by Joel Karn, R&S Chair for Women’s Choruses
The day I post the list of my choirs for the next school year is a day mixed with both celebration and sadness among my students. Many shed tears of joy because they’ve made it into the group they’ve longed to be in, while a few others are in tears because they are frustrated and confused as to why they didn’t make the choir they were hoping to be in. I’m sure you know how dramatic it can get at times! And as much as I try to be clear about the expectations for my auditioned choirs, some will still think that either they are a bad singer, or that I just don’t like them.
There are many different criteria for choosing auditioned choirs. Some directors move students up based on grade level and others based strictly on skill or talent. How do we know for sure if we’ve placed a student in the right choir? How do we know if our choices are going to produce the desired results? The matter is worth some consideration and I would like to share my thoughts about the process that has helped bring relief from all the drama associated with posting audition results.
My basic overall goal for auditioning is to try to achieve the proper placement in one of the five existing choirs based on the criteria and my knowledge of the student’s abilities. This seems rather obvious to us, but the students don’t always understand how this affects them. Most students want to be in the top choir, regardless of their abilities. But they don’t realize that this can bring frustration for them individually as well as for the choir, and being in that group can eventually be a bad experience for them if they are not ready. Years ago I had a former student who had a very nice singing voice. I placed them in my top choir even though the student lacked other musicianship skills. They ended up dropping the class because of the frustration of trying to keep up with the rest of the class. Proper placement is what’s best for everyone.
Before auditions, I am clear about my expectations and my criteria for advancing into an auditioned choir. Though I hold formal auditions beginning in the spring, I let the students know early, often and throughout the year what they need to be working on. When my students ask me when auditions are being held, I tell them, “Everyday is an audition!” You and I know that a formal audition can often just be a formality.
After auditions, I am honest with students when they ask questions about their individual results. Being honest about your assessment of the student’s abilities and areas of needed improvement can help them look forward to what needs to be done. For example, a student asks why they didn’t make Concert Choir. I can say, “Wow, you had a great audition, but there just wasn’t anymore room in that choir.” Or I could say, “Your audition went well, but when you were placed in a mixed quartet, you struggled with holding your own part and at times the intonation suffered. Let’s focus on ear training exercises and more quartet singing for you next year to see if that helps you become independent with your part.” The first response may be true, but it doesn’t identify a problem and a solution.
Finally, these are the questions I ask myself and is the criteria I use to determine the placement of students.
I have listed them in question form, and in order of importance to me.
1. Has the student demonstrated the ability to be a positive contributor in a disciplined choral rehearsal? This is my area of biggest of concern. The students who have proven to be teachable and are cooperative are the ones who I can take the farthest, regardless of talent. These are the ones who will work the hardest for you.
2. Does the student sing in tune? This really needs no explanation. I jokingly tell my students, “I have a theory, music sounds better when it’s in tune.” Of course their response is, “duh…Mr. Karn!” Don’t settle for out of tune singing.
3. Can the student read music? The inability to read music can slow the process of learning in an auditioned singing group. Be sure to have a standard for all your groups that all of your singers can achieve.
4. Does the student have the ability to blend with others? I’m not looking for a choir of students that all sound the same. I’m looking for students that can sing with others and not “stick out,” no matter who they are standing next to. I believe this is a learned skill and is generally more critical the smaller the group gets.
5. Does the student get along well with others? This skill is critical to accomplishing the goals of the choir. Not that there won’t ever be issues, but some students are more able to resolve conflict than others and some always seem to be in the center of it.
This has by no means been a foolproof process for me. Every year there are some decisions that I end up “second guessing.” But I have found that the clearer I am with my students about my expectations and my criteria about auditions, the more obvious it becomes to them where they best fit.