So what have my audition procedures been?
This varies with the level of ensemble, of course. I want to hear something of the quality of the voice (sound, range, intonation, etc.) and also want to find out about musicianship (sight-reading/ear). I also listen for things that may cause problems: strident singing in a part of the range, an unusual vibrato (very fast or slow, very wide), lack of musicality, etc.
With all my groups this has involved singing something for me first (or the panel that hears auditions)—at PLU we’d accept a hymn, Christmas carol, or other simple song from a new auditionee, but returning singers were expected to sing an art song of some type. With Choral Arts this usually meant a couple songs that contrast and show different aspects of a singer’s voice. Pro Coro has long had a tradition of singing a Bach recitative and aria (in addition to an art song of the singer’s choice). This is difficult for some singers, but appropriate for a professional choir, and it’s been interesting to see how much one can learn from the singing of a recitative: whether the singer has a sense of style, of rhetoric, how well they hear the underlying harmonies that are implied in a Bach recitative, etc. This tradition (Bach recitative and aria) predated me with Pro Coro, but it tells a lot, so I’ve kept it.
Depending on what I hear in the music chosen by the singer, I may want to do some vocalizes for range if the repertoire hasn’t shown me enough of that, or even do a portion of one of the songs again, asking for something different (less vibrato, a bigger sound, a change of phrasing). This not only tells me something the song didn’t, but in the case of a new singer, how quickly they can adapt to instruction.
Figuring out musicianship in someone you’ve never heard before is difficult. I’ve always included some sight-reading (the level varies, according to the choir), but I also know that this is something that makes many singers very nervous—and they don’t show what they can really do. And it’s also not the kind of sight-reading one does in a choral situation. Further, it doesn’t say how motivated the singer will be to learn music. I’ve had some singers who aren’t terrific sight-readers, but will do whatever is necessary to be prepared (and the opposite—singers who read quite well, but aren’t willing to do any work outside of rehearsal, even if they can’t get a particular passage). You can only know this in returning singers, since you’ve had the experience of working with them.
Consequently, I’ve also often done tonal memory exercises (playing simple patterns that the singer repeats by ear, then gradually getting more difficult). Sometimes, especially with the students at PLU, this told me a lot about how quick the singer’s ear is and more about how quickly they might learn. When I watched Dale Warland do his auditions, he usually played examples at different speeds, dynamics and articulations, to see if the singer picks up on those details as well as pitch and rhythm.
With new singers, I also want to get a sense of their personality, how they might work in a group, etc. Everyone fills out a form telling me their background: voice training, music classes, instruments played (and how long), choirs they’ve sung in, etc. Follow-up questions at the audition might elicit more information and I also may have a follow-up phone call with a voice teacher or former choir director. All of this augments the information I have to work with in making a decision.
More about group/ensemble auditioning in the next post.