How to Audition for American Idol
Written by Susan Anders ~ vocal instructor
You’ve watched the show, you’ve seen the competition, and you think you’re ready to come face-toface
with Simon Cowell. The first step is to blow everyone away at the initial American Idol audition.
The rules and audition format for each city where American Idol auditions are held keep changing
each year, so be sure to check the American Idol site and prepare exactly what they specify for the
city where you plan to audition. Here’s a checklist to help you prepare:
1. Find a Good Audition Song
For most auditions you will want to sing just a chorus of a song, so make sure it’s a great chorus that
really shows you off. This is not a time for subtlety, you want songs that hit people over the head like
“I Will Always Love You”, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “If I Ain’t Got You.” However, all of
these songs I’ve mentioned will probably be sung by many other singers. Do your homework and
find a song that’s not as popular but just as showy. Recent hits are in everyone’s ear, so go back a
way and find something older and great. Try singing songs originally made famous by a singer of the
opposite gender to make it fresh. Also try jumping genres: “I Will Always Love You” was originally a
country song until Whitney reinvented it. A fresh approach to a killer song will get attention.
Find a song that shows off your full range without going beyond it. You don’t want to be straining for
any high notes, but you don’t want to bore them with a song that’s too easy. The key of the original
song may be too high or low for you, but when you sing it a cappella you can put it in your key. Put it
in the highest possible key where you still sound good. If the low notes are still too low you need a
different song, you won’t be able to magically sing them at the audition. See my article about singing
low notes for more on that.
If possible, get a version in your key to practice with. That can be a karaoke version in the right key,
or if you have a karaoke player you can change the key. Or, you may need to go to a vocal coach or
accompanist for one lesson to get a piano version of the song for practice purposes. If you do this,
make sure to get a version with and without the melody played, and while you’re at it get one where
just the bass notes of the accompaniment are played. I’ll explain why in the next section.
2. Practice Your Song With Accompaniment
You will be auditioning without accompaniment, but too many singers forget to really learn the song
before doing this. Then a cappella they go off-key. I had a singer come in last year right before an
audition who managed to sing one chorus in five different keys! You’ll want to develop your own
version of the song, but learn the melody first. That means get that melody down. Record yourself
singing along with the singer or piano accompaniment with melody and make sure your voice
matches, especially on high notes, low notes, fast phrases and runs.
When you are comfortable singing your song with the singer or melody, practice with a version
where the melody isn’t played or sung. Focus on listening to the accompaniment while you sing, that
will help keep you in tune. Record yourself again and listen for any pitch problems. Remember that
sometimes singers go out of tune because they just need more practice, and sometimes they go out
of tune for technical problems like too much throat tension. You may need to work more with the
melody version of the song, but if you keep practicing and you’re still out of tune, go see a vocal
3. Practice Your Song Without Accompaniment
Now you want to see if you can keep it together singing a cappella. If you have a version where just
the bass notes are played try singing with that first. Or start singing with the recorded
accompaniment, turn off the track and sing a cappella, then check the track when you’re done to see
if you’re still in tune. If you play an instrument you can use the same method, just play the first and
last chord and sing a cappella in-between.
Once again, record yourself. If you’re drifting to another key, go back and work with the
accompaniment some more. If you sound good, get ruthless with yourself: evaluate your singing as if
you were Simon Cowell. Listen for pitch accuracy, tone quality, expressiveness, articulation, and
control. Polish your performance until it’s a sparkling diamond.
4. Practice Your Song In Front of the Mirror
Now that your singing sounds good it’s time to make sure you look good. Get in front of the mirror
and sing to yourself. Make sure you aren’t bouncing around too much, or that you aren’t a statue.
You should look relaxed, but still have good posture. Your face should look interested as you sing,
not like you’re in pain. As you sing to yourself in the mirror try to focus on your forehead, which will
keep your eyes from flitting around.
5. Practice Your Song In Front of a Camcorder
The camera doesn’t lie: tape yourself and then check for all of the already discussed visual, vocal
and performance points. Taping yourself might kick up some nerves, too.
6. Practice Your Song In Front of an Audience
Many singers are good at working their song feverishly up to this point, but forget to practice in front
of people. Live performances have an energy that is hard to recreate at home, so the only way to
prepare is to do practice performances. Sing at karaoke clubs as much as possible. Even though
your American Idol audition will probably be off-mic and a cappella, this is still a good way to
prepare. You could have a friend videotape your performance. Also, gather family and friends and
perform your song for them. You could even tell them to act bored or tired, since that may be the
emotional state of the people you sing for at the audition! Whenever a friend can spare thirty
seconds to be your audience, sing for them. Singing in as many different places to as many different
people as possible will prepare you for the craziness of the actual audition.
