Sheri Sanders on Rap Music, Sanford Meisner, & More

Immediately upon talking to Sheri Sanders, I realize she is a people person. By that, I mean she has a genuine interest in people. She wants to learn things about other people, hear their stories, and share her own. It’s a really cool thing and I’m sure it’s something that has contributed to her success. Sheri created Rock the Audition, which teaches musical theatre performers how to study and perform popular music. A mentor of mine recommended that I read her book, Rock the Audition, and it’s genius. She breaks down the technical aspects of different eras and styles of popular music, making an easy guide for the reader. She has since created an on-line rock musical training program with custom cut and arranged music that sounds incredible on the piano.

Her bio is incredibly impressive: “In 2004, Sheri noticed that the radio was changing the climate of Musical Theatre and created Rock The Audition, a masterclass in auditioning for Rock Musicals. The class became a hit in NYC- and Sheri immediately  became the world’s preeminent popular music repertoire coach. Sanders cold-called Hal Leonard Publishing, and in 2011 became the first author to publish a book on the new relationship between popular music and Musical Theatre. Her book Rock The Audition: How to Prepare for and Get Cast in Musicals brought her to to 58 Musical Theatre programs in 4 years providing students, teachers and coaches the skills to successfully research, prepare and perform all styles of popular music currently represented on Broadway- Motown, 70s Folk/Rock, Disco, 80s Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Hip Hop, Rock/Punk/Emo, Country/ Bluegrass, and Faeries.

Sheri and her new interactive On-Line Rock Musical Theatre Training Program now makes it possible for Musical Theatre programs and individual professional performers and coaches to study directly with Sheri from every corner of the world, with custom cut and arranged sheet music that sounds incredible on the piano for any audition or performance! http://www.rock-the-audition.com”

But how did Sheri become one of the industry’s most sought after teachers? It all started with a secret love of theatre.

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“I grew up in Westchester [which is] 20 minutes north of the city, so at 13, 14 years old, I would sneak in and see shows. I would tell my mom I was going to the mall and I would just sneak in, so that taught me about what I was passionate about. As a young person, my first few Broadway shows were Big River and The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the original production of Les Mis. It was a secret passion that I ended up making a reality for myself, but seeing those shows and seeing those performances was life changing for me. In fact, a funny thing that I’ll tell you is, Les Mis was one of the first shows I saw, and Randy Graff was in the original company of Les Mis and what’s really funny is, she emailed me the other day, because we both teach at NYU now and she said, ‘I’ve been hearing about your class. Can I come and sit in?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?! Randy Graff! You were one of the actresses that I saw that made me want to do this!’ I remember being thirteen and singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ at some party and [when I got to the high part], I cracked. And my voice teacher put her hand on my shoulder and was like, ‘You’re coming with me.’ It was those things, those people that I saw, who made me want to perform, and now I get to have those people sitting in on my life, asking me how I do what I do, when I’m thinking, I wouldn’t have even been here if it weren’t for you! So in terms of the influence on my life, I would say that there have been a lot of musical theatre people and shows that made me want to do this and because I did it, I ended up finding out what my niche was and then being in service to the community in a bigger way than being an actor.”

“That’s amazing,” I say, imagining what it must be like to have your idols become your peers. “Who inspired you when you were younger?” I ask.

“I’ve said this before, but in my late teens, Bette Midler was a huge influence on me. I watched all of her old movies from the late 70’s and 80’s, when she was a performer in her younger years, because she was so emotionally wild, like sometimes she would crack and sometimes she was flat, sometimes sharp, but she was always crying and always emotionally engaged and inventive and always did interesting interpretations of music. I would watch these old videos of Bette Midler and say, ‘I want that wilderness. I want that sauciness and that freedom that she’s got to be herself. She was a pretty big influence on me as a younger person. I’ve yet to meet her, but hopefully someday I will,” she says, grinning.

I smile, silently hoping that the two meet one day, before asking my next question. “Where did you go to college and how did that influence you?”

“I went to Emerson college and I dropped out after my freshman year. So I did not finish. And I don’t encourage people to not finish college, I think it’s important for some people to go to school, but for me, I was always a little bit immature for my age, so I think the college life was a little too intense for me. There’s always a part of me that wanted to finish school, but it’s interesting because I’ve taught at 58 colleges, so I kind of have finished school, you know? And all of my college professors and students are my teachers at the schools I teach at, so I feel like I’ve graduated 25 times over. And actually, funny enough, I went back and taught at Emerson last year and it was kind of a monumental event.

