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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Auditioning Singers II

I should have mentioned that I blogged earlier about auditioning. You can find the links here:
I'll do some repetition, of course, but this series will be organized differently. We'll start with figuring out as much as possible about the vocal ability of the singer.
As I mentioned in the last post, what you do will depend on the background and experience of your singers. My initial auditions have always begun with the singers singing something for me. This can range from a familiar song (hymn, Christmas carol, folk song, "My Country 'tis of Thee" -- although when you teach somewhere with lots of foreign students, that's not a given! And I'm not even sure all young people learn to sing it these days), or a piece which they've prepared in advance (if they study voice or have learned an art song of some kind). If singers are studying, then the next question (given level) is what to ask for. In most of my university situations we've requested just one piece, asking students to sing something that shows off the strengths of their voice--that they think they can sing well. In professional groups I ask for two pieces that contrast, often for one in English (surprising how much that can reveal about vowel and diction). When I came to Pro Coro Canada in 1999 they had a tradition of asking for a Bach aria and recitative in their auditions. I continued with that tradition and llked what it told me about both voice (Bach is not the easiest thing to sing) and musicianship (the recit was assigned for each voice part, not the singer's choice, and they got it about a week in advance).
(By the way, I'd welcome comments or even a guest post from those who conduct children's choirs--what do you do to test the voice of a child who doesn't yet have a repertoire or where you can't ask a piece they know? What about middle school? What's your process? This isn't my area!)
I have always begun with something the singer chooses because that gives them the chance to start (when they're nervous) with what's most familiar and comfortable to them. Knowing that the singer is anxious, I want to greet/welcome them when the come in the room, make a little small talk to set them at ease, introduce them to the accompanist (if they don't bring their own) and any other people listening to the audition. I'd then ask then what they'd like to start with and off we go.
In most of my auditions I then follow with vocalises of some sort, although those vary, depending on what I hear in the music: if I don't hear the singer's high range, I may want to test that; possibly check on some vowels with an exercise to hear if they can sing pure vowels in tune; work through the passagio or break to see how they deal with it, etc. While I have a set of "go-to" vocalises, I don't use every one for every singer.
So, what am I listening for and how do I judge what I hear (and how do I remember it, if I hear 150-200 singers)?
Well, I DO listen for musicality (see my posts on teaching musicality from the beginning), but that isn't what this post is about! Vocally I want to listen for:
  • the basic quality of the voice/vocal instrument
  • size of voice
  • color
  • technical skill
  • any problem areas
  • range and tessitura
  • where I'd likely place the voice (S1/S2?)
I'll assume you have an audition form and the singers fill out the top portion in advance (leaving the bottom portion of the form for me)--it should:
  1. give basic contact information
  2. give information about the singer (his/her experience/training, if they've studied voice and with whom, if they play other instruments). This will vary greatly depending on the level of your choir. At my university positions, I've always wanted to know where they went to HS, for example, since this tells me a lot. There's a place for the singer to note what voice part they usually sing in choir (although I'll make my own judgements about what will work best!). You need to know the information that's helpful for you.
  3. gives room and possibly some pre-cast areas for writing/scoring what you hear
Below I'll say something about what kinds of things I write and how I score the audition. Some conductors I know do almost all of this with a point system, perhaps even putting points into a spreadsheet on a computer for quick averaging. That isn't how I've worked, but you have to find what works for you to both evaluate (and more importantly!) remember how singers did so when you go back you have a good idea of what you heard once it's time to make decisions.
There are a wide range of gifts in terms of vocal quality, beauty, etc. One judgement (and we might not all agree--this is in the realm of personal taste, as is all of this!) is about the basic instrument and it's sound. Is it (in my mind) a beautiful sound? How will it fit into the tonal concepts of sound I want for my choir? I usually use a numerical system (1-low--to 5-high) for quality of sound.
Size of voice is also largely a given characteristic (although all things can be improved--to a point) and I want to note if it's a big voice, small voice, or in between. I just note if the voice is small or large, assuming the rest are whatever's "normal" size.
