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I recently auditioned for an SATB community choir local to me. Prior to auditioning, I sent them an email and asked what the audition process entailed, so that I could prepare. The choir director replied that the audition involved singing a simple melody without accompaniment and then singing scales. This seemed straightforward to me, so I thanked them for their response and planned to attend the audition a few days later.

At the audition, I was asked to sing Silent Night, but I hadn't heard the song in years (I'm a practicing Christian and I gladly celebrate Christmas; however, Silent Night has never been one of my favorite carols). I couldn't remember "how it went" - I'd forgotten large parts of the melody and most of the words. The director told me "you can choose any key", which was helpful, but I still couldn't recall the melody of the song.

I started to sing the song in a key that "felt right", not knowing if it was actually a good choice of key because, again, I hadn't heard the song - never mind sung it - in years. To my surprise, once I started singing, my muscle memory came in I recalled the melody! I still couldn't remember the words and ended up singing a lot of it on an "uh" sound.

When I was done fumbling through the song, I apologized to the director. I said I hadn't heard the song in years. He said "No need to apologize. You have a nice voice."

The director then checked (on his keyboard) what key I chose and said I chose a low key. I didn't know how to respond. I didn't deliberately choose a low key to avoid high notes, I just defaulted to a key that "felt right" because I couldn't remember the song.

In the end, although I passed the audition, I'm unhappy with my audition performance. In my opinion, I had a poor audition. I was required to sing a song I hadn't heard in years, without preparation or practice, and was told to choose any key but then criticized for choosing a lower key.

If this sort of situation arises again in the future, what can I do to have a better audition? Can I ask for more details in the initial email exchange? Can I ask to sing a different song if I don't know the song they want me to sing? Had they told me in the email exchange that "We'll ask you to sing Silent Night in C", I would've prepared accordingly.

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    If they refuse to give you any hint beforehand, then you're stuck with their capricious attitude. You can't better prepare for a blind test of something you're not given either a heads-up or the sheet music to. Bad test. Pick another choir.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 28, 2023 at 17:34
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    Is there a chance you're overthinking this? From my experience I'd guess the choir director just wanted to get an impression of your voice, singing/breathing style and whether you can sing in tune and keep a melody. The remark about you singing low key was probably him thinking whether you should sing soprano/tenor or alto/bass. And since you passed, you can show a better performance during rehearsals and concerts. Have fun!
    – Arsak
    Aug 28, 2023 at 19:31
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    @Arsak that sounds like an answer.
    – phoog
    Aug 29, 2023 at 6:36
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    So why did you audition for a choir then?
    – user207421
    Aug 30, 2023 at 0:38
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    @notmySOaccount Having a purpose to your life is a very good thing. It's up to you what you want that purpose to be, and it sounds like you'd probably be happiest if you choose something other than music. Aug 30, 2023 at 10:53

3 Answers 3

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I share your puzzlement about the audition. As a choral conductor myself, I wonder why they choose a standard audition piece without informing the candidate. If the desire is to see how well the candidate handles something without preparation, it would be better to choose something obscure. If the desire is to see how candidates perform something they're comfortable with, then it makes more sense to tell them what it is so they can prepare

Perhaps they don't tell people because they don't want to compare candidates who did prepare with those who didn't. Since "everybody knows" Silent Night, this should give a more even basis for evaluating candidates. Of course, as your experience shows, not everybody is in fact equally familiar with the song. They probably recognize that their attempt to create a "level playing field" is imperfect, though, and make additional allowances for people who don't know the song so well.

The standard audition at my first job out of graduate school -- a standard practice that was dictated by my boss -- was to ask the candidates to sing "My Country 'tis of Thee": a similarly simple tune that every US university student supposedly knows. But of course there are exchange students. For some reason there was always exactly one exchange student from China. I don't remember how we handled this with them, but I do remember the English student. He was very uncomfortable singing "God save the Queen," so we settled on something else. I don't remember what it was. Another year there was a German student. I don't remember his audition clearly, but think we settled on Stille Nacht, of all pieces.

In any event, the point of this story is to illustrate that at the level of a community choir audition, nobody is going to reject a candidate who is unable to sing "Silent Night" only because of they're unfamiliar with it.

I was told to choose any key but then criticized for choosing a lower key.

Are you sure the director was criticizing you? It could well have been an analytical comment, most likely, as Arsak suggests, in the context of thinking about where to place you in a particular section (soprano or tenor vs. alto or bass) or a particular subsection (first soprano vs. second soprano, etc.).

I didn't know how to respond.

You could have explained that because you hadn't sung the song in a while you just picked a note and stuck with it. You could have asked if he wanted you to sing it in a higher key. You could have said that you wanted to sing it again in a different key. You could have commented on how well or how poorly that low key suited your voice. Or indeed you could have said nothing.

In any event, even if it was a critical comment, it was not a particularly severe criticism, because you passed the audition. On top of that, the director said

"No need to apologize. You have a nice voice."

