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.


Comments on How to choose choir soloists without causing a complete meltdown – part one

  1. Avatar Ann says:

    I commented on this a couple of years ago, and just thought I’d let you know that I now record all the auditions. You hear things differently in the cold light of day when you’re not busy calming everyone’s nerves!!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Ann, thanks for the update, it’s interesting to see how processes change over time with experience. How do you approach this with your singers, have you found it makes them more nervous?

  2. Avatar Maria says:

    Just wondering how some of you anounce to your choirs the results of the audition? I always feel so nervous letting the choir know the results and especially seeing the reactions of some of the choristers. I completely understand the reaction of wanting to give everyone a solo! Do any of you let them know in writing, via email or announce it at the next rehearsal? Any suggestions would be heartily welcome. Thanks for a great article!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Maria,

      Thanks for your message, I completely understand how difficult this situation can be particularly if other singers start giving reactions as well when you announce a soloist. As you know from my articles I now hold audtitions for solos separate from choir rehearsals and everyone auditioning has a slot. During the auditions I make sure I take notes on each person’s performance so that I can review these notes at the end but also so I can clearly remember the feedback I would like to give. When the soloist is selected I let them know usually by email with a short run down of why I thought they were great for the part. At the same time I also email everyone else to tell them they haven’t got the part but also with an explanation of how I thought the audition went. This way all the auditionees know the outcome before the rest of the choir so when we go into the next rehearsal they are not left in a state of anticipation or nervousness.

      In my comments I am always postive focusing on what did work but also what needs more work. I’ve found being gentle but honest is the best way forward as otherwise some singers not ready for a solo can audition several times and start to wonder why they aren’t getting anywhere. With a bit of help and guidance there may be something they can improve for the next time or they may realise with help from your explanation that perhaps solos aren’t for them. The important thing for me is that they don’t have to go through this process in front of the other choir members.

      It’s also worth mentioning that when you choose a soloist I think it’s important that you support them all the way. You may feel disagreement from members in the choir sometimes about your choices but trust yourself as the choir leader, trust your instincts and help develop your chosen singer into a confident soloist.

  3. Avatar Beatrice says:

    This is very interesting. In my choir, most of people are scared to death to sing solo so it’s always the same few who are happy to sing and they tend to have good voices so it’s easy. Also, I tend to choose between these myself and everyone is happy.

    Another option I like is that I pick a few people (who are happy to sing solos) and give them a line each, or a verse each and this way it’s more interesting. We had a pop-gospel song, where each line was sung by someone else and at one point there was at least 6 different solo parts sung together, while the choir was singing their part (but it was an interesting song harmonically I must say) and it was very interesting (happy to send you the live recording of this song to demonstrate, by the way :-)

    I once noticed that some long-term members of the choir developed a ‘rule’ in the choir (which I noticed they spread onto new people who were interested mostly in solos) that if people want to sing solos, they have to commit to the choir, practise with the choir for some time before they can be considered for solos. I thought it was brilliant as it shows that people have a sense of achievement and that they can earn being a soloist by committing to the choir first. Just thought I’d share it:-)

    1. Avatar Ann says:

      I find this really tricky. My no-audition choir is a very mixed bunch. Of our 33 members, 13 are my own singing students, all above grade 5 standard, and 4 post-grade 8s. Some of the rest are experienced choristers, and some are complete beginners, just wanting to have a go. When it comes to solos I have 20 on the willing list with 10 of them non-students. So far I have used 9 of them – just choosing them on suitability for the song genre and vocal range. But I am mindful that I have only used one non-student so far (we have been going almost two years), This is largely because I know my own students’ capabilities from our 6-monthly charity concerts, exams, festivals, etc.
      Thanks to this article I will now ask for auditions for solos for our next song – we are doing Anything Goes in SSAA format (which I had to buy from the USA as the arrangement I like is not available over here) and there is a long solo at the beginning, which could be split up.
      The other important think to consider is the use of understudies, or solo-sharing. We are singing in a concert in early September and one of my soloists in Climbing over rocky mountain (from The Pirates of Penzance) is on holiday. Luckily one of my students knows it and is standing in, but this has made me think that I should have a contingency plan in place for all solos.
      Thank you for this very interesting and thought-provoking article.

      1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

        Thanks Ann,

        I’m glad the article was helpful for you. That’s a very good point about under studies, particulalry if there is a large solo section in some of your pieces. If you select two or three singers for something, probably a good idea for them to also know each other’s parts. Good luck with your upcoming performances.

    2. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Beatrice,

      Many thanks for your comments. I think many of us with identify with your point about the same few singers coming forward for solos. It’s finding a way to calm the nerves of and entice the others to audition that can be hard! As for the members unwritten rule, it’s great to know everyone is so keen and passionate about the quality of the sound in the choir, I suppose the one thing I’d advise from experience is that you make sure they know it’s you that actually makes the decisions when it comes to solos! I’d love to hear the arrangement you mention, if you’d like to send it to me at that would be great.

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