“I wish I had had the maturity to stay in school, but I ended up coming to the city and studying acting and theatre and I learned on the job and I thought that was really good training. I had to go out into the world and audition and work in shows that were not guaranteed and had never been done before. I did a lot of original work. In the first couple of years that I was in New York, I did these shows with these theatre companies, and they were all original and they were bad most of the time and you learn, for lack of a better word, how to shine shit. I learned how to make things that didn’t work, work. I learned how to collaborate; I learned how to paint sets and write music and do the lights and direct and these are the kinds of things that actually gave me the tools to be able to be reliable on more levels that just as an actor. And so the way that my world worked out, even though I dropped out, I feel like I got incredible training in life and on the job. It ended up turning into a professional acting career where I worked steadily for about twenty years, even while I was building Rock the Audition. But I appreciate [my training] because I feel like in college there isn’t a lot of opportunity to work on new work. You work on plays and musicals and scenes that already exist, so there’s not as much chance to make something bad, good or better. That’s a skill set that, I think if more colleges had access to new material, then they [could] go, Woah, what can I do to make this make sense? So I guess I was trained in the art of making something that doesn’t make sense, make sense. I put myself through the college of hard-knocks.”

“Can you talk a little bit about your professional acting career prior to Rock the Audition?”

“Well I would say that it’s two-faceted. Because I didn’t go to school, there wasn’t anybody saying, ‘You’re an ingenue,’ or ‘This is your type,’ so I was very flexible and open to try anything. [Because of that], I had a reputation like, ‘Give it to Sheri, she’ll make something great of it.’ And then at the same time, since I didn’t go to school, I wasn’t socialized, if that makes sense. I didn’t have a place to work out my garbage. Because that’s something that happens when you go to college, you learn about relationships and a lot of personal stuff comes up when you leave home. It was a time when my sexuality and my relationship to my family and a lot of stuff comes up and college is, it should be, a safe space that allows you to work through that stuff, [where] teachers grab ahold of you and say, ‘Cut the crap! You can’t do that!’ I didn’t have any of that, so a lot of that had to get worked out in Broadway callbacks and a lot of that got in the way. But I’ve also given myself a lot of forgiveness about that because we can only do the best we can. And I ended up totally okay; my life turned out pretty good. I would say that I was up for a lot of Broadway shows and that my talent was definitely acknowledged by the community, [but] that I just needed time to ‘cook.’”

She goes on to explain what she means using a metaphor, “Somebody told me that everyone ‘cooks’ at a different temperature, so that’s why some people book a Broadway show right out of school and some people don’t book a show for ten years, some people never book a Broadway show, some people work regionally and that’s awesome, some people become agents. Everybody is a different dish and everybody has different ingredients and everybody needs to cook in a different way, so I think that Rock the Audition was a great opportunity for me to cook.”

“So, how did you come up with the idea for Rock the Audition?” I ask, referencing her genius book and teaching program that teaches musical theatre performers how to successfully perform popular music.

“It really came from an idea that a friend of mine had. She said, ‘You’re a really good rock singer and nobody knows how to sing popular music, you should teach people and then you’ll probably blow up because you know what you’re doing.’ And I was like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to teach.’ I just wanted to be the special person that people gave things to because she could make something great out of it. But what I didn’t realize was that I could still be that girl, because ‘Give it to Sheri’ became: ‘Give the crisis in our community to Sheri and she’ll fix it.’ So I put my big girl panties on and I took it on. Conceptually, because I listened to popular music growing up, it was very much like ‘boil water, cook food.’ I understand popular music, I understand a lot of different styles because I listened to the radio growing up, so it took me having a certain amount of imagination plus common sense and inspiration from popular music and musical theatre to go, ‘How do I get these two things to live together in harmony?’ So I just started practicing on people. That’s how it started, I was like, ‘Don’t give me any money, just let me practice on you and let me listen to your voice. Oh, you’re a legit soprano? What would I want to hear you sing? I don’t want to hear you sing Janis Joplin. I want to hear you sing Olivia Newton John because Olivia Newton John is a soprano, she’s just a rock singer [who’s] a legit soprano.’ So I started identifying all of the different methods to heal the crisis. And some of it came from asking people to listen to popular music rather than listening to showtunes. Some of it came from me doing the history work, like, ‘You guys! You can’t just sing a song! You’ve got to live it like a person in the 70’s did!’ Because when they wrote Pippin and Godspell, it was the early 70’s, so the music and emotional life of these shows [mirrors that time period.] You can’t just come in and riff the shit out of something and assume we’ll be like, ‘Ooh! You’re perfect for Pippin!’ You have to give that 70’s folk energy and you can’t give it without looking up the 70’s folk era.

