Chorale is wrapping up its auditions. Our roster won’t be final until it is final, of course-- but we are close. What do I look for in singers? I start with ear—both for pitch, and for language. I play a series of intervals for each singer on the piano, which I ask them to repeat-- patterns featuring tritones, perfect fifths, major and minor thirds, unresolved dissonances. The patterns are not long and involved—one can “rate” even people who have little prior singing experience, through this exercise: this particular capacity seems innate, and I seldom hear a singer improve, over the years and with additional exposure. I accept singers within a certain range of ability—but place a very high priority on the best ears. Chorale’s complex and mostly unaccompanied repertoire requires this.
All auditionees sing a piece in German. Not because Chorale sings so much in German, but because, I figure, if they can work out the problems they confront in German, they probably can do a decent job with other languages, too. I am unable to be as strict with this requirement, as I am with pitch sensitivity: Americans are mostly not well-trained in languages, and their ears have largely closed to new sounds by the time they are old enough to sing with Chorale, whatever capacity they may have had earlier in life. I take language into account as much as I can in making my choices; and then we coach a good deal in rehearsals.
I ask to hear a second selection, because I want to make sure singers feel comfortable, if German is difficult for them. I want to be able to judge musicality, expressiveness, sense of style, sensitivity to the characteristics of the piece they have chosen. Are they “artists?” Will they responsive to the beauty, the drama, the depth, of the repertoire Chorale sings?
Chorale rehearses once a week, and presents difficult music; we need to get the “grid” (pitch and rhythm, vertical and horizontal values) under control as quickly as possible, and move on to other things. The sight-reading component of the audition is crucial. Even if singers struggle, I am interested in the degree to which they can self-correct. Relative to rhythm, I listen carefully for the “inner clock”—do they lock in to the tactus? Can they switch between duple and triple? Can they sing even triplets? I am more likely to accept someone who is a weaker reader, if I sense a high level of innate ability and trainability.
I also converse with auditionees—try to get a sense of their actual interest in Chorale’s repertoire, and their comfort and ease at dealing not only with me, but with other members of the ensemble. A choir is a community; I want Chorale’s singers to be good, supportive neighbors to one another.
Finally: I listen for vocal quality. I admire really beautiful voices; but I know that too many of them will defeat the choral sound. I value a variety of sounds, and listen for the way in which they will fit together; for every larger, more complex voice, I want a certain number of smaller, clearer voices who will balance and buffer the big ones, allow them to sing comfortably without “competing” with other complex sounds. Of course, I listen for well-produced, healthy vocalism; I don’t want Chorale to sound pushed or strained, and I know that faulty intonation reflects bad singing, as much as it does weak ears. I require that each section, not just the sopranos, sing with clear, even pitch—our repertoire won’t allow anything less than this; and I am very sensitive to any inflexibility in this regard, that I hear in a singer. A clear, accurate choral instrument is our goal, rather than a collection of warm sounds which bump up against one another, and overwhelm the music.
One hopes to hear a large number of auditions, and to make the best, most informed choices possible: once the roster is announced, I commit myself completely to the singers I have chosen, and make the best choir out of them, that I can. I, and Chorale, have to live with any mistakes I make—I cannot blame a singer, once I have chosen him/her.