How to choose choir soloists without causing a complete meltdown - part one

This week one of our readers sent in some really interesting questions about choosing soloists for her choir. This can be quite daunting when you're starting out as a choir leader. You want to get the best voice for the solo, but you're reluctant to let anyone else down. In this two-part article, you can see how I answered these questions based on my own experience of leading a contemporary choir.

How do you choose a lead singer?

This can be a bit of a nightmare when you're just starting out. It certainly gets easier with time and experience. Many of us have a really hard time letting people down, so saying 'no' to someone who auditions for a solo can be very scary. The main thing I've learned over the years is to make the best choice for the music, and stick to that decision, even if (evitably), other people don't agree with it.

Let me go into a little more detail. In my early choir-leading days I wanted to please everyone and encourage anyone who wanted to sing a solo to give it a go. My process for auditioning was to walk around listening to people as they sang in chorus together. I found it so hard to turn people away that for one piece I ended up with sixteen soloists! While I still believe very much in positive encouragement, I’ve learned that giving singers a solo when they aren't ready is not a good idea.

When I started out, I didn't run auditions. Big mistake! If someone's going to tackle a solo in front of an audience, they have to be able to sing in front of you at an audition. I was so reluctant to put anyone on the spot that I tried to assess their suitability when they were singing with other people and it just didn't work. Auditions give an individual a very real sense of the pressure of a solo. We all aspire to create excellent results with our choirs and the same should go for any soloists.

I found that when I did group auditions with everyone singing at the same time those who didn’t get selected felt it was unfair and that they hadn’t been heard properly so this is another strong reason for individual auditions. What you may also discover in these sessions is that someone may not be right for this solo but would be perfect for something else you have in mind, so it’s a great way to get a feel for your singers’ abilities.

One thing that may come as a surprise when you first run auditions is just how terrified people are. They may know you and, presumably, like you (or they wouldn't stay in your choir), but ask them to sing in front of you and they'll be rabbits caught in headlights! I've learned that the best way you can support someone in an audition is to be professional and not try to be over-friendly. Victoria wrote a good article about conducting auditions, which you can find here.

Do you choose only one or do you have more?

This depends largely on the piece of music you're performing. With the contermporary repertoire my choir performs, some songs might call for a brief solo at the beginning, with the choir joining in for the rest of the song. Sometimes, a song suits having soloists sing the verses with the choir singing the chorus, in which case I might have more than one soloist. These days, the maximum number of soloists we would ever use is four, mostly because of the sound equipment involved. If you have too many (remember my sixteen!), the song may not feel like it comes together as a whole.

If you make sure you're always led by the music and the sound you want to achieve, you'll be on the right track.

In Part 2: how to manage singers who want to sing solos but aren't ready.

Should you include movement in your choir's performance?
How to choose choir soloists without causing a complete meltdown - part two


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