How do you decide on Soloists within your choir?

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One of the key elements of community choirs, particularly those which are un auditioned, is for them to be as inclusive as possible. This always works very well until you get to the question of soloists. Regardless of the sort of music your choir sings, before long a song is likely to come around which has a solo part.

Now I personally think this is a good thing. Yes of course you could avoid solos by getting all voices in the relevant part to sing it together in unison. But I feel that is missing the point. A solo gives an added dimension to most songs and also creates interest. My question to be posed in this post, is how do you go about awarding solo’s?

Audition or Nomination?
If you are running a non auditioned choir, then at first glance it might seem rather a contradiction to audition for soloists. But is it? Let’s consider the options. To my mind there are in fact three ways that a soloist can be selected.

1. Audition
Holding auditions for soloists would seem,to many, to be the fairest option. However, this does of course rely on someone (usually the choirmaster) having the final say on who has been successful at their audition. One of the most common misconceptions about auditions is at those with the ‘best’ voices will get through. This is not necessarily always the case. In fact when I am auditioning soloists, I pay more attention to the way someone sings a song rather than the particular qualities of their voice. Yes, of course the ability to sing accurately and in tune is always a big factor. But, all other factors being equal, I award solos to the people who ‘get’ the particular song and as such convey it’s meaning to the audience in a far more convincing manner.

2. Nominations by the Choirmaster
In many ways this is very similar to running auditions but saves people the nerve wracking task of having to sing to their choirmaster and be ‘judged’. Of course for this to work it relies on the choirmaster knowing not only who has the best voices within the choir but also whether or not they are likely to understand the song and convey it’s true meaning through their interpretation.

3. Self nomination
Probably the most popular means by which soloists are nominated in community choirs is be self promotion. A high proportion of choir leaders I speak to have often talked of choir members who like to put themselves forward to sing solos. Having people who are keen to sing solos is a great thing and something which should always be encouraged. What is sometimes more challenging is when you get the same people constantly coming forward who, whilst keen, are not always prepared to put in the time to properly learn their solo.

The solution?
Notwithstanding the above, I’m not sure it matters that much, which of the routes above you follow. I believe it’s far more important for your singers to understand just exactly what a solo entails and indeed what is therefore going to be expected of them.

In the past, when I have nominated soloists within some of my choirs I have on occasion been subjected to criticism. The most common objections are either that the singers with the ‘best’ voices always get chosen or they are clearly the choirmasters ‘friends’. I’ve even, on occasion, been accused of choosing the prettiest singers for a solo – once this even happened when the soloist was a man, and I’m not known for that tendency!

Anyway, I digress. The conclusion for me is this. When I am choosing soloists from within my choirs (whether auditioned or not), I look for two qualities. Firstly the quality of the voice. You do not have to be classically trained or have the best sounding voice, but you do need to be able to sing the line confidently, accurately and in tune. I always remind soloists that for the period they are singing alone, they are representing the choir. If a soloist goes wrong, this reflects on the choir as a whole more so than the individual. The audience will remember they went to a concert given by Choir X and the opening solo was terrible more so than the name of the individual singing.

Sounds harsh? Well yes perhaps it is, but it is unfortunately the way an audience thinks! So yes, vocal quality and confidence matters. But, the overriding factor in awarding a solo, certainly for me, is always more about the way someone conveys the story to their audience. All songs tell a story. Some might be better than others yes. But there is usually a story of some sort. A lot of solos also tend to occur at the beginning of songs (I’m basing this on contemporary songs typically sung by community choirs – I realise it’s dangerous to generalise). So therefore the soloist has the job of introducing the song, and it’s key message, to the audience. To do this successfully you often need to do more than just sing the notes and the words.

If you can make the audience believe what you are singing about and capture their attention for the brief moment of the solo, then for me, you have succeeded. If you also sang accurately and perfectly in tune, then this is the recipe for being chosen to do more solos.

I do realise this advice may not suit all choirs and do not offer it as a definitive way to choose soloists. I would be very interested to hear from you on this matter. Whether as a choirmaster struggling with this issue or a soloist looking to be awarded more, or perhaps less solos!