Monday, April 07, 2014

How to choose soloists in your choir: audition or self-selection?

Rather than everyone singing all the time, many choirs ring the changes by creating smaller ensembles within the larger choir or have occasional solos.

choir solo
photo by Shelly Mags

In a non-auditioned, open-access choir, what is the fairest way to choose singers to take on these roles?

smaller ensembles give variety in concerts

The OK Chorale’s recent concert featured the Corsican national anthem Dio Vi Salvi Regina. We sang it in last year’s concert so to make things a little different, and to be more in the spirit of the culture that the song comes from, I decided to have two trios start off the verses before the rest of the choir joined in.

I asked for volunteers who felt they could hold a harmony part on their own. In the end, more people came forward who sang the main melody than the other two parts, so we ended up with two quartets each having two singers on the tune.

I managed a certain amount of coaching within the regular choir sessions (it wasn’t possible to have extra rehearsals outside our weekly sessions), but had to rely a lot on the individual singers and trust that they would rise to the occasion. In the end it sounded great, the only problem being that the rest of the choir forgot to repeat one section when they joined in!

creating ensembles: audition or self-selection?

In the past I have formed smaller ensembles from within a larger choir in order to tackle more complex material. The first time I let people self-select. The criterion was that people had to feel confident to hold a harmony part on their own.

I was seriously misguided! I soon realised that people’s perception of their harmony singing abilities and the reality were often very different. In the end I had to politely ask some people to leave because they simply weren’t up to the job. They didn’t take it well!

The next time I decided to hold auditions. I didn’t ask anyone to sing solo because I was already familiar with most voices having heard them in the main choir. I also believe that if you’re auditioning someone to join an acappella singing group, then they need to be able to work well as a team and demonstrate good harmony singing skills. The auditions therefore took the form of workshops where I put the singers through their paces and tried many different combinations of voices.

I was very happy with the group I ended up with, but as time went by it became clear that some singers weren’t progressing as well as others and were stuck at one level. After a few years we decided to disband the original group and start a new one with everyone re-auditioning. Some people ended up losing their place in the ensemble. They didn’t take it well!

Whether you audition or ask people to self-select, there will be disappointment.

the pros and cons of self-selection

Whenever I ask for volunteers for solos or small group work, it’s usually the same singers who step forward. If you’re going to go down the self-selection route, you need to find ways of being as inclusive as possible, but without putting reluctant singers on the spot.

Here are some issues that self-selection throws up:

  • the usual suspects – it’s most often the same small group of confident singers who will step forward. They’re not necessarily the best singers and because they come forward quickly they often stop less confident singers from trying out.
  • how to control quality? – you may get a bunch of singers willing to give it a go, but the quality of their singing might not meet your requirements. Or maybe quality is not an issue, and it’s fine to let everyone have a bash. Depends really on what type of choir you are.
  • saying ‘no’ – if you find that a volunteer is simply not up to the job, how do you let them down easily without damaging their self-confidence or discouraging them from volunteering in the future?
  • being inclusive – there are often fantastic singers in your choir who lack the confidence to step forward when you ask for volunteers. Other than pointing at them and forcing them to try out, how can you be more inclusive when asking singers to try out? 

the pros and cons of auditions

If your choir is open-access and the singers don’t have to audition to join, then introducing auditions for soloists may seem to go against the philosophy of the choir. Even if you do decide to audition, what type of audition will it be: solo singing? workshop for everyone? small group try-outs?

Here are some issues that auditions throw up:

  • what are you auditioning for? – you need to be very clear what you’re evaluating in your auditions which will help you decide what form they will take.
  • affect on morale – if you have a few ‘chosen’ singers within your non-auditioned choir, how will that affect the confidence of the other singers?
  • the usual suspects – even more of a problem if it’s always the same people who are successful in the auditions
  • mission creep – in an open-access choir, once you’ve introduced the idea of auditions, it may well change the nature of your choir with some people demanding higher standards whilst others start to lose confidence “This is not the choir I joined!” 

no easy answers

There is no fool proof way of selecting singers to be soloists or part of a small group without either upsetting some people, or overlooking some singers, or having inconsistent quality of singing.

Whether you audition or ask singers to self-select, there is no ideal solution. Your strategy needs to suit your choir and be the most appropriate for your circumstances. If you feel that it will end up being too disruptive, then maybe you need to question whether you need soloists at all.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have cracked this particular nut. What methods do you use to choose soloists that are fair and representative and which don’t upset the ethos of an open-access choir? Do drop by and leave a comment. We all have plenty to learn!

further reading

You might also find these posts of interest.

Should you have auditions for a workplace or community choir?

Auditioned choir or not?

Singing in harmony 2 – small group skills

Hey, you at the back!

How to be a confident singer

Chris Rowbury