ths to writing counterpoint. The AP test for my music theory class even included a sight-reading portion, despite the fact that most of the class was non-singers.
2. Find online sight-reading and ear-training tools and resources.
If I had simply relied on my classroom teachings and exercises to grant me perfect sight-reading skills, I may have bumped up a few points, but never a perfect score. The only secret to training your ear to remember and recognize relative pitch is simple: practice.
Here’s an example of a helpful interval training resource to remember the relationship between notes of a minor third, perfect fourth, major sixth, and so on. Oh, and don’t just practice getting the notes right; practice the timing! Timing in music (across various common and unusual time signatures) is everything, and yes, you can fail an audition with perfect notes but horrible timing — I’ve done it.
3. Nightly practice with challenging, never-before-seen (or heard) sheet music of diverse genres, with varied time signatures, and in a variety of keys:
While you can buy workbooks with a plethora of sight-reading exercises, I’ve found that the most effective way to nail the type of complicated songs I was given at auditions (some folk pieces, others arias, others pop, and some musical theater) is to practice with equally varied sheet music. There are tons of free and affordable resources online to download sheet music these days.
Since you just need a diversity of pieces for practice, the free sample page(s) should work just fine. If they don’t include the vocal melody, try to sight-read the piano accompaniment or another voice part, but raise or lower the octave to suit your range. The more challenging, the better.
The culmination of the above trifecta, coupled with my now-improved singing voice probably got me about 75% of the way to a good vocal audition. But in order to get 100% of the way there and bag a perfect score, I needed to nail one last thing: choral auditioning.
Auditioning transformation: the steps to nailing an acapella or choral audition
Auditioning, in itself, is an art form. There are many small things that can derail an otherwise talented and well-prepared singer once they enter the audition room. Those things may include (but are not limited to):
- A high, tight larynx (due to nerves)
- Speeding up too much (usually due to nerves)
- Getting off to a bad start, and therefore off-time or off-pitch
- Getting thrown off in a multi-part harmony
Let me tell you a bit more about the last bullet point. Sometimes, a multi-part harmony is tossed into a choral or acapella group audition. You’ll need to be able to hold your own and stay on pitch and on time, while a powerful alto is belting in your ear. They rarely give the auditionee the melody, so your ear will most likely be drawn to the person singing the main part — and that likely won’t be you.
So, here’s how you can combat all of the above and ensure your audition is reflective of your talent, preparation, effort, and well-honed technique:
- Do not just practice alone or in a vacuum.
You should be practicing with other friends or singers — ideally, those who are better than you. You want their honest (hopefully experienced and valuable) feedback. They should tell you if you’re flat, sharp, too fast, too slow, singing from your throat, moving around too much, exhibiting poor breath control, or otherwise flubbing your test audition. If you can’t get this from your friends, ask your singing teacher. If you don’t have one, you can find a ton of great vocal and singing audition coaches online (spanning a broad price spectrum), who will be happy to critique and help enhance your audition prep.
2. Practice with auditory distractions.
Yes, you do want your little brother blasting his trombone in the adjacent room while you attempt to stay on key in your acapella solo. And perhaps your friends can talk or hum to throw you off. And your mom can slam a door or open a creaky drawer. You want to develop a strong enough ear that you can block out those external auditory stimuli and focus on the notes coming out of your head.
3. Anticipate the negative impact of pre-audition jitters and nerves, and make a plan to combat them ahead of time.
You’re probably going to be nervous going into your audition; most people are. Here’s what being nervous can do: Dry out your mouth or throat, create muscle tension dysphonia (which can cause pain, tighten your vocal muscles, hamper your technique, and limit your range), and increase your rate of speech, which can propel your singing into the wrong time signature. Equipped with this knowledge, you can do a few things to lessen the blow of your nerves:
- Hydrate before the audition and bring warm tea in a thermos, as this can soothe and relax your throat with longer-lasting effects than cold water.
- If you feel your throat tightening up, try to “yawn” into a comfortable, relaxed high note. (When you elevate your soft palate by “yawning” into your head voice, this opens and relaxes your throat. It’s pretty difficult to hang onto vocal tension through a yawn and exhaled high note.)
- Do light vocal warm-ups right before your audition to make sure your hydration, breath control, and pitch memory are in check. Don’t stress or tire your voice out, but sing in a comfortable place in your register to keep your larynx and vocal folds relaxed, yet engaged, and performance-ready.
- Slow yourself down. As you enter your audition, realize that you’ll probably have a subconscious, nerve-induced tendency to speed up. Actively think about your rate of speech, breath, and musical timing. Take deep calming breaths and a sip of your warm, decaf tea to slow you down.
- Don’t start until you’re ready! If you feel dehydration creeping back in or your throat getting tight as you walk in the audition room, ask the judges for a moment — even if that means doing a few more vocal warm-ups right there or another sip of tea. Or shaking it out. Or jumping jacks. Do whatever you need to do to calm your nerves (or shock your body out of the unwelcome anxiety). Giving yourself the best chance at success means knowing and addressing the obstacles in your way.
If you’ve read this far, you’re clearly committed to upping your singing, sight-reading, and/or auditioning game, and if you follow the above steps, you stand a great chance.
The vocal transformation you experience probably won’t be overnight, but with consistent practice and the aforementioned multi-faceted approach, you (and those around you) should start to notice changes and improvements within a few months. If you extend that effort and practice forward a few years, there’s no telling how far you’ll come. I certainly never expected to be soloing Italian Arias on a university stage, among other now-professional, full-time performers and musicians, but four or five years later, there I was.