Monday, April 09, 2018

Audition or self-selection? – how to select singers for specific projects

Most of my work is carried out using Natural Voice Network principles. That means my singing projects are open to anyone who wants to sing.

audition sign

Occasionally though I do side-projects which involve selecting singers. What’s the best way to do this?

After my first choir had been going for a while, I thought I’d like to form a smaller group of singers from within to tackle some more advanced repertoire. I was reluctant to audition (all my work to date had been open to anyone who wanted to sing), but I knew not everyone in the choir would be up to the challenge.

I decided to specify some strict entry requirements and let the singers self-select. I had hoped maybe between 6 and 12 singers might step up. In the end pretty much everyone in the choir put themselves forward! Clearly there was a mismatch between actual singing ability and the singers’ self-awareness.

Years later I again decided to set up another smaller, more advanced group from within a large, open-access community choir. This time I decided to audition.

Since I was looking to form a small ensemble which would sing a cappella harmony, I thought auditioning individual singers wouldn’t be right as it would tell me nothing about their harmony singing skills or their ability to work as part of a team. Instead I ran a series of workshops where I could observe individuals working as a part of an ensemble.

The trouble was that I got so involved in the workshop that I was only aware of the group as a whole and forgot to pay attention to individuals! It was enough to weed out people who obviously weren’t up to it, but I ended up with a group with a much wider range of experiences than I’d hoped.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each approach.


  • can be scary – there are some wonderful singers out there who just freak at the idea of auditions so won’t even put themselves forward. Dessi Stefanova who leads the London Bulgarian Choir once said “Auditioning is not something I would ever support for our choir. If I'd auditioned, we wouldn't have some of our best singers.”
  • only tell you about individual skills – the traditional audition where a single singer demonstrates their skills won’t tell you anything about their ability to harmonise or their skills as a team player. It just tells you how well they can sing on their own. It also doesn’t tell you how quickly they pick new material up.
  • workshop auditions can lose focus – if you hold group auditions to see how well singers work together and are able to hold harmony parts, there is a danger that you won’t be able to focus on individuals whilst dealing with the whole group. A simple solution is to have an observer (or more than one) who you trust who is sitting outside. This might make it even more scary for participants though.
  • some singers don’t perform well under pressure – there are some brilliant singers who, with plenty of rehearsal and preparation, can be a fine asset to any ensemble. But they might not perform well under the pressure and scrutiny of an audition – whether it’s a solo or audition or a group workshop.
  • controlled environment – an audition is a controlled environment and relies on an outsider making a judgment on someone’s singing ability. This is often far more accurate than asking someone to assess themselves. Not everyone has the same level of self-awareness. Also, the controlled environment means that all singers are being assessed under the same conditions.


  • lack of self-awareness – many singers, especially those just starting out, simply won’t have sufficient self-awareness to be able to accurately assess their own abilities.
  • wishful thinking – a requirement may be that someone needs to be able to hold a harmony part on their own. If someone has sung regularly in a choir they may feel that they are perfectly capable of doing that, even though they may never have tried it. It’s often wishful thinking and when it comes to it, they find they can’t.
  • self-confidence can distort – it’s a generalisation, but in my experience, men tend to over-estimate their abilities, whereas women tend to under-estimate. The result is that if you form a mixed group through self-selection, you’ll probably end up with accomplished women singers but the men may be out of their depth. See A little self-doubt as a singer can help – especially if you’re a man!
  • can be a cop-out – asking singers to self-select may be a way of avoiding judging singers. It may make you feel uncomfortable to select singers by audition (“Who am I to judge?”), but that’s no reason not to do it!
  • when it works it’s great – if you do manage to end up with a group of self-aware singers who have self-selected, it will mean that you’ve got a great team to work with. It also means that you’ve probably avoided all the jealousies and bitterness that can arise when singers have not been chosen through audition. They can often feel like failures.

no one-size-fits-all

There is no single method of selecting singers that is fool proof and will work in any situation. If you’re forming a group from within an existing choir, you’ll already know something about your singers so will be able to choose the most suitable method. It may be a hybrid mixture of audition and self-selection.

Do let me know if you’ve tried to do this and what methods have worked best for you. I’d love to hear about your experiences – either as someone forming a group or as a singer who wanted to join.

further reading

You might find these other posts of interest too.

Should you have auditions for a workplace or community choir?

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

Auditioned choir or not?

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Chris Rowbury



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