Auditioning amateur choristers – The conductor’s side of things
Auditioning singers seems to be part of my karma. I audition singers for my amateur choirs, for my professional ensemble, as soloists, and for the Cirque du Soleil – as an Artistic Talent Scout for both new and existing productions. It is interesting to see what all auditions have in common, but also what changes from one audition to the next. In this blog post, I will describe how I proceed to audition amateur choristers.
Know your group.
The choristers who will sing in an ensemble are the ingredients for an overall musical and social recipe. Their level is a starting point: choristers will learn and evolve in time. But we all know that a good recipe needs good ingredients. (And we all know that a bad chef can mess up good ingredients, too!!!) I find that it is of critical importance to know the organisation you work for. Where are the members from? What is the overall level of proficiency in reading music, musical understanding, musicality, style, language skills? What are the ethics of the group? Is it more of a social club, a place where people come to learn, or a group with professional ambitions? Is it linked to a community? Is it conservative, progressive? What is the strongest section? What is the current balance between the different sections? Who is leaving next year and who is going to retire? Is the choir aging? Should there be a certain balance between generations? You need to know this in order to change or maintain paradigms, whether they are musical, behavioural, social, or even administrative. This knowledge will guide you in your selections as you reinforce or change the architecture of your choir.
Know your goals.
Once you know your group, you need to know where you are going with it and why. For me, that also includes why you were hired and the mandate you agreed upon with the board. This should be very clear from the get-go, because when people start to criticize – change always disrupts a previous balance in which people were comfortable – you have to be able back up your actions with a clearly established plan laid out by you and your employer.
From that point on, you can start addressing more specific problems. Do you need to increase membership to help the budget or do bigger works with orchestra? Skim down the numbers in order to increase quality? You should also know what the choir’s musical goals are. Do you need to focus on vocal technique, increase the level of sight-singing, or gain more literate choristers for more difficult works? Lighter sopranos or louder altos? More than just 3 tenors (!!!) and a more cohesive bass section?
The answers to these questions will help you find the choristers you need and help you achieve the long-term goals of your organization.
Conducting is a people job. It means dealing with people, and people can both be fantastic and irritating. Conductors need to adapt all the time, and it’s also a job that requires you to be very quick and alert. You shouldn’t be trying to make it harder than it needs to be. My word of advice: try to accept the best choristers for your choir’s needs, but choose people that will make your work, the work of others, and the board’s work easier. Highly skilled people that make everybody else’s life hell shouldn’t be judged only on their beautiful tone or perfect pitch, but also on their ability to interact effectively, put effort into their music and be happy making something beautiful in a group. Your instincts should guide you, since it’s easier to say “No, thank you” after a 10-minute audition than “Goodbye” after 6 months of warnings and struggles.
How do I do it?
Here are two situations that illustrate what I said above.
I’m in my 4 th year as Artistic Director and my 5 th year with the organization. About 50 people, but we would like 70 for budget, sound and general mass. Very much goal- and music-oriented. Many very experienced choristers. Level of sight-singing: 6/10.
Several trained musicians (college and university level). Bilingual, but more Francophones than Anglophones. 100 th anniversary next year. The level and the numbers are rising as part of a goal we set 3 years ago. Too many women compared to men (although it’s getting better), so we need to hire pros for rehearsals and concerts. Fairly multi-generational, but most people are 40+ years old. At this point, no problem with an aging choir. Low turnover.
– Maintaining and increasing quality:
Select trained choristers who have experience; select trained musicians with little singing experience; prioritize people with 7/10 reading skills.
– Reinforcing age diversity:
Accept younger choristers with less experience, accepting lower proficiency and investing in training.
– Increasing numbers of tenors and basses:
Accept choristers with less experience, accepting lower proficiency and investing in training. Standards for entry are lower. There is no way out at this point.
– Increasing numbers without lowering quality:
Accept choristers with lower musical proficiency, but higher motivation and a good ear. Accept choristers for a 4-week probation period to test their learning skills. As the choir’s level rose through training efforts and selection, I decided to let more people in after years of a competitive entry process, since the core of the ensemble is much stronger than before. This generally higher level also supports new choristers and offers a nourishing musical environment.
Accept choristers with discipline and a good work ethic. Make sure they can be autonomous in their weekly work (sight-singing, piano skills, independence in finding resources online).
I’m in my 5 th year as AD. 30 singers. Very high level. Competition winners. University choir. 18-23 years old. Challenging repertoire in many languages and styles. High yearly turn-over, from 1/3 to 1/2 of the choir every year. High/very high level of applicants. The choir is invited to important performances; level needs to be maintained every year despite turn-over.
– Maintaining a consistent musical level:
Select singers with very good technique and singing experience. Fast-track people with instrumental and vocal experience.
Make sure choristers are committed to high-quality music making. Make sure they embrace the group’s values.
Due to its reputation, the group tends to attract the right type of choristers, but the challenge is to have enough people auditioning to maintain quality and integrity despite turn-over.
