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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Auditioning Singers IV: Group Auditions/Recalls

For many of us with advanced choirs, a group recall audition by section is an important part of the selection process. It's a possible next step after the individual auditions, which can serve several purposes:
  • a chance to compare voices that you may have heard over several days (we just heard around 200 singers in our auditions)
  • trying out different combinations of voices to see which voices work together best in a section
  • to check musicianship and ability to follow rehearsal suggestions in a different way
  • to set placement within the section
It takes time to do this, but it can be quite valuable.
It's challenging to remember specifics of voices (when you don't know them) across several days--some conductors video-tape singers so they can go back. But even with that, the direct comparison of voices is far more accurate. Size of voice, color, and other attributes are then heard in context.
I typically have called back 4-5 more singers than I will take in a section--if I'll take 12 sopranos, for example, I might recall 16-17 singers. I've done either a familiar song ('My Country 'tis of thee') or some repertoire from the upcoming year. My Country 'tis of thee is done in Bb (lower voices) and F (higher voices), with the key of G for first sopranos and tenors, which tells me a lot. I've also used music that's new to the singers, where I want to hear how quickly they may pick up ideas for phrasing or sound that I may suggest.
Joshua Bronfman wrote an interesting post on how preconceptions may affect our perceptions of the singers we hear and asked if any of us did blind auditions (that's the norm in the professional orchestral world). I did exactly that for about 8 years at PLU. I wrote about it in an earlier blog:
With my PLU choirs I always had a group audition, by section, after the individual auditions. This allowed me to find a bit more about musicianship, how quickly the singer could apply musical ideas, and to see how voices might work together.
If, for example, I were considering 16 sopranos for 12 spots available in the Choir of the West, I’d have an hour to work with them. In the last ten years or so of these auditions I did them “blind.” When the singers came in they’d pick a number (1 through 16) out of a box (they’d write their names on the piece of paper and hand it back at the end, so I’d have my “key” to who I was listening to). After introducing the process, I’d turn my back to the singers and call out numbers for particular singers. Of course, I could identify some singers’ voices right away, but I didn’t focus on guessing—simply on listening to the voice. I think new singers liked this “anonymity,” and later I was sometimes genuinely surprised by the results as I ranked the singers.
I’d usually begin with a vocal exercise, and hear all singers one after another. Then we’d work on a passage from a work I’d chosen (usually something from upcoming repertoire). This helped me find out how quick singers were in learning something new and how musically they might sing. I’d then begin to combine different voices to see how they worked together.
I found this a valuable part of my audition process.
Sorting out how voices work together can be done in a variety of ways. If you have a choir with a large number of returning members, this part of the audition can put new singers amongst returning ones, which allows you the possibility of "plugging in" the new singers and hearing how they fit. My colleague, Jerry McCoy, uses his recall in this way.
My former colleague at PLU, Richard Nance, uses his group recall for placement in the choir, but by arranging the voices from bright to dark color, which then will help him determine the arrangement of singers.
If you haven't done such a group recall, give it a try!

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