Why do choral directors feel the need to audition their singers prior to them joining the ensemble? Community and children's choir singers are often too afraid of auditions to even show up, no matter how inviting you make it. Popular television shows like American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent show film footage: hundreds of thousands of people lined up excited to audition and get told by the “professionals” if they have “it” or they don’t. Society has sent us the message loud and clear:
Singing is innate - either you are born good or born bad, and that’s it.
Many years ago when SSCC was a brand-new baby organization, we offered programs for very young children. A four year old child came to rehearsal and had a blast! Afterwards, the mother came up to me and asked, “So in your expert opinion, what do you think? Does she have the talent to really do this?” I was flabbergasted - she was four. Of course she should participate in this activity - she had fun and loves to sing. I couldn’t even fathom how this young mother was asking me this question. Upon reflection, however, I realized it was absolutely not her fault. This mother had seen viral video after viral video of children her daughter’s age already at a prodigy level musically. This mother had watched as daytime TV personalities invite young child after young child to sing on national television because of their “talent.” Her child wasn’t even in public school yet to get a general education in music, and she didn’t consider herself musical, but wanted to try it out for her kid. But….Society sent her the message loud and clear:
If your daughter isn’t good at this by a young age, she will never be, don’t waste your time.
In education, growth mindset is all around us - in Math, Science, English….even in playing musical instruments. But for some reason, because our voice is inside of us and a part of our bodies, talent mindset takes over. I have heard parents complain about the “off-key” singing of their child, and claiming that their child is just “not a singer”. The next day, I’ll see a social media post from that same parent outside in the backyard, setting the wiffle ball tee up over and over again until their child finally gets a hit. The post raves on about teaching their child about perseverance and never giving up. Why is singing so different?
I am certainly not the first music educator or choral conductor to notice this trend in societal thinking about singing. And yet, I am so often shocked at how little we are doing to change the tide. In fact, I would propose that many of the logistical processes of our choruses actually encourage this type of thinking. I see community choruses, children’s choruses, and school choruses with slogans that all are welcome, but really...are they?
Are singers who do not match pitch yet welcome? Are folks who are too nervous to audition welcome? Are people who have never sung in a chorus before but want to try it out welcome? Are singers with a considerable amount of anxiety or mental health issues welcome? Because quite frankly, if you are auditioning singers, they aren’t.
I have this conversation with choral colleagues on numerous occasions:
Me: “SSCC is super unique, because it’s a choir with no audition requirement."
Colleague: “Well we don’t really have an audition...it’s more like a voice placement. Everybody gets in, and they can sing whatever they want. They don’t even have to sight-read!”
Does the singer have to sing alone? If so, then it’s an audition, it’s scary, and it’s going to exclude people. "Voice placement” might sound softer than “audition”, but ultimately it doesn’t make the singer any less anxious if they are nervous to sing alone. And if the singer has no experience whatsoever prior to meeting with you, you might as well call your audition “talent-checking.”
I have story after story, case after case of child singers ages 18 and under who came to us with no choral experience who LOVE to sing now, but would have never shown up if the first impression they had to make was singing alone. Many of those singers went on to be soloists with the group, gaining so much confidence and experience from ensemble singing and a supportive environment that they felt totally comfortable singing alone for an audience. Many of these singers also struggle with anxiety - social anxiety, performance anxiety...you name it. But SSCC has managed to create an environment for them that allows them to be totally themselves, grow, and get better.
But really the question is: why do choral conductors feel the need to audition their community/school ensemble?
Conductors feel the need to audition their ensemble to better understand…
- A singers’ range
- Any vocal issues, including pitch-matching ability
- The singers’ personality
- The singer’s sight-reading ability
I challenge you to ask yourself: can any/all of this be done within the rehearsal process? I reckon it can, and here’s how:
- While warming up your chorus, ask people to drop out and give a signal when they feel uncomfortable singing - either too high or too low. This will give you a strong idea of where they need to go in terms of their technique.
- Using a simple canon or warm-up melody, teach the entire chorus the excerpt. Then, have smaller groups (I like to use vocal sections, but it depends on the size of your chorus) sing the canon or warm-up with just their section. This will help your ear to isolate any vocal issues that you may need to address, without individuals singing.
- Icebreakers! After almost two years in isolation, icebreakers are the new way of the world. Find some way to use rehearsal time to get to know your singers, and have them get to know each other. (Yes, use rehearsal time. If you do not have enough rehearsal time for icebreakers, you aren’t programming correctly, and need to cut down the amount of music you are preparing. Community building is an integral part of the process, and if it is skipped, your chorus will suffer.)
- Testing sight-reading is easy. Have the singers start sight-reading a piece of music alongside the piano. If they look confused (or are looking up off of the page), they probably don’t read music well. If they’re singing confidently, they have experience and literacy ability. This one is not difficult to figure out in a rehearsal setting.
“But...what if the singer really needs work? Having a singer who isn’t matching pitch or struggling may bring down the level of my ensemble, and cause some of my better singers to quit.”
If this is your thought process, check yourself before you wreck yourself. This is on YOU. Breaking down this elitist thinking is dependent on YOUR leadership. If you are this afraid of the quality of your ensemble, and your “better” singers are this fragile in commitment to the group, you have bigger fish to fry. If a “quality performance” (which, in this instance, is defined as a musically perfect performance, as I have seen many ‘quality’ performances that are not musically perfect) is your mission, then so be it- but maybe “inclusivity” isn’t the best word to use in the mission statement of your chorus.
Am I saying that we need to abolish auditions entirely? Surely not. Holding auditions at the professional level for your ensemble? Absolutely, do your thing. Perhaps one might argue that audition skills are important to teach to all singers. However, how many of our community or school-level singers are truly going to head out into the world and become professionals or move on to sing at a more advanced level where they’ll need to crush an audition? Probably only a handful, if that. Not every choral singer needs to have the skill of auditioning well. In fact, I’d venture to say that a hefty amount of people who call themselves “choral singers” have no intention of ever singing alone. ...and that’s totally ok.
I was a college music major, and have sung at the professional level many times. Even so, since graduating college (8 years ago), I have auditioned twice. That’s it. Just two times. Auditions are not something I am experiencing daily as a professional musician, and yet we pretend like it is this all important skill that every singer in our choruses needs to learn. Sure, if the singer wants to be a performer on stage regularly they’ll need more practice, but let’s save the teaching of the skill for those who really need it.
The South Shore Children's Chorus has never had auditions for our ensembles. The result? An inclusive environment where EVERYONE, even those with anxiety or minimal experience, is welcome.
How? Easy. Music for all.
The SSCC Staff believes it to our core. We also have the skill, experience, and confidence necessary to teach with that mission at the forefront. We know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if a child shows up in our ensembles that wants to learn to sing, that we can help them grow from wherever they currently are, and we don’t need to hear them sing Happy Birthday to do it. In a week from tomorrow, we are going to have children showing up at our door from a wide range of experiences - some who have never sung, some who have only sung in the safety of their bedroom, and some who have been singing in our chorus for years. But guess what? They’re ALL welcome. And when we model this inclusivity for them, they begin to truly accept each other. Elitism has no place at SSCC. Whoever you are, whatever your experience, you are just as important to our ensemble as your neighbor.
It’s inclusive - everyone is welcome, end of story.