How I organize auditions
First, I greet people and try to be warm and welcoming to bring the stress level down. I’m a rather low-maintenance person and I prefer a human-to-human dynamic to a conductor-chorister one. You will never escape the context and categories, but you can try to make them more relaxed and playful. I always offer to give feedback so that the audition can be a learning experience. That way, people leave the audition room with something meaningful whether the outcome was positive or not.
I sit at the piano and explain what the order of events will be:
1) Assessing colour and range
2) Assessing aural skills (tuning, memory, tonal and atonal hearing, rhythm)
3) Assessing sight-singing
People usually get a little defensive about 3) but I smile and say it’s part of the process. If there is still some apprehension, I explain that some members of my choir have about 2/10 reading skills but a great ear and that’s OK. I also explain that with training you can get great at sight-singing and that people passively gain about 2 more points just by doing it for a few years. I remain firm about trying to read because people are usually better at it than they think, and I believe that it’s important to read music if you want to sing at a high level. It also acts as a test of how people react to something stressful that they don’t necessarily want to do. It tells me a lot about their personality.
I have my computer open with an excel sheet designed specifically for the audition, and I take notes during the whole process. I usually ask singers to tell me where they have been placed in choirs before.
1) Assessing colour and range
For sopranos and tenors, I start with an upward arpeggio figure (1-3-5-3-1) on mi-i-o-o-o. I show it twice as an example and then it’s the singer’s turn. I try to observe where and how they breathe, how resonant the voice is, where the colour changes, where there might be vocal health issues, where the strain starts, and general energy in the body. Then we go down, and I try to see if the colour changes. I try to assess the general colour of the voice: light, powerful, heavy, dark, etc. I do the same for basses and altos, but I start by going down rather than going up.
2) Aural skills
I then ask auditionees to repeat 3-4 motives on la la la that I play on the piano. I usually skip major and minor chords because they are too easy. I start with diminished, then augmented, then I add tone up/semitone down (G-A-G#), then a major seventh and a semitone (A-G#-A). Obviously, I assess the accuracy of the pitches, but also the clarity of production, focus, tuning, and general attitude. I have a rather empirical system: Weak, Weak+, Medium-, Medium, Medium+, Excellent-, Excellent. It’s a quick way to notate during the audition (W, W+, M-, M, M+, E-, E). Every skill is notated according to that system. It makes sense to me, and it creates a quick picture of the skills to refer to when I get back home and don’t remember the audition clearly. I also test memory with a little song I invented and ask them to sing by rote, explaining that it can take up to 3 tries (or more) to get it. Here it is:
G-B-A-G-F# / E-G-F#-E-D / C#-E- G
It has motivic repetition, major first, then minor, ending with a surprise accidentalfollowed by a question-like diminished triad. Usually people with no reading skills have great memory. People with great reading skills fail in different places with memory. This exercise shows very quickly how the musical mind is organized and how crystalline the hearing is. I accept people with no previous experience and no training/reading if they score very high on this.
Even if I talk a lot about this, this is the least important part of the audition. It’s a good measure of the choir as a whole (what repertoire you can do, how quickly you can learn it, how independent choristers can become) and it’s a good measure of who you should accept in a section that is already full and in good shape. Here again, I have a very empirical method:
1/10 Follows the general up and down motion, not saying pitch names and not singing the right pitches.
2/10 Follows the general up and down motion and names some pitches.
3/10 Can name pitches and sings some right pitches.
4/10 Sings a somewhat recognizable tune, but will not get back on his/her feet after making a mistake.
5/10 Half of the pitches are right!
6/10 Most of the pitches are right with some intervals wrong.
7/10 Pretty much everything is good, but the process is uneasy.
8/10 Everything is great, but there is one place where it doesn’t work.
9/10 Musical with a sense of flow. No mistakes.
10/10 A sense of power, confidence, clarity, and some emotions!
I recognize that this system is quite home-made, since musical excerpts are not all equally difficult. But the system is fairly functional for me: you just have to choose an excerpt that is typical
(a little challenging) of what you normally do with your choir. I like to take an excerpt from what we will be working on. After the audition, I give the results right away if I can. Typically, people who stand out and are at the right level for the choir are invited right away, while people who didn’t make it are told and given a path to joining the choir in time if they want to (joining a choir with more attainable standards, taking voice lessons, starting to read pitches, taking ear training lessons). I also give technical advice to everyone, with a clear assessment of my opinion (strengths, weaknesses, voice quality, postural issues, confidence building, and so on). We sometimes offer a probation period of 4 weeks for people I am unsure of or people who are unsure whether they want to commit. I explain that, together, we can monitor their learning process and integration into the group. Most of the time, people who are offered probation succeed in time. If they don’t, they usually make the decision to leave themselves because the pace is too quick or because they find the time commitment greater than planned. I also keep my antenna up for people who have trouble self-assessing (either too high or too low), who come with too many assumptions (about them, the group, or me), and people that just don’t listen. If it’s a problem during the audition, it will be a problem down the road. I usually try to gently but astutely trigger some reaction from that root psychological feature to see how we can play with it, and try asserting my leadership to see how it goes. How people react, either being flexible and interactive or shutting down, will tell me whether or not the collaboration will go smoothly.
I make sure I transfer my decisions to the board, and they follow up with everybody.