Sunday, February 07, 2010

Auditioned choir or not?

QuestionThis post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.

Nat started his choir four years ago. He’s slowly built the numbers up to a fairly stable 35 or so, but thinks it’s time for a change.

If he auditions, does it mean that he will be going against the inclusive nature of most community choirs?

He says:   

“I am no longer willing to work with people who don't  come to choir regularly. Also, many people want to join the choir, but I felt for a long time it was getting too big – now I would like to open the doors and am considering auditioning – this goes against my philosophy though.

My philosophy of singing and of music is similar to the philosophy described on the Natural Voice website – I don't want to deprive anyone of the chance to be part of a community and experience the strength and communicative power of their voice and harmony singing.

Still, we have worked a lot to get where we are and some of my singers get frustrated when I take the learning pace down 80% to accommodate inexperienced singers. So I'm considering auditioning.

I've already turned down 2-3 singers who had difficulty carrying a tune even without a second or third part. On the other hand I have seen progress that I never would have expected could be possible with some singers who had difficulties in the beginning.

So – I was hoping you could give me some advice, based on your experience. I will be making some decisions very soon – I would be thankful for any words of wisdom!!”

life is not perfect!

Not everyone will come to choir regularly. Life has a habit of intervening: people have families and other commitments. Only professionals can be guaranteed to turn up. And even then sometimes they bunk off!

Do you charge by the session or in blocks? I’ve always found that charging up front for a block of sessions focuses the mind wonderfully when it’s a cold, rainy night. People will tend to make more of an effort as they’ve already paid good money.

The bigger the choir, the easier it is to adapt to a few singers being absent in any given week. I used to run a women’s ensemble with 12 singers and if just one person was away, then it threw a spanner in the works.

Create a system whereby if someone can’t attend a session, part of the deal is that they must catch up in their own time. They can get the music or a parts CD from you, or get a friend to record the session. Put the responsibility back onto the singers.

can auditioned choirs still be ‘open’?

I’m 100% with you when you say you

“don't want to deprive anyone of the chance to be part of a community and experience the strength and communicative power of their voice and harmony singing”.

But it’s not your job alone!

As long as there are open-access choirs available, there is room for closed or auditioned choirs. We can’t be all things to all people. There’s space for a whole range of different kinds of choirs.

We recently had a discussion in the Natural Voice Network about whether we work with auditioned groups. Can we still call ourselves Natural Voice Practitioners? The consensus was that we wouldn’t in those circumstances. As long as you make it absolutely clear which kind of choir you’re running, then I don’t see any problem.

ask yourself why you want to audition

I sense that you are frustrated, and not just your singers!

What exactly do you want to achieve by auditioning? There’s no guarantee that you’ll end up with more commitment, nor a group of singers with the same standard.

Do you take the learning pace down to accommodate inexperienced singers, or because not everyone comes every week or not everyone joins at the same time? If it’s the latter, then there are things you can do about it (see Helping new choir members learn the old songs).

If you do decide to audition, you should think very carefully what form the audition should take. In a harmony singing choir, group work is much more important than solo work, so getting each person to sing solo might not be the best way to do it. You’ll also need to see how quickly people pick up new songs.

you can’t control everything

I have a friend who runs a choir who is beginning to realise that she has the most fun when she’s at home making the parts CDs to give the choir members. She sings every part and has complete control of the recording process.

Human beings are messy and complicated, and groups tend to have a life of their own. You can’t control any of these things.

You need to decide what you are running the choir for. If it’s to realise a piece of music perfectly, then maybe you should stay at home and record it yourself, or get a bunch of professional singers in.

If you’re interested in community and people’s music-making abilities, then I think you have to relinquish some control. The upside of this is that you will learn so much from the group, you will make so many people happy, and, in the process, the music-making will get better.

we all get frustrated from time to time

Sometimes I find myself getting really frustrated because a bunch of singers are taking too long to pick up a tune. I know it inside out, why can’t they just get it? But this happens fairly rarely.

What is more common is that I arrive at choir tired and just not in the mood. But as soon as the harmonies of the first song begin to come together, I am revived and rejuvenated. That’s what makes it so worthwhile.

Is this a long-standing frustration, or do you get weeks where everything is fine?

what next?

  • figure out what you want to achieve – then make this clear to your singers
  • what if auditioning doesn’t solve all your problems? – have a back-up plan
  • devise a system to retain choir members and encourage them to come every session
  • be clear what you expect from your singers – what are their responsibilities?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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