“That’s when I started thinking, if you study popular music and you watch videos of people performing from that time period and you do research about what was going on, you can actually create a character that’s based on yourself. So rather than being like, ‘I’m playing the role of Billy and this is what he’s like,’ you can be like, ‘I’m Sheri and it’s 1968 and my husband is away at the war and I don’t know when he’s going to be home, and when I sing this song, I’m praying for him.’ And so you get to create stories completely out of your imagination based on history. That’s been really, really fun because it gives people more room to create details about themselves. It helps build a person’s personal character. So we’re not working on characters in shows, but on your own personal character, developing your own personal character and the empathy and consciousness and playfulness and depth of character that only makes you a cooler singer and person. So that all ended up happening and it all just made sense and I have essentially spent the last fourteen years trying to reach as many people as possible so that everyone can do this work and now the big thing I’m doing is creating teachers so that they can do it. That’s the big thing that’s happening now, I’ve taken the business online and I have 10 colleges currently studying with me online and 24 private voice teachers. I’m making the voice teachers actually perform popular music themselves so that they can teach it, so that they can go, ‘I had this visceral experience. Now I can explain it.’ It’s not just about having a healthy belt, but being able to transport me into the Motown era with your voice and body and soul,” she says. I listen, completely in awe of her brilliance in response to a problem she saw in her community.

This is a woman who is clearly in love with teaching, so I asked, “What’s your favorite part of teaching?”

“I have two favorite parts, Bailey,” she begins, smiling wide. “One is, teaching has made me a cooler person. I just feel like the opportunity to collaborate with people on stuff that is oftentimes difficult and scary and emotional that also asks you what your feelings are, I feel like I’ve become a much cooler person to be around. I feel like also the succeeding has also made me a cooler person to be around because oftentimes as actors, our success is reliant upon people choosing us, so when you create something on you own, [it can be an awesome feeling.] I encourage a lot of actors to find something that is their own, and it might be in the theatre, but find something that gives you value or worth so that it’s not dependent on a casting director calling you back or a creative team hiring you. Because you could be the most talented person in the room but it’s just not yours, which has really crushed a lot of people, myself included. So I think that teaching has made me a cooler person. The other favorite part about teaching is that because of the subject of it being popular music and because it is open to interpretation, I have noticed that there is a certain kind of work that I evoke in students and teachers that has some crazy liberation in it, and watching students and teachers find something in themselves that they didn’t know they had because I’m saying it’s not about your type and it’s not about anything, it’s about what this music does to you. When people find out what this music actually does to them, they become liberated and I think that experiencing other people’s liberation and experiencing people go, ‘Oh my god! It’s that simple?’ or ‘I didn’t even know I had that in me!’ or ‘Look what that story did!’ [is so amazing.]

“It’s like asking a white girl to sing her song from the 50’s and 60’s about a brown boy and saying, ‘No, you’re not supposed to talk to brown boys, you’re not supposed to be anywhere near them,’ yet, this song you’re supposed to be singing, ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love,’ if you’re singing it about a brown boy, the details it gives you about who you are as a human being are so rich and delicious that we’re looking at you going, ‘Oh my god, she’s an integrator in the 50’s and 60’s. What a cool relationship.’ I can see her relationship to people of color during a time where she wasn’t supposed to have one. You’re no longer saying, ‘I’m cute and I’m white,’ because I [wouldn’t] care about you saying that. I don’t want a white girl that doesn’t care about brown music. I want a white girl that listens to the brown community. I love it when people realize, ‘All I have to do is make the boy I’m singing about of color, and it completely taught me something about myself that I had no idea about.’ [I like] asking people to use history to do soul-searching, if I had a hashtag it would be #researchsoulsearch, research the era and soul search your own life, and that, to me, brings out such incredible things in people that have nothing to do with their ‘type.’ It gets them in their authentic emotional self. I definitely feel like teaching allows me to go home at night and put my head on my pillow and go, ‘This was cool, Sheri.’ I couldn’t do it without my students. I can tell them everything, but they have to come forward and do it, so I feel like it’s a nice collaboration,” she says.

