How to Craft a "Moment Before"

auditioning self-tape Feb 09, 2024

Written By: Cynthia

As an actor, you’re likely familiar with the concept of creating a “moment before." You may think it’s such an obvious concept that it doesn’t need an entire blog post dedicated to it. 

But in my experience, even though everyone seems to know about it and its importance, it's amazing how often I need to remind people to do it or even help them figure out how. It's one of those things that I feel like actors need constant reminders about. 

One of the reasons I think that actors often forget their moment before is that when it comes to being in the audition room, there's just too much to think about. You're already thinking about your acting beats and your given circumstances. Plus, you’re probably processing what you had to wear, where the audition location is, what subway you had to get on, how long you're waiting, how you’re feeling, whether you slept well that night…I mean, the list goes on. Our brains get chaotic when we're in nervous situations, and sometimes the crucial pieces go out the window—like establishing your moment before. 

My encouragement to you is that no matter what is going on in an audition room or how much of a pain in the butt it is to set up your self-tape equipment—try to take a moment before your moment before. Take a deep breath and allow it to ground and propel you into your song.

What is a “Moment Before”?

Let’s go back to the basics for a minute. I'm sure you've heard the old saying, "When you can no longer speak, you sing." We say that a lot in musical theater; when something becomes so important that talking no longer suffices, you have to sing about it. Or, when something has reached such an emotionally heightened place that talking just isn't going to cut it anymore, so you have to break into song.

To some extent, we're already stretching believability by the fact that we're about to break into song, and yet one of our main jobs as actors is to create a believable, compelling, clear story, and to effectively communicate that story. So, one of the things that can help create a believable moment is to have this “moment before."

What just happened in the story that is so impactful that it no longer makes sense to just talk about it, but sing instead?

I think of this like a heartbeat or a breath that precedes the song. It's that moment that holds the potential to make or break this believable moment in an audition room. You want to spin magic with this moment, so that before you even sing a note, your audience—those folks behind the table or on the other side of the video screen—are already engaged before you've opened your mouth. You want them wondering, “Oh my gosh, what just happened? I can tell something just happened; I wonder what it is. Oh, yay, they're about to sing about it and tell me!” We want people to be able to tell that something important just happened, so that they're ready to lean into the rest of the story. If you don't have this crystal clear moment right before, the song is going to feel unconnected, unmotivated, or not urgent enough for you to sing right in this moment. 

Phrases to help spark your moment before

If you are near a pencil and paper or the notes app on your phone, write these down. I'm going to give you some phrases that help me craft a moment before that makes it believable that I need to sing.

So, here's your list:

  • A match strike
  • A seismic shift
  • A gut punch
  • A reality check
  • A lightning strike
  • A game changer
  • A curve ball 

These are all little phrases that I use to figure out how to create a believable moment before. What these phrases have in common is that they all have some element of discovery, urgency, or surprise. They have serious drama and activate a response—in other words, they're all going to propel you to have to sing.

When you start thinking about your moment before, think about what your particular song needs to launch it into the music. Is it a gut punch, like your significant other saying they're leaving you? Or is it a lightning strike, like love at first sight? Or maybe it’s a discovery that is a total game changer—you thought something was true, and now something completely different has just come to light.

How do you create the moment before?

Now that you know these phrases for the vibe we're going for, how do you make this happen? 

If you know the material you are singing from, do your research.

If you research the show your song is from and discover what just happened, use it! You would be shocked how often people don't know what actually happened in the show the moment before their song, because they've just extracted a song that fits their voice.

I encounter a lot of folks who use Wikipedia to try to research the show and their song, but it's not going to give you all of the details. You'll have a sense of where the song lands in the show, but it's not going to give you the match strike or the gut punch. I highly recommend finding a way to get your hands on the script, or talk to someone who knows that show well.

If you can't access the script, but your show is based on a movie, watch the movie! Try to figure out exactly what just happened before your song is sung, and even take note of the actual cue line before your song, because that can be helpful.

If you can’t access the material, make it up!

