The delicate subject of selecting singers

I wasn’t a sporty kid. PE lessons filled me with dread, not least because of the tortuous process of being picked for teams. I wasn’t usually the absolute last pick, but I was close. I still remember how it felt, all these years later.

For the first time in my choir’s short life, I’ve had to select singers for a performance. We’ve been asked to provide a backing choir for quite a prestigious gig, but they can only take twenty singers. Our usual performing strength is about thirty. With some people unavailable for extra rehearsals or the performance itself, about twenty-six were keen to take part.

I’ve invited soloists from among the choir’s ranks in the past. We’ve also put together smaller ensembles to balance a concert programme, but those groups were always self-selecting. In this case, I was faced with the task of excluding only a small number of singers, with the majority being included. I suppose that in a more professional setting, such selection isn’t a problem. You pick who you want, and those who don’t make the cut either try again next time, or call it a day and do something else. But for my amateur choir, it really didn’t feel like a pleasant thing to do.

I wrestled with this conundrum for a while. Obviously, I know my choir and the voices in it, and consequently I know that there are some voices that I would prefer in the mix and some that I wouldn’t be heartbroken to leave out. However, I also had to bear in mind that we are a team. We’re used to working as a team and not used to any hierarchy in the choir. If I blundered this process, I could create a lot of bad feeling. I would, effectively, be labelling a few singers as the least competent in the choir. I was absolutely not prepared to do that.  Selecting a small number from a large group would be one thing. Selecting a majority and excluding a few would be demoralising.

On the other hand, I couldn’t risk choosing the singers entirely by pot luck. There are a couple of really confident and experienced singers in each part who always perform well and (no small thing, this) look engaged and lively on the platform. I didn’t want to risk my very best singers being excluded by chance.

Of course, I could have selected who I wanted, then told the choir it was all pot luck. It would have been a white lie to protect people’s feelings, but I suspect that my choir, being a bright bunch, would have seen right through that. And, of course, I really don’t want to fib to my choir, even for the kindest reasons. I always want to act with integrity, even (perhaps especially) in challenging circumstances.

In the end, I decided to go for a selection process somewhere in the middle. I selected a few strong, confident singers who I knew had to be in the mix. Then I picked the rest of the names out of a hat. I was able to tell the choir truthfully that the people who were not selected were excluded completely by chance. I didn’t tell them who made the first cut and who was in the hat. I’m sure the people who didn’t get selected were disappointed, but I hope that they don’t feel that their exclusion is any reflection on their abilities.

It’s been a real challenge to navigate this process, and I won’t be accepting engagements that require selection very often, because it would fundamentally change the dynamic of the choir, but I think I got it about right, and I’m glad I took the time to think it through before acting.

Comments on The delicate subject of selecting singers

  1. Avatar Yvonne says:

    Hi,am so excited about starting a choir for the church,am so happy I found this site with so much information. I am learning a lot and will definitely be more equipped in some areas just from reading everything you have written

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Yvonne. Thanks for your kind words, and good luck with the choir.

  2. Avatar Kate says:

    We are in a similar process at the moment with regards to our regional contest coming up in a few months time. The chorus is wishing to reach a particular standard and in doing so we have an evaluation process where singers record themselves and have to pass assessments on two songs. Only those that pass the assessment will be eligible to sing on stage for the contest. This process is likely to have a handful of singers not make the grade. This is a hard decision , in that , like your choir , it is a community group that meet for fun and comraderie. however, it is also aiming for a high standard of singing to achieve well at competition. We found last year that we included everyone on stage ( to try to keep everyone happy) but in doing so , our standard and thus mark at contest dropped and those that had worked hard to pass their assessments were frustrated with those that scraped in by the skin of their teeth. The chorus has had plenty of notice of the assessment standards and have been offered individual help to achieve them if necessary. There will no doubt be some disappointed singers in a few weeks time when the final assessment date has passed. We will continue to include them singing other repertoire at rehearsal and they will be our greatest supporters at contest. If this is approached in a sensitive manner but with clear goals and expectations then hopefully we can keep most members happy! Here’s hoping

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Kate. I think this is a really good example of a choir ethos in practice. You’ve given your choir very clear information about what’s expected of them and what they can expect from the choir. It won’t be for everyone, but who enjoy the culture you’ve created will thrive on it.

  3. Avatar Sara Adams says:

    What a perfect solution! As I was reading your article, I went through the whole process with you, and was formulating the same solution in my head, about selecting a few key members, and putting the rest “in a hat”, so to speak. These articles are always very helpful to me (and I’m sure others). Thank you :)

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks Sara.

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