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Auditioning Non-readers

Compilation follows (without attribution, for privacy). Thanks to all for your input!

Kathryn Schneider, J.D.
Musical Director, City Bar Chorus
New York City

My original query:

"It's audition season again, of course, and I'd like to get your ideas on the following.

"My 45-member adult SATB group sings primarily Broadway and jazz arrangements--the most sophisticated we can find. Some are a cappella; most are accompanied. There is a good bit of independent part writing in these arrangements, so the key skill I need to test is the ability to learn a part (not always the melody) and to sing it accurately amidst all of the other parts.

"While we have many fluent music readers, we do not require that members know how to read music. (Some of our best singers can't read a note but have phenomenal ears.) I am trying to devise an audition method that will allow both readers and non-readers an opportunity to show that they can learn and retain a snippet of a choral part.

"I had originally thought of using 8-16 measure excerpts of our current repertoire--usually sections starting with a melodic or quasi-melodic phrase, but then turning away from the melody. While that might be OK for the readers, who can refer to the music, I think that's too ambitious for the non-readers who can't use music to remind them what comes next.

"So . . . what should I do for the non-readers? Play or sing 2-4 measure patterns, then have them repeat? Clap out rhythms in the same way? I want to test for the required skill without intimidating non-readers. Your suggestions welcome. I will post a compilation. Thanks!"

As a singer in a folk choir for over 20 years and at 60 years of age, I still consider myself a non-reader. However, this has not stopped me from directing our group of 7 to 8 singers to learn new pieces from sheet music, (most who also can't site read) or the guitarists who only read chord annotation.

Over the last 3 years, I've transcribed and arranged the new pieces we learn into MIDI sequence files. Each harmony part is on a separate track so it can be mixed and played louder or softer. I use this technique to
play the songs with emphasized parts and teach the non-readers their individul part. Usually it takes one or two one hour rehearsals to have every singer up to speed on a new song.

Perhaps you could borrow from this to audition non-readers by recording a repertoire in advance with individual parts emphasized at first and blended
next. Give the non-readers the tape a day or two in advance to memorize their part. Then, if they have the talent they should be able to get through a live audition. Keep in mind that even non-readers will use a score to some level for phasing, dynamics, relative pitch and expression.

Regarding auditions... we have a very successful annual event in Sacramento called Best of Broadway. 300 adults audtion and we choose about 100. Bunches of kids audition and we choose about 100. Anyway, after they do
their first audition (solo) we determine who comes back for the second audition. At this, the choral director (my this year) teaches everyone (150 people in one room) a portion (32 measures this year) of a typical number from the show. This took me about an hour this year. Then octets come forward (2 on a part) and sing it for me as I stand with a clipboard, walking around to hear who's got it and who doesn't. It's really a
difficult way to figure this out, I think. I believe it would be better (and much more time consuming) to teach in groups of 4 on a part, and simply see from the rehearsal time who is getting it and who isn't
contributing much. Good luck!

In the summer of 1978 I directed the All American College Singers show at Disneyland. Every cast member had passed some kind of sightreading test when they auditioned. It was obvious the first day of rehearsal that half of them could not read, and I had one boy who simply could not sing harmony! To him a song is the melody, and he had never learned that a harmony part is a different melody! (Very typical of musical theater
people, I've discovered.)

When Disney asked me to handle the nationwide vocal auditions for the following summer, I knew I needed something better, so I sat down with my wife and we figured out exactly what I needed to test for. I didn't really care whether they read music, learned it by ear, or did it by prayer and fasting. I DID care whether they could learn a harmony part quickly and
accurately, retain it, and sing it in an ensemble setting. In other words, were they capable of doing exactly what they would be doing in our rehearsals.

I selected two or three passages from the recording of the show we'd made the previous summer, ran them off onto tape, and excerpted the vocal score for those measures. That meant that the music was realistically like what they would be learning during the summer. These excerpts were SHORT, they were EASY, and they were all sections of backup harmony so the melody never
came into the test. Each of the six vocal parts, while easy as pie for someone who can read, had one small trap where it would be easy to get off--usually a jump of a 4th or more or a tight harmony place with a major
or minor second between voices.

During the audition the choreographer would teach the first group the dance combination, then I'd have them gather around the piano and I'd teach them the parts just as I would in a rehearsal. We sent them off to practice both the dance and the harmony part, and started working with the next group.

When they came back as individuals, they first sang their audition song, then did the dance combination (to tape). Then they sang their harmony part along with a tape of the full group including the solo voice. Again,
very realistic and very fair.

It was mostly the musical theater people who failed this test. They would have been dynamite singing the song as a solo, but they had never learned ensemble skills. Some of them were completely bewildered.

I knew that the people who sang their harmony flawlessly would be able to do what was needed, and they got a big plus on that section of the audition
sheet. The people who were shaky got a question mark, meaning to me that they could probably do it but would need extra work and encouragement. Those who couldn't do it at all got a minus.

Then, when we did the actual casting (bear in mind that I heard 1,280 singers and had to narrow it down to a cast of 14 for Disneyland and 14 for Walt Disney World), it came down to what theatrical casting always comes down to, balancing vocal quality and musicianship against dance ability and acting ability and factoring in stage presence, physical appearance, attitude, and all the other little things that are important. Oh, and also getting a good balance of voice parts and good ethnic representation. The big difference was that I had objective musicianship scores that let me perform triage on the audition sheets.

