In Should Children Have to Audition? I argued that they should, which did not sit very well with a few people, who felt that learning the church’s music should be available to everyone. Let me begin by writing that in principle I agree with them. Ideally, each parish should have a school where music is taught to all students and all students are given the opportunity to sing in some sort of general school choir. Even if a parish does not have a school, teaching simple hymns and chants could and should be a part of a parish’s weekly religious education program. However, let me also share two concerns that I have.
Firstly (and I would love to get feedback from readers who direct children’s choirs), from conversations I have had with directors of children’s choirs, most directors want to take every child who comes to them, and often do so, but then the question becomes how to have a meaningful rehearsal with 20 children who range in age from 8 to 18, and whose talents range from those who struggle to match pitch to those who can sing a melody perfectly after hearing it only once. You simply have to break up such a group into smaller units where you can teach and challenge children according to where they are musically, otherwise you will loose children who do not feel engaged at their appropriate level. If you have the time as a music director, by all means, do this.
Secondly, we need to raise up a new generation of musicians who not only know and love the Church’s musical patrimony, but who are capable of performing such a demanding repertoire. While it is true that many clergy and congregations are resistant to such a repertoire, it is equally true that there are many clergy and laity who would love to have this music sung in their churches but can’t find musicians to do it (and, I admit, there is the problem of being able to pay such musicians). We need special choirs and schools where those with the gifts and the drive can be challenged and given the tools to bring the entire treasury (not just the simpler chants and Mozart’s Ave verum corpus) of sacred music alive.
Now I would like to write a few words on how I go about leading potential choristers through an audition. It goes without saying that you should make each child as comfortable as possible in his audition (if you want to call it something other than an audition, that is fine). After talking to the child about his love of music, I ask him to sing Happy Birthday, beginning on whichever note he chooses. I specifically want to know if the child can navigate the octave leap in the middle of the song. If the child can, great, but if not, I have him hoot or make a siren sound in his head voice and then have him pitch the top note of the octave jump. After this, the majority of children are able to sing the song entirely on key.
The second thing I do is determine how high and low each child can sing (I let the child choose whether to sing up or down the scale first). Sometimes a child will automatically stop at a certain note and say he can’t sing any higher, but after a little coaxing, he can usually go much higher. I also want to listen to the timbre of each voice and note how it sounds. This sometimes factors into whom I have them stand next to in choir.
Thirdly, I play random notes on the piano and ask the child to sing them back to me on a neutral syllable. Sometimes a child will have difficulty pitching the notes from the piano, so I sing them for him. Often this is enough. If students have any other difficulties, it is usually with very high or low notes.
The fourth exercise is to play five descending half steps (repeating this three times), after which I ask the student to sing the melody back to me a cappella. Some can do this and some can’t. For those who can’t, I ask them to sing the same notes along with the piano.
The fifth thing I do is play a short, two measure melody for the student. The melody contains only one skip, otherwise it is entirely made up of step-wise motion. After hearing it twice, I ask the student to sing it back to me without the piano. I specifically look for the child’s ability to navigate the skip. This can be difficult for some children.
The sixth thing I do is play a chord, usually in its first inversion, and ask the child to sing the highest of the three sounds (which most children can do). Then I ask the child to sing either the middle or the lowest sound he hears. Invariably he sings the highest note again, or if his ear is more advanced, the tonic of the chord. Very, very rarely is a child be able to sing back the correct middle and lowest notes.
Finally, I clap a series of rhythms, mostly composed of quarter and eighth notes, and at some point add the dot. I want to determine each child’s sense of rhythm.
Obviously, 99 percent of children cannot do all of these things (the one percent that can probably end up at Westminster Cathedral!), so why do I ask them to try? First of all, I generally take any child who can match pitch and doesn’t have a vocal handicap that prevents the actual act of singing. In all, that means that 95 to 99 percent of the children who try out for the choir are accepted. However, I want to know as much as possible about each child so I can help him (or her) to become the best chorister possible, and the above audition allows me to do that. It also gives me a chance to determine the child’s ability to learn new musical concepts and his level of desire, which, as I wrote last week, is almost more important than his ability to match pitch. To be honest, I also find that at the end of the audition, most of the students experience a great sense of accomplishment and really consider it an honor to be accepted into the choir!