It’s audition time for a cappella groups! Thousands of a cappella tykes are running around, trying to find songs to show off their belting range, thinking of their funniest anecdote to make groups laugh, and compiling/stealing arrangements to show they are not a one-trick pony.
Typically, a cappella auditions share similar qualities. You want to know the range of the singer, you want to hear their best solo voice to see if they can stay in key and/or blast your face off with a high note, you want to see how fast they can learn their part either by ear or by sight, and you want to know if they will make a welcome addition to your nerdy group of friends. And of course, you have to do this all within a very small window, or risk being yelled at by grumpy students waiting over an hour outside the door.
To better condense/improve some of these experiences, I recommend the following to expedite and streamline the process:
1) Range Substitutes
Why are you worrying about what their highest and lowest note is? Chances are, your arrangements won’t put them in the extremes of their range very often, and when you do, you’ll put everyone else in the extremes of their range.
What you should really be doing is listening for the change in voice: when do they stop belting and flip into head voice? That’s the note you should consider as the “top” of their range.
It’s not hard to tell the difference. Chances are, you already know the difference. The chest voice, or belting, is a loud, “brassy” sound, more in common with the “pop” tone you are probably used to. These are the golden notes; the ones that will make the crowd roar with delight. Very few pop songs are ever sung in head voice all the way through.
Head voice is the darker, “woofy” sound. It sounds more classical than pop. When they stop belting and start singing darker or lighter and whispery, that’s when you should stop vocalizing, because you already have enough information to go on.
Let’s be clear…there’s nothing wrong with head voice. Head voice is the healthiest way to sing, and you have to build up your head voice muscles before you can start belting healthy. The belters will probably be straining and hurting themselves, because they are belting incorrectly. That’s a warning sign that you need to teach them the right way to belt. If you don’t know how to do that, then you should probably not take them. If they continue to sing in your group and belt incorrectly, they will do permanent damage to their vocal cords.
Whether a singer is a belter or more of a head voice singer is not the basis for your choice. You are simply vocalizing them to the point where they have to switch. This way, your arranger knows at what note they can no longer belt. Obviously, for the pop style of singing, you want healthy belters who can go high, but they are few and far between. Chances are, you need to find singers who understand the difference and are willing to be taught.
ALSO, please vocalize them down the scale, and make sure they sing on “ee.” “Ee” is the most resonant vowel a human can sing, and when singing low, you need to sing brassy and forward. “Ahh” is too difficult a vowel to really gauge a person’s low range.
2) Solo Substitutes
16-32 bars. That is it. Stop letting your auditionees sing a full verse and chorus of a song. It wastes time, and frankly, you don’t need it. Broadway auditions require only 16-32 bars of a song. Here’s why:
In 16-32 bars, you will have all the information you ever need. If they can’t stay in key, you’ll know it right away. If they have a tone you don’t agree with, you’ll know it as soon as they open their mouths.
Also, by restricting singers to 16-32 bars, you are forcing them to give you their best. You can easily gauge how good a musician they are by the song they choose, the key they put it in, and their sense of musical timing. (Do they even know how long 16-32 bars is?)
Trust me…you get more information out of their first three notes than you get out of the whole solo. Make it short and cut them off.
3) Sight-reading Substitutes
Okay. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Stop making your auditionees sight sing. I’m a college music professor who teaches four different levels of sight singing, and I think it’s a stupid idea. Unless they are a trained musician or a music major, they can’t do it. Only scientists need to memorize the periodic table. Only ballet dancers have to know the first positions. Why on earth are you asking your auditionees, most of whom are probably not music majors, to sight read?
You are better off asking them to learn by ear. You probably do this anyway, but if you don’t, you should start.
And for those of you who ask auditionees to learn by ear without a score in front of them…for shame. What if the person auditioning is an extremely gifted visual learner who needs both sights and sounds to help him/her process information?(like ME)
Ear training only, in front of a score. Done.
4) Interview Substitutes
Look. I get it. You want to make sure there are no “weirdo” red flags. That’s understandable. But I need to explain the interview process to you from an introvert’s point of view.
You see, an introvert, like myself, is musically very gifted, but often shy around new people. It isn’t until this introverted person gets to know people in a comfortable setting that he can really open up and be himself. Standing in front of 10-15 watching eyes, knowing that your whole audition rests on how you answer these questions is enough to stress anyone out.
Typically, they’re thinking “OH MY GOD I TOTALLY MESSED UP THE NOTES WHEN I LEARNED THAT SONG AND NOW THEY THINK I’M AN IDIOT AND I FORGOT WHAT THE QUESTION WAS SO I HAVE TO TRY AND REMEMBER WHAT WORDS THEY WERE SAYING TO ME SO I STARE AT THEM BLANKLY AND NOW THEY ARE WONDERING WHY IS THIS IDIOT JUST STARING AT US AND OH MY GOD I THINK I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM BUT I CAN’T LEAVE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY AUDITION SO NOW ALL I CAN THINK IS THAT I REALLY HAVE TO PEE AND I HAVE TO THINK OF SOMETHING FUNNY TO MAKE THEM LAUGH OR THEY AREN’T GOING TO CARE THAT I CAN BELT UP TO A HIGH A!”
I have been rejected by a cappella groups solely because I’m an awkward guy who needs to warm up to people. And I’m getting a doctorate in a cappella.
Please, be kind during the interview and don’t rely too much on it.
You should have callbacks. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong. Callbacks give you a chance to really spend time with the potential candidates and weed them out, either musically or socially. Callbacks also prevent long, heated arguments between your group which inevitably follows auditions and keeps you in the room until 1 a.m. in the morning.
Don’t make the callbacks difficult musically. Make them difficult in terms of dedication and commitment. Forward them a score and ask them to learn their part within 2 days. Give them a form of silly questions and see how they answer them. Put them in a sectional with members who sing the same part and watch them closely. Put them under the microscope to see if they really want this.