7. Practice Your Song In Your Sleep
Well, this is a joke, of course, but I do have a point to make. If your audition is like many of them, you
will have been waiting a long time, perhaps even camping overnight, before you finally get to sing.
You’ll be tired, impatient, hungry or otherwise not at your best. Then when you finally get to sing,
adrenaline will hit you like a lightning bolt. You want to be able to give a fantastic performance even
if you’re exhausted, nervous, hungry, angry, whatever. If you’ve practiced and fine-tuned your
performance enough, you can transcend any physical or emotional state and still deliver the kind of
knockout audition that will get you noticed.
How To Master Low Notes:
What Many American Idol Singers Forget to Do
There are many articles out there on how to audition and how to develop your performance skills, so
I instead I’m going to address a vocal skill that I find lacking in many of the American Idol singers.
I’ve been coaching singers for over twenty years and I continue to see this problem in the singers I
work with as well.
In general I’ve seen a huge improvement in vocal technique since the first American Idol. The
success of the show has brought a bigger pool of singers to the auditions, and the ones that make it
past the third round of auditions are often pretty good. They each have mastered many of the
essentials of good singing: a pleasing sound, good range, volume, and a certain amount of control.
But there is one weak area I keep noticing in many of these singers: lack of low-end control.
Many singers obsess about and work long hours to be able to belt as strong and as high as possible,
but when they sing a low section of the song they go out of tune. Additionally, their voices might get
breathy, weak or wobbly. For all the flack Simon Cowell gets, I’ve heard him criticize several singers
for this and he was absolutely right. A good singer masters her high and low range.
Steps Towards Mastering Low Notes
Remember that the vocal chords relax as notes descend in pitch, and if they relax too much you can
lose control of the sound. To stay in control of low notes you need to feel resonance (vibration) in
your face when you sing them. This is difficult because low notes, by their nature, cannot be sung
loudly, and louder notes vibrate more. Your goal for low notes is for them to have clarity and
presence, not volume–that’s what the microphone is for, bring it closer to your mouth on low notes to
To feel resonance in your face on your low notes, start with humming. If you don’t feel anything, try
slowly shaking your head from side to side to relax your throat. If you still don’t feel any resonance or
vibration in your face, continue this exercise every day for a week. You can also try tipping your
head slightly towards the floor to increase resonance. Every singer I’ve ever worked with eventually
can feel resonance, and it’s critical. When you’re singing correctly you should always feel resonance
in your face and not much of anything in your throat. With resonance comes control.
If you did feel facial resonance while humming, now try singing a held note on “mee” – pick a note in
the middle of your range. Try to sing it without vibrato and strive for a clean, non-airy tone. Again, try
slowly shaking your head from side to side if the sound is airy or you don’t feel resonance. If you do,
gradually sing lower and lower one-note “Mee”s. Notice that your volume will drop as you descend,
but you should still feel that vibration and the tone should remain clean.
It’s much easier to feel resonance and control on “closed” vowels like “ee”, so work with this sound
for awhile. Find a section of a song that is fairly small in range: the chorus of “I Will Always Love
You”, sung without Whitney’s vocal fills, will work. Sing the chorus on “Mee” fairly low in your range.
Once again, sing with no vibrato and a clear tone. This may sound overly controlled to you but it will
help you strengthen your low end. If you can sing the whole chorus and feel resonance throughout,
try it again in a lower key. Repeat this until you reach the lowest part of your range. If at any time you
feel the sound in your throat or you’ve lost control of the note (it weakens, wobbles, or gets airy),
move back to a higher key.
Working Low Notes in Songs
Let’s say you’ve worked your low end for awhile but you still find singing low notes difficult in your
songs. First of all, check the key and make sure you aren’t going too low for your range. If it’s too low
for you at home I can guarantee it will be too low when you are filled with adrenaline singing for an
audience. Your high notes might be easier due to the adrenaline, but your lows will be harder to
reach. Pick a reasonable key. Then sing your song, but at first substitute “Mee” for all the low notes
until you feel resonance and control on them. When you go back to the regular lyric, very slightly
smile on your lowest notes to brighten them. Lifting your eyebrows helps, too, but not so much that
you look goofy.
One more thing: absolutely do not sing any fast runs on your low notes until you have mastered the
regular melody. So many singers put the cart before the horse and throw in the fancy stuff before
mastering the melody. If you can’t control the low notes of the regular melody you will surely go out
of tune trying to sing elaborate runs.
Working on you low end can be a nice break from all the high notes we work on as singers, and it’s
also good to do if your voice is a little tired. Mastering your low end may just give you the edge over
all the other great singers that make it to American Idol.
Susan Anders – vocal instructor