Monthly Archives: July 2015

More Thoughts on the Chorister Audition

Last week I posted on my belief in chorister auditions and this week I would like to share my method of auditioning choristers, but before I do, I need to clear up one point from my previous article.

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 to 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 note 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 students. 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 to 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 will 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 adding 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!

Should Children Have to Audition?

When I first began a children’s choir, long before our parishes’s current Schola Cantorum was born, I took any child who came to me (quite frankly, I needed all the kids I could get). That year was such a nightmare (for a whole host of reasons) that I contemplated shutting down the whole enterprise. In the end I pushed forward and things SLOWLY got better, though I still took everyone who came, regardless of ability or desire.

Several years later I attended my first conference on the training of the child chorister at St. Thomas in New York. Someone in our group asked Dr. John Scott, the choirmaster, how recruiting was going for the choir for the following year, and Scott replied that he was a little concerned because only 8 boys had auditioned and he had only accepted 4 of them (boys who wish to join the Choir of St. Thomas have a pre-audition before they are even allowed to formally audition). It was then that I realized one of the reasons why their choir was so good. Not only did the boys have incredible and inspirational training, they also entered with a high natural aptitude and desire to learn and make music. Admittedly, most parishes have neither the musical nor financial resources to put together such a program, but I firmly believe there is a proper balance between this and the usual “any child can join” policy that exists in the typical parish children’s choir. If you only have time to run one children’s choir with one weekly practice, it is difficult to balance your time between bringing some of the singers up to speed while trying to challenge those who want it, all while dealing with behavior issues from children who don’t really want to be at rehearsal. I would propose the following: begin an “informal” audition to 1) look for a child’s ability to match pitch and determine his general musical aptitude, 2) determine his desire to sing in your choir and finally 3) make sure the child is free from any physical vocal deformities that would make singing of such music impossible.

Regarding pitch and musical aptitude, I only want to know if the child has the capacity to match pitch and to learn (I don’t care if he has never had a music lesson in his life). It is easy enough to present some simple music concept the child doesn’t know and see if he catches on. You will find that most children will have no problem matching pitch and learning simple music concepts.

The second thing to look for, the desire of the child to sing in a liturgical choir, is of the utmost importance. To be honest, this is more important than a child’s natural aptitude for learning music. If you have a chorister who loves to sing and will work his hardest, you have a keeper. I have several home schooled students in our choir who, without my knowledge, decided to sing Elgar’s Ave verum corpus as a communion motet for our city’s monthly Mass for the home schooled community. By pure chance I happened to attend the Mass, and was impressed and proud when they sang it a cappella (they didn’t have an accompanist) and in two parts (and did a great job!). Those kids bring the same pluck and desire to every rehearsal. It makes for a fun rehearsal.

Lastly, I listen for any physical vocal issues that might keep a child from singing, which, to be honest, are very rare. I have only encountered this with two children in my career. I once worked with a young grade school student who wasn’t able to sing a range of more that five notes (he also had difficulties speaking in general), while another child, who was able to sing a wide range at first, lost much of it over the course of a couple of years (he was no where near the age of voice change). His parents took him to the doctor, who discovered a nodule approaching the size of a tennis ball on his vocal chords. After this was removed the child could sing normally again.

It is sometimes difficult not to admit a child to the choir (again, this doesn’t happen often), but I explain to parents that not only am I looking for a child who is a good fit for the choir, I also want the choir to be a good fit for the child. The process is a two way street.

A Must Have Resource for Catholic Schools

It is  true that we have to keep the end goal of whatever it is we are trying to accomplish in mind. For example, most of us pray and work for the day when beautiful sung liturgies are de rigueur, not simply because we like it that way, but because the Church, in Her concern for us as Her children, teaches us that this is best for the good of the entire Family of God. However,  it is going to take a lot of baby steps to accomplish such a goal, and in case you haven’t seen it, I want to blog about a resource for parishes with schools that are just starting out on the way to better liturgy and music during school Masses.

The American Federation of Pueri Cantores and the National Catholic Education Association have teamed up and put together a list (here) of appropriate Mass settings and hymns for use at Catholic school Masses. Small though it is, the list represents a solid foundation of hymns that a child in any Catholic school should know, without trying to throw in questionable material for the sake of political correctness. One large benefit I see coming from such a list is that pastors now have a selection of music from an “official source” to give to their school music teachers in order to open a conversation and plot a course for music at school Masses. Pastors and music directors, this is for you!