It also helped me in another way. Disney was experimenting with the concept of having "swing" couples--something that is routinely done today--who could learn everyone's track and be able to replace anyone in the cast. My first summer the choreographer and I had selected a swing couple, but the cast didn't understand what the concept was and it took me
quite a while to convice the swings that they had not been selected because they weren't as good as the others, but because in important ways they were
better! During the auditions I was specifically looking for swing people, and the ones I picked were really outstanding. They could do anything, sing all vocal parts, do any of the dances, do any of the solos. And they proved themselves under combat conditions! With a cast of 14 (at Walt Disney World) we went on stage one day with only 8 performers because of illness and injuries. It was my swing couple that saved the day, jumping from one track to another as needed throughout the show. I was impressed!

Sorry to go on so long, but the basic idea may help you come up with something that will give you what you need to know. It worked so well for me that I continued to use the system for the next 14 years with my college
ensemble! In fact, with the same recordings!!

I use a 5 note pattern and consider it a tonal memory test. I make the sequence progressively harder each time, having them sing it without playing the pattern behind them. Use some modal patterns and include at least one pattern that uses a tritone. I use this test exclusive of a pure sight reading test, which only creates nerves. I also have them sing the melody to America (without accompaniment), and then, as I play the four part harmony behind them, the A,T, or B part, using the music, of course. Sops are asked to sing the alto part. Anyone interested in singing in a chorus should be able to at least handle that. Listen for intonation and diction as well as correct notes. This isn't really a sight reading test, but it does expose those who don't know what you are talking about when you ask them to sing the alto (or T-B) part. You'd be surprised how many don't know which line to look at.

It will all come down to how much musical intelligence the applicant displays. They don't all have to have formal training, but they should at least demonstrate that they are trainable. Ask them what some of the basic symbols (pitches, time-sigs, key-sigs, clef signs, etc) mean (a simple written test could do this). They will not know these things, for the most part, but you must determine how easy it will be to communicate with them from the podium. If they seem hopeless, don't burden your group with them.

You could do play a few 2-4 bar phrases and have the adults sing it back to you. I'd start with easy examples and throw a few difficult phrases
in at the end. (One problem you may encounter that I run into with my middle school kids is that sometimes people can't match the pitches if they're played on the piano. Sometimes I will sing a few of the bars if I suspect that this is the case.) You may also want to consider doing some sight- reading exercises.
I've been working to help my students learn to read music and have found this exercise to be helpful. (It can be overwhelming if the person is very nervous). I give the student a stepwise melody- usually about 4 measures- and have them sing the notes. Instead of using "la" or another syllable I have the students say if it the note is going up, down or staying the same
as the first note. (Ex. Mary had a little lamb- starting note, down , down , up, up, same, same... etc) This gives me a clue as to whether or not the
student can at least follow along in the music to figure out the line they're supposed to be singing.

Since you do a lot of a cappella music you may want to test if they can sing in harmony with you as well.

Having auditionees clap back rhyhms is not a bad idea. Using words is a further step in that you can see whether they have a sense that the consenants need to
be a bit early so the vowel is on time, especially on the syncopated notes.

For pitch independence, if you want to do trial by fire, try having the auditionee sing a scale a whole step below what the piano plays (or an existing member
sings) since jazz harmonies have a lot of that - half steps if you want to be a bit of an ogre.

Have you considered doing an the aural part of your audition on quartets. What I have done in the past is brought in one person of each voice part (of 4), and to basically teach them eight measures of a piece by rote: first each part, then women, then men, and then together - almost like a little five minute rehearsal. This is a good way to not only test aural skills, but to see how voices blend and personalities work together. My students seem to enjoy it, because I tend to experiment and put them with people they wouldn't usually pick to sing with.

If you have a large ensemble, it's not very efficient, but it does tend to be more accurate than testing a lone person on their ability to maintain a part within a group.

Here's what I do: I have a group audition at a time (entire sections). We learn a phrase of music, then I go down the line and have each of them sing it. We do this several times on various passages, so I can hear the singers in different orders (I allow an hour for a section, which is about how long it would take if you did them one at a time anyway). I usually do it a cappella, but you could have an accompanist play the other voice parts. I do use music from the upcoming program; sometimes I give them an instruction about
pronunciation or articulation to see how well they respond to that. In your case you could also try just having them sing single notes while you play other notes (e.g. hold a major seventh against a triad).

What I'm testing for is can they get the passage the third or fourth time they hear it, which is more important than getting it the first time (valuable as that might be), so it is good for sort-of-sight-readers or people with good ears. There are some people who still can't get it after hearing it ten times, and you want to find who those people are. It's definitely intimidating the first time, since they're singing in front of everyone, but in the long run it's been very useful. I also give them each a piece of paper with
feedback on their personal strengths and weaknesses (which I hurriedly scribble as they're singing -- have the form preprinted with checkboxes for intonation, production, tone, and so on), with the message that they should address their weaknesses during the season.

on July 6, 2003 10:00pm
I think being able to do it by hearing it a few times is good and very usefull too.

Thank you,
Avy Winicky