Accessibility and Musical Excellence

There is a big decision to make at the beginning of any group musical activity.  Are you going to audition, or are you going to welcome everyone who feels like coming along?

I’m going to talk about choirs specifically here, though the same values hold for instrumentalists, whether violinists or drummers.

If you audition, you can choose the people who already know what they are doing to some extent.  You get a chance to hear them singing on their own and make a judgment about their voice.  You might want to choose people who can read music, which might open up more complex repertoire.  You can choose people who have sung in a choir before, so they are used to following a conductor, and singing a part that is different from the group two feet away. You run the risk of not attracting enough people who meet your standards, but sometimes people like the challenge of an audition, and the feeling of achievement if they are one of the chosen ones.

However, if you welcome everybody, you will get more people coming along, and you are automatically going to get a more diverse bunch of people.  You are sending the message that singing is for everyone – anyone can do it – and it brings us together. 

There is a risk that by emphasising that there is no audition, and no need to read music, that you will put off people with musical experience.  Some people worry that this means you are not serious about the music, that if a choir allows people with less experience to take part, the quality of what is achieved must be low.

This is simply not true – an audition only tells you what people can do now, and not what they are capable of doing. A choir learning a song together develops every member’s singing.

The skills of being able to remember and sing back a melody, and hold a tune while other people sing a harmony, are learnt by doing. You learn them by being in a choir.  The quality of each person’s voice is unique, and the blend of different voices produces the choral texture we enjoy.  In an “everyone welcome” choir, songs are learnt partly or wholly by ear, although we also use printed music as part of our learning. Interestingly, most auditioned choral societies and chamber choirs offer sound files as well as sheet music these days. These are just means to an end, steps on the journey to making music.

I know for a fact that our choir, with our all-inclusive policy, sings beautifully, with good tone, expression and musicality.  A friend who has only ever sung in auditioned choral societies literally couldn’t believe how good we sounded when she heard our performance at the City Hall in May 2018.  Those results do not come from people being able to read music, or sing a solo. They come from singing, over and over again, listening, refining, and thinking.  It takes time and dedication, and the more each individual sings, the better we sound.

The wonderful Frankie Armstrong said it best, when talking about choirs that welcome everybody,

“It’s not that we don’t have high standards, but we have deep standards.”

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