On Voice-Testing New Choir Members

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I had an email query recently that gave me one of those ‘this is not going to be the only person who wants to know this’ moments. So I thought I’d share my answer here, and also expand it a bit beyond the specifics of my correspondent’s particular circumstance for more general use.

The question was this:

We have a prospective new member coming to rehearsal tomorrow. If you can spare a minute, what would you suggest for voice testing for her range?

I can’t find anything on google or perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place

Now I am sure that if you did think of the right search terms, you would find quite a lot of stuff on this - at least there is quite a lot in the books on choral conducting aimed at students in training to lead choral programmes in US schools. If I wanted to find online resources I’d probably start with ChoralNet and work out from there.

My observation is that the approaches designed for this context are often quite systematic, with pre-determined processes to be recorded on set forms for each singer. Which makes sense if you have several dozen or possibly a couple of hundred singers to process each school year. You’d want your system to handle more detail than you can hold in memory at once, and also it will need to work within the bureaucratic requirements of reporting on student development for assessment purposes.

But for the adult amateur choir where new members come in a few at a time, these kinds of systems rather over-engineer the process in my view. Obviously if you run a selective choir and want to test for particular previously-acquired skills, then you are going to need a clear audition process. But if you run a choir that is either entirely open-access, or run on the kind of model that only auditions after a period of induction or training,* then the initial voice test (a) has much less riding on it from the choir’s point of view, and (b) wants to be as unintimidating as possible from the potential member’s point of view.

In these circumstances, all your voice-test needs to achieve is to place the new singer is in a part where they aren’t going to struggle vocally while they find their feet within the choir.

So, the practical advice I offered was as follows:

First, wait until they have had a chance to have a good sing, so you get to hear their voice when it is warmed up and not just creaking into action.

Then ask them to sing a simple song to you (e.g. ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’ - something they already know), and notice where they choose to pitch it. That will tell you about their current relationship with their voice. Then ask them to do it a few more times, giving higher and lower start notes to see how their voice sounds in different ranges. You're listening not just for absolutes of range but where they are most resonant and expressive.

And of course, do ask people about their own perception of their own voice. What they say about themselves and what you hear as they sing in different parts of their range doesn’t always match up, especially if their previous experience was in a different genre. But it’s useful information to take into account. Assigning voice-parts is a process of social negotiation as well as absolutes of larynx size, as I have discussed in both my books.

In particular, do note that even people with previous singing experience don't come with ready-made vocal ranges in an absolute sense. I am a case in point - having grown up as a soprano I had never used my lower register before I started barbershop and have added a 6th or more to the bottom end of my range since. I used to find lead too low; these days I can bluff bass quite well so long as it stays above E flat. Conversely, there are people who have never used their head voice who suddenly gain a whole register on the top when they are helped to find it.

So treat the initial voice placement as an opening bid rather than a classification for all time. People’s voices change as they are used in a new way, and we all have the potential for far wider ranges than any one part in any choral genre tends to demand. So you are allowed also to suggest the part you most need if it sounds like it might be a decent fit! But make it clear that they can try a different one too if they fancy it.

*I do like the model where you give people a chance to learn the craft and settle in for a while before you audition them. It means that what you’re actually testing is the singer’s capacity and/or willingness to learn and adapt, which is, in the longer term, a quality that can be of greater value to the choir than previously-acquired skills.

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