If you are singing something that you don't know the background of, like maybe you’re singing for a brand new show or you didn’t have enough time to fully research—that's okay! You’re an actor; you’re creative and imaginative, so make it up! Think of something high stakes, really dramatic, with some conflict or a surprise element to it. And your moment before doesn't necessarily have to be the same as the story of the show it’s from, but it can still have a similar vibe.

Let's say you’re singing "The Wizard and I" from Wicked. The first line of that song is, “Did that really just happen?” Your moment before could be anything shocking to you, any seismic shift. It could be like, “Did I honestly just win the lottery? Did I just book my first Broadway show? Did someone just hand me a puppy?” It could be anything that helps get you into the mindset of what that character is going through, even if it's not exactly the same story.

Other ways to communicate your moment before 

  1. Give yourself a cue line: Imagine a scene partner for yourself. If they were talking to you, what could they say that would make you have to launch into your song? It can even be as simple as, “I'm leaving you.” Whatever it may be, you're going to imagine that cue line being said to you during your introduction, and then react to it as it propels you into singing.
  2. Visualize a situation: Imagery can be really powerful. Imagine opening the door to your apartment and realizing that your partner moved out—that's such a great example of a gut punch. Or imagine clicking open an email from your agent with a contract offer for your dream show—what a lightning strike!  When you visualize a situation or use a cue line, get as specific as you can. Let's take the example of opening the door to your apartment and realizing that your partner moved out. Visualize that. Do you have to walk down the hallway first before you get into the living room? Or did you have to walk down the hallway, turn the corner, and get to the bedroom to realize the closet is empty? Come up with really juicy little details, so that when you visualize that situation, you've got a really rich story already happening before you start to sing.
  3. Hook with an attitude: This is like a shortcut version of the other two, and it’s great for when you don't have a lot of time. Essentially, you distill it all down to a pithy, catchy little hook that's going to get you into the attitude of your song in a really clear way. These are phrases like, “Let's go!”, “Bring it on!”, or “Are you kidding me?” Any simple one-liners with a quick little hook that propels you into whatever your song portrays. So let's say we're back to "The Wizard and I", maybe it could be something as simple as the “Let's go!” and then you begin with “Did that really just happen?” 

Don’t Forget to Think About Your Physicality 

Sometimes we get a lot of face acting, which I'm not against, but there's so much more to us as human beings than just our faces. In auditions, I find it so limiting when people forget that they have this entire body that can be used as an instrument of communication.

I would encourage you to try this exercise when you're crafting your moment before. Let's say you're using a cue line; when you hear that cue line, let yourself react physically, and then do it dramatically in three different ways. This needs to be super over the top, dramatic, bad acting—just as an exercise.

Imagine you’re launching into your song with a cue line that's like a gut punch, and let yourself physicalize what it feels like to be punched in the gut. Really physicalize it. Let your body literally double over in pain, grab your head, and be really dramatic. And then do it three different ways. 

Once you've done that at least three times in three different ways, start to pay attention to what feels “right” for your song or your character. What does your character need? Are they a big physical presence or not? Are they keeping something bottled in, or are they releasing something?  

As you do this more and more, your body won't lie. Your body is going to tell you what feels right for that character and what feels a little inauthentic. I encourage you to dare to make the biggest and boldest physical choices with this moment before exercise so that you're able to then make an intentional physical choice in your audition.

All of these practices are things you can do when you're on the subway, or while you're waiting in line at the coffee shop. So much of it is imagination—imagine three different cue lines, three different scenarios that you could use with imagery, and try to come up with some of those fun hooks with attitude. Spend time thinking about it and creating a really clear moment before.

And if your song has gotten just a little stale for you, try coming up with a new moment before, and see if that breathes new life into it. It's like adding a fabulous new accessory to something you've been wearing and making it all of a sudden feel like a brand-new outfit.

If you're interested in diving deeper into this interview or exploring other interesting musical theatre conversations, check out the Broadway Vocal Coach podcast! Or check us out on Instagram, and get involved in the conversation! 

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