And what is the woman who knows all popular music listening to currently?! This was a burning question of mine, so I asked, “What music are you obsessed with right now?”

“I would say now, the stuff I’m most intrigued by or I find the most exciting is Nicki Minaj,” she says, laughing, “because she’s like a pig and she’s filthy but she’s also a genius. She’s addictive, she’s talented! I love rap and I love all of the different genres of it and that’s something also something that I think is very important for me to be obsessed with right now because everybody wants to do Hamilton and they want to sing Hamilton and they don’t even understand that there are 60 or 70 different styles of rap that all exist because of where people were when they needed to report where the cops were treating them. There’s east coast, there’s west coast, there’s trap, there’s political rap, there’s freestyle, there are so many different kinds and the art forms of rap are so intricate and interesting and different. And you’ll notice in Hamilton, he uses all of the different styles of rap to tell the stories. Probably my biggest rap influences are Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot. Studying it as a teacher of it, I think that the coolest thing is identifying what kind of rap songs are out there and what kind of rap songs are appropriate for auditions, what kind of rap songs can we get where I’m rapping a little bit and then I’m also doing a cool hook, and how do I arrange a rap song, but more importantly knowing that we can only rap about what we know and what’s true. I don’t know what it’s like to be treated subhuman by white cops, but there are other rappers like Eminem or the Beastie Boys or even the great Macklemore and Lewis, that were all influenced by rappers of color and they appreciate the influence of it. I think what I love is studying rap music and then studying musical theatre’s relationship to rap music and performers’ relationships to rap music and how they can successfully rap without emulating something that they have no right singing about. I’m pretty obsessed with rap stories and people like Jason Mraz and Ed Sheeran, [both rappers] in [their] own right, and if you’re a musical theatre performer, you might want to start with them. You can’t be a caucasian person who came from a privileged background and sing about what it was like to be trapped in generations of drug abuse and selling. You just can’t sing about it. I love rap stories and how they’re told and I do also love that there was a phase where rapping was becoming about making money as a rapper so [rappers] stopped reporting about what was going on but [instead] rapping with this female singer, and then now there are people like Kendrick Lamar and they’re reporting again and I would like to see more of that,” she says, feeling like she could go on all day about the intricacies of rap music that she so clearly respects and admires.

“I have one more question,” I say, “and it’s really nerdy.” She smiles at this, ready for anything. “So I saw on your resume that you studied Meisner,” I begin, talking about Sanford Meisner, an acting teacher whose technique emphasizes an actor focusing on their scene partner and taking everything from that scene partner, instead of worrying about themselves. “I studied Meisner in high school for two years and I’m obsessed with it so I’m just curious if you have any thoughts about the way that applies to the way you teach?”

“Actually, that is a really nerdy question that is so highly intelligent and I’m actually really impressed that you learned Meisner in high school and that you’d ask a question like that and I have an answer that I think you’re really going to dig,” she says, and my inner acting geek is getting excited. “So you know from taking Meisner that it’s not about you, it’s about putting your attention on the other person and taking what you’re getting and letting them affect you and then responding authentically. And  I would say, in complete honesty, that, particularly in popular musical theatre, your scene partner is the music. You need to let the music affect you and when the music affects you, it makes you then have a relationship with the music that is then about how you and the music are in a relationship with each other. So a rhythm might affect you, or you might take a change from one rhythm to another rhythm based on what it’s doing to you. I really think Meisner and popular music go so deeply hand in hand with each other because the music is your lover, the music is your friend, the music is the person you lost, the music is all of those things and you get to be in a relationship with it and deal with it. And I think that question was probably one of the smartest questions anybody has ever asked me,” she says. And I am beaming, silently thanking my amazing high school acting teacher for teaching us such an incredible technique.

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