In my time auditioning for musicals and operas as a professional singer, I got exactly one call back. Auditioning success, as with much creative work, is a combination of the practice of resiliency, a numbers game, knowing people, and what can feel like dumb luck. And also, being in the union. 

The audition in question was for a production of The Phantom of the Opera, but not the Lloyd Webber version. It was one of the few open calls I attended that actually heard non-union singers. I arrived just thirty minutes after 8 AM, the time at which we could sign up. 

I was number 186. There were exactly two female roles available. 

We were told to arrive back at 10 AM for typing. Typing is a fun thing where auditioners walk into a room, ten at a time in this case. The casting director had a stack of our headshots with performance resumes glued to the back in the same order as our line. He looked down at our resume, up at us, down at our resume, and placed it in one pile or another. After he made his way through the ten of us, he read off the names in one pile and instructed those who made the cut to see the assistant for our time slot. 

I was in the favorable pile, which meant I got to come back and sing. Sixteen bless-ed bars of carefully selected music to demonstrate that my abilities lined up with their casting need. A few hours later, I walked back into the building and took the elevator to the crowded floor that held auditioners and “the room where it happens,” if you will. At the appointed time, I entered the studio, handed my music to the pianist, and exchanged pleasant banter with the director. I sang my thirty seconds of music, hitting the final high note with dramatic flair. He asked me to pick up particular copies of the script and music. I’d be coming back in a week to sing and read for Carlotta. Sure, I was too young to play the aging diva, but I would be considered for her understudy and the ensemble. 

My parents visited that week, a trip that had been planned around the Hamilton tickets we purchased ten months prior. And yet, I needed to prepare. This felt like my shot. I scheduled a vocal coaching session and a private acting coaching. I wanted to have the piece and my lines memorized. So, while I was able to hang out with them a bit, I spent most of their trip running around the city and rehearsing (read: fretting) in my apartment. 

In the end, I didn’t get the role. I didn’t even get a follow-up email letting me know I hadn’t gotten the role until I reached out months later. 

Throughout the day of the initial audition, I remained relatively calm. I had no expectation of even being heard. Every step of the way, I was surprised I made it to the next step. The week between that day and the callback, however, I was riddled with anxiety, crippled by the amount of pressure I felt. 

There was the external pressure of being in such a competitive field with people who were just as (or more) talented than I was. But most of what I experienced was internal pressure, that is, the significance and meaning I attributed to the situation. This audition had a certain amount of weight, but the pressure I put on myself as a human person in that situation was a whole other hill of beans. 

Maybe you’ve never been to a callback, but maybe you know the feeling. The moments before your first date with someone from your friend group. A big review meeting at work for a mistake you made. A difficult conversation with family after the election. We want it to go well–not just well, but perfectly (as we define “perfect”). The anxiety is normal, and I think it can be a message to us that we care about the situation. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be afraid of what might go wrong. 

When my ability to adequately prepare or even be open to what might go right is impaired by internal pressure, I have learned to ask myself this one question. 

What is at stake here and why do the stakes feel so big? 

This question helps me see what is in my control and what isn’t. It also helps me honor the message that my anxiety is sending me–that I am in danger–and also move through that information. It was not realistic for me to hope to completely banish my nerves about the callback. But it was helpful to be able to put it into perspective. 

What was at stake? A professional opportunity that meant spending January in Wisconsin. Why did they feel so big? I had been in NYC for ten months and this was my first callback, so it felt like this one audition had the potential to legitimize my decision to move to the city. Did this audition actually hold that level of significance? Probably not, but I believed that it did. Framing this one audition in those terms couldn’t possibly help me achieve my goal.

Naming the particular weight we put on a pressurized situation can help us reframe it. What seems like a make-it-or-break-it moment can become just one more step on a long path.

What do you think? When was the last time you had to move through a pressurized situation? What was at stake?