No matter what kind of group you are, every group goes through the grueling yet exciting process of auditions. While it may happen every year, finding new members is no easy fit. Finding new members that are the perfect fit? That's even harder.
As an alum of 3 a cappella groups (and counting), I've been through my fair share of auditions - some great, some not so great. In my conversations with groups, I realized many of the same audition problems and questions kept coming up - so I wanted to investigate. What are the pros doing that helps them find the best new members every year? I asked the current and former directors of groups of all levels and sizes to see what they do to prevent common audition mistakes.
Audition Myth #1
We need at least 4 new members so we can stay close to the same size as last year.
This is a big one, and it's sometimes hard for groups to adjust to but, almost of the experts agree - there should be no such thing as a minimum number of new members required.
"Don't set a minimum number of new members you need - set a maximum number that you have the space to take." - Jacob Tourjeman, former MD of the FSU Acaphiliacs
Change is weird, and sometimes scary, but it's not always a bad thing. Of course you want to fill in the gaps in your voicing, but don't let past traditions cause you to settle in the future.
Dave Longo had a good way of thinking about this. In his words, "No group *needs* 18 members. Honestly speaking, 12 people is the goal. If you want quality music, take the best, period. Only utilize personality to confirm a brand match. Don't take the drunken party baritone. Sally is not an Alto. Sally is Sally. If you have 18 members, with 4 of each part and 2 party baritones.... When you shrink down to 12 because 4 members graduated and 2 members got kicked off for streaking through the quad covered in chocolate, Sally can be a soprano if she has to be, or a tenor (if her voice works that way). If you have 11 women and one dude, GREAT! If you have 11 men and one woman, GREAT!"
There is more than one way to voice a group, so don't be afraid to make a change for the better of the group!
Audition Myth #2
It's okay to take a decent, but not great, singer to fill out a background section.
We've all met these kinds of people at auditions - they're solid, and have some decent singing chops, but they're not the *best.* You could take that member, and they could be a good fit for a little while, but eventually, they would struggle as the group tried to advance past it's current state. As Angela Longo recommends, in an ideal world, "Make sure that every new member is better than the majority of people in your current group. It will ensure a better group for years to come." Elliott von Wendt, current music director of the Nor'easters, says they operate with a similar mindset. Throughout auditions, they keep focusing in on the same mantra.
"Let in only those who are better than you." - Elliott von Wendt, The Nor'easters
However, JD Frizzell does wisely counter "If that is actually possible then you are very fortunate. My rule for numbers is to take the minimum number of people who are at a similar level of ability and commitment." Some people have potential hidden under the surface that can be brought out with great direction, and there are many strengths outside of the obvious things like a strong solo voice and sight reading ability.
The biggest thing to remember is this: The group members you take this year are the future leaders, singers, and driving forces of your group. You're not just looking for members who are a great fit for your current group...you're choosing the people who will be the actual members of the group you are aiming to be in 2-3 years. When you're in auditions, "act as if." If you were the group you want to be in a few years, who would you want to accept?
Audition Myth #3
You can tell from one solo if someone is a good fit for your group.
The solo is a staple in every a cappella audition - we all ask for a similar verse and chorus to test a singer's style, range, pitch, and awareness of their own voice. While you can learn a lot from an auditionees solo, you can't possibly learn *everything.* Don't be afraid to challenge your auditionee!
Part of my research included hosting a webinar roundtable with Elliott von Wendt and Harrison Acosta about their best audition strategies. One thing they both focused on was taking the time to coach soloists with potential during auditions and/or callbacks. Both directors asked top auditionees for a second, contrasting song. Before they performed tha song, Harrison Acosta finds potential new Voiceboxers by giving them pedagogy advice on things like placement, breath support, or performance. This tests for two things: first, it helps to eliminate nerves and reveal the true potential that could be hiding within a scared or untrained auditionee; second, it reveals their responsiveness: how they take direction from the current MD of your group. If they are defensive, hard to work with, or unresponsive, you know that regardless of their talent level, they are going to be too difficult to work with in a group setting.
The three essential things you need to test with an auditionee:
- A one minute long solo in the style they think best fits their voice
- How the learn a medium level chart your group has performed recently
- Seeing how well they hold their own in the group
There is no need to do anything more complicated than that in most cases but a lot of groups spend inordinate amount of time doing superfluous activities and exercises.
Audition Myth #4
If we only need a Tenor 1, we should only be looking for Tenors in auditions.
While this statement is not entirely untrue, it points at a larger problem. Is your group truly missing a Tenor 1? Or did you just lose a Tenor 1 and are now trying to replace them?
As JD Frizzell says: "Voicing should always be based on the people who are auditioning. Never preconceived."
When you go into an audition process, make sure your group knows exactly what you're looking for - but don't just give them a list of voice parts you need. Groups that have a strong identity and brand know exactly what makes someone a good fit, and that's who they train their members to look for. For example, at the bottom of the Voicebox judging sheet, it asks one question. "Do they have the Voicebox Vibe?." Think about what that means for your group, and look for those people first. Use the callback process to narrow that down into which voices are the smartest option to take this year.
How do you handle those changes once the new group is settled? As Harrison Acosta advised, "Arrange for the group you have. Last year we had several strong ladies audition and very few baritones. For that year we tried having four ladies parts (that each split) and two tenors with no baritone. You have to really embrace the gaps and take advantage of what you *do* have. If you’re missing lower voices you might avoid songs that *need* a full low sound, but don’t think that sound isn’t achievable! Consider raising the bass and changing the inversion of chords to simulate a “warm, full sound.”
Audition Myth #5
Doing cuts during callbacks is too intense - we're not *that* kind of group.
Something that came as a surprise during my webinar with Elliott, and that often surprises people in scholastic settings, is that in Nor'easters callbacks, there are three rounds of cuts.
As in many groups, The Nor'easters start off callbacks with a standard friendly welcome and ice breaker circle. They prepare audition cuts of three different songs in their repertoire to be taught throughout the night. After the first runthrough, they do their first cut to narrow down the sections. After that, they split the remaining callbackees into groups with some exisiting members to do a design challenge: the groups are given a popular song and are told to arrange and perform a cover of it, with 30 minutes to prepare. Many auditionees think this is to test arranging ability and creativity, but it's primarily a personality test. The design challenge reveals how they work in a group, how they interact with their peers and current members of the group, and how they lead. Members who are not in the challenge groups use this as a chance to supervise and take notes, and afterward some more learning and auditioning, a second cut is done. They'll continue to work with the final group until they've heard everything they need to hear from a singer - they'll hear multiple solos, try them out on different voice parts to hear every part of their range, and have spent hours with them getting a sense of their personality and rehearsal dynamic.
The process is not dramatic or over-the-top: the purpose is to ensure that the directors know everything they need to know about a potential new member, and that no callbackee's time is wasted. Cuts are not always needed depending on the number of callback singers you have, but they can be a great tool to experiment with as you try to challenge your group to find even better singers than you have in the past.
The main essence of my research was this - challenge the status quo of how you audition, so you can better test and scout out the potential in your auditionees. Treat them like you would a regular member and see how they do. Do they fit the brand of the group you are or are trying to be? These members are going to be in your group for 3,4, sometimes 5 or 6 years, so it's imperative that you hear everything you can from them. Make sure the person you are committing to is worth it.