A good director, or at least one who is good at running auditions, will understand that candidates may not be experienced at auditioning. They may even, as in a job interview, trying to see how the candidate handles a stressful situation. For the most part, though, they're just trying to get to know as much as they can about you and your voice in a very short time. My advice, although it is difficult to follow, is to discount your negative assessment of your performance as a natural consequence of the unfamiliar and stressful situation and focus on the positive feedback from the director.

If this sort of situation arises again in the future, what can I do to have a better audition?

You have received some good suggestions from other users. I would add, more generally, try to see the audition as a collaboration with the auditor: the two of you are working together on the task of showing the auditor what you can do. Some auditions are more adversarial, more like contests (and some of them literally are contests), but an audition of this sort doesn't need to be like that. You can ask for more information before the audition. You can ask to sing a different song. (What do they do if someone comes in who truly doesn't know "Silent Night" at all?) You can also offer to sing a different song in addition to the one they ask you to sing rather than instead of. There's no harm if they say "no," but if you never ask, you won't know if you missed an opportunity to show yourself in a better light.

When you ask, say why you're asking. For example, "Can I sing something else? I don't remember Silent Night very well." If the auditor refuses the request, he can then explain why, which should help you understand and be more accepting of the situation.

In general, the problem is preparing for the portion of the audition that you cannot prepare for. Most choral auditions include something like that because the auditor wants to get a sense of how quickly you can learn music. You never know what unfamiliar task an auditor might ask. This causes stress because the unknown is stressful.

You can only address this stress in a general and fairly abstract way. You can't reduce the stress by practicing the specific task, because you don't know what it is, but you can reduce the stress by other means: recognize that stress is natural in this situation and accept it; treat the auditor as a colleague rather than as an authority figure; and practice auditioning.

Practicing not only helps you reduce the stress but also helps you learn to perform better under stress. Having more confidence in your ability to perform under stress in turn reduces the degree of stress as well as its impact. And this in turn helps you perform better under stress. Of course, "practicing" an audition is difficult. A practice audition is never going to present as much pressure as a real one. The best solution, then, is just to take as many auditions as you can.

But practice auditions aren't useless. There's a reason why emergency personnel such as fire fighters and paramedics train in simulated emergencies. If you have a friend who can "audition" you, it will make the context of a real audition less unfamiliar, thereby reducing the stress.

Ultimately, though, most amateur musicians aren't going to go to such lengths. For this majority, it's probably best just to think about whatever helps them relax. Are you intimidated by the director? Establish a collegial relationship. Are you nervous about the unknown? Ask for more information. Are you uncertain of something? Say so, which gives the director a chance to explain. Put yourself in the director's shoes: the best possible outcome is to welcome a new member into the group. The director wants you to do well. Concentrate on that. Think positively.

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  • This is a useful/helpful response overall. However, I'm not sure I have time to do more auditions. There isn't too much going on near me. This is the only choir in my area and I had to drive an hour each way. In general, music seems to be very "all or nothing": either you take it seriously and treat it almost like a second job, or it's not worth bothering at all. I don't have the time or interest to pursue music if that's the case. Aug 30, 2023 at 0:14
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Auditions are a different experience from concerts or lessons, and unfortunately most folks get to spend very little time getting used to them. The very best way to "get better at auditions" is to do more of them!

But yes, one piece of general advice is to be relaxed and open about your needs. The point of the audition is to get an accurate sense of your abilities, so feel free to mention anything that might interfere with that. There's a difference between "diva requests" like "it's too cold in this room" and reasonable requests like "I'm not as familiar with 'Silent Night'; could I sing 'What Child is This' instead?" After all, if your request can't be accomodated they'll say so.

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I think this comment from OP is very relevant:

I was never given music and this choir doesn't require the ability to read music at all (never mind sight-read).

Choirs that don't work from sheet music may work very differently from those that do.* In particular, their auditions won't use it either. So how can they judge what you sound like?

Perhaps the fairest way would be to first teach you something — but they probably don't want to require much preparation time from auditioners, and if they taught you then and there, it could take a significant amount of time if it's not going to penalise those who don't learn fast.

The other way is for you to sing something you already know. They could ask you to pick something yourself — but that works best if it's something that they also know, and wouldn't let them easily compare different singers. So I can see why they instead pick something that they expect everyone already knows well enough to sing at a moment's notice.

But as your experience shows, that's a bit rough if you don't

(I guess they could have offered the sheet music if needed — but then it seems many of their prospective members can't read that, and some of those who can might not be good sight-readers, so they probably don't see much need.)


As other answers mention, auditions tend not to be very adversarial, especially at an amateur level — they generally want to hear your best, not your worst! So if you're having trouble, by all means let them know, and see if you can find an accommodation.

In this case, it sounds like they were quite pleased with what they heard, regardless of how you might have felt about it. So it was ultimately successful!


(* Disclaimer: I've only ever sung with the latter — I did have an audition/rehearsal with one of the former, but although it was great fun and I was sorely tempted, I'd have found it very slow and tedious learning parts solely from tape recordings, when I'm used to working much quicker from sheet music.)

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