When I was at school, anyone who wanted to be in the Chapel Choir had to be auditioned for one of only a few available places. The same was true of the Choral Society, the Chamber Choir and the Male Voice Barbershop Octet. For some reason, presumably because I just kept turning up at all the auditions, I managed to get into all of these aforementioned choirs.
Move on a few years, and I arrived at University in London, where I once again sought out various choirs to join. Here, it turned out that anyone could get into the Choral Society and the Chapel Choir, but if you wanted to be in the ‘other’ choir called ‘Schola Cantorum’ there was an audition. This is because Schola used to sing regular services of evensong in the College Chapel and got to go out and sing in Cathedrals. Despite not having the greatest singing voice, I thought I’d give it a go as that sounded like fun. So I headed up to see Dr Lionel Pike, who at the time was a Senior Professor and in charge of all things Choral at Royal Holloway.
The only thing I can remember about my audition were Dr Pike’s final words after I had sightread some anthem or other. “Well Julian” he said, “I think you could make a useful contribution to the choir as you can sightread with reasonable accuracy. So on that basis I will let you in, but don’t give up the day job”. I think by ‘day job’ he was referring to my organ playing – he obviously felt I would be better accompanying the choir than singing in it – and indeed I did often accompany services as well. In order to keep me in cake at University, I managed to blag my way into the post of Organist and Director of Music at Windsor Parish Church – this sounds far grander than it in fact was! Here, the choir wasn’t officially auditioned as such, but anyone wanting to join did have to undertake a voice test. I don’t think I ever turned anyone away, but it certainly wasn’t a free for all! I also auditioned for solos as and when they came along – the notion of ‘it’s my turn to do the solo this time’ just wasn’t really a viable option as far as I was concerned!
By the time I graduated in 1996, I was therefore firmly convinced by the value of auditions. I joined various choirs after University, all of which required me to undertake an audition, and all of which for some bizarre reason, let me in having heard me sing. It was ultimately the experience of singing in choirs plus working as an organist / choirmaster in a number of churches from the age of 16, which led me to start forming my own choirs. However, in recent years there has been a dramatic upsurge in the number of choirs being formed and there is an increased tendency towards them not being auditioned. Indeed, out of the 5 choirs I currently run, only 2 are auditioned and 2 don’t even subject new members to a voice test of any sort.
I should say, at this point, I have absolutely no problem with running choirs that are un-auditioned. I do so because I want to give people the opportunity to sing and be part of a choir. I was lucky when I was growing up that I found myself in a world where choral music and choir singing was the ‘norm’. I therefore think it’s entirely reasonable that you should have a balance of auditioned and non-auditioned choirs.
One of the biggest dangers of having an ‘auditioned’ choir is that you are immediately setting expectations, not only amongst the choir members, but for audiences too. After all, auditioned choirs can vary hugely! I do a lot of recordings in schools all over the UK and so often i hear the phrase “We want to make a CD because we have a particularly good choir this year”. I think this is why Community Choirs, and other un auditioned choirs have become so popular and are now so successful. Anyone can join and actually there’s a fairly good chance you will get a good mixture of singers. My usual rule for an un auditioned choir is ‘safety in numbers’. Although this may sound a bit harsh, it’s not meant to be. But you have to accept that if you don’t audition members then you will get a range of singing abilities in the choir.
Over the last few years I have really come to enjoy working with various un auditioned Community Choirs. It can be hard work, but it is extremely rewarding when they pull off a good performance in concert, not just for them, but for me too!