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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Auditioning Singers III - Musicianship/Ear

Another thing to test for in an audition is musicianship: sightreading and ear skills, primarily.
There are several things to test:
  • sightreading pitches
  • sightreading rhythms
  • the ability of the singer to hear something and reproduce it vocally
Given the level of your singers, you will want to choose examples to read that start with something easy (where a singer of yours should be able to sing most notes correctly), then progressively move to more difficult examples. I've usually had 5-6 examples and will often skip some examples if the singer can sightread the first one easily. They progress in difficulty in both pitches and rhythms.
Remember, I'm auditioning college-level singers, so a first example might be one with fairly simple rhythms, a melody without accidentals and no difficult leaps. The next example might have more accidentals, tougher leaps, modulation, etc. The most difficult one should be one that separates the really good sightreader from the average or even pretty good one. I've used a few exercises with accompaniment or little duets as well. P.G. Alldahl has a great accompanied pseudo-baroque exercise he's composed  (used for a number of years with the world Youth Choir), but some little twists that only the best sightreaders would get.
I leave it up to the singer to sing on text (if there is one--often there is not), a neutral syllable of their choice, or solfege syllables).
In some circumstances I've also done separate rhythmic exercises. This has the advantage of better testing the separate abilities to read rhythm and pitch.
With more advanced choirs I've also used exerpts from Lars Edlund's Modus Novus, which lets me know if the singer can deal with non-tonal music and read intervals by themselves without a tonal context. I could also use an example from a work I'm planning to do (unlikely that they'd know it!).
Something that others have done is to have a returning quartet from the choir, who are prepared on the music to be read (excerpts of real music in this case), and have the auditionee replace the one with their voice part. This has the advantage of being more realistic--much more like the experience of actually reading in a choir, since you hear the other parts.
Since many of our singers do NOT read well, it is often useful to test the ear, or tonal memory, of the singer. My feeling has always been that if a singer has an excellent tonal memory, they will have the capability of learning to read more quickly--not to speak of the fact that they will be able to learn their part more quickly even before they learn to read (or read better).
If you haven't done this before, you can find many examples from a quick google search (or, in fact, on choralnet). The idea is again to begin with easy examples and gradually make them more challenging. I've usually done this in addition to sight-reading, others have done it only if the singer doesn't read well. Dale Warland does his with lots of changes of expression (dynamics, tempo, articulation) and looks to see if the singer picks up on those as well. Robert Fountain used to check applicants to his graduate conducting program by playing the first 4-5 notes of a 12-tone row, then keep adding a couple notes until the applicant couldn't get any more pitches.
However, with a choir where sightreading is not expected of every singer, tonal memory exercises can tell the conductor a lot. I suspect the same is true for children's choirs (but please tell me more about what you do).
Any instrumentalist would be expected to read dynamics, articulations, etc. We rarely do this with singers, but a professional choir could expect this. When I conducted the Seattle Symphony Chorale, I remember being startled when an auditionee sang all the dynamics on the page, something no other singer had done. Perhaps with advanced choirs, we should expect more!
So, once you've figured out what's appropriate to use for your singers, what else goes into this part of the audition?
I think most of you know that sightreading in an audition freaks out a lot of singers! So, how best to do it?
When I was at PLU, I did the exercises myself as part of the initial audition. I left the sightreading/tonal memory for the end of the audition--as I said in the previous post, I want to begin with something that the singer will find most comfortable. So the order might be: prepared piece, vocalises, sightreading, tonal memory. At UNT our grad students test sightreading before they come into the room where we hear them, so we simply get a score on sightreading from 1-5. Tonal memory is usually tested only if they don't sightread well.
Of course, you may want to know more, particularly the kind of motivation the singer will have to learn, or whether they even can learn their part outside of rehearsal.
I had an interesting conversation with my friend Richard Nance this summer (I hope many of you heard his fantastic performance with the PLU Choir of the West in Dallas this past March). Richard does two additional short auditions for that choir. One is to assign an excerpt of a piece to be learned that they get about 24 hours ahead of when they'll do it. It's not easy and has at least some counterpoint. The singers are assigned to octets and meet with Richard the next day for a 15 minute rehearsal on the music. This gives him an idea of not only if they can learn their part, but how they respond in a rehearsal. Are they flexible if he asks them to change something? How quickly do they respond/learn? The singers often get together in a larger group the night before to work on the music, but he says that's fine--it just shows their motivation.
In addition, he does a short individual audition with each singer in which he gets to know them better, does the sightreading part of the audition, but also has them play their part on the piano with a piece from upcoming repertoire. This gives him a further idea of whether the singer is able to learn a part or fix a problem section on their own.
I think it's a fascinating and great way to find out more about the potential singers for his top choir.
If you have additional ideas for auditions or thoughts about what I've said, please share in the comments.

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