CONDUCTING A MORE EFFECTIVE AUDITION
The modern choral leader has many irons in the fire. The dreams we all had in graduate school of long hours studying scores and reading scholarly commentaries have fallen to the reality of constant administrative tasks like raising money, promoting events, raising more money, organizing staff and volunteers, raising even more money, and recruiting and auditioning the chorus membership.
The task of recruitment and appointment of chorus members through the audition process might be the most important work of all for the conductor outside actual rehearsals and performances. Choosing the best personnel for the ensemble is, indeed, the “coin of the realm.” Everything in the working life of a choral organization, from the quality of the choral product, to the growth and response of audiences, to the availability of adequate funding, begins with choosing the very best members available.
No matter the level of talent and training that has been achieved on the part of the candidate, and no matter the experience and due diligence of the panel conducting the audition, a choral audition is an intimidating and messy business. The following thoughts and suggestions are offered to assist those of us who hear auditions as we prioritize our goals for the process and as we design a structure that well serves those goals.
There are as many styles of choral organizations as there are situations and conductors. The recommendations of this essay are focused on the work of choosing members for a long-term appointment to a professional, semi-professional, or professional-level community ensemble that will give a number of performances over the course of a season or several seasons.
It is important to understand that a fine choral organization is both a company of quality voices and excellent musicianship, but also a tapestry of personalities and inter-personal relationships. The choral instrument is unique from any other in music, because the instrument itself is comprised of the expressive heart, soul and mind of each and every human thread that forms the tapestry. Though it may be contrary to conventional wisdom for many, it is the conductor’s responsibility to appoint the best person available to strengthen, diversify, and enrich that choral fabric. The audition is the process by which he or she works to accomplish that goal.
Understand that the audition is a consideration of the whole person. The process begins when the first inquiry is received by the choral organization. The conversation may come in the form of an email, a phone call, or a discussion following an event. In the course of the interaction it is critically important that the traditions, the goals, the expectations, and the blessings of serving the choral art in this particular ensemble are clearly communicated. It is equally important that the organization’s representative be trained to listen carefully to the response of the candidate and to consider the compatibility of the individual with the musical family. It is always best if this important initial screening is conducted by the Music Director, or by the director’s most trusted associates if the director is unavailable.
It is important that the audition candidate be evaluated as to their ability and willingness to follow instructions in the context of the particular organization’s style of communication. For example, to save rehearsal time, many choral organizations communicate in written form through handbooks, newsletters and/or social media. If it becomes apparent during the audition that a particular candidate has not carefully read materials assigned to him or her, that fact should be strongly considered in making an appointment decision.
The candidate, the choral organization, and the audition process should be treated with utmost respect. Both the candidate and the audition panel should honor the process by dressing professionally. The candidate should be greeted by a well-trained proctor who is prepared to assist with document preparation and ready to answer any questions. The audition room should be private and well organized. Communications between the choral ensemble and the candidate should be timely, consistent and professional in presentation. Likewise, follow-up communication should be gracious, informative and professional.
Solos performed in auditions should be simple. Many choral organizations assign a complex aria and provide an accompanist to assist in the audition. In most cases the quality of the voice, the capacity to sing in tune, the understanding and demonstration of expressiveness, and the clarity of enunciation can be heard just as well, if not better, when the candidate sings a simple a cappella hymn or folk song. Even more, the voice can be heard more clearly, and musicianship can be evaluated more accurately, when the voice is heard alone without piano, and without the distraction of vocal gymnastics.
It is important to determine how the candidate for membership performs in ensemble. Placing the candidate in a 4-part or 8-part hymn or chorale will demonstrate how the candidate responds to the presence of other voices. Does the candidate seek to sing cooperatively with other voices? How does the candidate nuance intonation when placed in ensemble? Are there negative changes in vocal timbre that are revealed?
It is critically important that the audition proceed exactly the same, no matter the obvious strength or weakness of a particular singers’ candidacy. Quite frankly, in many cases, within the first few minutes of the audition it is obvious to the panel that a particular candidate is likely to pass or fail the audition. Most importantly, it is a sign of respect to a singer who has submitted themselves to a highly personal and intimidating process. Though rare, there have been occasions when an audition that began with exceptional strength or exceptional weakness has concluded with an unexpected result. Finally, when handled properly on the part of the candidate and the panel, every audition is a significant learning experience.
The audition should conclude with sincere expressions of appreciation and with a clear agenda for follow-up. Each member of the panel should personally thank the prospective chorus member for honoring the ensemble by presenting as a candidate for membership. It should be clearly stated to the candidate when and by what means the results of the audition will be communicated. Once stated to the candidate, the process for advisement of the audition results should be followed without fail. If the audition was unsuccessful, the organization’s policy for sharing specific comments, scores, and recommendations for additional study should be communicated. If appropriate, contact information for other choral organizations in the community that are considering new members should be provided.
Every person who interfaces with the staff and culture of a choral ensemble carries the legacy of that ensemble into the wider community. In most recruitment seasons, significantly more singers who audition for a particular ensemble are turned away than are appointed to chorus membership. If the process of audition has demonstrated the highest levels of graciousness and professionalism, every area of the choir’s reputation in the community will be enriched.
Article by Special Contributor William O. Baker, DMA
Founder and Music Director of The William Baker Choral Foundation
William Baker Festival Singers
Author, The Leipzig Door