How to conduct effective choir auditions

Being an auditionee is horrid. There's no two ways about it. You're nervous, you're desperate to perform well, you're setting yourself up to be judged and you fear failure. Only slightly less horrid than being an auditionee is being an auditioner. Unless you are a Svengali-like tyrant, you're unlikely to enjoy having terrified people come before you and await your direction. And the weird thing about auditions is that it doesn't matter how well you know the auditionee, they'll still be terrified!

Auditions are never going to be fun, but here are a few ideas about how to conduct them well, and by doing so, minimise the pain for everyone.

1. Before the audition

Give crystal clear information about the audition. Who should apply? Where and when will the audition be held? How long will the audition last?  Sometimes, of course, you may be auditioning a single prospective choir member or soloist, in which case the whole process can be somewhat less formal, for example by being held in your home. Of paramount important to singers, in my experience, is whether they need to prepare a piece in advance and whether they will be expected to sight-read. If you're not going to ask them to sight-read, say so explicitly. It will take a large amount of terror out of the process for the singer.

You'll need to think about a budget because it's likely that the audition process, unless very low-key, will cost something. You'll need a venue and possibly an accompanist. Depending on who you want to reach, you may incur advertising and marketing costs. How will you make sure that the people you want to audition know about the audition? Do you do general marketing and/or advertising to attract new choir members? Do you hand out literature at your performances? Do your existing choir members know that you're looking for additional members? If you approach people individually, either in person or by phone, make sure you follow up with written instructions.

2. At the audition

Organise your space carefully. You need to be able to see the singer properly and you need to give them a specific place to stand. Even if you're an excellent pianist, I would counsel against attempting to accompany the auditionee yourself. You simply can't accompany and assess at the same time. You need to give your whole concentration to the singer.

If you're conducting auditions for several (or lots of) people, you'll need a waiting area. People will arrive early and you can't have them in the audition room until it's their turn.  Post very clear instructions in the waiting area. You don't want anxious people knocking on the audition room door while other anxious people are trying to sing. If you can elicit the help of an assistant, it will really help to keep the process flowing and will go a long way to putting auditionees at their ease. Imagine the difference between arriving in an empty room or arriving to be greeted by a friendly face and having things explained to you clearly.

3. During the audition

While there's no call to be stern and forbidding, your job is not to get your auditionee to relax. Apart from anything else, that's probably not possible. Instead, focus on being polite and professional, and being absolutely explicit in your requirements. That's the best way to help a nervous singer.

Stick to the process; don't be tempted to go off at tangents or make small-talk. If you're conducting a batch of auditions at once, you may need a method of remembering who's who. You could video the audition, although that's likely to send everyone's nerves skyrocketing! You could take a photo. If you're going to take pictures, moving or still, don't forget to get the auditionees' permission. You will need to take comprehensive notes during the audition. Make sure that these cover the same points for each auditionee, so that when you come to evaluate the candidates, you're comparing like with like. There's not much benefit in knowing that one person's intonation was great and another's sight-reading was competent if you don't have both pieces of information for both candidates.

Make sure you know what you're looking for in an auditionee. This will, of course, depend on your choir. When I audition people for my chamber choir, I'm looking for good intonation (ie, the ability to move from note to note without going out of tune) and confidence in holding a harmony line against a melody. I'm less interested in dynamics and projection because I know from experience that those things can be improved in the choir setting.

However tempted you are, try not to give any indication of success or failure at the audition (there may be exceptions to this, for example if you're about to go straight into a choir rehearsal and you want an auditionee to stay on for it). Simply thank the auditionee and let them know when and how you'll be in touch.  There's no harm at all in giving yourself the space to review everything before making a final decision.

When you turn someone down following an audition, try to give some constructive feedback. I'd steer clear of platitudes of the "it was a very strong field" variety, but it can be helpful for singers to know why they were not successful. It's not a nice job for an auditioner, but it's the respectful thing to do. It goes without saying that you should never be insulting or unnecessarily harsh ("don't give up the day job, love" is not an option!). Resist the temptation to try to lessen the blow by offering a re-audition (unless you really mean it). If someone's abilities are well below what you're looking for, it's unfair to offer them false hope. In other words, don't say "you've been unsuccessful this time" if you mean "you've been unsuccessful".

4. After the audition

Give all auditionees a prompt response. Even if it seems like no big deal to you, they've set themselves up to be judged and it's courteous to supply that judgement promptly. Make sure you give successful candidates whatever information they need about rehearsals and repertoire, as well as your expectations of them in terms of attendance and commitment.
3 simple systems for successful choir management
Choir leaders: a bit of musical "me time"

1 comment

Victoria Hopkins

It sounds like you had a very bad experience! I don't think I'd ever do group auditions, but I don't object to them per se, as long as everyone knows exactly what's expected of them.
Read more
Read less