As I write this, we’re in the final week of my chorus’s fiscal year, and what we normally call the “end of the season.” Like many of you, we should have given our final concert in May, and spent the final weeks of the season doing things like launching our spring appeal, working on marketing campaigns for next year’s concerts, closing out our books, and (dun dun DUNNNN!) holding auditions.
We have, of course, done plenty of planning ahead and financial work, but auditions? No.
As a board, we established a "no live performance" approach as our Plan A for the 2020-21 season. We hope desperately that Plan B (some sort of live performance) might become possible, but it seemed imprudent to make that assumption at the time we needed to decide.
Along with this "no live performance" approach, we decided that all current members of our chorus in good standing would remain members through the coming season. That means that despite being a chorus wherein all members have re-auditioned every season for the past 40+ seasons, our members have been granted a reprieve. I’m slightly bummed about this, because I’d finally worked out a funky corner of an aria I’ve been working on for a while, but no matter; there will always be room for improvement.
This reprieve got me wondering, though, about how other choruses are handling auditions for next season. I did a bit of asking around, considered the possibilities, and have identified—in order from least to most likely/practical—a few ways you might consider moving forward into next season, however that might look.
Please note that in ALL our work as choral leaders, I advocate prioritizing the safety of our singers and community members. I encourage you all to follow all recommended guidelines for mask-wearing, physical distance protocols, hand-washing, etc.
I’ll say right off the bat that no one I spoke with is planning to do this, but I thought we should address what feels most “normal” to start, however inadvisable.
It seems unlikely that any of us will find ourselves in a space with a piano, an artistic director, an audition accompanist, and/or a sheet of sight-singing exercises on a music stand any time soon.
Should you be considering such a set-up, the first thing I’d encourage you to do is consider an alternative plan. The next thing I’d suggest is to survey your membership and gauge their comfort level with such an arrangement. If they seem amenable to in-person interaction, and if hearing a voice in person is the only way you can conceive of holding an audition, I’d urge you to find a large, well-ventilated space—perhaps an outdoor space with a digital piano—where lots of distance can be maintained between all people present. I’d recommend masks be worn at all times by all parties. But mostly, I’d recommend avoiding this scenario altogether.
If you’re intent on hearing all of your current and any new singers during this time of quarantine/physical distancing, one good way could be to have them record an audition. This could include a piece of their choice, excerpts from recent repertoire, pre-determined vocalises, etc.
I liken this to various programs like choral festivals and summer vocal institutes that base acceptance upon recorded audition materials. This would allow singers to create their materials on their own time, and would allow you to listen at your leisure. You might even assign everyone—or each section—the same art song/folk song/hymn so that you’re evaluating the same raw material. This could create a more “normalized” listening experience. Every chorus is after different artistic outcomes, of course, so your mileage will certainly vary!
Live Virtual Auditions
Lots of options here: Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, whatever you and your singers have available. These tools are imperfect, and I’ve heard criticism from several audiophile friends about the sound quality on several of them, but to the extent that it gives us a good sense of a person’s voice, I think we can get close enough here.
Several of the key elements of a live, in-person audition can be simulated in this way, including sharing your screen to show sight-singing examples (if that’s a part of your audition process), and the ability to hear your singers “in the moment.”
Barring any technological mishaps (connectivity issues, server crashes, etc.) the live virtual audition scenario could be a good way for each singer to connect with the Artistic Director and check in with their vocal progress. Depending on the size of your ensemble, this might end up taking place over the course of weeks to accommodate everyone, but could be well worth the effort.
Thoughts on New Singer Recruitment
These are strange times. Many of us don’t know when our choruses will meet in person again, and so we might not be thinking about recruiting new singers right now. From a purely practical standpoint, we’re likely to see some attrition within our ranks anyway (this happens each year even without a pandemic), and so recruitment will be critical to counterbalancing that phenomenon.
Is it weird to recruit singers to a chorus that doesn’t know when its next performance will be? Perhaps. Is choral music only about rehearsals and performances? No way!
To quote Canadian choral conductor Kellie Walsh, whose wise words you may have seen floating around social media, “If a choir is only about singing and performing - there will be no choir for a while. If choir is about teaching and learning, growing, connecting, community, cultural exploration and transmission, and innovating - we will find a way to have choir.”
Who wouldn’t want to be part of something like that?! So yes, recruit new singers, find a way to hear their voices, and welcome them into your choral community.
Kenny Litvack is an arts nonprofit consultant focusing on younger organizations seeking to gain a foothold in their communities. He is President of Princeton Pro Musica in Princeton, NJ, where he has sung as part of its professional core since 2005, and has served on its Board of Trustees since 2015. When not engrossed in the world of choral music, Kenny enjoys spending time with his husband, their dog Murphy, and their eight nieces and nephews. He welcomes inquiries about chorus management, recommendations for excellent craft beers, and invitations to Harry Potter trivia events.