How To Ace a Choral Audition

Congratulations – one month of school year down!  Only… 8.5 more to go?  But who’s counting.  

These past few weeks have probably either felt like a time of exciting, new beginnings, or a time of exhaustion and stress.  Or maybe both.  New classes, new teachers, new workload.

Fall is also when many school music programs hold auditions for their various choirs, choruses, and a capella groups.  Since I’ve helped many a student prepare for choral auditions, I thought it would be worth a blog post.  Even if your school’s choirs have already held auditions, remember – senior and junior district auditions are still to be had (November and January, respectively)!  And many select groups hold auditions at the end of the school year for the next academic year.  So you’ve got plenty of time to up your choral audition game, and opportunities to show it off!

A choir audition can be a tricky thing to prepare for.  This is mainly because: 1) choir auditions come in all shapes and sizes and 2) at the non-professional level, they are usually different from a solo audition.

At a solo audition – the kind we talk about here at Rising Stars a lot – you prepare 1-2 pieces (or 16- or 32-bar cuts of your pieces), and practice them until you can sing them in your sleep, and then take them in front of an audition panel to (hopefully) get cast in a production.  You have the benefit of choosing songs that highlight your voice, and (ideally) getting more than adequate time to practice them.

Choral auditions, on the other hand, typically consist of the following things:

  1. A warm-up/vocalization period with the director.  This is to test the student’s range and vocal comfort zone.  This may not occur in every audition, but it is something to expect nonetheless.
  2. Singing a prepared piece.  This is either a choral piece that has been assigned by the director, or a solo piece that the student has chosen.
  3. Sight-reading – that scary process where you get 30 seconds to silently look over a few measures of music, and then sing it cold, preferably without stopping.  I will be writing a separate post on sight-reading shortly, so stay tuned!

As you can see, there are already a few things off the bat that render this audition situation less than ideal.  You probably won’t have the benefit of choosing a song that fits your voice like a glove.  You probably won’t have more than a week or two (or sometimes even a few days) to prepare selection you’ve been assigned.  And sight-reading, even without the pressure of an audition, is hard for many singers – try it in a situation where the stakes are high, especially if you’re new to it, and it becomes a big ol’ bag of stress.

So I’m here to offer some words of wisdom as you prepare for your next choral audition, whenever that might be.

If you have the benefit of choosing your own piece, do it.  And do it well ahead of time – don’t procrastinate.  It’s obvious when singers procrastinate and cram-prepare.  Trust me.

The protocol for this is pretty similar to how you’d choose a solo audition piece – you want to choose something that highlights what you believe to be the strongest area of your voice, and that minimizes your weaknesses.  You want to be able to sing it accurately from a musical standpoint, and to connect to it emotionally.  Additionally, it should reflect the voice part you’re auditioning for (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass).  For example, don’t sing a belt piece if you are auditioning as a soprano, no matter how strong your belt is.  This will give the director zero idea of how you sound singing in your head voice, which is the primary vocal mechanism for female choral singers.*

*Unless you are auditioning for an a capella group.  In that case, the director probably wants to hear all the different sounds your voice is capable of producing, and what musical style(s) you sing best.  In this case, a contemporary selection usually is the way to go.

If you’ve been assigned a piece to prepare, set to work right away.  Again, don’t procrastinate.  Use every resource available to you – the practice track (if one is provided), your teacher, your friends (it can be helpful to practice with others!).  Sing it every day, several times a day, to ensure that you become confident.

Start with the rhythm.  Speak it, clap it, tap it – whatever helps you to feel it accurately in your brain and body.  Once you are secure with that, work on the pitches.  It’s often helpful to sing the pitches on a neutral syllable of your choice (like da or doo) first, especially if the piece is in a foreign language.

Once you’ve learned the rhythms and pitches, look at the text.  Speak the text, even if it is in English – this will ensure that you pronounce everything properly, and find meaning in the text.  If the piece is in a foreign language, look up a translation and write it in your music, above or underneath the printed words.  You want to know what you are singing about, and make it obvious to the director that you know what you’re singing about.

Next, make sure that you know what all the musical terms and symbols in the score mean – dynamics (loud/soft), articulation (what kind of emphasis or attack does the note need), tempo markings, etc.  Make sure that you are observing all printed breath marks, and that the additional breaths you’ve put in make sense with both the music and the words.  (It’s generally helpful to use the punctuation marks as a breath guide, breathing where you see commas/periods, and make sure you’re not breathing in the middle of words.)

During auditions, choral directors look/listen for the following main things:

  1. Vocal tone. Choral directors look for voices that will blend and balance with the other members of the group. This does not mean that you should completely change the way you sing to make it sound bland, but it does mean that you should be self-aware of your normal vocal tone. If you have a heavy vibrato, work on finding other colors in your voice. If your tone tends to be nasal, work on rounding it out a little bit. And if you have a big sound, show the director that you can also sing at softer dynamic levels. We’ve all listened to choirs where you can hear that one person “sticking out.” Directors want to make sure that, even if you have a unique sound, you can still balance with the rest of the group.
  2. Your ability to learn music accurately.  In a choral audition, musicianship is key.  You need to sing all the notes and rhythms accurately; you must sing in tune and at the appropriate tempo; you must follow all dynamic, phrasing, and articulation markings – including places where you are to breathe or not breathe.  You need to pronounce all the text correctly and clearly, whether it is in English or a foreign language.
  3. Your teachability – i.e., your ability and willingness to take instruction and make instant corrections. If the director asks you in the audition to change something about the way you are singing, do your best to comply. If you don’t understand what’s he’s talking about, then ask.
  4. Your attitude. Choral directors are looking for open-minded team players who will willingly comply with their instructions. They do NOT appreciate divas. Diva mentality works against the musical, vocal, and social aims of a choir. Granted, your attitude will have no bearing on your score at Districts or All-State, and it may not even be a deal-breaker for your school’s choir if you’re really talented, but that doesn’t mean you get a Free Diva Pass. Even if you are the best singer/musician/sightreader in the group, you will make everyone’s lives easier – including your own – if you check the diva stuff at the door.

If you are auditioning for something like Districts or All-State that uses a scoring rubric, try to get a hold of the scoring sheet ahead of time (your school choral director can probably help with this). As you get closer to the audition, do a “trial run” of sorts with your teacher or director. Have them score you with the rubric sheet so you know what to improve before the real thing.

So, to sum up: be as prepared as you can, find out as much as possible about the audition before going into it, and have a good attitude. Pretty basic rules of thumb for any singing situation, really.

Have additional questions? Let us know in the comments!