Vocal color is another characteristic on a spectrum from bright to dark. Singers can be flexible, of course, but any singer will have natural characteristics that I'll want to note. If I hear a very bright or dark voice, I may do a vocalise or have them sing a portion of their piece later and ask the singer to modify color (in one direction or another) just to see what they can change and how easily. No notation on my audition sheet unless I hear a particularly bright or dark vocal production.
Connected to this are instrumental concepts that many conductors find incredibly useful for color: flute, reed, etc. Easy to write these kinds of terms down quickly.
Technical skill means vocal technique. Is the sound consistent throughout the range? Are vowels clear and beautifully formed (I know this is subjective and it's hard to describe sound in words)? Does the singer have skill getting through the passaggio/break? What about vibrato? Is it even? Narrow? Wide? Fast? Slow? Again, your taste and desired sound will affect what you hear and how you judge it. I will likely do a senza vibrato exercise to see if it's easy or difficult for the singer (and give hints if they aren't experienced with it to do this more healthily and easily). For some ensembles, I may wish to know how good the coloratura is (in one of my earlier personal blog posts, I mention some conductors who use melismatic passages in Handel or Bach to see how well singers can negotiate runs). In terms of techique I usually note deficits rather than strengths (i.e. my opening assumption is good technique--I'd note things like uneven production or a voice that doesn't move easily, a vibrato that's wide and slow, etc.
Any problem areas will be noted. Sometimes this is connected to the things above: taste again--one person's bright is another's shrill! But whatever I hear that might cause difficulties in the choir will be noted. Intonation will also be noted here: sings under pitch, sings sharp.
Range and tessitura: this is easiest if you have a staff printed on the audition form--that allows you to write the high and low pitch for what I'd consider the comfortable range for the singer, and then in parentheses the pitch that's possible, but not where the singer will live.
I also note what part the singer will likely sing. If I feel confident that this is a Soprano 1 or Bass 2 I simply note that. If a likely Soprano 1, but can easily sing second as well, I'd put: S1 (2). For the opposite: S2 (1). This helps as I'm making final decisions and might really need a fluty S1 to make my soprano section (or a bigger soprano voice with more color). I may also ask the singer a question about this--"would you be comfortable singing alto 1 instead of soprano 2?" "Where does your voice teacher think your voice is going?" (In another post I'll write about who I consult after the audition about the singer--their voice teacher is certainly one of those people.)
In university situations with multiple choirs I often note in what choir I think the singer will be placed. For example, at UNT, the hierarchy of choirs runs from A Cappella to University Singers to Concert Choir (our three mixed choirs) to our Men's and Women's choruses. I'll note with the following options: AC, AC?, US, US?, CC, CC/MC or CC/WC, MC or WC. This is helpful for me, but also in particular for the Concert Choir conductor, who's a grad student and doesn't have as much perspective on where singers will likely end up.
It's always more complicated when you know no or few singers. My first year at UNT was overwhelming, since there were so many students to hear (and remember!), I knew none of them, and I had no idea of the standards--what the level of students was and who'd normally make which choir. Last year, when we switched my choir from a chamber choir of 32 to a larger choir of 65 or so, it meant I had to recalibrate what I was listening for as well.
Of course, the things I'm saying above are what I've done at the college/university/advanced civic/professional choir. The things you'll look for in a children's choir, middle school singer, etc. could be very different. But I think that you can still imagine how you can modify these ideas for your own situation.
This is going long (don't all of my posts?!), so I'll end shortly, but first a link to an upcoming post on ChoralNet's ChoralBlog (you have to be registered and can't read it for another two days) by Joshua Bronfman called Auditions/Sidebar with a link to a fabulous interview with Dale Warland. In it, Dale talks about his audition procedure and Joshua asks about the effect of expectations on our hearing and whether we've ever done blind auditions. Just to answer briefly, yes I have, and the last 10 years or so I was at PLU had a part of the audition process where I didn't know what singer was singing. That can be seen as a tease, or you can "read ahead" and check out my 3rd post referenced at the top.
I found it a very valuable part of my process and very likely stole it from Dale, since in the early 90s I made a trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul to sit in on several days of Dale's auditions for the DWS. An incredibly fun process to watch and talk with Dale about his decisions!
Next time: testing ear/musicianship/sightreading. Feel free to comment, ask questions, add to the discussion!

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